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For John Surman’s 72nd Birthday, a Jazziz Feature Article from 2009

For the 72nd birthday of the master saxophonist/woodwindist John Surman, here’s a feature piece that Jazziz gave me an opportunity to write about him in 2009, when he was gigging behind the ECM release, Brewster’s Rooster, with John Abercrombie, Drew Gress and Jack DeJohnette. (For an informative contemporaneous interview with Surman that takes a different angle, link to this on Larry Applebaum’s fine website.)


On the last day of August, John Surman, baritone saxophone in hand, stood stage left on Birdland’s bandstand, preparing to introduce his band. Surman had just blown the last note of the opening tune — an original called “Hilltop Dancer” — during the opening set of a week-long engagement. He launched the song with a lyrical, unaccompanied baritone intro, caressing every note. Then he goosed a subtle, open-ended solo from guitarist John Abercrombie with a roaring, hypnotic vamp before winding down the flow with a melodic variation of his initial statement

Surman looked across the stage at Abercrombie, shifted his glance to drummer Jack DeJohnette, and then gazed at bassist Drew Gress, standing to his left. Then he said, “The only person who actually needs an introduction here is me.”

Although Surman, an Oslo resident since 2004, was making his first-ever appearance as a leader in a New York City venue, this piece of self-deprecation was not precisely true. As the crowds that packed Birdland all week were well aware, Surman, 65 and well into his fifth decade in the music business, has long commanded deep respect amongst his peer group for his virtuosic command of the baritone and soprano saxophones and bass clarinet, and for the high quality of a discography that includes 17 leader dates for ECM since 1979. These include Surman’s meticulously crafted compositions and orchestrations that have framed his horns with string quintet, a brass ensemble, a free-boppish piano-bass-drums British quartet, various synth-driven soundscapes, and the lute-song music of Elizabethan composer John Dowland. Other recordings include a collaboration with singer Karin Krog, intuitive free improv projects with Paul Bley and Tony Oxley, and two documents of his ongoing electro-acoustic duo with DeJohnette, on which both trigger real-time grooves and textures within the flow.

The raison d’etre for this belated debut was Surman’s most recent release, Brewster’s Rooster (ECM), for which he convened DeJohnette, Abercrombie and Gress to interpret a suite of nine original tunes. Late afternoon on the following day, Surman sat in ECM’s well-appointed conference room in World Wide Plaza, a skyscraper six blocks north of Birdland, to discuss the disk.

“Manfred Eicher proposed it,” he said, crediting ECM’s founder as the ur-source of Brewster’s Rooster. He related that, during “a casual moment between takes” of his previous project, a duo with church organist Howard Moody issued with the prototypically ECM title Rain On the Window, Eicher said, “It’s about time you made a real jazz recording. We should do it in New York. What would you like to do?”

In Surman’s view, “real jazz recording” meant recording with a rhythm section, something he hadn’t done since 1993, when he made Stranger Than Fiction with his British quartet, although such work is a regular component of his professional life. “I can only put out a limited number of CDs,” he said, “and I want them to be specific, personal statements that reflect what I’m into at a particular time or to document a corpus of music I’ve written.”

That those “specific personal statements” primarily reference European art and vernacular music is in keeping with the fact that more than 95 per cent of Surman’s massive sessionography, which dates to 1965, has transpired either in Britain or on the European continent. “I stayed where the work was,” he said. He noted that in 1973 he had “followed in the footsteps” of fellow Englishmen Dave Holland and John McLaughlin with a six-month stint in Woodstock, New York. “The thought had crossed my mind that maybe it was important to be over here. But the fact was that, as John Abercrombie often says, ‘I’m a commuter; I live in America, but I work in Europe.’”

“It’s easier for an American musician to come to Europe, because of the tour support subsidized by European taxpayers,” Surman said. “Coming here was, ‘Yeah, could do it,’ but after calculating all the costs — the airfare and fees and all — somehow we never got around to it. It’s been even more difficult since 2001. I’ve done some duo things here with Jack, but then it’s the case of Jack DeJohnette and John who? If you’re not here and you’re not known, then club owners say, ‘Who is this guy?’”


Brewster’s Rooster contains no end of admirable qualities, not least the opportunity to hear a suite of Surman’s well-proportioned tunes interpreted by a unit of virtuosos who enjoy, as DeJohnette puts it, “playing what we don’t fuckin’ know!”

“We lay in wait for those moments when one thing sets off another,” said DeJohnette, who is Surman’s brother-in-law. (Surman’s son, Ben, is married to DeJohnette’s daughter, Minya.) He and Abercrombie had joined the conversation as afternoon turned to early evening. “That seems to happen a lot in the improvisation, and that makes it fun. Music has seriousness, but the main thing is, it should be fun.”

Surman chimed in. “It would be important to point out that we worked together in a radio show when I lived in Woodstock.

Abercrombie picked up the story. “It was called ‘Harry Lovett: Man Without a Country.’ There were several episodes. We would take these different parts.” Abercrombie switched into a nasal, Truman Capote voice. “My part in it was Donald Dastardly, and I was evil.”

“I was the Reverend Right Time,” DeJohnette remarked, adding that he and Surman shared a deep affection for The Goon Show. Surman raised his voice to a falsetto. “Ah, he’s falling into the water now!!” The brothers-in-law responded in unison, “Who-oooaaa…”

“We so much bonded over the humor,” Surman stated. “I immediately thought of each of them when Manfred brought this up, but I never thought that we would actually do gigs. The idea was to have a day’s rehearsal, and record, so I looked for material open enough that everyone could be comfortable. There was no intention to pretend that it was a hot, tight band. In fact, the very looseness was the joy of doing it. That’s a statement, because this improvisational element, the fact that the music is shifting and mercurial, is important to me. I am not ithati interested in putting together a tight quartet playing tight stuff, because that’s what I do when I write for strings.

“What’s important in improvisation is give-and-take, to know your moment to get out there and pull the cart along or, when you hear someone else emerging with something, to step back and let that go through. That interests me more than chops, which result out of necessity. You’ve got to play high on a baritone. Once you get down in the lower-middle register, it’s hard to cut through. So sometimes, just to say ‘Yeah!’ as a baritone player, I’ve got to get up there and scream. That’s probably why I play the soprano, so I can soar above a lot of it.”

The improvised context is a familiar point of contact for Surman and DeJohnette, who first recorded together on guitarist Mick Goodrick’s 1976 ECM date, In Pas(s)ing. By DeJohnette’s account, they first met in August 1968, while DeJohnette was in London with Bill Evans for a one-month engagement at Ronnie Scott’s, the top-shelf club where, as Dave Holland said in a separate conversation, “young musicians could pretty much play all day and all night.” Holland was playing bass with the opening act, singer Elaine Delmar, whose accompanying trio also comprised pianist Pat Smythe and drummer John Marshall.

“I was sitting in with them with my melodica every night,” DeJohnette recalled. “I told Marshall and Pat to get some of their guys to come down and jam. So the word went around, ‘Jack DeJohnette wants to play some jams.’ At that time, a lot of the American musicians who came over were not interested in hooking up with the British musicians. That’s where I met John and Dave, and some of the other great talent there.

By 1968, Surman was one of London’s busiest jazzmen, paying the rent as a professional journeyman in high-level trad, blues, hard bop, and Calypso settings. He also played in John McLaughlin’s pre-Mahavishnu Indo-jazz-rock hybrids, as well as with a diverse set of big bands and orchestras. Toward the fulfillment of his own creative muse, Surman led a post-bop octet, a plugged-in quartet with pianist John Taylor and Marshall, an open-form trio with Holland and drummer Alan Jackson, and a subsequent one with bassist Barre Phillips and drummer Stu Martin, both American expats..

“My phone rang one day, perhaps in 1965, and it was John, asking me to sub that night for Harry Miller, a bass player he often worked with,” Holland recalled. “Before we went on, he gave me some music to look at. On the first tune, he’d written the theme, and at the end it just said ‘open.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, open?’ John said, ‘We’re going to play whatever you want after we play this theme. Play whatever you hear.’ It was the very first time I’d played in an open-form setting. A whole new world opened up.

“John and I became very close friends,” Holland continued. “We’d stay up all hours listening to music, checking out new records, talking about developments. We were all listening to Coltrane’s music and Joe Henderson, Sonny Rollins, Miles, Ornette and Cecil Taylor — all these influences were coalescing. A lot of mixtures of music were occurring in London then, and I had a chance to work in many situations with John. I think I wrote my very first song for that trio with John and Alan, who played good time and swung but also could open up the music and take it in new directions. A lot of what we did was very open-ended and exploratory, and we’d land on different fields and grooves and tonalities. For me, it was a precursor to the Sam Rivers trio that I was in during the ’70s.”

Speaking of the British music scene in the ’60s, Surman noted, “Part of the excitement was a general feeling of ‘It all works. Whatever suits you, bring it on.’ I don’t think it was just confined to the U.K., but the U.K. certainly was a hotbed. It was a melting pot. The South Africans and guys from the West Indies were there. A huge blues interest was coming up through blues musician Alexis Korner; it was all the buzz because Clapton and the Stones were emerging and going out — although they were playing closer to copies of the blues stuff. European musicians had inhibitions about jazz, like, ‘Well, it’s a beret,’ ‘It’s a goatee beard,’ ‘We’ll never be as good as the Yanks at doing that.’ Suddenly it was like, ‘Well, hang on. All this stuff works, doesn’t it?’ Then people stopped worrying and got on with it. Americans like Barre and Stu passed through, and said, ‘That sounds good to me; I’ll have a piece of that.’ Miles and Tony Williams were saying, ‘Hey, I like that bass player.’ Suddenly, a lot of confidence. We all thought, ‘We can’t be so bad, then. We have something to offer.’”

Over the ensuing decade, Surman, a son of Devonshire, actualized this proposition by drawing upon his English heritage, incorporating folk songs and also vocabulary contained in the choral music he’d sung as a boy soprano. Synthesizer first appears in his work in 1972 (“I bought one as soon as I could afford to”), after which he increasingly immersed himself in electronic music, using synth to dialogue with British saxophonists Alan Skidmore and Mike Osborne in the group S.O.S., and weaving sonic tapestries for a Parisian dance company between 1973 and 1978. By 1979, when Surman debuted for ECM, he had morphed from the conventions of free jazz and fusion toward a more consonant harmonic context.

“During those early years, I was learning to play,” he recalled. “Technique was developing, ideas were forming and brick walls were being run into. ‘What am I playing? I’d like to play like Sonny, but it’s not like that. Is something wrong?’ Then suddenly, “No. That’s actually me. That’s what I sound like. Well, you’re going to have to live with it. Just carry on.’

“When I was starting out with this traditional-jazz business, I had a go at the trumpet, the trombone, the banjo. Anything that played, I wanted to know how to play it. So here came the synthesizer, this other sound source that made very interesting noises. I wanted to get a piece of that.”

However far-flung his investigations, Surman “never experienced the feeling that I want a purely European sound,” in contrast to the aesthetic evolution of such European contemporaries as Evan Parker and Peter Brötzmann. “For me, finding jazz opened the door to music-making, so I always think of myself as a jazz musician.” Surman traced this attitude not only to his collegial partnerships with American jazz musicians, but also to his early fascination with Duke Ellington’s contrapuntal section writing — he channels baritone-sax icon Harry Carney on Brewster’s Rooster with a gorgeous “Chelsea Bridge” — and Ellington’s emphasis on the idiosyncrasies of each of his musicians. He also notes that his apprentice years coincided with the migration to Europe of such individualistic saxmen as Don Byas, Dexter Gordon and Johnny Griffin, all of whom he witnessed close-up in London.

“You could recognize all of these guys right away — even the ones who weren’t so well-known, like Booker Ervin,” he said. “This individuality of sound was one of great joys for me of jazz music, and that feeling of wanting to find one’s own sound—to not be afraid to be different—was important to me.”

In all the various idioms that he renders, Surman actualizes this notion both in his penchant for melodic expression and his ability to emulate the quality of the human voice on each of his horns. “That’s me, the man with the melodies,” he said ruefully. “Sometimes I wish I could do more. When I heard Michael Brecker play as he did, inside the harmony, I’d think, ‘Christ, I wish I could do that.’ But that’s not what’s happening.”

“John gets such a beautiful sound on all his instruments,” Abercrombie said. “He plays soprano so differently than other people.”

“It’s a full-bodied sound,” DeJohnette added. “He can play adventurously and rhythmically, but there’s always a song. It comes from his heart. He’s got the head, too, but it always communicates. It makes me feel great. There’s also his ability to listen. That’s what we have in common, an ability to listen, which keeps us from getting stuck in some of the clichéd kinds of playing.”

To avoid cliché, of course, is the default aesthetic of this cohort. “I don’t think any of us have unidirectional feelings about music,” Surman noted. “We’re dabblers. We’ve had a bit of a fool-around here, had a go at that, looked at this. John’s group is by no means your typical jazz quartet, and goodness knows what Jack is going to be doing next. We share a curiosity about the different paths music can take.”

Which raised the question of whether John Surman’s new quartet might have legs.

His mates left the door open. “That depends on what everyone is doing,” DeJohnette said. “But we’d be happy to do it, sure.”

“I like the idea of cycling back and doing something organic with musicians you’ve played with before,” Abercrombie responded. “I’ve tried to keep all my own groups going, at least the current ones. Maybe 18 months down the line, John gets in touch with us again. ‘Want to do volume two? Here are some ideas.’ Maybe the newer one would be more free music, or maybe contributions from all of us.”

Embarrassed, Surman lowered his head. “I haven’t even asked them if they want to do it ever again,” he said. “But all of us are interested in putting ourselves in different contexts. You’re forced to come up with something.” He laughed. “What else can you do when you’re on the bandstand with those guys?”

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

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


Chris Potter DownBeat Article, “No Going Back”:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Chris Potter (Jazziz Article, 2007):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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


Chris Potter Blindfold Test:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Filed under Blindfold Test, Chris Potter, DownBeat, Jazziz

For Andy Gonzalez’ 63rd Birthday, an Unedited Blindfold Test from 2000, a WKCR Interview From 2006, a Downbeat piece from 2016 about the recording “Entre Colegas”, and Three WKCR Musician Shows from 1990, 1991 and 1993

Best of birthdays to the master bassist Andy Gonzalez, who turns 63 today. A co-founder of the Fort Apache Band with his older brother, Jerry Gonzalez, Gonzalez’ c.v. includes protracted gigs with Dizzy Gillespie, Eddie Palmieri and Manny Oquendo’s Libre. His influence is palpable on such next-generation swing-to-clave bassists as — among many others — Avishai Cohen and Hans Glawischnig. I had the opportunity to interact with and be educated by Andy at least a half-dozen times during my years on WKCR, particularly on such subjects as Cachao and Arsenio Rodriguez, upon whom he would expound with great erudition. I’ll have to transcribe those cassettes one of these days. Meanwhile, here are the proceedings of a DownBeat Blindfold Test that Andy did with me around 2000, and a WKCR interview from 2006, when the Fort Apache Band had just released their excellent CD, Rumba Buhaina. [In 2020 I’ve appended — at the bottom of the post — the transcript of three  WKCR Musician Shows that I did with Andy in 1990, 1991, and 1993.]

Andy Gonzalez Blindfold Test:

1.    Ray Brown, “St. Louis Blues” (feat. Ahmad Jamal, p., Lewis Nash, d), “SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS…ARE THE PIANO PLAYERS” (Telarc, 1995) (5 stars)

Well, it’s somebody like Ray Brown or somebody that LOVES Ray Brown on bass.  I hear a lot of Ray Brownish things. [AFTER] [Why did it take you so long?] I had to hear more of him.  At first I thought it was somebody younger, but then I started listening to what he was playing and I said, “Wait a second.”  This is somebody who has some depth to his musical history just by what he played and how he played it.  It had to be somebody like Ray Brown.  I’m not sure of the piano player, though. [Any guesses?] Mmm… That’s not Benny Green, is it?  It could be Oscar. [It’s the same generation.] Oh yeah?  [AFTER] I didn’t hear much of the trademark Ahmad Jamal things.  That was quite nice.  It gets 5 stars out of me.  Ray Brown is one of my heroes.  Of the bass players from his generation, like Oscar Pettiford and Mingus… I thought he’s the one that… There’s Blanton in his playing, but I think he took Blanton beyond Blanton.  Mingus I thought sort of took it the other way, and he used a lot more physical kinds of things about the bass, like imitating growls and doing wilder things, where I think maybe Ray Brown is more blues-based.  There’s a lot of blues in his playing.  Not that Mingus isn’t, but… And Pettiford was… It’s like three distinct voices to come out of the same era, and to play with a lot of the same people in the Bebop era and stuff like that.  But very distinct voices, all three of them.  But those are the same generation.

2.    Sam Jones, “O.P.” (Israel Crosby, bass; Joe Zawinul, piano; Vernell Fournier, drums), DOWN HOME (Riverside, 1962/1995) (4 stars)

I’m going to take a stab and say it was Doug Watkins playing cello.  No?  He did do a cello record. [This is someone who is a contemporary of Doug Watkins who did…] Sam Jones?  That was the second person I was going to shoot for.  Because I realized he had done a cello record way back, but I can’t remember the circumstances.  I only managed to cop a couple of Sam Jones records, especially on Riverside — those were a little harder to find.  For some reason it made me think of the Doug Watkins record.  I think Yusef Lateef is playing on it.  When I heard the flute I thought maybe it might be him. [Any idea who’s playing bass and drums?] That wasn’t Jimmy Cobb?  Something made me think it was Jimmy Cobb, the way he was riding the cymbal. [AFTER] You know, Israel Crosby is credited with taking one of the first solos on bass on record, “Blues For Israel,” with Gene Krupa.  I mean, an actual bass solo.  It’s a whole thing on the bass.  This is the early ’30s.  The pianist was Zawinul?  Forget it.  I would have never guessed that.  I thought the piece was nice.  It was kind of bouncy and airy.  I thought Sam Jones was very articulate on the cello and very tasty.  As a matter of fact, I never heard him take any bass solos that sounded slick, to tell you the truth! — from what I’ve heard of Sam Jones.  That was excellent cello playing, just so far as getting across the cello.  I’m wondering whether he used the cello the way it’s supposed to be tuned, in fifths, or the way Ray Brown did and some other cello cats did was retune the instrument in fourths to make it like a bass and easier to play.  Now, that might be the case, because he seemed to get around the instrument pretty good.  Playing in fifths takes a little bit more knowledge of how to get around the strings.  So that’s an interesting question to find out.  From what I heard, it sounded like it was tuned in fourths.  Four stars, for Sam Jones especially.

3.    Brian Lynch, “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face,” SPHERES OF INFLUENCE (Sharp-9, 1997) (5 stars) (John Benitez, bass; Jeff Watts, drums; Milton Cardona, congas; David Kikoski, piano; Donald Harrison, alto saxophone)

Wow!  I’ve grown accustomed to her space face.  That was a beautiful arrangement, man.  It was gorgeous.  It sounds like it was a trumpet player’s record, because he’s got the lead — and a big fat tone.  I’m trying to think of who it could be.  The drummer was on it with the Latin stuff.  He was playing the right kind of beat.  It wasn’t clave!  And the conga player was holding his own.  He’s just an adornment more than anything else.  In the seconds where there was Latin rhythm, he played well.  The bass player did okay.  Gee whiz.  Fat tone on a trumpet is what was getting to me.  I was trying to think who has a fat tone on a trumpet.  It doesn’t sound too dated.  So let me see, who has a fat tone on trumpet these days?  Terence Blanchard has a fairly fat sound.  So does Nicholas Payton.  They have kind of fat tones on the trumpet these days. [What trumpet player might think of that type of arrangement?] Now, that’s a good question, because there was a lot of depth to that arrangement.  It stretched the tune out, it stretched out the phrasing of it, and also took it in different places.  It gets five stars from me, because it was an original and unusual treatment of the song.  Because that’s not an easy song to… It’s a pretty song.  Not too many people, except for someone like maybe Sonny Rollins, have attempted to play that tune.  And then I thought it was nice having the tuba in the orchestration.  That was really pretty. [AFTER] That was Brian Lynch?  No kidding!  I didn’t even think about that.  Excellent.  I’m surprised I didn’t recognize… Well, John Benitez didn’t give anything that I could recognize him on.  Milton, well, that I could hear.  It was very nice.  I enjoyed that.

4.    George Mraz, “Star-Crossed Lovers” (Renee Rosnes, piano), DUKE’S PLACE (Milestone, 1999) (5 stars)

I sort of wish that the bass player would have bowed the melody at the end again, because he played it so beautifully at the beginning.  Good bowing technique is like studying a whole other instrument.  And he had superb control of that bow.  I mean, he really sang that melody superbly, man.  Right there that’s five stars for me, because I’m quite a fan of good bowing.  I wish I could bow that well!  But like I said, that’s a whole study in itself.  It’s one thing to pluck strings and use your hands to get tone and sound, but to use the bow and get the vibrations that the bow makes, and use your hands in that sense, it’s a whole different way of playing the instrument.  Whoever that was playing the bass, I really couldn’t tell you, but I thought that he has an excellent bowing technique. [AFTER] I figured as much.  That’s bounce, man.  He’s got beautiful, beautiful bowing technique.  It bounces!  Gorgeous bowing.

5.    Ornette Coleman, “Women Of The Veil,” THREE WOMEN (Harmolodic, 1996) (Charnett Moffett, bass; Geri Allen, piano; Denardo Coleman, drums) (3½ stars)

Oh, shades of Ornette!  I don’t think it was Ornette, but it was quite a bit of Ornettethology!  Even the trumpet player sounded like Ornette!  I don’t know who it was, but it sure sounded like an Ornetteish kind of thing.  I wasn’t that thrilled with it.  It was all right.  The bass player sure didn’t sound like no Charlie Haden, that’s for sure. [AFTER] It was Ornette?  Charnett Moffett was playing the bass?  This was recent?  Who was playing the trumpet? [Ornette.] Ah, so I was right about that.  The piano is what threw me.  I’m not used to Ornette with a piano player.  3½ stars for that.  I’ve heard Ornette play with more… I like Ornette when there’s more emotion in his playing.  Remember the Town Hall concert, “Sadness,” things like that?  That really moves me.  And the original quartet moves me a lot, with Charlie Haden, Blackwell and Don Cherry.  All that moved me quite a bit.  And Ornette over the years, man… I always dug Ornette.  I like him best in smaller situations, not with all the trappings.  I don’t like Ornette with a piano player.  I like him without piano.

6.    Ron Carter, “Samba De Orfeu,” ORFEU (Blue Note, 1999) (5 stars) (Bill Frisell, guitar; Stephen Scott, piano; Payton Crossley, drums; Steve Kroon, percussion)

It was nice to hear a bass guitar “surdo” and “casaba.”  To me I would have dug it if they had added a tambourine.  That would have really put the rhythm section a little stronger Brazilian.  But they left the space open, which is okay.  The guitar player wasn’t Brazilian; that’s for sure.  And the bass player sounded like Ron Carter to me. [AFTER] Of course!  Ron Carter, one thing, he’s got a great sense of humor.  Throughout that solo, he’s a shameless quoter, a quoter of obscure melodies!  I get a kick out of it.  I mean, that’s like… Unless you know these melodies, you just… He quoted really obscure songs, like “Popeye, The Sailor Man” and “I Want To Wash that Rain Right Out of My Hair.”  You have to know a lot of music to be able to quote these things, and he quoted quite a few different little tiny pieces of melodies from all kinds of things in his solo.  It was nice.  Five stars.  Ron Carter is one of my heroes.  I grew up listening to him, and I know him a bit, and he’s quite a nice man.  One thing I’ve got to say is that I’ve learned a lot from listening to Ron Carter over the years, especially when he was with Miles.  His perception of how to play bass in a rhythm section for that band was unique, and it really influenced me a lot.  Even playing Latin Jazz it influenced me a lot, because just the kind of thing that they had going as the quintet with Miles, this kind of ESP thing that they had going, is something that most bands strive for — that kind of empathy and mind-reading between the members of a band.  That’s something that they brought to a high art.  And Ron was very instrumental in making a lot of that happen.  I’ll always love him for that, that’s for sure.  So he gets my five stars.

7.    Dave Holland, “Jugglers Parade,” PRIME DIRECTIVE (ECM, 1999) (3½ stars)

I’m going to take a wild stab?  Is that Avishai?  He likes things that have odd meters.  Is it a bass player’s album?  Is it Santi?  I remember him writing things that sound like this.  Wow.  So far I made two guess, and both of them were wrong.  I’m not that big a fan of odd meter kind of things.  But it was put together pretty nicely, and if the bass player composed this… Most bass players make good composers, just because of the fact that they always provided the bottom of things, the bottom of the harmonies, and sometimes the bottom of just rhythm and melody.  So I am pretty happy when I hear bass players’ compositions and arrangements, because it’s like they have a different perspective on things and they hear things different.  Most bass players who I know who write, it’s usually very interesting.  And this was no exception.  It was interesting.  But like I said, I’m not a big fan of odd meter things.  I don’t know why.  Maybe it’s because I’ve got the clave ingrained in me to the point where it’s like… And also, I grew up in the era of real hardbop-swing kind of things, so anything that has odd meters isn’t… It’s just a preference of mine.  I’m not that particularly fond of them.  I would give it 3½ stars.  So who was it? [AFTER] That was Dave Holland?!  I would have never recognized him.  I would never have thought that it was Dave Holland.  It didn’t sound like the kind of music that he used to play before.  There’s something to be said for bass players that write.  Because like I said, they’re coming from a another perspective.

8.    Richard Bona, “Konda Djanea,” SCENES FROM MY LIFE (Columbia, 1999). (5 stars) (Michael Brecker, tenor sax)

That was very nice, man.  Richard Bona.  I met him a couple of years ago.  I think he was touring with Zawinul.  We just ran into each other on the road.  But that was lovely.  You can hear the influence of the African string instrument called the kora, which is a harp kind of instrument.  I can hear that influence in how he approaches the bass.  He’s playing it almost like a guitar, but playing it like a kora.  Just the figures that he’s playing, it sounds like if he was strumming on a kora.  It’s very pretty.  Five stars.

9.    John Patitucci, “King Kong,” IMPRINT (Concord, 1999) (4 stars) (Danilo Perez, piano; Horacio ‘El Negro’ Hernandez, drums; Giovanni Hidalgo, percussion)

Well, I recognized a couple of people in there.  I think that was El Negro playing the traps, and it could have been Giovanni playing the congas.  It could have been.  Those are my cohorts, man.  I know those guys intimately.  Is this Patitucci?  I had a feeling it was him, because I heard he had done something with the Latin thing.  He was cool.  Was this his tune?  The piano player sounded a little familiar, too, but I wasn’t positive.  I was thinking that it might be Danilo.  What made me think it was Patitucci was when it got into the groove part, he was sticking to a pretty generic kind of groove thing.  Unless you’re really sure of the clave and how to mess with it, I would imagine that’s what you would do just to… Because Negro and Giovanni can get very intricate on you, and if you’re not dead-sure where you are, they can throw you off in a minute.  It’s like the clave thing with them is that they know that so intimately.  I’ve played with them so much that I know what they’re about.  Sometimes it’s better to be safe and stick to what you know you can do within that framework.  So it was cool.  The saxophone player I don’t know.  It sounded like a Michael Brecker or someone like that, but I’m not sure.  Chris Potter?  Okay.  There was something in his tone that reminded me of Michael.  But I guess that got a four out of me.

10.    Eddie Gomez, “Footprints,” DEDICATION (Evidence, 1998). (3½ stars)

Mmm, “Footprints.”  That tune, ever since it came out, it’s been a favorite of all us musicians.  Especially when you’re in school and stuff, everybody… It’s easy to play and easy to jam on.  I was just about going to high school when that came out.  I don’t really have a clue.  3½ stars.  The bass player to me sounded like somebody like Alex Blake or someone like that.  Because Alex Blake has that kind of facility; he likes to do those kind of crazy runs and stuff.  Oh, it’s not?  I figured as much.  I just thought of him because I ran into him the other day and I hadn’t seen him for a while.  [The bass player and you have the same alma mater.] Music and Art?  He must have graduated way after me, though.  Before me?  Really.  Hmm!  I know Eddie Gomez went to Music & Art? [That’s him.] Really?  That doesn’t sound like the Eddie Gomez I remember.  It’s recent, huh?  I’m a lot closer to the Eddie Gomez of Bill Evans days, and he didn’t play like this.  He played different.  Eddie was an amazing, amazing musician, and he got along so well with Bill.  They were really mind-reading each other.  It’s sort of like the same thing that happened when Scott LaFaro was in the trio.  I got hip to Scott LaFaro maybe four or five years after he passed.  He passed in ’61.  I got hip to him early on because when I was 14 I was studying with Steve Swallow.  I was in junior high school.  He was the first one to turn me on to Scotty.  Then I used to go and check out Bill Evans at the Vanguard a lot, and Eddie Gomez was playing the bass there.  So I was just amazed at the facility that Eddie Gomez had at the time.  Because he didn’t quite do what Scotty was doing.  Scotty liked to mess with counterpoint and things like that a lot more.  But Eddie was all over the instrument, which was amazing to me.  I’m surprised I didn’t recognize him.  I would usually recognize Eddie Gomez, because he’s a guy I’ve been following since I was a teenager.  3½ because as many times as I’ve played “Footprints,” there’s a lot more things that you can say with it than was said there.

11.    Roy Haynes, “Trinkle Tinkle,” TE VOU! (Dreyfus, 1994) (feat. Christian McBride) (3½ stars)

It’s nice to hear pretty much the arrangement the way that Monk and the sax used to play the melody.  The only thing, after a while that three note figure at the end -DINH-DUHT-DAH gets annoying.  Other than that I liked it, but I didn’t care for too much, and to hear it through all the solos was a pain in the ass after a while.  I would have preferred leaving it out and just play it, because it doesn’t do anything.  It sounds like it was a novelty effect more than anything else.  The drummer sounded like someone like Tain.  I didn’t think it was, but it sounded like someone who can take it a little out like Tain can.  But I couldn’t tell you who the cats were. [AFTER] It was Roy Haynes’ record?  I’m surprised why he kept that figure, man.  It sounds annoying.  Is the bass player Ed Howard?  Christian?  I thought it was him while he was playing, but I just didn’t think he did anything… And it didn’t sound like Roy Haynes either to me.  Is it a new record?  Unusual.  Like I said, it was pretty much in the Monk tradition.  I would left out that BINH-BAHT-BAM.  I’ll give 3½ because it was well played.  Who was the alto player?  Donald Harrison!  He played well.  I wouldn’t have recognized Roy Haynes.  It didn’t sound like him.  I heard him the last time a couple of years ago, and he’s always been Mister Taste.  And it was tasteful…except for that.  I don’t mind if an effect really adds something to the music, but that didn’t really add anything to Monk.

12.    McCoy Tyner, “I Want To Tell You ‘Bout That,” McCOY TYNER WITH STANLEY CLARKE AND AL FOSTER (Telarc, 2000) (3½ stars)

I knew it was McCoy from the getgo, because it’s unmistakable, just his tone, his touch, and the kind of things that he plays.  Although I felt it was kind of like… It’s like when you’re trying to get like a funk kind of thing going, you know, almost making an attempt to get like some radio play.  The bass player wasn’t Avery?  I don’t know who it was. [Someone you might think on electric.] Stanley Clarke?  Yeah?  He did play a figure that did make me think it was Stanley Clarke.  But I said, “Mmm, let me see…”  Who was the drummer?  Al Foster?  I sort of came up at the same time as Stanley Clarke, and I’ve been watching and listening to him since the early days when he was with Chick.  He’s a fine bass player, man.  He’s been moving around in different worlds and playing a lot of different kinds of music, but I have deep respect for him as a bass player.  He’s a great bass player.  I don’t think this is one of McCoy’s better efforts.  Just for playing sake, I’ll give it 3½ stars.

13.  Avishai Cohen, “The Gift, DEVOTION (Stretch, 1998) (3 stars)

I don’t know if I could tell you who that is.  It wasn’t exactly a toe-tapper.  The soprano had a dark kind of sound.  That’s an unusual duo, the trombone and soprano.  It’s not something you hear often.  I’m at a loss.  3 stars. [AFTER] That was Avishai, huh?

14.    Red Garland Trio w/ Paul Chambers, “This Can’t Be Love,” IT’S A BLUE WORLD (Prestige, 1958/1999) (3 stars)

It sounded like a few people.  The first name that came to me was an odd name, Monty Alexander — which is weird.  But that’s the first name that popped into my head.  I heard flashes of Erroll Garner, I heard flashes of a lot of people in there.  I probably do know who it is.  Who was it? [AFTER] That didn’t sound like Paul Chambers?  You know what?  This must have been towards the end of his life.  That was ’58?  Paul Chambers articulates a lot better than that — for me.  I’ve heard plenty of Paul Chambers.  Maybe it was the rosin.  Because when you put a certain kind of rosin on the bow you get a certain sound, and different rosins give you a different… When you pull the bow across the string, it gives you a different… This was kind of a rough sound for Paul.  Paul usually gets a smoother attack sound on his bowing.  But I do know that it has to do with the kind of rosin that you use.  Some rosin makes the bow across the strings sound a little rough; it grabs the string a certain way so that the sound comes out rough.  There’s another rosin that the sound comes out a little smoother.  This sounded kind of rough to me.  Really.  Because Paul Chambers articulates a lot better on things I’ve heard him on before than on this particular piece.  From hearing Paul on his best records… This wasn’t his best.  It didn’t move me that much.  3 stars.

15.    Cachao, “El Son No A Muerto,” MASTER SESSIONS, VOL. 1 (Epic, 1994) (4 stars)

That was Cachao, and that was Nelson Gonzalez on the très, who learned to play the très in my house.  I brought home a très from Venezuela in 1970, and he was a frequent visitor to my house.  He was self-taught on guitar.  We started studying Arsenio Rodriguez records together, and he learned how to play the très in my house.  I’m the one who got him the gig with Cachao in the middle ’80s when he did his big concert at Hunter College.  I loaned him my bass and I was at most of the rehearsals, and I got Nelson involved in it.  Because they didn’t have a très player originally for the descarga section.  That’s my daddy, Cachao.  This particular tune was kind of subdued, there was not much happening for him.  The best way to catch Cachao sometimes is live.  I wish they would record him live.  This was part of the records that Emilio Estefan put out?  I don’t think he’s the best producer for that genre.  First of all, I didn’t like the balance of the sound.  It could have been a lot better.  I’ll give it 4 stars because I like Nelson’s playing on it.  Was that Paquito d’Rivera on clarinet and Nestor Torres on flute?  What about trumpet?  It wasn’t Chocolate.  It was?  That was a very subdued Chocolate.  It didn’t sound like him.  And his trademark notes that he likes to play aren’t there.  Something tells me there was maybe some weird chemistry going on in the studio.

* * *

Andy Gonzalez (WKCR–Feb. 23, 2006):

[MUSIC: “This Is For Albert” (Rumba Buhaina)]

AG:   We did a couple of albums where we had to find a way for Jerry to play the horn with Joe Ford, and after he’d state the line, he would take a solo and then jump on the drums. Because there was no overdubbing; this was recorded direct to two-track. That was interesting, to say the, to see him manage the jump back and forth.

TP:   It is one of the great sights in jazz to see him jump up from the conga drums after he’s been abusing his hands for 5-6 minutes, and immediately launch into an improvisation. Even more so when it’s a ballad

AG:   I don’t know how he does it. I like to play percussion instruments, too, but I will not play them because it makes my fingers stiff to play the bass. I don’t know how to he gets to manipulate his fingers that well right after playing hard congas, and pick up the phone and play.

TP:   He plays hard. You and your brother have been playing trumpet and bass and congas for close to 50 years…

AG:   A long time.  I’m 55, and I was 13 when we started to play music. A little more than 40 years.

TP: And you’ve often played in the same bands over the years. With Eddie Palmieri for several years, with Dizzy Gillespie briefly in the ‘60s, as well as the Apaches.

AG:   Jerry was also in the first band I ever recorded with, which was Monguito Santamaria, who was Mongo’s son. Rene McLean was in that band, and Jose Mangual, Jr., was in the band. Jerry was part of that band for a minute, too.

TP:   Let’s talk about the history of the Fort Apaches. Ten years ago, you were playing a lot around and New York and touring, but things changed, Jerry moved to Spain, and the opportunities to play are less than they had been.

AG:   Well, we have been playing some. Jerry would come in occasionally to do it, and there would be a tour set up, and some… The band has been working on and off. It’s maybe not as much as we could because of the distance between us. But we still get together enough. And it sounds like we’d never been apart, just because of the chemistry involved in the band.

TP:   It’s one of the innovative bands of late 20th century jazz, influential on two generations of musicians from South America, the Caribbean, Spain, who heard your ability to fuse Afro-Caribbean diasporic rhythms with jazz harmonies. It’s hard to say if anyone was the first to do anything, but recordings like Rumba Para Monk and things before that have had a tremendous influence on the way jazz sounds today. These ideas were exotic in 1988; now it’s the mainstream.

AG:   They were even more exotic in 1979.

TP:   There are a few streams to discuss. One of the history of the Fort Apache; the other is the present. Let’s stay with the present for the moment, and the new recording, Rumba Buhaina.

AG:   A lot of people don’t understand that “Buhaina” was Art Blakey’s Muslim name. In the late ‘40s, quite a few musicians in jazz were either converting to Islam or flirting with it. It’s just like jazz musicians are always the first to move to things that would probably help them get away from the American stereotype of what a musician is supposed or what a spiritual person is supposed to be like. So Art Blakey took the name “Buhaina.” I don’t know what it means, but all Art Blakey’s closest friends and associates would call him “Bu.”

TP:   I believe that the Jazz Messengers name came from that same origin. Unlike your exploration of the music of Thelonious Monk, Rumba Buhaina explores a number of composers, of tunes primarily from their classic period, say ‘58 to ‘65.

AG:   That was the music that influenced us a lot. We used to go hear Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in person, and that was one of the key groups of those years. Just to hear Art Blakey be as authoritative a drummer… He was an amazing teacher. He didn’t have to tell you anything. He showed you. You just listened to him play, and it was all there to hear. We learned a lot from listening to what he had to offer, and how a drummer is so much the accompanist, and how he sets the pattern, sets the standard for what is to happen in the music. That’s something that really stayed with most musicians who came up around that time. That’s why we always consider Art Blakey one of the true teachers of the music.

TP:   He was also a musician who distilled African musicians within a swing context on the drumkit, with cross-sticking figures and polyrhythmic patterns woven within his arrangements.

AG:   I thought Art Blakey had such a strong force, a force of nature that reminded me a lot of field recordings that I had of tribal music from different parts of Africa. You’d hear, say, a drummer who would be talking on the drum, and not only the pitch, the timbre of the instrument and the way certain instruments…you would communicate a message with that way of playing. I could feel that out of Art Blakey, too. There’s a certain force that’s coming out of that. I immediately identify with it.

TP:   During those years, were you also paying attention to the records Art Blakey was doing with drummers?

AG:   Oh, yeah.

TP:   Orgy In Rhythm, a couple of volumes, and the names are escaping me of a couple of others he did, where he played with the late Ray Barretto…

AG:   I was just going to mention Ray Barretto. He also did a tribute to Art Blakey a few years ago. In fact, I think there’s one tune on the record that we also did. His concept was a little different than ours. First of all, when Ray Barretto first started getting back… He wasn’t playing much salsa any more, and he started to develop a Latin Jazz band. I know he paid quite a bit of attention to Fort Apache and what we were doing, and I think he took part of that as a role model. Which we were quite honored that he would use us as a model for what he was doing.

TP:   But as far as putting the Fort Apache touch on this repertoire, how did the ideas evolve and come to fruition?

AG:   We had the idea years ago. We thought of it as one of the many projects that we had in mind to do. There were other projects, too, that never came about for various reasons. Like, we wanted to record an album with Jose Silva, better known as Chombo, the Cuban saxophonist who was probably like the Ben Webster of Cuban music, and a masterful musician. We were just about setting that up when he had a stroke and he was no longer able to play. We were already starting to pick out the material. When you have a band like the Fort Apache band, you, have a lot of options, and there’s things that pop into your head about what this band could do, what we’re capable of doing. Because everybody in the band is a great musician, and we’re capable of a lot of things.

TP:   But Rumba Buhaina is what we’re addressing.

AG:   Yes. Well, the idea for the Art Blakey tribute… We started thinking about it, and then all of a sudden we had a few days at Sweet Rhythm to play… Before we went into the studio we played and rehearsed for a few days. That’s pretty much the way we did the Monk album, too. We played and we rehearsed different concepts on different tunes until…

TP:   Were they tunes that seemed to lend themselves to dealing with the different rhythmic signatures that you bring to your arrangements.

AG:   We tried to think of ways of approaching the music… Everybody contributed ideas. That’s the way we get it together. It’s pretty simple. From all our experiences, individually and collectively, it was pretty easy for us to put it together.

TP:   Let’s step back to 1991, the album Moliendo Café, and Larry Willis’ tune, “To Wisdom The Prize.”

AG:   I like that album a lot, for a few reasons. One of them was that Miles Davis had just passed away, and we had… We thought about it a lot because he was such a strong influence on us also.

TP:   The album is dedicated to the percussionist Guillermo Barretto. Art Blakey had just passed.  Charlie Palmieri had just passed. Dizzy Gillespie shortly thereafter. George Adams as well. All are mentioned on the inner sleeve…

[“To Wisdom The Prize” & “Along Came Betty”]

TP:   On previous shows, Andy has brought literally a suitcase filled with recordings, primarily obscure and little known, great gems. A lot of this material is now available on CD so it’s a bit easier to track down…once you get the CD. Next week will you be playing primarily this repertoire or digging into the whole book?

AG:   I’ve got a feeling we’ll dig into the whole book, but we are going to feature some of the tunes from the new album.

TP:   Earlier I mentioned that there are two streams to talk about, one the new recording, Rumba Buhaina, but for listeners… As you get older, you come to grips with the notion that younger listeners don’t share core experiences. A lot of hardcore jazz fans may be unfamiliar with how you and Jerry developed your ideas about music, and what in your personal histories led to the formation of the Fort Apache Band.

AG:   Jerry got his first opportunity to record in 1979, and that was an album under his own name called Ya Yo Me Cure, which in English means “I have been cured”—whatever that means. The title track of that album was something that Frankie Rodriguez, who was a percussionist who passed away a few years ago, but was a very talented person and very close to us… He was part of Grupo Folklorico, and he was into culture really deep. I had a record of pygmy chants from Africa, and he heard one chant that was done by kids. It was like some children’s chant. He heard it a few times, and started singing “Ya Yo Me Cure” to it, just putting those Spanish words to the chant itself, and we made a guaguanco out of it. That was a precursor of what Fort Apache became.

TP:   But by then, you’d been professional musicians for more than a decade. Eddie Palmieri, Dizzy Gillespie…

AG:   I played with Ray Barretto while I was in high school, ‘69 to ‘71. In between that time, me and Jerry worked with Dizzy Gillespie. So we were getting arond. I was still in high school, and Jerry was coming out of college.

TP:   Were Eddie Palmieri and Dizzy Gillespie people who helped push you along conceptually?

AG:   It was kind of a mutual thing. We were well aware of Eddie Palmieri; we were big fans. But we brought something new to the table.

TP:   What was that?

AG:   Well, a different sensibility. The sensibility that Eddie Palmieri had before, when Barry Rogers was part of the band, and Barry would bring the harmonic element… When he’s taking a solo, you can feel there’s something that’s really in the jazz world, and it’s very spontaneous and very heartfelt, and there was a lot of feeling to it. That’s one of the things that we learned a lot about, and something about jazz improvisation, that nothing was thought out before time—it was just off the cuff. Whatever came to your mind that you thought was hip enough, that’s what you would play. So we had started to do those kind of things with Eddie. We took Eddie’s band into some new places where he hadn’t ventured before. We all used to hang out at my parents’ house in the basement apartment on Gildersleeve Avenue in the Bronx, and Eddie Palmieri used to come over and Barretto used to come over… If that basement could talk… Dizzy Gillespie used to come over. We used to have jam sessions there all the time. Out of all that stuff, out of a lot of experimentation, came the music we wanted to play.

TP:   Both of you had been deeply into folkloric music for many years. How did you get involved in… Was folkloric music just always there, or did people point you towards recordings and connections?

AG:   Well, there’s different types of folkloric music. There’s folkloric music for dancing, and it was more a commercial music that was provided for dancing, but it still had quite a bit of folklore to it. That was the soundtrack of my childhood. Family parties, things like that. There was always a collection of good 78s that everybody used to dance to, like Machito, Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, Cortijo Y Su Combo from Puerto Rico with Ismail Rivera singing, Mon Rivera… This was primarily folklore in the Puerto Rican vein and in the Cuban vein. Sonora Matancera, which was a Cuban band. That’s the stuff we grew up with.

TP:   When did you start breaking that stuff down?

AG:   That came a little bit later, because that’s something we got used to hearing. But we didn’t start breaking it down until we became more schooled in music. Both of us went to High School of Music and Art. They give you theory. They give you how to analyze a piece of music, and what happens in these number of bars, and then this section comes, and things like that. But what happened was, when I was 13, we had already been listening to Cal Tjader records for a while… Jerry was two years older than me, and he was starting to play congas, and he was also playing trumpet, and I was playing the bass, and we put together a Latin Jazz quintet like Cal Tjader’s. We started working with it. We started playing… In that music, we were trying to emulate the Cal Tjader sound and what they were doing, which was quite spontaneous and very jazz-like. They always had good pianists, and Mongo and Willie Bobo were heroes of ours. So that was pretty much how we started and where our taste was as far as playing music.

It wasn’t until I got to play with Ray Barretto’s band that I really started studying what came before, especially Afro-Cuban music. Or Cuban music.  The term “Afro-Cuban” that’s bandied about now as THE term, because everybody wants to point towards Cuba as the birthplace of a lot of the music—but I don’t know. I think it was maybe a little more to do with the Caribbean experience. Not just Cuba. Cuba was dominant, but there was also a lot going on in Puerto Rican and a lot going on in other places, too. And New York was the magnet the drew a lot of elements to it. A lot of great musicians from different parts of the Caribbean were moving to New York and bringing their music with them.

TP:   How long did you play with Dizzy Gillespie?

AG:   Almost a year. 1970.

TP:   what sort of experience was that? Was he playing primarily Cuban-influenced repertoire…

AG:   No, he was mixing it up. We had an interesting version of his band.  At the time, when we joined the band, there was no trap drummer. There was just Jerry playing congas, and I was playing the bass, George Davis was playing guitar, and Mike Longo was playing the piano—and Dizzy. I was playing my Ampeg baby bass. Now, Dizzy insisted upon a bass player who could play Latin rhythms and some jazz comfortably. That’s how I got the gig. I was only 19, and I was thrilled. We traveled a bit. It was amazing.

Dizzy was not one to… If you would sit down with him and you wanted something explained harmonically, he’d sit down at the piano and show you. But as a bandleader, he had this great instinct about talent, and he knew when he put a group of people together that the chemistry was going to work.

TP:   Rhythmically did he have anything to show you, or did…

AG:   We had things to show him.

TP:   What sort of things did you show him?

AG:   I remember working in Harlem with him one night, and we were doing a week at the Club Barron—and we brought Nicky Marrero to sit in on timbales. We played one of his tunes (I forget which one at the moment), and after he took his solo, he went by the bar… The bandstand was near the bar. He went by the bar, and we doubled the time on his tune, and we were smoking, the rhythm section was cooking, man. Then he comes up behind me and whispers in my ear, and he goes, “Where’s one?” In other words, as much as he’d been influenced by and heard quite a bit of Latin rhythms, and he’d been surrounded by good rhythm drummers, sometimes you can know a whole lot and still, if you divert your attention for a minute and come back to it, you go, “Wait a second; my hearing just turned around or something; I’m not quite sure where it is.” So while I’m playing and we’re cooking, I just looked at him and I go, “One.” He goes, “Oh, ok.” Heh-heh. Dizzy was a sweetheart. I loved him.

TP:   So as kids, you’re soaking up the music at home. It’s part of the daily fabric of your lives. You’re listening to all the jazz records as they come out…

AG:   And we were lucky enough as kids to journey out the clubs and hear this music in person. I saw Trane play. I wanted to see the quartet play, but they had already broken up. I saw one of his last performances. I saw everybody play. I was quite a regular in all the clubs. I used to go down to the Vanguard to hear the Bill Evans Trio, and I’d go to the Vanguard on Mondays to hear the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. And Slugs was one of my favorite jazz clubs in the world. That was THE place. That had an atmosphere, and the music was exceptional. Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers used to play there regularly. Lee Morgan, his band used to play there. I saw so many bands. I forgot that we got to play with Kenny Dorham for a year, before Dizzy… Actually, about the time I had started playing with Ray Barretto, I was playing with Kenny Dorham.

TP:   I think Jerry has related that when he was auditioning for New York College of Music, he encountered him…

AG:   Kenny was trying to get his degree so he could teach. New York College of Music started a jazz program, and they were givimg full scholarships to jazz musicians, and all of a sudden, a lot of musicians jumped in that school. They had a great big band. Great musicians there. So Kenny Dorham was studying there, and he was in Jerry’s trumpet class. The trumpet teacher was a classical teacher, and he failed Kenny Dorham. Failed him! I couldn’t believe that. Kenny Dorham could have taught him a few things. But we’ve been blessed, man. We were blessed that we were really accepted by a lot of people, and taught as well. Just by playing together with someone, you give a little bit of your knowledge, and you get knowledge back in return. There was quite a bit of activity going on for musicians in those days.

TP:   It also seems that the cultural politics of the ‘60s would point people in the direction of incorporating folkloric music into the fabric of their everyday activity and professional work.

AG:   Of course. I saw Olatunji. Olatunji had a group of drummers and dancers, and we got to hear that. There was a lot going on. But there wasn’t much Cuban folklore. Because of the Revolution, the radio stations wouldn’t play much of that music. But around 1969, Felipe Luciano, who was part of the Young Lords, he got a position to start a radio program on WRVR. I had met him while I was with Barretto, and I was studying Cuban folklore with Rene Lopez, who was one of the producers of Grupo Folklorico Experimental. We actually programmed the first month of shows. The first bunch of shows were midnight to six in the morning. We got calls from people saying, “what are doing playing this great music, and I’ve got to get up for work in the morning—are you guys nuts?” Then after a few months, finally, we got the ok to do our show in the afternoon. That was the beginning of… We did quite a bit of teaching by playing the music and talking about it, and opening that door that was closed to a lot of people about Cuban music. There was a lot of live performances…

TP:   Then you started doing it yourself, and Grupo Folklorico came into the picture…

AG:   Oh, yeah. Well, that was a given. When you’re exposed to all this knowledge, it becomes part of you, and you want to do it—and especially if you have the skills to do it. It’s like anything. When you’re studying music and you’re listening to records, it’s a communication, and you pick up on the message that’s being sent to you.

I heard this next tune on a videotape of a rehearsal in Matanzas, Cuba, that somebody gave me, of a folkloric group that was doing bata stuff, which is the hourglass shaped drum where there’s three different drums of different sizes, and they have chants going on with certain drum-beats. So there was one that was done in honor of the deity called Elegua. Elegua is the keeper of the crossroads, and is the one that opens and closes all your paths. So most ceremonies begin with Elegua. When you do a ceremony in that genre, you start with Elegua.

So I heard this chant, and it stayed in my head, and I started playing bass to it, and I figured out two sets of changes to the same melody. That’s what we use as our basis for improvisation. The first set of changes is a pedal tone, and it just stays in that pedal. It’s open. It’s kind of what McCoy Tyner or Trane would do. Then the second time we run the melody down, there’s another set of changes to it. So I came up with that, and then we developed it into a composition.


AG:   The reason I played “Anabacoa” is that it’s a tune that had been done by a few Cuban bands, but the one that caught our attention, and that’s why we wanted to play it, was the recording by Arsenio Rodriguez Y Su Conjunto, and their version was slammin’! That’s where we got our inspiration, but then we took it to another place. And then we had the great Manny Oquendo playing one of his really classic timbal solos. It goes back to what we were talking about Art Blakey being the authoritative drummer. Well, Manny shows that he’s in that same league. He’s a very authoritative drummer.

TP:   The primal feel and the sophistication together.

AG:   Together, yeah.

TP:   That quality could describe Fort Apache, which has been doing it for 27 years, on and off…

AG:   Time flies.

TP:   We’ll move to 1988, and a live performance by an expanded edition of the Fort Apache Band, that was documented by Enja, in Zurich, titled Obatala. I’ve treasured this recording for some time; it’s an expanded version of the Apaches… Mad percussion.

AG:   When we started the Fort Apache Band, it had a large percussion section. But it was very difficult to work with that kind of ensemble, because booking it wasn’t easy. It was a lot of people to fly in and put up in hotels and so on. It was a financial decision and an artistic one to break it down to the bare essentials, which was a quintet and a sextet.

TP:   Who did the arrangement of “Justice.”

AG:   Jerry and I heard a riff on a Cuban record by Frank Emilio, who is a great Cuban pianist, and he had a riff on this record that was so intriguing, and we said, “Wow, this sounds like ‘Evidence’—because “Evidence” has such a quirky rhythm-melody to it. I said, “Wow, let’s see about putting these two elements together, and this is what came out.



It may surprise bass maestro Andy González’s many fans that Entre Colegas (Truth Revolution) is his first leader recording. Now 64, González boasts a vast and distinguished discography that includes ten recordings with the pathbreaking Fort Apache Band, in which he and his older brother, conguero-trumpeter Jerry González, masterminded a singular marriage of the harmonic language of hardcore jazz and the hand-drum rhythms of Afro-Cuban musical. Another nine albums document the pathbreaking four-trombone dance band Conjunto Libre, which he co-founded with iconic timbalero Manny Oquendo in 1974, after both left the employ of Eddie Palmieri, who González joined after two years of steady employment with Dizzy Gillespie.

“Andy is easily most influential Latin Jazz bassist ever,” says Truth Revolution Records co-proprietor Luques Curtis, a bassist whose own burgeoning career embodies González’s multilingual aesthetic. Curtis, 32, and his older brother, pianist Zaccai Curtis, met González twenty years ago after he heard their kid band play charts of such Fort Apache classics as “Moliendo Café” and “Obsesión” at a concert. “Andy came to our house afterward,” Curtis recalled. “He hung with us all night, playing his music and hanging out. After that, Andy would visit for a day or two a month. No money. He explained to us what happens during the coros, and how Afro-Cuban music is shaped.”

González has suffered the travails of aging—in 2004, the toes on his left foot were amputated due to complications from previously undiagnosed diabetes; at the beginning of 2015, he began three-day-a-week dialysis treatments. The Curtises—whose label had built momentum with releases not only by their Curtis Brothers group, but diverse artists like vocalists Sarah Elizabeth Charles and Eva Cortés, trumpeters Ray Vega, Jonathan Powell and Carlos Abadie, and timbalero Ralph Irizarry—responded to the second medical event by generating a project with their mentor.

González decided to present a pan-stylistic, strings-oriented program that he describes as “Django Reinhardt visits Cuba and Puerto Rico,” with long-time partner Nelson Gonzalez on tres, Cleveland-based Orlando “El Mostro” Santiago on cuatro, Brooklynite Ben Lapidus on guitar and tres, and Cuban emigree David Oquendo on guitars and vocals, as well as Abadie, the Curtises, and a host of hand percussionists who render the rhythms with precision and elegance.

“I just maintained the rhythm and kept the styles together,” González said, understating the effect of his enormous ears and harmonic erudition in maintaining quality control. “I was more concerned about sound than the style—when it’s good music, it’s good music, and that’s the name of the game.” He attributes his ability to get through the proceedings to acupuncture treatments that alleviated the stiffness attendant to dialysis; indeed, he plays so impeccably that it’s hard to discern any impairment.

“Andy always has a clear idea how he wants things to be, and gets musicians who can execute but also do their own thing,” said Lapidus, whose erudite program notes offer significant value-added. “He leads, but he’s also unbelievably supportive. He’s played in so many situations and so many styles that he was able to pull off what most people could only dream about doing.”

González compared the session’s ambiance to the atmosphere he and his brother generated at impromptu mid-’60s gatherings in the basement of his family’s house in the South Bronx. It was a destination for a Pan-American cohort of the famous—attendees included Gillespie, Machito, Kenny Dorham, Jackie and Rene McLean, Carlos “Patato” Valdes, Rashied Ali, Larry Young, Ruben Blades—and obscure, attracted by the brothers’ global perspective and predisposition to treat jazz and Afro-Caribbean styles not as separate entities but as extensions of each other.

“There were elements of that spirit—to play with abandon and grab some of the jams,” González said. “I played with as much abandon as I could. If they want me to do another record, I’ll see if I can think of something else to do.”



Andy Gonzalez Musician Shows, WKCR – Feb. 28, 1990; March 13, 1991; Dec. 1, 1993:

[February 28, 1990]

[Fort Apache, “81”–from Obatala, Enja, Zurich concert, 1989]

ANDY: This record came about through our association with Matthias Winckelman. He’s one of the producers for the Enja label out of Germany. The Fort Apache had done a previous recording for them which was another live concert, in Germany, during the Berlin Jazz Festival in which we participating as well as Libre — Libre was participating on a different night in the same festival. The night that Manny Oquendo’s Libre…it was performing on a bill with Alberta Hunter, Bobby McFerrin… Dino Saluzzi, a bandoneon player who is Argentinian, I imagine. Or is he Italian? I’m not sure. He does modern tango, of which I’ve gotten to participate a bit with Astor Piazzolla, who I got to record with. But that’s another thing.

Getting back to Matthias, we were fortunate to be invited to play at the Zurich Jazz Festival, and the performance was recorded and just now released on the Enja label. This is my brother Jerry’s band, and he’s playing trumpet, flugelhorn and congas; John Stubblefield on tenor; Papo Vazquez on trombone; Larry Willis on piano; Edgardo Miranda on guitar; myself on bass; Steve Berrios on trombones and bata, chekere and coro. We had some guest percussionists — Milton Cardona, Hector Flaco Hernandez, and Nicky Marrero.

We’ve pared down the band a bit, but we do occasionally put together a whole ensemble with a huge percussion section. We’ve been trying to function on a smaller scale and trying to keep that energy level up. It seems to be working.

TP: How long has Fort Apache been functioning? What’s the genesis of the Fort Apache Band?

ANDY: Actually, the genesis goes back a long ways. Jerry and myself, we’ve always been… We grew up playing Latin Jazz and also listening to it. One of the earliest records that I remember listening to was a Cal Tjader record. That kind of playing fascinated me. So it was something that we grew up with. All throughout the years we’ve formed different groups, or have been part of groups that were Latin Jazz oriented or in that vein. So we’re part of that music. So this is really a continuation of that process.

TP: But you’re also interpreting Monk’s music. Rumba Para Monk is extremely distinctive.

ANDY: I think anybody’s compositions that we touch will come out with that sensibility to it, just because that’s the kind of music that we do.

TP: How long have you been playing the bass?

ANDY: I started playing the bass in elementary school. I was 11 years old or so. I started playing professionally at 13. It took a couple of years to learn the instrument, and I started working with bands. My father bought me an Ampeg baby bass for Christmas on my 13th birthday or something. And I started gigging right away. That was a gigging axe. If you had an Ampeg baby bass and an Ampeg amp, you were in business. Jerry had his congas, and he was already playing the horn, too. I was 13 when we had our first Latin Jazz group, which was a sort of Cal Tjader band, a quintet.

TP: You played that type of material?

ANDY: Yeah, we did some of Cal Tjader’s material and then some original stuff. The guy who was our mentor, a fellow by the name Llewellyn Matthews, Lew Matthews who right now is the musical director and pianist for Nancy Wilson… We grew up together, and he was really the guy who moved us into real playing of real serious Latin Jazz at a very early age. So we were blessed in that sense.

TP: This is the Bronx in the early 1960s. What sorts of gigs were you and Jerry doing?

ANDY: At the time we were doing small gigs here and there. School dances and occasional church dances. They were mostly dances, that I remember, but we used to play our Latin Jazz, and since it had a danceable beat, that was all people needed.

Coming up is a live performance by Manny Oquendo’s Libre. Manny Oquendo is I guess the Art Blakey of timbales. He’s one of the real greats, with a very distinctive sound and style. We’ve had this band together 15 years; this is our 15th year. It’s very special. It’s hard to put into words how special it is, and it’s a shame that certain people are asleep on it, that shouldn’t be. They should be moving more towards roots and culture instead of trying to get too commercial. But that’s always been the case. That doesn’t mean that we won’t be around. We’ll always be around. This is live in Holland about 18 months ago, when we visited Holland for a little bit. Hopefully we’ll have a chance to put the whole concert out on an album someday, because it was well-recorded, as you’ll soon here. This is “Asia Minor.”

[Libre: “Asia Minor” (Machito) – Steve Turre on shells;

TP: Next up is a live performance by Grupo Folklorico Experimental.

ANDY: That started in our basement as a jam. The Gonzalez household was a 24-hour jam all the time. We had a lot of music going on there, all the time. That was sort of our laboratory to experiment and come up with stuff. We used to invite a lot of great musicians to come and play with us.

TP: Who were some of the people you were coming up with?

ANDY: It was just the musicians we were playing with at the time who were out of the professional bands of the moment. Those were the years when… I had already played with Ray Barretto’s band, Dizzy Gillespie’s band, and I was involved with the Palmieri band at that time, and my brother was also. We were playing with a lot of great musicians, such as Chocolate Armenteros on trumpet and Jose Rodriguez on trombone, and Barry Rogers… A lot of the people who were very strong figures in the 60s period. So we got to learn quite a bit of stuff, and also we contributed a bit to what was the status of Latin Jazz at the time. We were freeing it up more, because we were also into Miles and we were into the free jazz movement of the 60s — we were listening to a lot of that music. We used to apply a lot of the things of that, and try to combine things. Sort of a mixture. It was like a laboratory. We used to experiment.

Grupo Folklorico came out of our deep respect for and our study of the roots of our music, which have their origins in African music, Afro-Cuban music in particular, and the religious music of that particular thing held a big interest for us. Also, the rumba, guaguanco and the son — those elements were all the roots of what our music is today, in one way or another. It’s felt. You can probably say that for all of Latin music. But Latin Jazz has those roots plus the jazz roots. The two musics are fairly…I guess you would call them cousins, because they sort of come out of the same experience of the African diaspora, the slave trade and what happened after that, and their individual developments in whatever country the slaves were in.

Out of all that study came this particular group of people. It began as a jam and it turned into something a little more serious when Rene Lopez managed to get a contract to record us for Salsoul Records. They were big in disco, but they had a Latin label, Salsoul Salsa. They signed Grupo Folklorico, and not too long after that they signed Manny Oquendo and Libre, and we did four albums for that record company. They’re all out of print. I’ve heard of people offering up to $100 for a copy. In fact, the President of the company asked me for a copy! So imagine!

TP: But the masters are still extant. They could be reissued.

ANDY: Oh, sure. At one point the original tapes will be…they’ll make a deal to have that stuff put out again, especially on CD. I’d like to hear that stuff on CD, maybe remixed. I’d like to remix some of it myself, because I know CD you can really get more. We had limitations. When you mix for an album, you have to limit yourself, but a CD lets you loose to really explore the full sonority of the music.

TP: Andy, I think we’ve piqued everyone’s interest, those who remember the albums and those who don’t know about Grupo Folklorico. And you’ve brought a live date.

ANDY: I found this in my collection of tapes, and I’m not too sure where we performed this. I think it was in El Barrio on 110th Street or 109th Street and Third Avenue. There’s a park there where we performed. We didn’t do too many performances, but the ones that we did do were pretty memorable, and we always had a lot… As a matter of fact, I think once we performed here at WKCR. I know people who have those tapes, and one of these days we’ll bring them up and play them.

Anyway, Chocolate is playing, Frankie Rodriguez, Willie Garcia is singing, Henny Alvarez, Virgilio Marti, Jerry, Gene Golden… A whole bunch of people. It’s a tune by Henny Alvarez that we never recorded, by the way. So it’s a real treat for the collectors. It’s called “Ango.”

[Grupo Folklorico, “Ango”]

ANDY: There’s been talk of that band getting back together. It’s been almost 12 years since those records came out and since we’d played. We’re all around. Most of us are around. Hopefully we’ll get to have a reunion and maybe make a new record. Because there’s certainly quite a bit of material, and everybody’s grown in the last ten years, so I’m sure there will probably be a lot of interest for a new record.

TP: We have another tape cued up from the seemingly endless store of tapes that Andy brought up.

ANDY: I thought I’d turn people on to a music that is a favorite music of mine, and that is the Afro-Cuban music of the 1950s, which is a very rich period. The band I have cued up… I’m going to play a couple of cuts of radio transcriptions from… The bands in Cuba all used to broadcast live on the radio. There were a bunch of them that had regular daily programs, and there were a few dancing fanatics from here who’d go down for vacation in the 50s, and bring their tape recorders and record some of this stuff. The first tune we’ll hear is “Buena Vista and Guaguanco,” and this is by Chappotin Y Sus Estrellas. Felix Chappotin was one of the great, great…along with, say, Chocolate and another trumpet player by the name of Florecita… He was one of the great stylists, soloists in Cuban music. He was part of the Arsenio band. When Arsenio decided to move to New York and make this his home base…well, Chappotin stayed with the original band. This is a transcription of that original band — Chappotin Y Sus Estrellas with Miguelito Cuni singing, who is one of the great soneros who ever existed.

[MUSIC: Chappotin-Cuni, “Buena Vista and Guaguanco”; “

ANDY: That style of music, the slow guaguanco, the son montuno, that’s all the creation of Arsenio Rodriguez, and his influence is all over that music. The first cut was a live transcription that Manny Oquendo had in his collection that he’d gotten from the bass player who worked with Arsenio…

TP: Arsenio, given the level of historical memory people have, we need a surname.

ANDY: Arsenio Rodriguez. I take it for granted everybody knows. There’s a whole new generation who doesn’t know these things.

Arsenio Rodriguez was a gentleman who played the tres. The tres is a 9-string instrument that’s similar in sound quality to a 12-string guitar. The strings are in octaves. He was a master of that instrument, and also a master composer of many forms, utiliziing all his roots, his folkloric roots of Afro-Cuban music. He was one of the greatest exponents of the music. He was a very prolific composer. One of his tunes, “Bruca Manigua,” was a big hit, a world-wide hit for Miguelito Valdes when he was with the Casino de la Playa Orchestra, which was a band that made quite a bit of noise. Then what happened was that Xavier Cugat heard a lot of that music and brought Miguelito Valdes to sing with him. Then they recorded it again. Then they recorded quite a few things of Arsenio’s. They even brought in Arsenio for a few recording sessions.

But Arsenio’s style, the conjunto style of three trumpets and bongos, maraccas, claves, singers, rhythm guitar, and a tres and a piano, that whole sound…there’s something very unique about it. It was basically a development historically from what was original a son. A son was an early form of dance music that there was no congas, there was only bongos — bongos, maraccas and claves and guitars and tres and singing. That was it. Then they added one trumpet. Then they added two trumpets. Then Arsenio came and added three trumpets. Then the bands in New York added four trumpets. We’re talking specifically about bands like the Tito Rodriguez conjunto and the Tito Puente conjunto. They added the fourth trumpet.

We’re going to spend this time doing a little dedication to Tito Rodriguez who passed away on this day I think in 1973. I had the good fortune to record with Tito Rodriguez before he passed away. I guess when I write my book about the giants in the industry who I’ve gotten to associate with…

We’ll hear something from Tito Rodriguez Live at the Palladium, the second album, Returns to the Palladium. It’s titled “El Que Se Fue.” This is when Tito had his big band. It’s one of my favorite cuts of his band in action. Manny Oquendo is in the rhythm section playing bongos. Then we’ll hear something of the conjunto with the four trumpets.

[MUSIC: Tito Rodriguez, “El Que Se Fue”; “Chen Charengo Ma’]

ANDY: “Chen Charengo Ma” is a tune written by Giusti Barreto(?), at least he’s taking credit for it, but that’s an old folkloric thing going back to the different tribal things of Afro-Cuban… They had the religious music. Then they had the abakua, which is a sort of secret society, sort of related to the Masons, sort of a self-help group, but very secretive and very ceremonious, and they had their own style of music, which was quite different than the religious music that they call the santo music, the santero music. But that particular thing, they call it palo. That’s a sect of the Congolese tribe. Imagine how far that had come if you traced the development of it. That’s something that goes back… The palo is sort of the Congolese folkloric roots going back to the Congo. So imagine that came all the way up through Cuba, surviving all that way, and then Tito Rodriguez has made a mambo out of it. It got into popular dance music of the 50s. To this day, a lot of the traditions of the folklore, the roots, come back to us.

My roots in Latin music are those of growing up, listening to these records of Tito Rodriguez and of the Machito band and Puente. Those were the three big ones, the ones that made the greatest impact in Latin music in the 50s. They were the Young Turks. I guess we’re the Young Turks of this generation.

I just wanted to play the music that influenced me, music that I like, and that’s pretty much it. We’ll run the gamut, playing stuff from different records that I’ve brought and different tapes of live stuff. I guess that’s the way we’re going to pass the next hour and 45 minutes.

TP: You have Machito cued up next.

ANDY: I wouldn’t go on a radio program with music and leave out the Machito orchestra, which was one of the greatest organizations of any band that ever came out of New York City. It’s really a New York product, but it was Afro-Cuban in nature. All the innovations and everything they’ve done are so countless. This is the Machito band in 1953 or 1954, for the Seeco label, and the tune is “Mambo Sentimental.”

[MUSIC: Machito, “Mambo Sentimental”; “Que Bonito Puerto Rico”]

ANDY: That was “Que Bonito Puerto Rico,” “How Beautiful Is Puerto Rico.” I guess that’s one of the golden periods of the Machito Orchestra, because there were a few. Some people feel that the original Machito and his Afro-Cubans from the early 40s was THE band, and then other people feel that this period, which was 1953-54, was one of the great periods. I like it all. I don’t have any distinctions.

Talking about “Cabonitos Puerto Rico,” I’d like to get into it a bit. I’ve had the good fortune to be associated with and have recorded with quite a few great figures in Puerto Rican music also. I do love my Cuban music, but I will never put Cuban music over another music. I like all musics the same. But the music of the land of my origin…I wasn’t born there… I’m Puerto Rican. I love all the music of Puerto Rico also. So I’ve had the good fortune to record over the years with quite a few of the greats of Puerto Rican music, such as, say, Rafael Cortijo, who along with his singer, Ismail Rivera, were I guess the greatest exponents of the bomba and plena rhythms. Those were the Afro-Puerto Rican rhythms.

The plena specifically…they use the three panderetas, which is sort of like tambourines without the jingles (that’s what they look like anyway), tuned to different notes. The songs are usually about… Well, the plena was a device used at the turn of the century to be the sort of newspaper. They used to make up daily songs having to do with what was going on, either in politics or maybe the latest gossip, things like that.

I had the good fortune to record with a group… This record had just come out on the Shanachie label, and the group was called Los Pleneros De La 21. 21 is a bus stop in Santurce, Puerto Rico. That’s where a lot of great pleneros grew up and sort of plied their trade. So this is Puerto Rican folklore, and we’re going to hear a tune that’s called “Canta El Gallo.” Now, Gallo is a gentleman that is one of the singers of the group, and he just passed away recently, and at his funeral he insisted that they play bomba y plena, and all the pleneros all over the city came. They converged on a funeral home on 116th Street, and they played in front of his coffin. It was the most incredible thing. Your hair stood up. It was quite emotional and quite deep.

Anyway, this is El Gallo. I’m glad that the Center for Ethnic Folk Arts was able to sort of sponsor this recording for Shanachie Records of Los Pleneros de la 21.

[MUSIC: Los Pleneros, “Canta El Gallo”; Quarteto em Cy ; Gil Evans, “Manteca”]

[SIDE 3]

ANDY: I happen to like the way Gil Evans arranged that. What intrigued me the most was the way he set up the chords and the melody for the bridge, and he used that as the intro of the tune. That was beautifully done with the flutes and stuff; it’s one of my favorite moments of Gil Evans’ arranging.

TP: You took us on a long trip on that set.

ANDY: We were in Puerto Rico for a minute. We played Los Pleneros de la 21, the Pleneros of Stop 21, which is a bus stop in Puerto Rico. Then we went to Brazil, about the year 1975, a quartet of female singers called Quarteto em Cy. That group was very influential. They came up around the time of the bossa nova craze, but they always sang in these beautiful harmonies. What they did on this record, it’s an anthology of popular Brazilian music composers. They would do medleys of each of these composers’ tunes. This is a medley of a composer by the name of Antonio Maria, and they did three of his songs. The arrangement sounds like Gil Evans. That’s why I played it, because I wanted to play the Gil Evans cut after that, which was “Manteca”… But to show you that the Brazilians are doing some fantastic things with harmony. They always had a thing for melody and harmony that was quite distinctive and quite different, and it’s always been a favorite music of mine. If you can find that record, snatch it. It’s Antologia de Musica Popular de Brasil.

Before that we heard Peruchin, whose real name is Pedro Justiz. He was the piano player with quite a few big bands in the 40s and 50s. In the 50s he was primarily featured as a solo pianist and as a piano player with a band called Orquestra Riverside. This was a 10″ album that’s very difficult to find, and this was his first solo recording session, just piano and rhythm…

TP: You mentioned, Andy, that this was from 1949, which I couldn’t help but think was the same year that Bud Powell recorded “Un Poco Loco.”

ANDY: Peruchin was one of the greats, one of the true great stylists in Cuban music. He had his antennae out. He was listening to everybody. Especially the older pianists like Art Tatum. You can hear where he was influenced by American jazz pianists.

TP: He does “Over The Rainbow” on the other side of that 10″ album.

ANDY: It would be interesting to compare that with Bud Powell’s or someone’s.

Before we heard Los Munequitos de Matanzas, which at the time when they recorded it were known as Guaguanco Matancero. One of their tunes that they had recorded earlier was a big hit. It was about comic book characters. So they adapted that name and they call themselves Los Munequitos, which means the “cartoon characters.” But this is one of the great… Matanzas is a very rich, fertile area of Cuba for music and culture. Their percussionists are just superb. It’s something extraordinary and quite different than other regions of Cuba. So that was “Guaguanco Matancero.”

TP: Now we’ll shift gears again, and listen to a recent live recording that Andy participated in.

ANDY: I did a duo piano and bass gig with Larry Willis, at the Terrace at the Village Gate, a street-level bar. It’s a nice little gig. We played just jazz standards and stuff like that. We had the good fortune of having Steve Berrios, who plays traps and percussion with the Fort Apache Band. He brought his trapset down and sat in with us. This is a tune that I happened to record, and I was quite surprised at the fidelity.

[MUSIC: Andy-Willis-Steve, “All Of You”]

ANDY: That was the Larry Willis…I guess trio. We were doing a duo, and we had the pleasure of having Steve Berrios sit in with us on traps. (Jan. 1990) That was a nice gig to do. It was a lot of fun to just do bass and piano. It was quite challenging, because you’re just left up to your own wits, and there’s no other rhythm, so you have to provide the rhythm. It worked out pretty well.

TP: Larry Willis has been doing most of the piano playing lately with Fort Apache.

ANDY: Yeah, for the last two years, almost three. The pianist before that was Kenny Kirkland. We’ve been recording with him lately for his first album under his own name. I guess you’ll be seeing that sometime in the future.

I wanted to get back to Libre, which is the band I most often work with. We’re going to be doing quite a bit of stuff coming up in the future. On our agenda is a new recording session. We’ll be doing some traveling; we’re going to California this summer, and the Atlanta Jazz Festival. Hopefully we’ll get to Europe again soon. We haven’t been there in about a year. I want to play another cut from one of our European adventures. This is from the Holland concert also. I think this is “Yevala(?) Pa Rincon”

[MUSIC: Conjunto Libre, “..(?).. Pa Rincon” – Steve Turre, trombone]

ANDY: That was Libre, a very good indication of what we do sound like and the power that we put out when we play. In 99% of salsa in New York today you won’t hear that kind of playing. You won’t hear that kind of power and that kind of swing. It’s a shame that people are asleep on that. Because this was done 18 months or two years ago, and if anything we’ve gotten even stronger. I think the little message to all the people out there listening is if you want bands to… You have to support the bands that you like and that you want to see around so that they keep working. Some of the Latin clubs are tied up. They have these little cliques where they only use certain bands. But the public is really the final arbiter of who they want to hear. So I would put to te public that whenever they hear… If you’re big fans of ours, come out. Come out to our gigs. When you hear announcements that we’re playing places…

Let me clue you in where we’re working this weekend. Manny Oquendo’s Libre is performing Friday at the Tapestry, which is in the Bronx on Westchester Avenue, very near the Parkchester housing complex. It’s easy to get to — the #6 train that goes up Westchester Avenue. Also on Saturday we’re going to be performing at the Circle Theater, which is the newest club in the Bronx. It used to be an old movie house, and they tore out the insides and rebuilt it into a supper club, a very nice supper club where you’d be proud to take your old lady out to dinner and dancing and stuff like that.

This is something that I haven’t heard. I’ve been recording a lot with Kip Hanrahan. He’s the guy who started a record company, and his first release was Jerry’s record, Ya Yo Me Cure. Since then he’s been involved in quite a few… He’s turned into a sort of producer-composer. He came up with a concept based on the world music concept, putting elements together that most people would not have thought of, like, say, a Haitian guitarist, a Latin bass player, a jazz vocalist, and things like that. I did a couple of European tours with Kip, and lately we’re doing quite a bit of recording. I just did a trio recording with John Tchicai, a name from the free jazz past, and Smitty Smith on drums and myself on acoustic bass. That was quite interesting.

We’ll hear something that I’ll be hearing for the first time, a recording I did with Kip’s band – a Duke Ellington composition, “Love Is Like A Cigarette,” with Carmen Lundy doing the vocal. But she doesn’t do the vocal with the band; she does it apart from the band, which is an interesting concept.

[MUSIC: Kip Hanrahan-Carmen Lundy, “Love Is Like A Cigarette”; Astor Piazzolla, “Knife Fight”; [END OF SIDE 3]; Astor Piazzolla, “Leonora’s Song”]

ANDY: Those were tangos by Astor Piazzolla, who is probably the foremost composer of tangos. He was sort of the rebel of Tango, the guy who took Tango specifically away from a certain sensibility that the Argentinians had, and he modernized it, added a different kind of sensibility to the music. Although there’s no improvisation in his music. It’s all written out. Every single note is accounted for. There’s nothing improvised on it. But it was one of the highlights of my career to get to record this record with him. I had never recorded Tango in my life. But I had been aware of Astor Piazzolla, and I had been listening. So when Kip called me to play bass on the session, I was scared, but I was happy to do it. And I was VERY happy that Astor liked my playing. For a Nuyorican bass player… I guess it has to do with all the influences, all the music I’ve gotten to hear here, based in New York, which everything comes here — this is the capital of the world.

TP: I won’t challenge you on that. Kip is also a son of the Bronx as well, so he’d be aware of some of the same things. The album is called The Rough Dancer in the Cyclical Night. It’s on American Clave Records. We heard “Leonard’s Song” and “Knife Fight,” which followed Carmen Lundy’s a cappella “Love Is Like A Cigarette.”

ANDY: Tango came out of the bordellos of Buenos Aires, of Argentina. It’s not supposed to be a very sedate music; it’s kind of a rough music. The best of Afro-Cuban music and the best of jazz was very close to that same element, the element of the nightlife, the bordello life, the pimps, the booze, the drugs — that was all part of it.

TP: It has that edge.

ANDY: Yes. There’s a certain “live life quick” because you don’t know if you’ll drop the next day — that kind of situation. But I was quite happy to get to record this kind of music, which I never thought I’d do.

TP: I think you have cued up, though I’m not sure, is music by Cachao.

ANDY: Not quite. This is Orquesta Aragon from Cuba. This was a live radio broadcast from the late 70s. This tune is called “Sin Clave Y Bongo, No Hay Son” – it means, “without the claves and bongos, there is no Son.” That’s Aragon’s tribute to the son, and the lyrics of the son talks about how it’s been such a strong rhythm and a dance rhythm, and it’s been around for quite a while, and it will never die because it’s such a strong tradition. It’s part of my background, too, and it’s music that I love. I love to play it, love to dance it, love to hear it.

[MUSIC: Orquesta Aragaon, “Sin Clave y Bongo No Hay Son”]

That was Orquesta Aragon, with Richard Egues on the flute and Orestes Varona, who was one of Manny Oquendo’s influences, playing bongos, which was a rarity because he’s a timbal player, and he was one of the greats. He passed away a bunch of years ago. Now Orquesta Aragon has a lot of new members in the band, and it’s not the same any more. Nothing stays the same, but we were fortunate enough that this band broadcast a lot and they recorded a lot. So the great era of Orquesta Aragon is preserved for all time.

TP: right now we’ll hear some of the most recent results of Andy’s long years of study, a track from each of two albums that have been put out by Fort Apache Band, as well as a promotional piece for Mayor David Dinkins.

ANDY: Dennis Rivera, the President of Local 1199, the Hospital Workers Union, hired us to produce a jingle, a Latin music jingle for the Dinkins campaign. So we came up with a little cute ditty. I wrote the melody. Manny Oquendo, as most of the time, comes up with the perfect idea, and then we built a song around it and an arrangement with Papo Vazquez. This is the Dinkins Jingle.

[MUSIC: Dinkins Jingle; Fort Apache, “Nutty”]

That was “Nutty” by Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band. That concept for “Nutty,” when we were rehearsing the material for the album, I was the one who came up with the concept of playing it as a son montuno, because that’s a favorite rhythm that I like, and it seemed to blend well with the melody of “Nutty.” So that’s how we did that.

TP: It’s from a recording titled Rumba Para Monk, which is a studio date comprising all arrangements of Monk tunes. [ETC.]

ANDY: I was quite a frequent visitor to this station and other stations, too. But as time went on, I was just too busy to be here. Hopefully I won’t make myself so scarce in the future.

[MUSIC: “Jackie-Ing”–Enja, Obatala, 1988]March 13, 1991 (on Cachao):

[MUSIC: Descarga, “Criolla Carabali”; “Tunas Se Quemo”; “Bailando Entre Espuma”]

TP: You’ve done this before. You know the deal.

ANDY: I know the deal. I was up here last time for the Machito Festival with Manny Oquendo, and we did a pretty good show. Here, my partner in crime is Joe Santiago, who is another one of the bass players of my generation. We’re the ones who always… I guess we’re always giving credit where credit is due, and the cat that we picked up a lot from and learned a lot from, not so much by, say, going to his house for lessons or anything, just by listening to what he was playing… We really learned a lot from Cachao. To this day, there’s things to learn from listening to the kind of bass playing that he was doing, no matter what period, because he has such an extensive career, going back to the late 1930s. It’s an incredible body of music that he put together, and he sort of defined bass playing. Afro-Cuban bass playing was brought to a high art.

TP: It wasn’t just Afro-Cuban bass playing. Cachao is a world-class improviser.

ANDY: Oh, of course. Not only that. See, he comes from a family of musicians, and many of them were bass players. I heard there’s, at recent count, 40 bass players in his family, including his mother and father. So we’re talking about somebody that really knows the instrument. Not only that. When Cachao was young and just growing up, he was playing percussion instruments, too. He started out playing bongos. But naturally, he was playing the bass around the same time period, and bass playing in Cuba at that time was mostly in the danzon bands, the charanga bands, the tipica bands of the period. That was sort of the national dance music of Cuba, was the danzon. He has a rich tradition in that idiom, and it calls for a lot of classical style playing, such as bowing the bass instead of, say, plucking it. The plucking part was more percussive. That’s more the Afro-Cuban side of things. But the bowing of the instrument, as in any symphony, or any classical situation… He has the same kind of technique as the best of classical music.

So I guess Cachao to me is probably the most well-rounded, all-around bass player that I’ve ever heard. Because he can do all. He can play with a symphony, he can play with a tango band, he can play with any salsa ensemble, any Afro-Cuban ensemble. His knowledge of rhythm is so extensive, and he can just fit a part to something, either drum-wise or bass-wise.

TP: Another aspect of Cachao we’ll focus on is his compositions, which number in the hundreds.

ANDY: Yes, because he used to write a lot of danzones for the Arcaño band. That’s the band he used to work for — Arcaño Y Sus Maravillas. Jose Antonio Arcaño. He was a master flute player. And the leader of this band, Y Sus Maravillas, were the “marvels” of the age. At the beginning, they were called Los Maravillas, or de Las Maravillas del Siglo, which means “the marvels of the century.” This band really… In that band a lot of innovations took place. The creation of new forms of dance music, and new ways of playing it, and new combinations of rhythms and combinations of sounds in the rhythm section, including… You can hear Cachao bow the bass, slap the bass, play all over the instrument. It’s incredible; incredible to listen to this.

This is a whole part of the history of music, and I am surprised that jazz scholars who really studied the 30s and 40s and have a lot to say about the 30s and 40s, or even, say, the early New Orleans days…that they are not really hip to what was going on in Cuba. They mention it barely. It’s mentioned, like, “Yeah, this was going on, too.” But they really didn’t dig deep into that side of the African diaspora, or whatever you could call it, the African side of things. And they should have been more attentive to this.

TP: Certainly, musicians from Cuba and from the Caribbean made their mark on jazz music, but they were not particularly identified as that – they were identified as jazz.

ANDY: It’s also some cultural conditioning involved. Because I imagine for any jazz fan of that time to hear a danzon with the violins and whatnot, it would sound a little like hokey to them. It would sound like something else. But they were missing the point. And the point is the rhythm. And that’s the total point. To this day, still jazz cats have trouble getting behind the rhythm and how Afro-Cuban music works. But this is the master, one of the masters of any era.

TP: We’ll be having 2 hours and 43 more minutes of elaborations on this theme, with Andy Gonzalez on Cachao. Let’s talk about the three tracks we heard at the top of the show.

ANDY: This album is one of these strange records that came out in the early 60s, after the Revolution, of tapes of Cachao’s jam sessions, which he had done quite a few recording sessions. The personnel on some of these tracks, like, Yeyo Iglesias on bongos, Tata Güines. Papin also played on some of this stuff. The pianist wasn’t Jesus Lopez, who used to play with Arcaño’s band, so it probably was Orestes Lopez, Cachao’s brother, who along with Cachao were the musical directors and were responsible for the majority of arrangements in the Arcaño band. In the Arcaño band, Orestes played the cello. The instrumentation is 3 violins, flute, cello, bass, piano, and timbales — no congas at the beginning. The bass sort of held up the bottom and with the timbal and made it sound full, like the conga wasn’t really needed. He would slap the bass sort of like a conga, too. All those things are incredible.

I’ve been for more than a year now trying to hook up a way to get Cachao in concert together with Milt Hinton. We’re talking about some serious slap bass technique in jazz — in American Jazz and in Afro-Cuban music. Now, one of these days I’ll have my dream come true. But I’ve been waiting for that. I’ve been mentioning it to promoters, and they all say it’s a great idea, but so far nobody has acted on it. But that’s one of them I want to try to do.

The tunes on this album… It’s on the Maype label. It’s funny, Cachao… I’m glad that these records exist. But the companies that put these out were like bootleg companies. They used to rip off the musicians, and never pay them a penny for their stuff. So as much as I like the presence of having the record around, it’s a drag that Cachao never really makes any bread off these records. And they’ve been in print for 25 years, so it must be somebody’s making money.

Anyway, the tunes that we heard are “Criollo Carabali.” That’s an old Afro-Cuban chant of the abakua sect, or what would you call it… That’s sort of the Afro-Cuban version of the Masons. It’s an all-male society dedicated to preserving and sort of keeping each other cool. In fact, in the early years, they used to buy each other’s freedom from slavery. So that’s a chant of that style of music, abakua.

“Tunas Se Quemo” is sort of a descarga montuno, very simple. The tres player on this record is Niño Rivera, who is probably the most modern of the tres players and the most influential, besides Arsenio Rodriguez, who is probably THE influence on the tres. All these names I’m mentioning are just giants. Giants in Cuban music. Cachao was in there, too, as the giant of giants.

TP: We have cued up a collaboration between Cachao and Eddie Palmieri.

ANDY: This is not my favorite tune from the record, but Cachao gets a little solo in it, and I like the way he plays here. He’s a driving force in any band he plays in, but the collaboration with Eddie Palmieri was… I got to see that band live, in person, quite a few times, and I was thrilled by that. Joe, when was the first time you saw Cachao play live.

JOE SANTIAGO: Tito Rodriguez Orchestra.

ANDY: Same with me. I saw him with Tito Rodriguez Orchestra. I saw Tito Rodriguez’ Orchestra at the Embassy Ballroom on a Sunday afternoon in 1964. I was playing my first big-time gig. It was Federico Pagani, he was like the daddy of promoters in… He brought the Latin dance downtown to the Palladium and all this stuff. He’s like a legendary figure. Well, he was throwing these Sunday afternoon, all day,10 bands on the bill, and he hired our little Latin Jazz group. I was about 13 at the time. We were the tenth band on the bill. So we played, a little quintet, we made 50 bucks. But at the top of the bill was the Tito Rodriguez Orchestra, Eddie Palmieri La Perfecta, Joe Cuba Sextet — the hot bands at the moment. So I got to see them for the first time. I saw Cachao play for the first time. I saw Manny Oquendo playing with Eddie Palmieri’s band for the first time. All that was great. The Colgate Gardens in the Bronx. Neither one of these two places I mentioned exists any more.

Anyway, this is the Eddie Palmieri band with Cachao. This was recorded around 1968 or 1969 – “Ay Que Rico.”

[MUSIC: Eddie Palmieri, “Ay Que Rico”; Orquesta De Fajardo, “Fajardo y su Flauta”]

ANDY: That was actually Los Treyas Cubanas, but it’s a tape that ended up in Miami and came out under the title of Fajardo, who was the leader of that band until he left to come to the States. So that tape actually isn’t Fajardo at all playing there, but the tune and composition and everything is Cachao’s. The title on the album is Fajardo Y Su Flauta, but the original title is “Julio Y Su Flauta” — Julio Guerrero, who was the original flute player who played in the Estrella Cubana band. But that’s a really nice, laid-back version of that. There’s another version that Cachao himself recorded of this tune that’s a little faster. But this one, they gave it a nice tempo.

We’re going to hear now a long, 18-minute cut. It takes a whole side of a record. It’s from the Descargas at the Village Gate, Live — the Tico All-Stars. This particular descarga is “Descarga de Contrabajoas,” the jam between the bass players. And the two daddies are here — Bobby Rodriguez and Cachao.

Now, Bobby Rodriguez was a whole other style. I think Bobby and Cachao were probably the two main influences on my playing (and probably Joe’s, too, I guess). They were the cats, man. They were the ones with the best technique, the prettiest way of playing. Bobby was very pretty in his sound especially. There’s a very pronounced difference in their tone quality. Even the way they hit the strings is different. Bobby has more of a bell, clear, ringing kind of note thing, and Cachao is funkier, a little more street when it comes to plucking the strings and slapping the bass and whatnot. They’re playing two Ampeg Baby Basses here. Tone-wise, they still get their tone out, but sometimes the sound can be a little strange. But they do some great stuff here, and they just talk to each other back and forth.

TP: The liner notes attribute this to May 1966.

[MUSIC: Cachao-Bobby Rodriguez, “Descarga de Contrabajos”; “El Fantasma Del Combo”]

ANDY: Israel Lopez, Cachao, the great bass player of Afro-Cuban music. The track we just heard was one of his many descarga, or Cuban jam session recordings. This one is on a strange label called Musicalia. Even the cover is real strange. It says, Cuban Music In Jam Session, Cachao, in big letters, and then there’s a photograph of two dancers, a lady who has on a bikini-like outfit, her arms look like they’re crossed or tied together, and then the guy is leaning down, and it’s shot in the woods somewhere — a very strange photo. Anyway, it’s a great album for the things that are on it.

The tune we heard was called “El Fantasma Del Combo.” All those little effects and all the…that’s right out of Cachao’s ideas about doing things. I was fortunate enough to participate in something that he did years later for the Salsoul label. I’ve been to a few rehearsals where he puts these things together, and he just comes up with these crazy ideas. He sets up the percussion and everything the way he wants them to start off. He orchestrates a jam session.

Which is in contrast to that mish-mosh of a thing at the Village Gate, which I don’t care for that much except for the things that Cachao and Bobby Rodriguez get to play on it. But since it was out of their control, a lot of other things were happening that really had nothing to do with… Just good playing. But I just think that track is valuable for their work together, because it’s very rare when two bass players play together on a record — it’s usually just one bass and that’s it.

Now we’re going to start delving into Cachao’s past, in the real early days. We’ve mostly been listening to 50s and 60s work. We’re going back now to 1938 or 1939, I believe. The original source of this bass solo is a Koussevitzky concerto, Koussevitzky was a Russian composer and a bass player, and he used to write for the bass. They took this piece of music and adapted it for a bass solo in the Cuban danzon tradition. We’re going to hear two versions of this. Cachao recorded it in 1938 and then recorded it again in 1957 or so. We’re going to hear the early version, and then you’ll hear the newer version.

[MUSIC: Cachao, “Canta Contrabajo” (1938 and 1957)]

ANDY: I made a slight error. The first tune that we heard on my tape of real early stuff, I believe it was called “Al de Lante(?),” Cachao as musical director along with his brother of the Arcaño Y Sus Maravillas band of 1938 or so. I’m not positive of the exact date. We’ll now delve into that particular time period, because there are so many innovations going on, not only on the bass itself, but the transforming of the whole rhythm section happened in that band — and Cachao had quite a bit to do with it. In this time period, there was no conga drum in this style of band. The conga drum was sort of a lowly… They weren’t given much attention. They considered it a very street instrument, and it wasn’t accepted in the salon de baile, in polite society dancing, of which danzon was a strong part. But in the Arcaño band, the conga was introduced around 1946-47-48, that time period.

We’ll hear the band before the conga drum was introduced, from the very early Arcaño recordings. These are all done around 1938-39-40. There is no conga drum, so the bottom of the band is in the hands of Cachao, and in the hands of Ulpiano Diaz, who was the timbal player in the band. Listen particularly to the interplay between Cachao playing what they call the tumbao, the bass figure, plus he’ll be slapping the bass. You’ll hear slaps. You’ll hear little things that sound like percussive effects, like from a conga drum, but they’re not. They’re from the bass. That in conjunction with the left hand of the timbales, which plays a beat that’s a very bass kind of sound…those two things are the bottom of the sound of this band. And it’s 3 violins, a cello, flute — the great Arcaño himself on the flute, a tremendous flute player, with a very distinctive, sweet style. And the great Jesus Lopez on piano, who was one of the more, I guess…how would I call it…the chops — Mr. Chops. This guy was sort of the Art Tatum of his day, but in an Afro-Cuban way.

[MUSIC: Arcano Y Sus Maravillas with Cachao, 1938-39]

ANDY: That was a good dose of early Arcaño and then the last tune was “Buena Vista Social Club,” which is from the El Gran Cachao album on Kubaney Records (1958). This is I guess what the Arcaño band would have been like 20 years later, from the period that we were listening to the old 78s. For the recording, Cachao some woodwinds. You heard bass clarinet, you hear a clarinet; it added an extra texture to the sound of the arrangements of the danzon, of the strings and flute sound. So that was a pretty nice thing that he did on that record.

Now, the earlier cuts… I know all the melodies, and I’m a little vague on the titles. I wish Rene Lopez was here to help me out with the titles on some of these songs. But they were all Cachao’s arrangements. Although on the 78, I guess if you really listen closely, you can hear all the things Cachao is doing on the bass to make that bottom happen in the music, because there’s no conga…


[SIDE 3]

ANDY: …that’s where all his musical background really comes from. And then, the other side of Cachao, which is the street musician, who used to play bongos in little street ensembles and whatnot.

We’re going to hear a very historical recording, mainly because of the fact that we have… This is the record entitled Patato y Totico. It was recorded on Verve Records, and Teddy Reig produced it. Patato Valdes is well known to jazz fans. He’s been recording on jazz albums with Art Blakey and Max Roach and all these people since the middle 50s. But he got together his own recording session with Totico singing, and he managed to get Arsenio Rodriguez and Cachao on the same session.

[MUSIC: Patato-Totico-Cachao-Arsenio, “Mas Que Nada”; Descarga, “Rendencion”; Gran Orquesta Tipica, “Mambo Tipico”; Cachao, “Maria Elena”; Eddie Palmieri-Cachao, “Busca Lo Tuyo”–skips]

ANDY: Sorry for the scratchy record, but I couldn’t get a better copy of this. That was Cachao playing with Eddie Palmieri in one of Eddie’s best bands. Manny Oquendo playing bongos, and Luis Miranda on conga, and Barry Rogers taking a tremendous trombone solo…

TP: I guess you play that one a lot, Andy.

ANDY: Yes, this particular copy of the record I found in a budget bin somewhere, and it was used. I didn’t think it would skip on the tune, though. I couldn’t find my other copy. It’s one of those records that I used to play a lot, and my good copy got lost. But you could hear the driving force of Cachao in the Eddie Palmieri band. It was just such a good-sounding rhythm section — Cachao and Manny and Luis Miranda and Eddie on the piano. A driving rhythm section.

Cachao during his career… When he came from Cuba and settled in New York, he worked with quite a few bands. He did a lot of freelance work, did some symphony work. He did spend a good I guess two years or so with the Tito Rodriguez Orchestra, and recorded a few albums, did some touring. They tell me he wrote some charts for the band that they never recorded, which I would have liked to hear. In particular he wrote a danzon that I’d like to have heard, a big band arrangement of one of Cachao’s danzons. But I’ll have to wait until Tito Rodriguez, Jr., digs it up out of his father’s extensive library of arrangements.

During the time that Tito Rodriguez had Cachao in the band, which was a tremendous period for the band… The Tito Rodriguez Orchestra was always a top-notch unit. Other players around that time… He always had the best — the best accompanists in that band. So imagine that Cachao would be playing, and then he managed to steal Rene Hernandez away from the Machito Orchestra, and quite a few other players of note. Like, Mario Rivera used to play the baritone sax in Tito Rodriguez’s orchestra at the time. Also the lead alto was Bobby Porcelli. Just some great musicians.

TP: Before we play the next recording, by Tito Rodriguez, please run down the music we heard before the Eddie Palmieri track.

ANDY: Before the Eddie Palmieri thing, we heard a tune called “Maria Elana,” which Cachao wrote for his daughter on her birthday. That was recorded when Cachao was a member of the Fajardo Orchestra, which he spent some time with Jose Fajardo’s Orchestra. You can see him on the cover of some of the Panart albums.

Before that we heard the Gran Orquesta Tipica, “Mambo Tipico.” This was an album entitled The 64 Professors. What they did was they put together all the great violinists and flute
players and leaders of all the charanga bands in Cuba that were coming up during the 50s. They were very strong. They were the most popular bands. We’re talking about the America Orchestra, Enrique Jorrin, just the great figures of the music. And Cachao, his brother Jesus Lopez on piano; Ulpiano Diaz on timbales — people like that. They just all banded together to record a record of… Imagine. Full strings. It almost sounds like a symphony playing danzones. This tune was titled “Mambo Tipico.” That’s what it was. It wasn’t a danzon; it was a mambo of the genre at that time. It wasn’t the New York style mambo, which is quite a bit more frenetic and a lot faster. But the original Cuban mambo was a nice, slow-to-medium tempo kind of groove. That was a good example of it.

Before that we heard one of the Descarga albums, a tune called “Redencion,” which was written by Orestes Lopez, Cachao’s brother.

Now we’re going to play something Tito Rodriguez recorded, from a CD called Big Band Latino. I’m curious to hear this because I owned the original record when it came out on Musicorp Records, and I’m curious how they remastered it. The people at the Palladium label from Barcelona, Spain, are very meticulous. They put out some Machito records, and the sound is tremendous on them. The track we’ll hear is “Esti Es Mi Orquesta,” “This Is My Orchestra,” which was a direct cop off a Stan Kenton record by the same name — This is An Orchestra. Tito Rodriguez narrates a whole thing about having a band, and the musicians in the band — he names all the musicians and has them all play something. The arrangement itself is… Well, they adapted just the words Stan Kenton said about having a big band, and they translated that into Spanish, but then the rest of the arrangement is an original arrangement. Cachao gets a nice little taste here, and so do all the other members, some of whom are quite prominent today on the scene. This cut lasts a good 12 minutes.

[Tito Rodriguez, “Esti Es Mi Orquesta”]

ANDY: That was the Tito Rodriguez Orchestra with Cachao on the bass and all the other great musicians in that band at the time period — that was around 1964 or 1965. Tito Rodriguez gave up his big band around 1965 and moved to Puerto Rico.

And Cachao? Well, Cachao always was in demand as a player. He could fit in any situation, and got to play with all the bands really. I saw Cachao play with Machito’s orchestra. That was tremendous! I saw him play with Orchestra Broadway, most of the bands. But I guess the bands that he most impressed me with from what I saw in person was the Tito Rodriguez Orchestra, which you just heard, and the Eddie Palmieri band. To me, those were where he really got a chance to shine as a section player, as part of the rhythm section.

We’re missing quite a few records that I wish we would have had a chance to play tonight. I guess we’re going to have to do Cachao, part 2, and bring in all the stuff that we’ve been missing. There’s a bunch of live tapes also of Cachao with Manny Oquendo and Libre, with two basses. I had the honor of playing along with Cachao last year, doing the two-bass thing at SOB’s, at the Village Gate, and most recently at the Atlanta Jazz Festival. Unfortunately, I misplaced my tape from Atlanta. I was tearing the house apart looking for it to bring it here so you could hear it. But I’ll have to wait until Cachao, part 2, to play it.

Also, the records Cachao recorded in the middle 70s for the Salsoul label, which he got to play some of his early danzon arrangements, newly recorded in the studio, and he also got to do new descargas, and he brought together people like El Negro Vivar on trumpet… Those were his last record dates before El Negro passed away of a heart attack in Miami. He was one of the great trumpet soloists of Cuban music. Chocolate is on the recording also, the other daddy of the trumpet. Papaito is playing there, and Virgilio Marti — quite a few of the Cuban Mafia in New York played on those records. Unfortunately, right now, they’re not here. But we’ll get to hear them on another occasion.

But that was the first that people had heard about Cachao in quite a few years. Especially the New York scene, of which he was quite popular here. He got to play on some of the Allegre All Stars things, the Tico All Stars. He took part in quite a few recordings with Charlie Palmieri, and quite a number of sideman dates. So his work as a leader didn’t revive until around 77-78, when he recorded the albums for Salsoul under Andy Lopez’ and Andy Kaufman’s production. We’ll get to hear those on I guess our second part. Cachao is so prolific a composer and a musician and a record-maker, although as a leader there are not many recordings.

Also, there’s a few that he recorded recently, in the last couple of years, for a small label in Miami. I think the label is entitled Tania Records…as opposed to Fania records, I guess…I don’t know. But there’s some great, great contemporary Cachao bass solos on those records also. Unfortunately, again, they’re not here.

But we do have quite a bit of Cachao’s early career and we do have quite a bit of his middle career, which… A lot of people consider that some of his best work took place in the middle to late 50s in Cuba with his cohorts and contemporaries, such as Emilio Rivera. Tata Guines, the great conga virtuoso who took the conga farther than it ever had gone as a musical instrument in the 50s — he’s a very strong influence on just anybody who’s playing congas today. He was quite a part of Cachao’s entourage in Cuba during the time when they were recording those Cuban Jam Session records.

We’re going to return to the Cuba Jam Session period now and hear a town called “La Luz.”

[MUSIC: “La Luz”]


[MUSIC: “La Luz” (skip)”; “El Manicero”; “Juan Pescao”; “La Luz”; Cachao Descarga-Nino Rivera, “Potpourri de Congas”;

ANDY: That was the great Niño Rivera on tres with Cachao and his Descarga group. On bongos of course was Yeyito, and on the congas was Tata Guines, on the timbales was Guillermo Barretto, and I imagine that was Cachao’s brother playing the piano. Those are classic recordings, and they are more obscure ones, because the great album that everybody knows is the Descargas In Miniature album, which we don’t have a copy of here, but we’ll get it for part-2.

All these records were originally recorded… The first Descargas in Miniature were done… The reason they called them “In Miniature” is because they were all done for release on 45s, of which I have a few. As a matter of fact, I didn’t realize it until I started hunting through some record bins in Chicago and ran across some Panart 45s of some of the tunes from the first Descarga album. That one to me is the classic of classics. If they ever have Grammys for classic albunms, that should win one, because Cachao really put together a stellar organization, and his ideas and the way he puts little jams together, he really sets them up. They don’t just happen. He sets them up real nice.

Basically, the two great recording feats of Cachao’s career are the whole thing with the danzon and the tradition, and how he sort of was instrumental in new innovations in Cuban music. And then, the whole thing with the descargas, of which I hear that he wasn’t the very first to do a Cuban jam session — there were other albums. But the ones he put together are considered…they’re classics of the genre.

We just heard quite a few of these little Cuban descargas. There was one called “Potpourri of Congas,” which started to skip so we had to take it off. These are old records, man. Some of them I’ve played to death for years and years, and unfortunately as best as we can clean them, they still skip.

TP: We made an adjustment on “La Luz.” Meticulous cleaning job!

ANDY: I’ve been collecting records for so many years, you learn that sometimes you have to put some soap and water to it and scrub out the gunk. And they play! You’d be surprised. Vinyl is very resilient. They spring back to life.

Anyway, we’ll get back to some early Cachao. We’d like to continue this on another occasion and have Cachao Part 2 with more of his great solo work. Unfortunately we weren’t able to bring some of that material with us today. But we’re trying to give you an all-around view of how great a musician he is. Hopefully, to those who have never seen him play in public, make a definite attempt to see him in person. He is one of the most dynamic figures to watch while playing, because he does so many things. He’s an entertainer. He knows you’re watching. He’ll do some stuff to dazzle you. Watching him play whatever he’s playing, his tumbaos or whatever, and then all of a sudden he’ll just surprise you with something and make you go nuts.

We’ll hear some of Cachao’s arrangements from the Arcaño band. He’s playing bass, of course. He doesn’t get much of a chance to do any solo work on these records. But, what he does do in the rhythm section, behind the rhythm section, as an accompanist and as just an all-around player, there’s quite a bit of very interesting stuff going on. All bass players give an extra ear to this.

[MUSIC: Cachao-Arcaño, “El Nono Toca” and more titles from early 40s]

ANDY: That was the music of Arcaño Y Sus Maravillas, and that last track was called “Cubanita,” and that was Los Hermanos Rigual that were singing the front part of the tune. They were pretty well known as a trio singing in harmony. They did some work with the Machito Orchestra, particularly with Graciela on “Contigo En la Distancia.”

That’s it. We’re wrapping it up. We haven’t really, except for a couple of instances, shown Cachao in the light of being the great soloist that he is, and that’s what I think the 2nd part of our Cachao special should focus on.December 1, 1993:

[MUSIC: Libre, “Imágenes Latinas”]

TP: Tonight we’ll focus primarily on a kind of autobiography via recordings spanning 20-25 years. What was that selection?

ANDY: First, good evening, Ted. It’s a pleasure to be back here at WKCR. I have a tendency to come up and publicize my heroes. When you asked me if I want to do a show on me… I’m not one to blow my own horn on the radio. It’s not my style. But I figured that it’s time to do a show on my greatest adventures in music, which there have been quite a few over the last 25-odd years that I’ve been playing in the business.

The tune we opened with was an original, a poem by Bernardo Palombo that I put music to, and we recorded it on our second album, Manny Oquendo and Libre on Salsoul Records. They went out of business, and those records are hard to find. They haven’t come out on CD yet. Hopefully they will. This was something that we’re very well known for, which is our descarga jam kind of situations. This was pretty much an invention in the studio. We had an outline, a basic format as to how we wanted to play. That was the late, great Barry Rogers at the beginning of the tune. To me, that’s one of his nicest statements on record, that whole beginning of the tune. He really plays it. I asked him to do something specific for me, and that was to imitate a vocal. Like, guaguanco, the beginning of a vocal is what they call the diana, when a singer goes, a-nah-nah, a-nah-nah, a-nah-nah, sort of to establish the key and to establish the mood of the song. So I had Barry do that on the trombone. He did a great job. It’s like the first Latin Jazz instrumental diana for a guaguanco. It’s really great.

I thought I’d bring up different things I’ve recorded over the years with Manny Oquendo and Libre; with Palmieri – the two Palmieris, the Palmieri brothers; with Tito Rodriguez; Machito; Puente; and the latest Latin Jazz things that are going on today with Fort Apache with my brother; and Charlie Sepulveda and Hilton Ruiz; and also older stuff — stuff when I was working 20-something-odd years ago with Ray Barretto’s band and Eddie Palmieri’s band. Things like that, and occasional jazz things here and there.

TP: The first thing you’ve cued up comes from 1975-76, when you seem to have been quite busy in different bands, a time when a lot of fresh ideas were being formulated.

ANDY: Well, that time was the beginning of Libre. We had started working as a steady band on the circuit here in New York, and we had gone on some trips already — to Africa and Brazil. Now, this particular recording we’re going to hear is from that period, but it was with a friend of mine by the name of Bobby Paunetto. He’s a Bronx-raised musician, pianist, vibist. I knew him from… He went to Berklee, graduated out of Berklee School of Music, and came back with a lot of fantastic music. But I’ve always known him to play more or less the same kind of style musically; he’s always adhered to that style, even though it’s progressed harmonically and he’s a great composer. Unfortunately, he’s been kind of bedridden…not bed-ridden so much, but apartment-ridden – he’s been in his apartment quite a bit. He’s come down with multiple sclerosis, and it’s kept him from really developing his career as a player. But before came down with this illness, he recorded these two records with a lot of friends and help from family. They’re great records, and I think that eventually they’re going to be re-released on CD. This is called “Brother Will.” He wrote this in memory of his brother, who was mugged and murdered during this time period. This was his putting into music what he felt about the situation. It’s Pathfinder Records. The players are people like Todd Anderson, Billy Drewes, Ronnie Cuber is on some of this, Manny Oquendo plays on some of it, and Jerry, myself, Milton Cardona. When we were all up-and-coming, struggling young musicians in the Bronx, Bobby was one of us, and he sort of took his particular sound and concept to another level by going to school and really learning his trade, his art. When he got out of school, this is what he came up with.

[MUSIC: Bobby Paunetto, “Brother Will” (1975); Ray Barretto, “Tin Tin Deo” (1969); Eddie Palmieri, “Adoracion” (1973)]

ANDY: The thing about “Adoracion,” which was from an album called Sentido, is that the beginning part was totally improvised. What I came up with was to play harmonics on the strings with my bow. For years after that, people were asking me, “What is that sound?” This was before synthesizers were being used on recordings and stuff like that. So it’s an unearthly kind of sound, and a lot of people were freaked by it — they didn’t know what it was. But it was me playing the bow.

TP: How long were you playing with Eddie Palmieri? How did you become involved?

ANDY: I was working with Ray Barretto’s band, and we worked a lot opposite Eddie. Nicky Marrero was the timbalero in the band at the time. I was always an Eddie Palmieri fan from way back when Manny Oquendo was the timbal player in the band, and sort of the heartbeat of the Eddie Palmieri band. All through the years, the names of Manny Oquendo and Barry Rogers keep on popping up on these records, especially the records that I have anything to do with, because these are the cats — they’re the ones who were the movers and shakers of the Eddie Palmieri band. They made things happen in that band. Manny still makes things happen with Libre, and Barry was always one to make suggestions and add to the music to make it spectacular.

TP: That band was pushing the boundaries of Latin music.

ANDY: There’s some truth to that. Eddie was a good catalyst for other people to push the band. Eddie was good at sort of being the glue that made all the innovations and things happen. Some of the ideas were his, but the majority of rhythm ideas were from his players.

TP: What are some of the innovations that happened within the Eddie Palmieri bands of that time?

ANDY: Well, one was just the sound of the trombones, a band with just trombones in it, two trombones. That was kind of unique. It wasn’t original. Other bands had that sound also. But the Eddie Palmieri band, the La Perfecta, brought it to a height of musical excellence. Barry was in charge of making sure that the music was hip, and Manny was in charge of making sure the rhythm was hip — and Eddie was Eddie, doing what he does. It’s a unique sound. That band was really influential while I was growing up, as part of the soundtrack of when I was young.

TP: Since you were a toddler, has your life been suffused with music?

ANDY: Sure. My dad was a vocalist, and he used to sing with bands, and he’d take us to the rehearsals when we were 6 or 7 years old. We were listening to Cortijo y Su Combo and La Sonora Matancera and Machito… The house music, what we’d hear in the house in the day and at the family parties and stuff like that.

TP: Is that the process by which you learned to play, by hearing the music all the time and being around musicians?

ANDY: That’s sort of part of it. When you’re growing up and listening to the music, you get a feel for it. It became a normal thing to hear that kind of music. What knocked me out is my uncle had a red record. I said, “A red record? What is that?” Fantasy Records. It was Cal Tjader. That opened our ears to another way of playing than just listening to dance music and playing dance music, and tipico, Afro-Cuban-based New York music. This was Afro-Cuban, but it had jazz in it and improvisation, and the sound of the vibes was a very nice, pretty sound. I heard those records when they were new, and that was in the middle 50s. I was just 5-6-7 years old. Even back then, it was a revelation to me. Just the sound of it sounded so nice. I didn’t realize until later how much jazz influenced they were. Cal Tjader was a very heavily Milt Jackson influenced…


…in the fourth grade, playing violin. I played violin for a year-and-a-half and then switched to the bass. At that time, the charanga craze was happening in the dance music of New York — the violin sound with the flute. That was pretty prominent. I had no real aspirations to play that kind of music. From the get, we were trying to play Latin Jazz. That was our thing.

TP: Was your brother always a drummer?

ANDY: He started as a drummer, a conga player and trumpet player at the same time. We sort of started coming up in music together.

TP: Before “Adoracion,” we heard you in a Ray Barretto band playing Dizzy Gillespie’s “Tin Tin Deo.” You were young.

ANDY: I was 18. It’s from an album called Ray Barretto, Together. It’s the first album I recorded with Barretto, on the then-fledgling Fania label. Fania hadn’t hit its stride yet as the big salsa label. I lasted in the band about a year after that recording, and then I left and went with Dizzy Gillespie’s band; me and my brother joined Dizzy Gillespie’s band. We stayed there for about 8 months, toured a bit, played a lot in the city. That was a great experience playing with Diz.

TP: Had he heard you with Ray Barretto?

ANDY: He’d hired my brother first to play percussion. Then they needed a bass player who could play without getting lost in the rhythm. They had a couple of bass players play in the band, but Dizzy wasn’t satisfied with how they were approaching the rhythm, so Jerry recommended that I come in. I came in and…

TP: Was he emphasizing Afro-Cuban things, or was it the full range of what he did?

ANDY: It was a unique band. There were no traps, which is unusual for a jazz band at the time. It was Mike Longo on piano and George Davis on guitar, myself, and Jerry on congas — and Diz.

TP: No timbales.

ANDY: No. Just the congas. And it made it. For the kind of music Dizzy was playing at the time, which was… You’ve got to remember at the time, we were still immersed in the boogaloo era, kind of rhythm-and-blues with Latin rhythm combined kind of thing. Dizzy was reflecting some of that sound in his music.

There was one tune that made some noise and is still remembered these days from the album we did. It’s called “Olinga.” I think Milt Jackson covered it and a few other people covered it. So that’s one of the points in my life that I’ll always remember.

TP: It must have been a harmonic education for you.

ANDY: Of course. Matter of fact, I didn’t think I was ready to play with Diz. But he would egg us on. He was very generous with his time, as far as showing musicians what they needed to know about his music. He was just the funniest person you could ever know, and great to be with. He got along very well with all of us. To show you what kind of person he is, he met my parents when he hired us, and he’d come by the house every now and then, and my dad and him became pretty good friends. Then we were out of contact with Diz for a while because he was busy doing stuff. With the U.N. Band, they were down in Puerto Rico at the time that my dad was hospitalized. Diz found out about it and called my dad at the hospital to find out how he was and whatnot. I’ll always remember that about Diz, how nice and sweet a person he was.

TP: Also at the time, there was so much activity… Wasn’t Kenny Dorham also someone you performed with?

ANDY: Yes. We were close to Kenny for about a good year, and we were playing almost every day. At the time, they had passed…well, they had anti-poverty funds, and they set up schools. I was teaching bass, Jerry was teaching percussion, and Kenny Dorham was teaching trumpet. We didn’t have too many students, so we’d play every day, just for our own enjoyment. We got to play a few gigs, too; we formed a little Latin Jazz quintet. That was another education, because K.D. was an amazing musician. Another beautiful, sweetheart kind of person.

TP: You had the opportunity to be around two of the great trumpet masters, as well as experiencing the whole range of Latin music that one would hear at the time.

ANDY: Yes. I was also into the jazz… I got to see Trane play, one of the next-to-last gigs he ever did, at the Village Theater. That was exciting, with the Ornette Coleman Trio and John Coltrane Octet. That’s when he had Pharaoh Sanders, Alice Coltrane and Jimmy Garrison. Jimmy Garrison I got to know pretty well after Trane’s death. He lived in an apartment next to a friend of mine, and I was always paying him visits. That’s how I got to buy a bass that someone had left in his house.

TP: Who were some of your teachers? Was it pretty much through gigging and practical experience? Or did you have a more formal thing?

ANDY: The Latin side of it was pretty much self-taught and listening to the masters — listening to Bobby Rodriguez, listening to Cachao. Those were the cats. Those were my heroes. They still are.

For jazz, I was fortunate when I was in junior high school… I had the audacity to call Steve Swallow and ask if he gave bass lessons, and I took about two years of bass lessons with Steve Swallow. This is before he made the decision to switch from upright bass to the bass guitar.

TP: Was he with Art Farmer at the time?

ANDY: He was with Stan Getz, Art Farmer, and Gary Burton.

TP: Let’s get to another set of music. This one will have a more contemporary slant, and begins with a 1980 album that brought the music of you and Jerry into very clear focus. It’s from Ya Yo Me Cure on American Clave Recorda.

ANDY: This was our first attempt at putting out something more or less our sensibilities about things. Trying to improvise, trying to move the music forward, and also keep some roots to it. Guaguanco roots. We were listening to a lot of Cuban music and Cuban groups. Also we were doing a lot of jamming at my house, at New Rican Village, which was a place on Avenue A where I used to be the musical director. This particular album really reflects all this time period where we were doing a lot of jamming and a lot of playing, and we were starting to formalize kind of a direction in Latin Jazz that we wanted to move in.

[Fort Apache, “Agueybana Zemi”; Grupo Folklorico, “A Papa Y Mama”; Libre, “A Chango Y Maria”; Papo Vazquez-Milton Cardona, “Chango Y Yemeya”–Breakout-Timeless]

TP: You’ve been working with Papo for 15 years or so.

ANDY: Papo has been working with us in different situations since he was 16 years old. That was 1975 or 1976. Well, he’s like part of the family, part of our extended musical family of quite a few musicians.

TP: Like many of the musicians you’ve worked with, and you and Jerry, he’s totally fluent in the idiomatic performance of Latin Jazz and Jazz, and can merge them or code-switch easily.

ANDY: That’s part of the experience of growing up and dealing with New York City. I don’t think there’s any other place in the world where we could have so much access to musics as here in New York. When I was a teenager, I used to run to Slugs to hear Jackie McLean or to hear McCoy or hear… We were jazz fans. We had so many musical heroes that used to follow and go hear all the time. And studying history, there’s quite a few heroes that… Over the years, you start learning about who’s who and who did what in the music, in jazz and in Latin. I did quite a bit of studying. I was fortunate to acquire a large cache, they call it, of old Downbeats, and I started reading each one of them cover-to-cover just to learn about what was going on, what people were listening to and who…

TP: Reading old Blindfold Tests is an interesting exercise…

ANDY: Yeah. Like Miles Davis saying he’s going to step on Eric Dolphy’s foot the next time he sees him. Things like that. Those are funny.

But I did learn about the different critics who were around, and how they tried to formulize people’s tastes. Critics used to put Coltrane down; they used to put Charlie Parker down — things like that. I used to think that was kind of silly. Most critics are…their particular opinions… It seems to me they’re frustrated because they’re not playing. I don’t know what that is. You know, in the Latin world there aren’t too many critics. I think that’s because they’d find themselves in cement shoes at the bottom of the ocean if they say something bad about somebody! [LAUGHS]

TP: On “Chango y Yemeya,” the percussion were Steve Berrios, Milton Cardona and Patato; Papo Vazquez on trombone; Andy Gonzalez, bass; Edgardo Miranda on cuatro; Bill O’Connell, piano; and Mario Rivera.

ANDY: If you’ll notice, most of those guys were on the Ya Yo Me Cure record. Like I said, we have an extended family of musicians; we’ve all been playing together for years.

TP: Before that was “El Chango de Maria,” from Los Liberes de la Salsa. That’s from a compilation of two sessions by Libre from 1978 and 1979. Papo Vazquez, Jose Rodriguez and Barry Rogers on trombones; Manny Oquendo and Jerry Gonzalez on percussion…so many, and I’m not sure who is on which particular track.

ANDY: Before that, “A Papa Y A Mama” is by Henny Alvarez, by Grupo Folklorico Y Experimental Nuevayorquino. That was a pretty historical record for its time, because it really… When that record was released was when Fania was starting to move up and try to establish their particular sound as the commercial sound in Latin American music, in Salsa, and they were the ones who sort of pushed that name, “Salsa,” on the music, because it didn’t have that kind of title before. We sort of recorded it, and it became like an antidote to that commercial sound.

TP: Why was that sound objectionable at the time? Or not “objectionable,” but what were you reacting to?

ANDY: Well, it wasn’t a deliberate reaction to the other kinds of music that were happening. It was just a natural…it was an evolution rather than a revolution. It was something that evolved, partly because of the jams we were having in the basement of my house, including a lot of these musicians. We formulized a group to play folklore and also to experiment with new forms. We played a few college concerts with that, and out of that, with the help of Rene Lopez, we were able to get a recording contract on Salsoul. We ended up recording two albums. The first one was a 2-LP set, Concepts in Unity, and then a year later we put out Lo Dice Todo – “We Say It All.” We were true to what the title says — a Grupo Folklorico Y Experimental Nuevayorquino. It’s a folkloric group that’s experimental, and we are from New York, so it’s going to involve all the influences of New York.

It was pretty much Afro-Cuban. On the second album, we did a Brazilian tune by Jose Rodriguez. By the way, he’s in the hospital and I’d like to wish him my best. He’s not been feeling well lately. He was the powerhouse trombone player to be teamed up…


…or any kind of experimental Latin music until we decided to do this. It created quite a stir, because some of the tunes on these albums are very exciting. To this day, people ask me, “When are these things going to be released on CD?”

TP: I was about to ask you that myself.

ANDY: I have no idea. I’ve been pestering the owner of the label to re-release the stuff, and hopefully he will do so.

TP: It seems also that the notion of delving into the broad folkloric spectrum has filtered into the contemporary approach of many of your generation of Latin musicians.

ANDY: I’m sure that these records had to have had an effect. They were quite popular when they were released, and they made quite a bit of noise. Everywhere I go, people ask me about them and ask me different things about the recordings, and the tunes, and the people who played on these records. There’s been talk of a reunion, like a new recording of Grupo Folklorico Y Experimental. But that’s just talk right now. But most of the people who participated in the original recordings are still around, and it’s quite possible to get them all together. So who knows?

TP: The next set will focus on some of Andy’s musical heroes. The first he’s selected, and at the top of the apex, is Cachao, on whose music we’ve done several radio shows over the last few years.

ANDY: We’re going to hear something Cachao recorded in Cuba. This is the second version of this recording. The first he did in 1939 or 1940. It’s called “Canta Contrabajo,” which means “sing contrabass.” What it is, is Cachao’s adaptation of a bass concerto by Koussevitzy, who is a great bass virtuoso, who wrote classical music for the bass. Cachao adapted the melody and then put a montuno on it, and he made a danzon out of it, which was Cachao’s… The great body of work that he has done is mostly in danzones, original danzones, which is the national dance of Cuba. It’s classically oriented of sorts.

Cachao has composed thousands of these danzones, and they’re all great, and they’re all… I would call them little symphonies, and they have a great deal of original thought in Afro-Cuban composition. That’s why I really enjoy Cachao’s work. I learned quite a bit from listening to the way he put Cuban clave counterpoint. That’s the art of Cuban music, is the counterpoint. It’s a whole world of rhythm. That’s the world I’ve involved myself into, and I’ve been in that since I started, because I realized that’s really the study that one has to do to be able to play this music correctly, is really involve yourself of that particular aspect of the rhythm. Clave counterpoint.

TP: It’s an extension of the concept of African drumming, which is interlocking rhythms playing against each other…

ANDY: Yeah, polyrhythms, all that stuff. Anyone who studies that… If you put your mind to it, it becomes another language that you can utilize in your music or in your improvisations. This is something I intend to maybe get some literature put out on. I’m working on a bass book now. I think all bass players should study this kind of counterpoint, because it really makes for a varied approach to the instrument. It’s not only harmonic, and it’s not only 4-to-the-bar walking. It adds another dimension to your playing.

TP: We’ll play the selection from album that’s autographed to you from Cachao.

ANDY: Oh, yes. That was at the time when we were rehearsing for Cachao’s recording sessions on Salsoul. He did two albums, which I don’t have here. Also, we were preparing for a concert at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center, and that Grupo Folklorico Y Experimental, Cachao and his Danzones, and Manny Oquendo and Libre — we all performed in concert. I was at the one of the rehearsals where I gave the album to Cachao and he signed it to me.

[MUSIC: Cachao, “Canta Contrabajo”; Arsenio Rodriguez, “Kila, Quique Y Chocolate”; Chappotin, “Los Jovenes de la Defensa”]

ANDY: That was the great Chappotin Y Sus Estrellas, with Miguelito Cuni on the vocals. That whole genre of Cuban music is one of my favorites. That’s the school that Arsenio Rodriguez sort of started, which was the cut we heard before that — “Kila, Quique Y Chocolate.” That was Arsenio’s rhythm section. It was a tune Arsenio wrote…in other words, stating that without the rhythm, there just is no Cuban music; there’s nothing to it.

The next cut we’ll hear is one of my all-time favorite cuts to play for bass players. It’s to show you what bass players can do in the music. Some musicians tell me in Salsa that they’re tired, that they play the same kind of what they call tumbao, which is a vamp. They are reluctant to move away from the vamp because they think that maybe it might spoil the rhythm or something. But this bass player… I’m not sure who it is. The bass player that played with Arsenio is LázaroPrieto at that particular time. He was quite skillful about playing what Arsenio liked to hear, which was great counterpoint kind of bass lines. The bass player with Chappotin was a guy named Sabino Peñalver, and he was another master of making up these absolutely great basslines that laid right in the pocket, and swung like mad.

Now, this next bass player, I’m not sure of his name. The band was a big band called Orquesta Sabor de Cuba. It was led by Bebo Valdés. They’re backing up a vocalist called Pio Leyva. He’s still around in Cuba, and he’s a popular singer of son montunos and guajiras and stuff like that. Now, he recorded a tune called “Pobre Nicolas,” “Poor Nicholas.” When the montuno starts on this tune, the bass player starts doing the most incredible things. It’s not all about fast or anything. He’s just laying down notes that fit right in there. I use this as an example to all my students of how to be free and play Cuban counterpoint and just be right there. Nothing is missing. It’s just laying down time in certain ways. It’s a great record.

[Bebo & Pio Leyva, “Pobre Nicolas”; Tito Rodriguez, “Me Faltabas Tu”; Machito, “Soy Salsero”]

ANDY: That was an album Machito did for Harvey Averne and the Coco label I think he was doing at the time. That was a strange record. It came not too long after Mario Bauza had departed from the Machito Orchestra. There was quite a controversy about that. It seemed that Machito had an opportunity to take a band to Europe, and there was an argument about… They couldn’t take the whole band, and Mario was very upset. He wanted the whole band to go. It ended up that they took a small ensemble to Europe. But I think Machito’s instincts were correct. What it did was open the door for Latin bands to appear in concert in the jazz concert circuit in Europe, and that opened the door for all the bands that came afterwards. Machito’s band was the first one to appear. Then Puente, and then a bunch of them. The door opened wide open for bands. Now at the jazz festivals in Europe, you’d see bands from Cuba, you’d see bands from the New York circuit, and you’d see the new Latin Jazz artists that are coming out now. Fort Apache has been there, and Libre has been there, quite a few of the artists are starting to go to Europe now.

TP: Fort Apache recorded for the German Enja label, and Messidor is a Germany-based label that’s been recording a lot of contemporary Latin music as well.

ANDY: Yes. It’s very popular over there. The festivals usually include at least one evening of Latin American or Afro-Cuban kind of entertainment. It’s become like THE popular event at most of the festivals. This album was recorded using Machito and part of his band — unfortunately, without Mario Bauza. It’s just strange because it came out around the time this happened. To me it was kind of shocking that Mario would leave the Machito Orchestra to go on his own, because Mario didn’t start his band until years later.

TP: The last tracks on the set featured you with Tito Rodriguez and Machito — hits you did with other people. How long did you work with Machito? What was he like?

ANDY: I’ve worked with the Machito band as a sub, on and off, since around 1970. It was always a pleasure for me. I’ve subbed with the Tito Puente band, too. What I get a kick out of is playing the classic charts — the classic Machito charts, the classic Tito Puente charts. A big feather in my cap, and I’ll never forget it, was the recording I did with Tito Rodriguez. I was 19 or 20. I had been working… I was working with Palmieri, so I was about 21. What happened was that Palmieri was playing a dance opposite the Machito band, and the Machito band was backing up Tito Rodriguez for a special set of music that Tito had, like a show set of all his hits. The bass player who was playing with the Machito band had arthritis in his fingers, and he couldn’t be counted on at that moment. He was a great bass player, but just old, and couldn’t be counted on to really cut the chart for the Tito Rodriguez show part of the thing. So they asked me to do it. I sight-read the music perfectly, which was to my surprise, and Tito liked it so much that he asked me to do the recording session. The album is entitled Algo Nuevo, and it was Tito Rodriguez and Louis Ramirez, another figure who passed away recently. To this day I really appreciate the opportunity to have recorded with Tito Rodriguez, who is one of my big heros, too. Also, I enjoy the sound of the recording. It was recorded in Media Sound, on 57th Street. It was like a church, a big room. The sound is pretty nice on that record.

Continuing with the sessions… I’ve done quite a few sessions for other bands as a bass player. I just picked out a few that I could find at the moment and ones I kind of liked. This is one of the earlier things that I did as a session player. I was with Ray Barretto’s band. This is Ray Barretto’s rhythm section backing up Justo Betancourt and Johnny Pacheco. This is a nice tune that I enjoyed when it came out, “Mango, Piña Y Marañón.”

[MUSIC: Justo Betancourt and Johnny Pacheco, “Mango, Piña Y Marañón”; Totico Y Sus Rumberos, “What’s Your Name?”; Libre, “Little Sunflower” (1983); Steve Turre-Dizzy, “Toreador” (1993); Astor Piazzolla, “Street Tango”]


TP: All featured Andy and are from recordings made during the past 10 years.

ANDY: [Astor] was another feather in my cap. I was always a fan of Astor Piazzolla, because he was the…I guess you would call him the rebel of the Tango. Some innovations that he did were not quite accepted by the Argentinean diehard Tango fanatics, but I thought it was great music. When they called me to do this session, I was like, “Wow, I don’t believe it; I’m going to record with this guy, and he’s one of my heroes.” Another hero. I was lucky to record with the man. He passed away this past year. I recorded on his last recording session, which I think will come out this year sometime.

“Toreador” from Sanctified Shells featured Dizzy Gillespie’s last recorded solo. Carmen Turre, Steve’s mother, played castanets. She plays them very well, and she knows her music. She was on it, boy. She was telling Steve, “Listen, in bar 39 of this, do you think that rhythm is correct?” She’s really knowledgeable. She’s an amazing lady. I hear there’s another shell album in the works due to the popularity of this one, so I’m looking forward to it. I’ve appeared with Steve and this group, the Sanctified Shells, in a few concerts. We just did the San Francisco Jazz Festival recently.

Our version of “Little Sunflower” is already a classic. A lot of people told me it should have gotten a Grammy when it came out. [Montuno records] We have a new one coming out soon, Manny Oquendo and Libre, “A Hora.” It should be in the stores within a month or so.

Totico Y Sus Rumberos did that old doo-wop standard.

[MUSIC: Charlie Sepulveda-David Sanchez, “Nina’s Mood”; Fort Apache Band, “Interior Motive” (from Moliendo Café]

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Filed under Andy Gonzalez, Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Interview, WKCR

An Unedited Blindfold Test with Ray “Bulldog” Drummond On His 67th Birthday

Today is the 67th birthday of bassist Ray Drummond, whose huge sound, harmonic acumen and unfailing time feel have made him one of the major practitioners of his instrument since the end of the ’70s. To mark the occasion, I’ve posted the unedited proceedings of a DownBeat Blindfold Test  that he did with me either in late 2000 or early 2001.

Ray Drummond Blindfold Test:

1.    Oscar Pettiford, “Tricotism” (Bass, Bethlehem, 1955/2000) (5 stars)

It’s obvious that it’s “Tricotism” in one of its versions.  O.P.  Oscar Pettiford.  I already know it’s 5000 stars.  O.P. is in the school, the great tradition of Jimmy Blanton; Oscar Pettiford, Paul Chambers and people since then who have adhered to this  tradition.  The melodic articulation.  He’s trying to play like a horn.  He’s expressing himself, telling a story, and it’s a very articulate story.  He seems himself as a melody player in the same way that a saxophone or trumpet player would.  Plus he’s got great time, his walking is strong.  Ray Brown comes from this same approach to the instrument.  Serious bass playing.  To me this is the main stem, the trunk of the bass tree.  All the branches come from this tradition, and every bass player has inherited this.  Blanton and O.P. and Ray Brown are three of my particular heros that I learned a lot from just listening as I was coming up, as a musician as well as a bass player.  That articulation!  Just a wonderful player.  It’s O.P.!  God is in the house.  I hadn’t heard that version.

2.    Marcus Miller (all instruments), “Tracy” (Who Loves You?: A Tribute To Jaco Pastorius, Concord, 2000) (5 stars)

This is Jaco Pastorius.  It’s not?  But it’s his tune.  He used to play this; I don’t remember the name.  The only person I can think of who gets into textures like this who’s an electric player is Marcus Miller.  That’s the first guy that comes to my mind.  He’s the only guy who has that kind of talent.  It’s just good music!  He’s playing all the instruments?  That’s even better.  He gets five stars anyway, in my book, because he’s such a musical talent.  He’s a great bass player, but he’s also a great musician.  Once again, going back to O.P., who was a great musician, not just a bassist.  Marcus has that sound.  It’s a little harder to catch, given the sound of the bass guitar.  I wouldn’t think I’d pick up on him, because I haven’t been listening to a lot of Marcus’s own projects.  Last time I saw him he was producing a David Sanborn record.  I haven’t seen him play in years.

3.    Rodney Whitaker, “Whims of Chambers” (Ballads & Blues, Criss-Cross, 1998) (Paul Chambers, composer; Whitaker, bass; Stefon Harris, vibes; Eric Reed, piano; Ron Blake, tenor sax) (3 stars)

At first I thought it was an older recording, but now as I listen to it I realize it’s a bunch of younger guys.  I have to figure out who they are.  It’s a P.C. tune.  But it’s definitely not P.C.  What the whole band is doing sounds a bit superfluous; as a producer I’d have to tighten it up a little by snipping out some of what I would consider self-indulgence.  The point is to tell your story, and there’s no reason to have extraneous stuff in your recording.  I think part of the problem is that the compact disk has allowed everybody to become a lot more self-indulgent.  They’re good players.  Younger players. [TP: How can you tell they’re younger players?] I can tell they’re younger because the tonal universe is broader than you would normally hear from the mainstream players of the ‘50s and ‘60s. I don’t know which young bass player this is.  I know it’s not Christian McBride.  It could be one of half-a-dozen guys.  The problem I have is to try to hear guys’ different sounds.  Like I say on my web-site, getting your own sound and projecting your own voice is not one of the paramount values that a lot of younger jazz musicians today are going for. When I came up, I was kind of the last of the generations of musicians who had been counseled, “No matter what you do through your musical life, if you really want to play, acquire a voice.”  You have a voice.  Understand it.  Play through that voice and project that, and understand that that’s you.  Even if your articulation never gets to be too hot, or your choice of tunes or your knowledge or whatever, if you never pursue a career… I can tell you  about many musicians all over the world, the guy might be a doctor or a scientist, and yet he has this gorgeous tone.  Can’t play hardly anything, he can’t improvise, he can barely play a section, but the guy gets up and plays one note — and you say OH!!!  Because he’s got this sound.  In music schools especially, I guess, nobody is teaching people to acquire their own voice as the basic value, as something even more important than getting all over your instrument.  to me that’s much more important than being able to run up and down the bass or the saxophone or drums or whatever.  Having that sound.  Some people play a couple of notes and you say, “Ah, that’s such-and-such” and “that’s such-and-such.” [TP: There isn’t one of these musicians you could say that about.”} Well, I’m listening, and I think I know…I  probably know every one of these guys.  I probably have even worked with  some of them.  But somehow I can’t get that sense.  I’ll give it 2-1/2 stars.  The musicianship is excellent.  For me, a little self-indulgent, which brings the star level down.  But in my opinion, I just don’t think that there is much personality as these players actually have.  So the producer didn’t quite get what I think is necessary to show off the musicians.  It was on the generic side.

4.    John Lindberg, “Hydrofoil (For Fred Hopkins)” (The Catbird Sings, Black Saint, 2000) (Lindberg, bass; Andrew Cyrille, drums) (four stars)

It’s definitely post-Ornette style avant-garde playing, but I have a feeling it was recorded in the ‘80s or ‘90s as opposed to the late ‘60s or ‘70s.  To tell you the truth, I really haven’t listened to a whole lot of these guys.  I’m not familiar with people like William Parker.  I’m not saying that’s who this, but I’m saying I haven’t been paying attention to guys like that, because I’ve been out of that loop for a long time.  when I was coming up as a musician in California in the early ‘70s, there were a fair number of opportunities to heat that kind of music, and I did some gigs like that as well.  So I’m not from that school that tries to debunk anything or thinks this is not as creative or as important or as difficult to play as any other kind of music.  I like this music.  I wouldn’t want to play it myself as a steady diet, but certainly for contrast.  I won’t take any guesses. I like the drummer.  Barry Altschul comes to mind, for whatever reason, just from the sound of the recording; the cymbals sounded like ECM.  That’s I said Barry Altschul, because I know they recorded him like that.  But they recorded that kind of music in the ‘70s and they haven’t been recording that kind of music in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and this is recent.  I’d give it 3-1/2 to 4 stars for the energy and execution. [AFTER] I  haven’t heard John Lindberg in a long time.  He was a good player with the String Trio, but it was much more “inside” than what I heard here.

5.    Christian McBride, “Move” (Gary Burton, for Hamp, Red, Bags and Cal, Concord, 2001) (McBride, bass; Burton, vibes; Russell Malone, guitar) (4-1/2 stars)

The first thing that comes to my mind is… It feels like Ray Brown, but I don’t know if it is.  Yeah, it’s Ray Brown.  It’s got that feeling.  He’s the only one that pushes it like that. They played this Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool.  “Move.”  But let me listen more, because there are a couple of guys who might… I’m going to make a decision when I hear the solo.  It’s got to be Christian McBride, because that’s the only other person… We heard all the Ray stuff in the beginning there.  But this is Christian McBride.  I have to say that straight-out.  I speak about inheriting the mainstream tradition, Jimmy Blanton and how Jimmy Blanton affected O.P. and Ray Brown and the younger guys like Paul Chambers, and he obviously affected Ron Carter, then post Ron Carter you get players like me, Rufus, George Mraz, a whole raft.  And this young guy here, Christian McBride, really likes what Ray does.  That’s Russell Malone there.  I don’t know who the vibraphonist is.  The configuration reminds me of Tal Farlow, Mingus and Red Norvo.  Is this a tribute to that?  But they didn’t play like this.  They had another thing happening.  Probably Stefon Harris.  But if not, I don’t know who it is..  For the musicianship… It swings.  I can’t give it 5, but definitely 4-1/2.  It’s not at the same level as the O.P. [AFTER] Gary Burton?  I’m very impressed, because I did not know that Gary Burton had inherited so much Lionel Hampton and Red Norvo.

6.    Dave Holland, “Jugglers’ Parade” (Prime Directive, ECM, 1999) (Holland, bass; Chris Potter, saxophone; Steve Nelson, marimba; Robin Eubanks, trombone; Billy Kilson, drums) (5 stars)

It’s Dave Holland with Robin Eubanks, Chris Potter, Steve Nelson, Billy Kilson.  It has the different rhythms and they’re right on it.  I caught them last summer live.  We ran into each other at the Northsea, but nobody could listen to anybody, and then we saw them in Munich — we came in a day early and they were working downstairs.  Dave and I are the same age, and I’ve been listening to him since the late ‘60s.  The first I met him was a the Both/And in San Francisco in 1970, when he was playing in Chick Corea’s Trio; ECM had just been formed and they were selling “A/R/C.”  I had bought my copies of Chick’s solo improvised records and “A/R/C” from Chick there in the club, and that’s when I first met Dave.   I really enjoyed what he was doing.  That’s the first time I met him.  But the first time I heard him was in Miles’ band, at a concert they did at Stanford University in 1969.  And I was familiar with him from “Bitches Brew,” which is the first time I heard his name.  He’s got his own sound.  Again, he’s from that era where older guys would say, “Get your own sound, boy!”  Because that’s as important as anything else you’re going to do as part of your musicianship.  When I heard this band last summer, it was just a delight to listen to.  Dave’s got a whole concept.  It’s him!  He’s been playing this way all his musical life.  All the projects he’s been on, from Miles to now, it’s a concept that’s been Dave.  His voice and the message, the story that he tells, and that story has just gotten deeper and deeper and deeper.  I can’t say that about every musician that’s out there.  It’s the kind of thing that gives me a great deal of inspiration, that there’s a fellow bassist who is also a contemporary age-wise… I would never want to play like that, but I love to hear that.  It gives me a lot of ideas as a composer.  It’s just very inspirational.  5 stars.  It’s definitely on the same level as that O.P. piece.  Yay for Dave!

7.    Red Mitchell-Hank Jones, “What Am I Here For?” (Duo, Timeless, 1987) (5 stars) (Mitchell, bass; Jones, piano)

[IMMEDIATELY] That’s Hank Jones.  From the first notes.  Even though that’s a Rudy Van Gelder recording, that’s Hank Jones’ piano with Hank Jones playing it.  Hank and Red Mitchell.  Red Mitchell.  Talk about someone with a concept, someone with a voice and someone with a great deal of… If you want to just someone by the content of their character, boy, you’ll never go wrong with Red Mitchell!  That was one serious musician.  We miss him a lot.  He had a way of playing… Of course, he strings his bass totally different than the “traditional” way that basses are strung, giving him another kind of approach as part of the concept.  Because he used to play bass the same way everybody else plays it, and then he changed his tuning in the mid-‘60s for whatever reason.  There are a lot of reasons advanced.  Two consummate masters.  Five stars.  You could listen to this all night and sip a few cognacs and pretend we’re back at Bradley’s again, back in the day.  They used to play together several times a year at Bradley’s, and it was always a treat to hear them.  Oh, would we could do such a thing today!  It would be wonderful to have that inspiration again.  One thing about Red Mitchell is that he could play with anybody, and I think a hallmark of a great musician, not just adaptability, but the ability to project that personality in such a way that you do interact with other musical personalities.  And the strongest ones, in my opinion, are the ones who are able to interact with one another using their own personal voices and their visions, and they wind up weaving a story together.  That’s what they did here.

8.    Barre Phillips-Joe Maneri, “Elma My Dear” (Rohnlief, ECM, 1999) (Phillips, bass; Joe Maneri, tenor sax) – (3 stars)

I have no idea who the musicians are.  Again, for me it’s like post-Ornette.  Well, that’s not fair, because Ornette is not the one who unleashed this.  I don’t get the sense of composition.  I get the sense of interaction  of two musicians, as if they just went in and did whatever they did.  This is part of a larger piece or concept?  That’s the feeling I get.  But it didn’t to me as if it was anything other than the two guys interacting with one another, that there wasn’t any kind of motif, or maybe there was a color that was trying to be established.  I’m relatively open-minded about the process, but in terms of the execution of this one I’d have to say 2-1/2 or 3 stars.  The musicianship definitely is good.  The guys know something about their instruments in the colors they’re trying to create and that sort of thing.  But I feel a bit lost because I’m not sure about the context in which they’re trying to place it.  That’s the only reason that I can’t give… I’d give a qualified 2-1/2 or 3 stars.  But I feel a little lost as a listener. [AFTER] I’ve never met Barre Phillips, but I’ve heard his name for a number of years.  And he’s definitely somebody who’s a trouper from the ‘70s and ‘80s.  Obviously, there’s no question about musicianship and that sort of thing.  But as a listener I felt lost.  You told me about Joe Maneri and his microtonal concept, so obviously there’s a context for what this was about.  I think you need to be more informed to be able to understand what’s going on  here.

9.    Michael Moore-Ken Peplowski, “Body and Soul” (The History of Jazz, Vol. 1, Arbors, 2000) (Moore, bass; Peplowski, clarinet) (4-1/2 stars)

Obviously, it’s “Body and Soul” in a clarinet-bass duo.  As far as the performers, that’s a tough one.  The clarinet player is a serious clarinet player, like Eddie Daniels or… It’s not Paquito.  But Eddie is the guy who comes to my mind because of the sound.  Ken Peplowski also has a sound like that, but I’m going to say Eddie, even though I’m probably way off the mark.  It’s somebody that really is deep into the clarinet.  The bass player is really lyrical, and the only guy I can think of…. I don’t know how these guys have played together… I’m sure they  have, but I’m surprised to see them on a record.   Michael Moore is the bass player.  Michael is the only one that…he’s got that… It’s Michael!  It’s hard to explain.  It’s his sound and his concept.  He’s a player like Red Mitchell because he’s very lyrical in his approach, the way he plays the melody.  I’ve never heard him play with the bow like that.  I’ve always loved Michael.  Again, to go back to Bradley’s, Michael played there often.  4-1/2 stars [AFTER] I’ve had the opportunity to play a couple of times with Ken, but I really didn’t get into his clarinet playing until just this past summer when we were all in Japan and I got to hear him play clarinet every night.  I said, “Oh my goodness!”  Ken is a serious clarinet player as well as a marvelous saxophonist.  The beginning was lovely, the way they wove a duet out of tempo together stating the melody and creating the improvisation around the melody and that sort of thing right in the beginning for one full chorus.

10.    Ray Brown Trio, “Starbucks Blues” (Live At Starbucks,  Telarc, 2001) (Brown, bass; Geoff Keezer, piano; Kareem Riggins, drums) (5 stars)

Look out, Brown!  Signatures.  Well, we talked about Ray Brown earlier.  But there’s no mistaking him.  The fact is that Ray  Brown has his voice, he has his stories, and he’s been playing like this for almost 50 years at this point.  The first time I ever heard Mr. Brown live was as an undergraduate in college in the mid-‘60s with the great Oscar Peterson Trio with Thigpen.  They came down to Shelley’s Manne Hole, and I’d be down there two or three nights a week if they had a two-week engagement, just to listen to this trio and this wonderful bass player, this incredible master.  Oh, my goodness, that’s almost 40 years ago.  And Ray hasn’t lost anything.  He’s gotten even more… Not just the maturity, but your voice deepens as you age, especially if you allow it to be.  He’s just such a consummate player, such a grandmaster.  Every time you hear him, it’s such an inspiration.  Five stars.  You’re talking about somebody who’s been the central part of mainstream bass playing for a very long time, and still waving that flag and carrying it for all intents and purposes… I hope as many people as possible will see him while he’s still here with us.  Because we’ve lost so many people and it’s so great to have one of the grandmasters still able to do that thing that only they can do.  God bless Ray Brown. [LAUGHS]

11.    Fred Hopkins, “Mbizo” (David Murray Quartet, Deep Rivers, DIW, 1988) (Hopkins, bass; Murray, bass cl.; Dave Burrell, piano; Ralph Peterson, drums)

I don’t know who this is.  It’s funny, because I get this picture of Cecil McBee in my head, but it’s not Cecil; it’s just somebody who would like to play like Cecil, but hasn’t figured out, in my opinion, how to sound like that.  It’s not Cecil.  Right?  Whew, good.  But as a bass player, this player is chasing another kind of a value.  There’s a lyricism  I think the bass player is trying to get to that he hasn’t figured out yet.  Part of it has to do with his articulation and his intonation.  But that’s part of what he’s trying to do.  Oh, wait a minute!  That’s David!  Damn.  That’s David.  Is this Fred on here?  Fred.  That’s who it is.   It is Fred.  It’s David and Fred and…it could be Andrew.  I’ll take a stab and say Andrew.  The piano player might be Dave Burrell.  I probably missed the drummer.  I’ll stick with Andrew, though I’m probably wrong.  Oh, it’s Ralph.  Yeah, he’s trying to play like Andrew.  He plays more like Andrew than he plays like Blackwell.  Four stars.  The thing is, I loved Fred.  I really did.  But the thing is, there was a kind of lyricism he  as trying to get to that I never thought he quite got to.  But what a talent.  And what an unrealized talent!  There were certain kinds of things that I know Fred wanted to do musically that he was not given the opportunity to do.  I think that he was not only underappreciated while he was alive, but I think a lot of people are still asleep as to what he was up to as a musician.  He was amazing.

12.    Wilbur Ware, “Woody ‘N You” (Johnny Griffin Sextet.  Riverside, 1958) – (5 stars) – (Ware, bass; Johnny Griffin, ts; Kenny Drew, p; Philly Joe Jones, d.)

There’s only one Wilbur Ware, just like there’s only one Ray Brown.  It’s marvelous.  I’ve not heard this with Griffin, so this is probably something from the Riverside days.  There are several versions of this tune is on Sonny Rollins’ “Live At the Village Vanguard,” from probably around the same time, and Wilbur takes some solos on that, too, with that sound and that concept.  Again, he’s got his own way of telling a story, and it’s very effective.  He was a good player.  Kenny Drew?  Sounds like him.  Sounds like Kenny Drew playing.  Art Blakey, Wilbur Ware and Johnny Griffin.  Marvelous date.  Five stars.  I have got to give it up!  [AFTER] I was going to say it could be Philly Joe playing his Art Blakey shit, but you know… It had that Art Blakey thing in the beginning.  But now it’s definitely Philly Joe.  Kenny Washington will probably kill me for mistaking Philly Joe Jones for Art Blakey.

13.    Peter Kowald, “Isotopes” (Deals, Ideas & Ideals,   Hopscotch, 2000) – (Kowald, bass; Assif Tsahar, bass cl.; Rashied Ali, drums) – (3 stars)

Again, we have an example of textures.  Obviously notes, too.  But we’re talking about textures and moods.  Colors.  At this point we’re into ostinatos.  Again, this is a hard one to rate.  All the example of “freer” music, if you want to call it that… But he’s using a great deal of the resources available for color… But it’s funny, because we always think of this kind of playing as so different than mainstream playing.  And yet I would submit… This is where a lot of bass players are asleep on Mingus.  Of course, this is not Mingus, so I’m not going there with this.  On “Money Jungle,” Mingus used those kinds of techniques, a lot of colors, where traditionally bass players play something else, something a little more “traditionally”-based.  This person has a lot of ability to play in this context.  It would be interesting to hear whether this person is into notes as well.  I’m not sure this person is.  But again, there’s a different approach to lyricism here, because it’s more about colors and impressions and mood creation and that sort of thing.  Ah, it’s a trio, with bass clarinet and drums.  Whoever this bass clarinet player is, this person loves Eric Dolphy!  We heard David playing earlier, and there’s some Eric in him.  I mean, he can’t help but be affected by Eric when he plays bass clarinet.  But this person in particular seems to have a real affinity for Eric.  It’s the same kind of rhythmic phrasing.  That’s definitely where David and Eric part, in the rhythmic phrasing.  Some of the concepts that David uses are similar in terms of how they approach the bass clarinet.  But Eric could have done something like this, too.  As for the bass player, I’ll say it’s Alan Silva.  But I have a feeling that this is later, probably recently, so I’ll have to back off it.  I’ll give it 3 stars.  For my taste, it gets a little self-indulgent.  Okay, you started a story.  Now, what happened?  Where’s the story?  The story has a beginning, a middle and an ending.  And we did.  On the one with David, with Fred, obviously there were some stories being told.  You may not exactly understand how everybody’s getting around it, but there was something being said there.  Here I thought they were saying something, but then it drifted off.

14.    Charles Mingus, “Mood Indigo” (Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Impulse, 1963/1995) – (5 stars) (Mingus, bass; Jaki Byard, piano; Walter Perkins, drums; Eddie Preston, Richard Williams, trumpets; Britt Woodman, trombone; Don Butterfield, tuba; Eric Dolphy, Dick Hafer, Booker Ervin, Jerome Richardson, reeds & woodwinds)

That’s the sound of Duke.  The pianist even sounded convincingly like it could have been Duke.  That was my first impression.  Of course, this is Charles Mingus with “Mood Indigo.”  There’s only one guy who played like Mingus.  Of course, we know him.  Listen to the lyricism and technical ability.  And he had a different way of… He just did what he did.  And a lot of bass players will not give it up to Mingus as a bass player.  If you ask them what is the contribution that Charles Mingus made in the music, the first thing most bass players say is his composing, and they think of him as a composer and they don’t think of him as a bassist.  I can’t tell you how many guys actually respond that way.  It really used to surprise me once, but now I’m not.  I think it’s because  Mingus is so individual.  Charles Mingus was so strong and had his own… He just would play anything at any moment.  And I think for some bass players, it kind of disturbs them if you’re not playing a traditional part… [LAUGHS] Mingus had such a fertile imagination musically, so he could do anything.  Five stars.  Jaki Byard.  Boy, that’s another soul we miss that we’ve lost.  One of the grandmasters.


Filed under Bass, Blindfold Test, Dave Holland, DownBeat, Ray Drummond

Sam Rivers, (1923-2011) (r.i.p.) — A Downbeat Article From 1999 and Interviews

Just got word that Sam Rivers died on Monday, at 88. Loved his music and his sound on the tenor and soprano saxophone, was inspired by the various periods of his recorded career, from his Blue Notes all the way up to his orchestral music in Orlando, where he settled in 1991.

I had the opportunity to meet him in 1997, when he visited WKCR for an interview in conjunction with a performance by his trio, and touched base with him again in 1999, when DownBeat gave me an opportunity to write a feature piece about him. I’ve pasted the article below, followed by the two interviews, followed by comments on Sam by Greg Osby, Steve Coleman, Dave Holland, Chico Freeman,  Bob Stewart, and Anthony Cole.

* * *

Sam Rivers (Downbeat):

Samuel Carthorne Rivers, Jr. creates scenes, has done everywhere he’s parked himself during a fifty-year-plus career in music devoted to embracing the unknown.  Which is one reason why in 1991, not long after concluding a satisfying four years of steady touring with Dizzy Gillespie’s Quintet and Big Band, the saxophonist-composer, still lean and rawhide-tough at 68, settled with his wife Bea in Orlando, Florida, with no intention of retiring, determined to forge a new tributary from an untapped source.

“We moved from New York because I was getting tired of the cold, and nothing else.” Rivers relates over the phone in late ’99.  “We came to Orlando for a vacation, and discovered a talented pool of musicians who work at the theme parks and studios, can’t leave because the money is so good, and have no new music to play.  To me it’s a lesson not to get trapped by a financial situation; it takes away your freedom.  I posted a sign that said, ‘Sam Rivers is forming an orchestra; be at the union at such-and-such time.’  Everyone was there before I arrived.”

Taking full advantage of the opportunity to hear his music performed at weekly Wednesday night rehearsals, Rivers began to write scores like a man possessed, completing by his estimate a composition a month for a 16-piece big band, an 11-piece wind ensemble, and a highly interactive free-to-inside trio which is the core rhythm section of the orchestra.  “I’m writing more than ever,” Rivers reflects.  “I take in a composition, and we only need one rehearsal.  When I first went to New York, we’d spend three hours on one tune.  That doesn’t happen here.  Anything I write, they can play.  I want to keep writing new material, but I can always go back to something we did, say, three years ago that we haven’t done for a while!”

No one would mistake the music on the double-CD documenting the Orlando Big Band (due for summer 2000 release on Rivbea Records, Rivers’ boutique label) as being composed by anyone but Rivers.  It follows on the heels of a pair of RCA CD’s, the 1999 Grammy-nominated “Inspiration” and the May 2000 scheduled “Culmination,” featuring an all-star New York big band comprised of four generations of musicians Rivers has touched at various stages of his career that went in the studio following a wild week workshopping the charts before packed houses at Sweet Basil in late 1998.

The music is unlikely Grammy fodder.  Written between 1968 and 1995, bristling with the essence of an avant-garde sensibility, it’s atonal, dissonant, contrapuntal, incorporating overlapping meters, enormous chords and unorthodox voicings over pulsating funk beats laid down by trapsetter Anthony Cole.  “It’s life music,” Cole comments.  “It moves!  It’s danceable if you want to dance.  It’s listenable if you want to listen.  If you want to close your eyes and slip off into a cosmos somewhere, it lets you do that.

“Playing with him has confirmed a lot for me,” continues Cole, who also plays piano and tenor saxophone in Rivers’ Orlando trio which recorded “Concept” [Rivbea, 1996].  “Sometimes out of tradition and custom, there are things you think aren’t kosher or acceptable.  Sam points out the fact that in music everything is correct.   His instruction is to do your thing.  When I was learning the inside structure of music, Free was the last thing you could get me either to listen to or play.  But once I got to that point where I knew how to do it…now, where else do we go from here?   Sam was the first horn player I’ve played drums with who would start screaming through the horn in the middle of something, which encouraged a whole different reaction than I had ever experienced.  Normally you’re used to leading people somewhere.  Sam will take you where he wants you to go.”

“I’m one of the few musicians who plays free and plays changes,” Rivers remarks.  “It takes a long time to be a traditional musician, but a few minutes to be a free one.”  In his case, the training began from birth.  Rivers’ parents, both college graduates, toured with the Silvertone Quartet, a gospel group in which his father sang and his mother was the accompanist.  The family lived in Chicago, where from age 4 he sang in choirs directed by his mother, learned piano and violin, and joined his father on South Side excursions to the Regal Theater and Savoy Ballroom to hear cream-of-the-crop big bands — Ellington to Basie to Lunceford to Earl Fatha Hines.  Some bios have it that Samuel Rivers, Sr. died in a car accident in 1937, and his widow accepted a teaching position at Shorter College in North Little Rock, Arkansas; in our interviews, Rivers says that his father had an accident which left him incapacitated, and that the family moved south around 1934.  In any event, before graduating at 15 from high school in Little Rock, he learned, in succession, trombone, soprano saxophone, baritone horn and finally the tenor saxophone, which became his instrument of choice while attending Jarvis Christian College in Texas.

Rivers’ poetic 1989 paraphrase of “Body and Soul” under the title “Devotion” on “Lazuli” [Timeless] gives a sense of his origins as an improviser.  “I had ‘Body and Soul’ down note for note,” he laughs.  “I liked Coleman Hawkins’ harmonic approach, but Lester Young was really the man because he was so melodic, floating all the time, like ‘You’re Driving Me Crazy’ with Nat Cole.  I analyzed Chu Berry’s ‘Stardust,’ too.  In those days there weren’t many records, so you had to figure things out for yourself.  That’s why there were so many different sounding saxophone players then.  Everybody had their own style because there wasn’t anybody really to follow.

“Of course, after I heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy, that was the epitome.”  That happened when Rivers was a 9-to-5 Navy typist-clerk stationed in California who spent off-hours moonlighting on gigs with singer Jimmy Witherspoon and blew at various Bay Area jam sessions.  He heard Gillespie’s solo on Billy Eckstine’s “Blowing the Blues Away” on a V-disk with no identifying personnel and was intrigued; after discovering the trumpeter’s name, he bought “Blue and Boogie” [Guild, 1945] featuring the Gillespie-Parker front line.  “It was the first bebop record I ever heard,” he remembers, “and that sent me on.  The solos themselves were not important; I analyzed what they did with it in relation to the harmonic framework.  Both were coming from the Blues.  Charlie Parker was pentatonic, playing the basic blues itself, while Dizzy was layering advanced, substitute chords on top of the basic chord structure.  Bird told me later that every note is important, no matter how fast you play.  Some horn players look at certain notes as passing tones to something else, a part of a phrase.  Charlie Parker looked at every note.  No matter if it was a slur, every note in that slur had been worked out and practiced and rehearsed to make sure he could do it if it ever came into his head.”

“Sam comes out of a school of saxophone playing that I can trace back to Coleman Hawkins that I call ‘the snake school,'” comments alto saxophonist Steve Coleman, who produced the RCA recordings and played a significant role in the orchestra.  “It’s represented by players like Lucky Thompson, Benny Golson and Lockjaw Davis, who put a lot of directional shifts in their lines and intervals.  Sam makes it even more pronounced because of his attack, the way he smears the notes.  You can instantly hear it’s him.  His sound and phrasing and rhythm are very slippery, sort of like he looks, kind of long and rangy.  It goes beyond music; when he’s directing the band and doing his little dance, for me that’s like a snake dance.  Before the band plays, he sings the music exactly like it should go.  Nothing he could say would give you more information than watching him move.”

Rivers enrolled in Boston Conservatory of Music on the G.I. Bill, where he studied Composition and Theory, and linked up with a clique of conceptually ambitious jazz musicians like Jaki Byard, Nat Pierce, Charlie Mariano, Gigi Gryce, Herb Pomeroy and Alan Dawson.  The former three played in a floor show at Ort’s Grill, a joint across the street from the RKO Theater, where musicians from the touring big bands would come for dinner and the hang; Rivers, working with the intermission trio, “went through every tune in the Real Book.”  He played with Pomeroy’s forward-looking 13-piece band as well as a rehearsal big band with a bop orientation led by pianist-singer Jimmy Martin for which Byard did much of the writing.  After leaving school, he took a hiatus from Boston, working with his bass-playing brother, Martin Rivers, in Miami and touring the South with various R&B bands.  He returned to Beantown around 1957, where he supported himself writing jingles, rejoined Pomeroy from 1960-62, and formed a remarkable quartet with pianist Hal Galper, bassist Henry Grimes, and an adolescent Tony Williams.

“The music that we did with Pomeroy was shocking,” Rivers recalls.  “Jaki Byard was one of the main writers then; he wrote in a unique, very technical style that took all the musicians into consideration — he was one of my idols as a composer.  My music wasn’t quite ready to be performed, but in ’57 I decided to write a whole book for 2 trumpets, trombone and 3 saxophones, which I never had a chance to play, and in ’58 I started writing music for 13 horns.  I put some rehearsals together in Boston, but everyone who could do the music was so busy with teaching and performing responsibilities that I couldn’t put things together.  The main reason I went to New York was because I had the music and wanted to start a group.”

It happened in the Fall of 1964, shortly after Rivers completed a controversial Japan tour with Miles Davis, who at Williams’ urging called him to replace George Coleman in tenor chair.  Rivers moved into two adjoining 6-room apartments on the top floor of a building on 124th Street, signed with Blue Note, recorded the highly regarded “Fuchsia Swing Song,” on which Rivers, Byard, Ron Carter and Williams performed music from the 1959-60 Boston quartet, and the startlingly original “Contours,” with Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, Carter and Joe Chambers.  Most importantly, he began workshopping his big band music at a Harlem junior high school with a group of eager aspirants, who included baritone saxman Hamiett Bluiett and tubist Bob Stewart, who appear on the RCA recordings.

After a pair of European tours in 1969 with the Cecil Taylor Unit and a six-month stint with McCoy Tyner, Rivers moved to the neighborhood known today as Noho, setting up shop on the ground floor of 24 Bond Street, a loft building where one neighbor was the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.  One of the numerous alternative venues that opened in lower Manhattan during the ’70s, Studio Rivbea served as a combined living quarters-rehearsal hall-performance space, and became a focal point for the hordes of talented improvisers with speculative sensibilities who were descending on New York, providing Rivers a platform on which to expand his orchestral conception.

Best known in his ’70s oeuvre are the singular free-form trios with which he recorded frequently; his magically intuitive 1997 duo [“Tangens”, FMP] with Danish pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, and  a 1996 timbrally evocative dialogue with trombonist Julian Priester [“Hints On Light and Shadow,” Postcards] are the most recent iterations.  “In all modesty, I think my main contribution is that I am the creator of a particular free form in jazz,” Rivers states.  “When Ornette Coleman emerged, he played thematic material which came out of the blues, and improvised on it.  Cecil Taylor is avant-garde; he played themes and improvised on them.  Dave Holland and I had no thematic material; it was spontaneous creativity, completely improvised, and every night was different.  I don’t feel I get credit for my contributions.  I would like someone to tell me who was the one who started it if I didn’t.”

After working with Miles Davis and Chick Corea’s Circle, Holland performed steadily with Rivers in duos, trios, quartets, quintets and big bands between 1972 and 1981.  “Studio Rivbea was a very personal environment for the music to happen in,” he recalls.  “It literally put on these wonderful series of concerts which gave musicians a chance to focus on their ideas without any commercial constraints.  So it was a breeding ground for a lot of interesting musical ideas which weren’t being heard in New York.  Of course, this kind of activity brought people together, and of course opportunities then came up for those groups to work in Europe and elsewhere.  It was a very important time of people coming together and organizing their music.

“Most of the small group things I did with Sam were improvised; each night we started with a blank page and then continued, creating whatever moods or compositional situations we wanted on the spot.  It was a tremendous opportunity for me to explore how to develop ideas and structure improvisation from my position as a bass player.  I was interested in playing as free as possible, and he taught me the idea of bringing all your experience into the music.  Sam’s playing and writing spans the whole tradition, which he’s lived, ranging from Blues to more traditional forms and harmonies to the more atonal elements of his original music.  His big band music is unique, often quite complex, involving a variety of rhythmic fields and overlapping rhythmic cycles — you have to be aware of how the parts interlock.”

Until the release of the RCA CD’s, the only documentation of Rivers’ orchestral music was “Crystals,” a raw 1974 session comprised of members of the early Rivbea orchestra.  “At Boston Conservatory I was looking at some Stravinsky scores which had different time signatures for every bar; I put some of the music in 4/4 to see how it would look,” he explains.  “I use different layers of rhythms superimposed over a basic 4/4.  I write contrapuntally, with two and three and four melodies going on simultaneously; the harmonies happen, but every voice is playing their own particular thematic material in different time signatures than the basic one.  The bass plays the roots, and it’s pretty much the only stabilizing force you should hear.  Without the bass there it would be completely an avant-garde, almost classical sound; which it is anyway, but without the bass it would be hard to call it jazz.

“I write from the piano for something melodic and traditional, but when I’m writing for my orchestra I don’t use the piano, because it’s limiting; you play something, hear it, and have to depend on those sounds.  I just use my intellect.  I’ve gone by the rules all the way, and so now there are no rules.  It’s like higher mathematics.  I dream all these different kinds of sounds, put them together, take it to my orchestra, they play it — and I am astounded.  I don’t try to know what I’ve done!  In a sense, whatever I do is right.  I am the creator.  I don’t understand why musicians sometimes feel inhibited.  No, I am not inhibited at all in music.  I can go anywhere I want with these 12 tones.  You set your own limits.  How do I make it accessible to the audience?  We are in a backbeat rhythm era, where everything is rhythm, so I have to include the rhythm.”

Producing “Inspiration” and “Culmination” was a labor of love for Coleman, who joined the Rivbea ensemble in the summer of 1978, shortly after arriving in New York from Chicago.  “Then the music was loose because of the players, and also because Sam is loose — loose the way Bird was, with a very high level of precision inside the looseness.  I’m very concerned with the music being precise, but not mechanical.  It has a certain spontaneity, what in Chicago we used to call ‘the professional beginner’ sound, which to me is the hardest thing to get.  It’s backed by layer upon layer of thinking and work and interpretation, written with an attention to detail that adds to its emotional impact and spiritual depth.”

“When I first played with Sam, his tuba parts were some of the most difficult I’d seen,” Stewart notes.  “It was like working on an etude book, and it expanded my technique.  On these records, it’s absolutely marvelous hearing the music with the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed.  I felt like I was playing in some kind of African big band, just for the rhythmic qualities and the way the lines move very independently of each other, which you hear a lot in African music.  While it’s contemporary, Sam has somehow reached way back and brought up spirits from old.”

At 76, Rivers seems to have found the fountain of youth in Florida.  He plays with undiminished power on “Winter Garden” [NATO] a December 1998 series of virtuosic composed and tabula rasa duos with English pianist-composer Tony Hymas, and on the earlier “Eight Day Journal” [NATO], a lusciously scored Hymas concerto for Rivers with string and woodwind players from the London Symphony.  “Every morning I get up and start writing,” Rivers says.  “I’m trying to play exciting, advanced music with a nice, primitive beat — combine the intellect with the soul.  The tunes are in the traditional mode because I want people to come back, but it isn’t like so-and-so plays the music of Duke Ellington.  If you don’t have anything of your own, you pick around and use other people’s material.  I’m fortunate not to be in a situation where I have to say, ‘Sam Rivers plays the music of someone else.’  Jazz is especially about individuality; you go out there and play somebody else’s music, you’re giving Jazz a bad name.”

* * *

Sam Rivers (WKCR, 9-25-97):

[SR-Byard-Carter-Williams, “Beatrice” (1964)]

TP:    First I’d like to ask you about the current trio, because you’re always about the future and about the next step, and I guess this trio is the next step for the foreseeable future.  So a few words about how it was formed and the musicians who are playing with you this week.

SR:    Well, it was sort of formed organically, because I had no idea that something like this was possible.  I moved to Florida around six years ago.  I had been traveling around with Dizzy Gillespie, so I’d picked out where I’d go if I wanted to leave New York.  I had a choice of New Mexico, California, Florida, Texas, whatever.  So we went down to visit some people in Florida and we liked it, so we moved down there.  In fact, the reason why we moved is because there are musicians down there who work for Disney who are sort of trapped with the good money, but they’re all good musicians.  They can’t leave, and they don’t have any music to play, fortunately…

TP:    So there you were.

SR:    There I was with all these talented musicians.  Most of them are teachers, and there are composers, and like I say they’re trapped, because you’ve got a mansion and two cars in the garage… [LAUGHS] It’s that kind of situation; you know, the good life.

TP:    A similar situation to Hollywood musicians.

SR:    Yeah, it’s the same thing.  There’s a lot of very talented Hollywood musicians.  But in Hollywood, when you’re working in the studios, you get all this money and you sort of get trapped.  I know a lot of guys like that.  They say, “I hate it, but I can’t leave it!”  So for me, that’s a lesson not to get trapped by a financial situation where you can’t leave — it takes away your freedom.

TP:    Well, you’re someone who’s created situations rather than get into them, and you’ve done that everywhere you’ve parked yourself, as it were, from Boston to New York City and Orlando, Florida!

SR:    That’s true.

TP:    A few words about Doug Matthews and Anthony Cole.

SR:    Right, I was getting to that. [LAUGHS] So I came down to Orlando, Florida, and fortunately at the same time Anthony Cole happened to move from Detroit — pretty much the same day.  He comes from Detroit and I come from New York, and we meet pretty much at a jam session probably the second or third day we got into Orlando.  Anthony Cole comes by his talents genetically, I suppose, because he’s part of the Cole dynasty, Nat King Cole and Natalie.  He’s one of the relatives.  And his mother, Linda Cole, is a singer, too, an excellent singer.  He was sort of like me.  He was born a musician, born into a family of musicians.  I was born on the road, and he was pretty much the same.  Our careers parallel.  So he accompanies his mother for vocals…

TP:    On piano or drums?

SR:    Piano and drums.  Saxophone he’s been playing for six years, and he’s really up on the saxophone.  Well, it’s easy.  If you have the stamina and the will, you can learn an instrument in six years.  I mean, a lot of guitar players are out here making thousands of dollars after six months!  But he’s a very talented musician.

And Doug Matthews is a native Floridian.  There’s not too many of those down in Florida [LAUGHS], people that got started in Florida.  I mean, some native Floridians, either they leave or they move back further into the swamps.

TP:    A lot of good bass players from Florida, like Sam Jones, Jaco Pastorius, Curtis Lundy.

SR:    Oh, sure.  I know Jaco’s family, his brothers and everything.  We’re good friends.  But Doug went to the University of Florida and Berklee, and studied at Berklee.  He’s a bassist, plays bass guitar and contrabass, and he plays bass clarinet.  Anthony plays also tenor saxophone, as I mentioned, so we have all these different combinations.  I would say it’s the most creative group that I’ve ever had the good fortune to be a part of.

TP:    That’s saying something, because you’ve been part of some very creative groups.

SR:    That’s saying something.  I would say that.  I’ve been very fortunate along the way.  Sometimes, in the right situation… I mean, we have compositions for two grand pianos and bass, because Anthony and I both play piano.  We have compositions for three reeds.

TP:    So you can express almost anything, from an orchestral context to a small group blowing kind of thing.

SR:    Yes.  We can play free, but also, we all can play traditional — play the changes, too.  And that’s really something.  If we can play together and everyone can play changes and also be able to express themselves creatively, on the free side.

TP:    How long has the group been a working unit?

SR:    Five or six years, since we went down there.  These things go organically.  We were playing the usual group, me on saxophone and Doug Matthews on bass and Anthony Cole on drums.  Most of the places we played didn’t have a piano, so we were just doing our usual trio thing.  Then Doug mentioned that he played clarinet all the way through high school, and someone gave Anthony a tenor saxophone, and he learned that.  So I said, “Well, we can put these things together.”  It’s not like you’ve got some musicians here who don’t know what they’re doing.  There are so few drummers who can read music, and here’s one that not only reads music, but plays the piano as adequately and competently as a piano player… Well, he is a pianist, too.

TP:    He’s a good pianist.

SR:    Sure.  That’s what I say as far as creativity, never getting stuck in a rut, because there’s too many different places to go.  Each combination produces its own kind of creative stimulus.  If we’re playing the traditional piano-drums and bass, that’s one thing; if we’re playing piano, saxophone and bass that’s another kind of stimulus; if we’re playing two pianos and bass, that’s another stimulus.  So it’s almost endless.

TP:    Has this group sparked an onslaught of composition for you?  Have you been doing a lot of writing for the group?

SR:    This is the nucleus of the orchestra I have in Orlando.  Doug Matthews plays bass and Anthony Cole plays drums in the orchestra, you see.  For me, I have a chance to bring in all the music.  Whatever I write, they can play.  And I’ve never been in a situation like that either.

TP:    It’s not unlike the situation in Chicago in the 1960’s with the AACM Orchestra.

SR:    Yes, it’s the same thing.  This is a situation where, like I say, I’m writing traditional, in the traditional mode on all the tunes I write, because I want to make sure everything is right.  I want to have people come back.  This isn’t like so-and-so plays the music of Duke Ellington or something like that.  I’m not sure whether Duke would be happy with people messing up his music the way that they do, but if you don’t have anything of your own, then you go and pick around and use other people’s material.  I’m fortunate not having to be in that situation, where I have to go around and say, “Sam Rivers plays the music of someone else.”  That’s not what music is about anyway.  Jazz is especially about individuality, and you go out there and play somebody else’s music, you’re giving Jazz a bad name.  You know what I mean?  [LAUGHS]

TP:    I can’t think of anyone who’s more of a rugged individualist in the music than Sam Rivers.  And by the way, today is his birthday.

SR:    Yeah, happy birthday to me!

TP:    I forgot to mention it at the top of the show.  It’s hard to believe.  You were born in 1923, and you don’t look much older than you did when I used to see you at Studio Rivbea twenty years ago!

SR:    You’re right.  It’s a mental condition, I guess.  I decided when I was like 14 that I was probably going to live until the year 2000.  I planned it.  These kind of things go on in your head.  It’s really a mental condition.  I said, “I’m going to do it,” and I looked in the mirror and said, “you’re going to make it.”  Plus, I live moderately.  I’ve done everything, but I didn’t go overboard.  You understand?  And that’s the main thing.  There are temptations out there, and a lot of people are greedy.  I haven’t been greedy, and so I’ve survived.  You don’t survive if you’re greedy.  “What’s that?  Yeah, give me that!  Oh yeah, I’ll try that!”  No-no, no-no.  Up to a point, that’s it.  I never drank, because it slows you down.  I tried playing drinking and it was embarrassing.  My fingers wouldn’t move.  So I never really got into drinking.  And the harder drugs, I never really got bogged down in them either.  So I’ve been very fortunate.

The track we’ll hear, “Sprung”, is probably the most traditional composition on this album.  I like to do that because since I’m one of the few musicians who plays free and plays changes, I like to emphasize the fact that I’m also a traditional musician.  Because if you don’t emphasize the fact, they’ll think you’re just a free musician and have no knowledge of the tradition.  Because it takes a long time to be a traditional musician, but it takes a few minutes to be a free.

TP:    Well, Dizzy Gillespie obviously knew that.

SR:    Sure!

[MUSIC: Rivers-Mathews-Cole, “Sprung”, “Figure” (1996)]

TP:    Before playing “Sprung,” which you described as the most traditional piece on the CD, involving changes, you said you wanted to make sure people understand that you are both a traditional and a free musician.

SR:    It’s very important, yes.

TP:    You said it takes more than a minute to become proficient traditional musician, so I’d like to address that in the next segment of the show.  In the biographies, the encyclopedias of jazz, your birthdate is listed as 1930, but in reality it’s in 1923, and that makes sense in terms of the accomplishments of your career.  You’re in the line of the great jazz musicians born in Oklahoma — Enid, Oklahoma.

SR:    yeah, but…

TP:    You didn’t spend much time there?

SR:    No.  Just my mother and father were on tour.  I was born on the road.  My father was a singer in the Silvertone Quartet, and my mother was the accompanist.  They were living in Chicago at the time, and I was born in Enid while they were on tour.  Touring in the South at that time was fairly easy for them, because there were always more churches there than bars.  They were both college graduates.  My father graduated from Fisk University and my mother from Howard University.

TP:    Were they both music majors?

SR:    My father was a music major.  My mother majored in Sociology, and she played piano.  My grandfather was also a musician, and his two sisters.  They transcribed songs from the slaves, and he wrote books about the composition of the music, and he did some original music of his own hymnals.  His name was the Reverend Marshall Taylor.  He was Bishop in the Methodist Church in Cincinnati or somewhere like that.  He published his own music like I’m doing decades later.  The publishing company is still in the family, but I’m not going to use it at this time until I get sort of situated.  It’s nice to say “established in 1881” or something like that.

TP:    Have you played or seen the music?

SR:    Yes, I have it.  I have some of his writings from the 1830’s or 1840’s, something like that, and they look like they could have been written by Malcolm X.  I’ll probably put some of it on the back of one of the albums someday.  He was a little before Dubois, but he had the same sort of feeling as Souls of Black Folk, that kind of situation.

TP:    What was your father’s name?

SR:    My father’s name was Samuel C. Rivers.  I am “Junior.”  My son is a doctor and he works at Harvard Medical, and he is Dr. Samuel C. Rivers, III.

TP:    Was your father born in Cincinnati?

SR:    No, he was born in Boston.  After I got out of the Service during the Forties… When I entered the Navy, I was one of the first who didn’t go in as a musician or a steward.  Robert Smalls and I went in as regular Navy men.  We had a choice of whatever field we wanted to go into, Bosuns, Mates… I chose music when I went in, but the band they wanted to put me in wasn’t good.  I’m very young and arrogant, so I said, “No, I’ll learn something else.”  So I went in as Quartermaster, correcting charts and steering the ship and all that, but I never went on board ship.  I knew I wasn’t going on board if I took something like that.  I was transferred to Vallejo, California, which was my musical experience.  It was very good I didn’t go into the band, because the band had to play in the officers quarters every night.  I wasn’t in the band, so I could take my horn and go out into the city and play.  Vallejo is near San Francisco.  That’s where I met Jimmy Witherspoon.  One of my first professional gigs was with Jimmy Witherspoon while I was in the Navy.  We were playing at this club someplace in Vallejo where he was everything.  He was the Master of Ceremonies, he was the maitre’d, he was the comedian and he was the singer, and I was part of the group.  That’s pretty much the playing I did when I was in the Navy.

TP:    When did you get out of the Navy?

SR:    I got out of the Navy in 1945.

TP:    I know the Billy Eckstine band came out there around ’44 or ’45.

SR:    I thought it was one of the most… What can I say?  Everybody was in the band!

TP:    That’s when Charlie Parker was in it.

SR:    Charlie Parker and Gene Ammons, Art Blakey was the drummer.  Oh, it was a beautiful band.  Leo Parker, Frank Wess, Miles Davis… I’m not sure whether Dizzy was in that band ever.

TP:    He was in at the beginning.

SR:    Actually, it was a takeoff from Earl Hines band.  Earl Hines was the master of that.  I used to hear Earl Hines in the Thirties, when he had a beautiful alto player with him. [Scoops Carey, probably]

TP:    Let me take you back a little bit from Vallejo, California?  Did you spend your early years, your adolescent years in Chicago?

SR:    No, I didn’t.  I was growing up in Chicago, but then my father had an accident.  He was helping somebody move some rugs or something, and he got knocked over the bannister and cracked his skull, and he wasn’t any more good after that.  He wasn’t able to really stand.  He kept his sanity, but he really couldn’t work.  So my mother took a job at Shorter College in North Little Rock, and so we moved down there when I was about 10 or 11, I think.  So I came up on the campus in North Little Rock, pretty much.  I was going to Catholic school and coming up on the campus.  I remember a lot of conversations about economics there, and the main thing they were worried about was, if the businessman ever gets control, we’re in serious trouble. [LAUGHS] That’s all I could ever hear.

TP:    So the idea of setting up your own situation took hold when you were 11-12-13 years old.

SR:    That’s right.

TP:    What were your earliest musical experiences in terms of listening to jazz?

SR:    Oh, when I was in Chicago.  They weren’t into jazz. They appreciated it, but they were real church people.  My mother was as Puritan as they come.  I can’t imagine a more puritanical woman than my mother.  She was very strict.  She made me practice.  I mean, there wasn’t any fooling around like that.   And I’m glad she did, because I wouldn’t be a musician today if she hadn’t done that.  She stood over me for maybe a year or so.  There were guys calling, “Mrs. Rivers, can Sam come out and play ball?” and she’d say, “No, he’s got to practice.”  So that went on for maybe a year or so, and then I got to the place where I liked it.  So after that the guys would say, “Come on, Sam, do you want to play?” and I’d say, “No, I want to practice,” then she was telling me, “You’d better go out and play ball!”  She started getting me away from the piano after a while.  That’s when I really got involved.  It’s been like that ever since.  I really love the music.

TP:    So the piano is the instrument you’ve been playing the longest.

SR:    Yes, and violin.  My mother played both violin and piano, so she taught me both.  She was really a pianist, and my father was a singer and she would accompany him.

TP:    The notes    to your complete Blue Note sessions on Mosaic say that you fell in love with the tenor saxophone in high school.

SR:    Yeah.

TP:    That would have been 1937-38-39.

SR:    Yes.  I was going to this Catholic school, St. Bartholomew’s in Little Rock, and they had all these instruments.  In those days, they had all these donated instruments, so if you wanted to play you could go in and choose whatever instrument you wanted to play.  You didn’t have to buy an instrument; they just had it there.  First I took trombone, then the soprano saxophone, then I worked on the baritone horn, and then finally the tenor.

TP:    They gave you a thorough training on the instruments in school.

SR:    Yes, it was like that.  I had a choice of doing it.  And the priest who conducted the band, he was really a conductor only.  The seniors were the tutors of the younger students.  He didn’t do anything but come in and raise his baton.  When some of the younger students made a mistake, he’d ask them, “Who’s your tutor?”  The tutor would be graded on how good the student is, you see.  That’s the way he ran his band.

TP:    So it wasn’t like Walter Dyett in Chicago who would throw  a baton at the student who made a mistake.

SR:    [LAUGHS] No.  It was a very hierarchical band.

TP:    Did you play jazz in that band, or was it outside of school?

SR:    No, it was a military band.  But when I got in college at Jarvis Christian College… I graduated from high school at 15 and went to Philander Smith for the summer, and then went down to Jarvis Christian College for the year.  That’s when I started playing the tenor saxophone and so on.

TP:    It says here that Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Buddy Tate and Don Byas were among the first tenor-men that made an impression on you.

SR:    Sure.

TP:    Were you listening to jazz all the way through?

SR:    Going back to Chicago when my father was well, he took us to see Cab Calloway at the Regal Theater or the Savoy.  We saw all the bands, Duke Ellington, Count Basie [sic], Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole.  Everybody there was to see, we went to see it.  But my mother didn’t really think of us as being… We were supposed to be teachers.  She was raising her two sons to be teachers like she was.

TP:    Well, she did.

SR:    [LAUGHS] I guess so.  Teaching is so demanding for me.  When I think about it, I really respect teachers.  It’s hard for me to do teaching, because you’re always going back in your memory to bring up things from the past.  When you’re teaching you don’t go into the future.  You’re always dealing with the past.  And I have a problem with that sometimes.  It’s tedious for me to keep returning to the past.  I don’t really teach that much.  My mind is completely creative.  I keep it in the future rather than having to think about the tradition.

TP:    So you heard all the big bands live in Chicago, and you’d hear the records.

SR:    I heard them live.  Jimmie Lunceford, Andy Kirk, and all the singers who were around at that time, too.  So we were very well versed.  Plus, we had symphonies.  She had Beethoven, and I practiced Bach!  Everyone studies Bach; that’s pretty much ordinary.

TP:    When you started playing the tenor, were you listening to Coleman Hawkins, “Body and Soul,” or Lester Young, “Taxi War Dance,” and copying those?

SR:    Yeah, we had it down note for note.  Note for note, “Body and Soul”! [LAUGHS] I can still remember part of it.  I liked Coleman Hawkins’ harmonic approach, but Lester was really the man because he was so melodic.  He was playing the changes, too, but it was kind of different because it really wasn’t the changes.  He was playing the changes but he really wasn’t.  He was just playing over the changes, something like that.  It’s a very different approach to music.  Of course, after I heard Charlie Parker, that was pretty much the epitome.  That was it.  That was the height of it, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.  I heard Dizzy first, on the record with Billy Eckstine, “Blowing the Blues” away, one of those big disks.  I was just listening to it, sitting there, and Billy was singing, then Dizzy came in, [SINGS DIZZY].  I said, “Wait a minute.”  I said, “Wait a minute.”  I said, “listen to this again; man, this is something.”  I went and took this record, because I knew all the musicians… I wasn’t a musician myself; I was working in the office.  Fortunately, I didn’t have to do anything, because if you could type, you were set.  Incidentally, I was the only guy who was pretty much straight in the office in the Forties.  Understand what I’m saying?  I mean, in the Forties the whole goddamn thing was…everybody in there was pretty much somewhere else.  They’re having a problem with it now, but really this has been going for fifty years.

But I took the music to the guys to listen, and they couldn’t believe it either.  They were listening to it and saying, “Wow, what is this?”  There’s no names on the disk.  We didn’t know who it was.  So I called my brother up, because my brother was in the Navy, too, but he was stationed in Boston.  He’d go back and forth to New York, so he knew the guys.  And I’m in California, and nothing out there at that time, in the Forties.  My brother had been listening to Dizzy and Bird, and I didn’t even know them.  This had been out almost a year, and nobody had even heard of them in California.  My brother told me, “Yeah, man, that guy’s name is Dizzy Gillespie who you’re talking about.”  Then I got “Blue and Boogie,” the first bebop record I ever heard, and that sent me on.

But I listened differently.  When I heard the solo, I analyzed it on how it is in relation to the chords.  Just the solo itself was not important.  The important thing was how he did what he did with it in relation to the harmonic framework.

TP:    So you were able to do that through listening to the records.

SR:    Yes.

TP:    You didn’t need someone to show you, “This is going down like this.”

SR:    No, I was figuring out changes already.  I could always play chord changes.  I was working out my II-V’s years ago.  That was pretty much it.

TP:    So after the Navy you went back to Boston.  What was the scene like?

SR:    The scene in Boston was very fertile.  When I went to Boston, there was Jaki Byard, there was Gigi Gryce, there was Quincy Jones, there was Charlie Mariano, there was Nat Pierce, there was Alan Dawson, John Neves, Herb Pomeroy…

TP:    Was Roy Haynes still there?

SR:    Roy Haynes had just left.  He had just left.

TP:    With Lester Young.

SR:    Oh, he worked with Lester before Bird?  I remember hearing him with Lester.  He was kicking, too.  Lester was right there, and he was doing those fast tempos.  It was amazing hearing Lester play fast.  He was floating all the time.  Those were really beautiful guys.  Just listening to them was really an experience.

TP:    You went to Boston and enrolled in the Boston Conservatory of Music on the G.I. Bill?  Is that how it went down?

SR:    Yes, I went there.  I was planning on going to New York right away.  There was no doubt about it.  Everything was set.  Then I went home and my mother said, “You’d better go to Boston and take care of your brother; you know how wild he is.”  That’s the only reason I went to Boston.  Otherwise I’d have gone straight to New York, because I had the connections and everything.  So I went to Boston and stayed there.  I enrolled in school on the G.I. Bill.  Also, all the musicians gravitated together.  We rented this house on 13 Rutland Square, and we lived there.

TP:    Which musicians?

SR:    Jaki Byard, Gigi Gryce, the Perry Brothers (Ray Perry, a violinist), and a lot of other musicians.  It was a 13-room house, and I lived on the top floor.  And the only girl that ever got up there was Bea! [LAUGHS] None of the other girls that came to see me got to the top floor.  It was that kind of situation, but I didn’t mind.  I was glad they didn’t get up there.  I was busy.

TP:    When did you start writing music?  Did that start when you hit Boston?

SR:    Yeah, I pretty much started writing in Boston.  I started writing because I was taking Composition and Theory at the university, and you have to write anyway because that’s part of taking composition.  It was Classical Composition because there weren’t any jazz schools around then.  Then only thing close to Jazz would be the Schillinger House, which a lot of musicians went to at that time, which changed to Berklee.  It was Schillinger House originally, and then it changed.  Jaki Byard and a lot of musicians studied there for a while, with the Schillinger system, and then transferred to the Conservatory.

TP:    Michael Cuscuna writes that you also played viola professionally.

SR:    I never really played it professionally.  I was in the school symphony orchestra, but that’s about as far as it went.

TP:    It says you worked with Serge Chaloff’s string quintet.

SR:    Oh, that’s right, I did that.  But that was the only professional thing I really did with it.  But I was in the school symphony.  I remember that, yeah, but I don’t remember the music!

TP:    Now, Boston was a place where musicians would come through on the Northeast circuit, and I assume you went to hear everybody who would come through.

SR:    Actually, the place I was working at the time in Boston was called Ort’s(?) Grill, and it was across the street from the theater where they brought out all the musicians.

TP:    Which theater was that?

SR:    RKO.  It was across the street.  So I didn’t go to see the musicians; they came to see us! [LAUGHS] Stan Kenton came in and hired Charlie Mariano out of the place, and some other musicians got hired working out of there.  Quincy was playing trumpet at the time; I’m not sure what happened to him.  Jaki Byard was there.  I was working with a pianist who… There were so many different groups that played.  It was one of those places where there was never a dull moment.  It had like eight singers and stuff like this.  So we just played the intermission.  Our trio was me, Larry Willis on piano and Larry Winters on drums.  That’s a different Larry Willis, a stride pianist who knew all the tunes, but he played by ear.  My repertoire came from listening, learning the tunes.  I bought the fake book, then I learned all the tunes.  I went through the whole book; they call it The Real Book now — it used to be the Fake Book, now it’s The Real Book.  So I went through every tune in the Real Book, and I just picked out the ones that I liked.

TP:    So you learned the American Songbook on that gig, and you’re beginning to get your own compositional sensibility together.

SR:    Right.  I was beginning to write at the time like that.  But fortunately for me, my Classical training, European Concert music was part of my tradition, too, since I came up with that — and the spirituals and the Jazz.  I’m pretty much comfortable in any of the particular idioms like that.  I performed with the Symphony Orchestra, with Sergio Ozawa.  In the past, when they needed…

BEATRICE:  A soprano.

SR:    Well, a saxophonist, an improviser, they would call me.  Because I was considered an improviser who could improvise music that sounded pretty much like it would be… I really think that the music I have done and have created should… I guess after I’m gone, I’m not really considered one of the main people, but I consider…some people do consider me one of the main people, as far as one of the leading exponents of Free Jazz.  Free Jazz, the way it’s explained to people, is you state a theme, and then you pretty much improvise on that theme irregardless of the harmonic base.  I have records out, myself and Dave Holland, and some in trio… I played for 12 years in New York just going out and playing, no theme, nothing…

TP:    A blank page.

SR:    I don’t know any other musician who has done this.  I don’t know why I’m not considered the originator of this particular free jazz style, because I’m sure I am.  Everyone else plays a theme.  When I played with Cecil, pretty much all his music was written.  I don’t know anybody other than myself.  I would like it if someone can write me and tell me who it is who really started the free jazz other than myself.

TP:    Both Dave Holland and Barry Altschul say that you would practice 8 or 9 hours a day, and on a gig you wouldn’t have any music at all until the first note was stated, it would take off from there, and that the communication was built on your practicing together so much and knowing each other’s sounds and mindset so intimately.

SR:    That’s right.  But no thematic material.  I even write that on the back of some of my things, and I still don’t see any of the critics picking up on it.  If they tell me who originated it other than myself, I’d be glad to give them the credit.  Maybe it’s one of these anonymous kind of situations, like the Blues, where nobody really wrote it.  It could be like that.

[MUSIC:  Sam Rivers, “Dance of The Tripedal” (1965); SR, “Secret Love” (1966)]

TP:    Sam Rivers and I were discussing his formative years in music, and we stopped in the early 1950’s in Boston.  I’d like to pick up with the years after Charlie Parker died, and you were an established figure on the Boston scene and encountered Tony Williams.  How did things evolve?

SR:    I had been doing concerts around Boston.  I’d been playing with different groups.

TP:    Had you started writing for big bands by that time?

SR:    I started writing for big bands, but I didn’t have one really organized.  But I was writing thematic material for it.  I was working at a club called Club 47 around Harvard Square.  I’m trying to get this pretty much in chronology.  I spent ten or fifteen years before I came to New York, and it was through Tony that I went to New York.  I really didn’t think it was necessary for me to go to New York, because I’d been traveling all around the world, I had been traveling with any kind of groups that wanted it.  I went out with T-Bone Walker for quite a long time, and I did some things with B.B. King.  But I pretty much stayed around Boston, because I was working for this publishing company, which I never really… I got a letter from some people the other day about this.  It was “Send your poems up and we will put the music to it.”  I was very adept at doing that.  I pretty much lived in Boston by writing music for lyrics, which is you send me a couple of lyrics and I’ll have the music ready in an hour.  I’d look at the lyrics and they’d suggest the music.  It’s not a big deal for me.  I ghost-wrote a lot of jingles.  Bring it up, if you want it in ten minutes I’ll give it to you.  A composer writes down his improvisations.  That’s what a composer does.  He doesn’t really sit down and try to figure out, “Look…”  He’s writing down…if he was an instrumentalist, this is what he would play.

TP:    From the brain to the pen.

SR:    Yeah, that’s it.  I don’t know about other composers, but it sounds to me like they’re writing their own improvisations.  That’s what I do.  I write down my improvisations.  I write down what I would do.  Now, with my orchestra, which is 13 horns, each instrument is a solo part, so I write it.  It’s harmony and it’s counterpoint and everything, but every part can be played by itself.

TP:    In your own performances in Boston were you functioning as a multi-instrumentalist?  When did the concept of playing tenor, flute, soprano and piano within a set of music evolve for you?

SR:    I’m not sure.  It was kind of an organic situation; I’m not sure how that happened.  I was always a pianist.  But when I was with the Herb Pomeroy Orchestra, Jaki Byard was such a fantastic piano player; I just considered myself playing chords.  The only reason why I’m not a piano player today, I’ll confess, is because I couldn’t play Bebop.  I can’t play like Bud Powell.  I couldn’t do that kind of stuff! [LAUGHS]  So I concentrated more on the tenor saxophone because I couldn’t play Bebop.  I can play any kind… I can play all the Classical music you want.  Which is good for me, because especially for Classical it’s more free-style than trying to play very traditional bebop, which is very difficult.  My hat goes off to all Bebop players, because this is a very difficult style on piano.

TP:    Why is it so difficult?

SR:    I don’t understand it.  I don’t know.  I can’t do it.  There are musicians who can do it.  All the Bebop piano players I know, they’re good.  If someone said, “Sam, recommend a Bebop piano player,” I’d look at the guy and think which personality would fit with this guy, because all the musicians I know who are playing Bebop, from Tommy Flanagan all the way up to Herbie Hancock…

TP:    They’ve got it together.

SR:    They’ve all got it together.  All bebop players are qualified.

TP:    Do different personalities or different sides of yourself emerge on each of the instruments?  If so, how would you describe it for each of them?

SR:    It’s hard to describe.  Different sounds create different stimuli.  If you listen to a certain sound, it produces a certain reaction.  All sounds produce a reaction.  If I’m playing one note, the first note produces an automatic reaction to go the second note.  And I’ve studied so much, working with the Schoenberg, writing out my own 12-tone exercises, that I hear like that now when I’m playing.  I don’t really repeat notes.  I mean, I can go on.  If I want to repeat a note… So this keeps the music atonal.   So I wrote my exercises, some very tricky and hard things to play, and worked on them myself and got it out, analyzed all the other musicians, which is very important.

But a jazz musician, I mean, to sound like someone else is giving jazz a bad name, because jazz musicians are supposed to be original people.  They’re supposed to create something.  They’re not supposed to be imitating anybody.  So this is it.  This is what I consider a jazz musician.  Don’t give jazz a bad name by listening to the… I mean, because the imitators are giving jazz a bad name.

TP:    At one point in your life you were playing Lester Young or Coleman Hawkins solos note-for-note.

SR:    Right.

TP:    When did you start getting past that?

SR:    That was at home.  I never went out in public playing anyone else’s solos.  The standards, I had, and all my originals… I had all the standards I did that weren’t standards… If a standard was recorded by somebody else, I stopped playing it, and I’d find something else to play.  I was intent on being an original.  I intended it.  It was part of my thing.  I don’t want to copy anyone, and I don’t feel that a jazz musician should be a copyist.  That is the main thing.  All the musicians that I ever respected did not copy anyone else.  They were coming from themself.

I hear so many musicians nowadays, I listen to them play and it’s like a history book.  It’s a reminiscing for me.  I say, “Oh, I remember I heard this phrase and I heard that phrase, and I heard this cliche,” and it reminds me of a certain thing.  It takes me off on different things like that.  I can only listen into a creative person that has his own style to really appreciate it, otherwise I’ll go into where I heard this before, or I heard this cliche before.  This is what I do for classes.  I put on a record of somebody that just came out, some of the young old-timers, I put it on, and I explain “This happened in 1950” and “this happened in…”  I explain what the young old-timers are doing in relation to what the original people did.

TP:    You’ve mentioned that in playing with Tony Williams you got into the seamless presentation that became your trademark by the 1970s.  You related an anecdote when we did a telephone interview right after Tony Williams died about hearing him when he was about 12 years old, his father brought him down to where you were playing, and he sounded like he had some talent, but I think the way you put it, he needed to go in the shed, he went, and he came back the next spring and played Max Roach, but his own ideas on it, he’d play what Art Blakey would play, then his own ideas…

SR:    That’s right.

TP:    That’s how it went down?

SR:    Well, yeah, sort of like that.  But we were neighbors.  He lived not too far from me.  So I’d go over.  He had his basement where he would practice all day long, and he would say, “All right, Art Blakey plays like this.”  TING, TING-A-DING, DING-DING.  “Max Roach plays like this,” then he’d play all of Max’s things.  Then he’d say, “Elvin Jones plays like this,” then he’d do Elvin’s stuff.  “And Philly Joe plays like this,” and then the out drummer, what’s his…from Philadelphia…

TP:    Sonny Murray?

SR:    Sonny Murray.  “Sonny Murray plays like this.”  So he had them all down.  But then when he played, he played his own style.  Which I did, too.  I played my own… I mean, I would analyze it to see… I would analyze Bird’s solos to see how he played.  I could hear what Coltrane was doing.  By the time Coltrane came, I could really hear exactly what he was doing.  It was very exciting for me.

TP:    Did you like what Ornette Coleman was doing when his music came out in 1958-59?  Did it speak to you?

SR:    When it first came out, I thought it was really great.  That was another situation where I took some records around to musicians so they could hear it.  I put it down for one musician, and he listened to it, and he came over and he took it, picked it up, and just destroyed it. [LAUGHS] He just cracked it up.  He couldn’t stand it!  When I came to New York it was the same thing.  The older musicians said, “Sam, what are those young guys doing?”  They couldn’t understand.  I was playing with an avant-garde Classical musician, and he needed somebody to improvise.  Tony was in the group.  We’d go to museums and we’d play the lines on the paintings, he would explain the painting, and then we’d play the music like this… The usual Dada kind of stuff.  We’d throw ink splats on the paper, and do the rise-and-fall of this.  I’ve gone through all these things, and Tony did too.  So everything was pretty much downhill as far as the techniques of the Dada movement. [LAUGHS]

TP:    It seems like maybe it was around ’59-’60 that you began to incorporate these sort of yearnings towards freedom into your presentation.

SR:    Mmm-hmm.  Well, for piano… I mean, I was practicing piano, then all of a sudden one day I sat down and started playing the piano.  I would say to musicians it’s not an incline thing; you rise by…you go up plateaus.  It’s not a gradual thing.  One morning you get up, if you’ve practiced for like six or seven months or something like this…one morning you get up and it’s all there.  It’s not a gradual… The mind is a funny thing for me.  I’ve noticed that you stay in one place for a while, and then you move.  If you are practicing, you can feel the advance that you make.  You advance in plateaus.  It’s not a gradual thing.  The mind just keeps accumulating material, and then all of a sudden it explodes to the next level.

TP:    What finally brought you to New York?

SR:    Well, Tony.  Actually, it wasn’t really Tony.  I had written all these compositions, and then to get musicians together… There weren’t that many musicians.  I moved to New York because of the musicians there.  Which is the same reason I moved to Florida.

TP:    You have that pool of good musicians just aching to play some different music.

SR:    Right.  So I never had a problem.  As far as playing for rehearsals and calling the musicians, it’s a challenge for them and they play it just when they have their nights off.  If they come in to rehearse your music for nothing, then you know you’re doing something that they appreciate.

TP:    You mentioned earlier that you’d like to speak about your experiences with Miles Davis.

SR:    Tony Williams got me with Miles.  He had these tapes that he had done with me in Boston, so he said, “Miles, I want you to hear this tape.”  Miles said, “yeah, okay, later.”  He kept doing that.  So finally, one day he trapped Miles.  “Okay, go ahead, play it!”  Tony said he heard the first track and he said, “Call him up.  Get him up here right now.”  So he called me.  I was on the road with T-Bone Walker, and he called me and said, “George quit; Miles wants you to join the band.”  I was out there on the road someplace.  So I left T-Bone Walker to join Miles Davis.

But the thing is, there’s always been this story out how much advanced I was, that Miles wasn’t happy with my style.  It wasn’t that at all.  Miles was right there with it.  He understood.  He could hear what I was doing.  It wasn’t a problem at all.  The thing was that he had already been committed to Wayne Shorter.  So the deal was that when Wayne left Art Blakey, I was supposed to go with Art Blakey,  and it was supposed to be a trade like that.  But I didn’t want to go with Art Blakey.  I went with Andrew Hill instead.  So we went on tour with Andrew Hill, and that’s the way it went down.  It wasn’t anything about me being much more advanced than Miles.  Miles was just as advanced.  In certain ways he wanted to produce his free stuff, which is what he did in Bitches Brew and everything.  All these things are pretty much free over the static rhythm, like I mentioned before.  So he wanted to make sure that I projected the music to the public, and reach a wider audience.

TP:    By the late Sixties you’d become an established figure in New York.  When did you begin to set up the workshop situations that led to something like Crystals, which is your first recording of big band music.

SR:    As soon as I came to New York.  That’s what I came to New York for, to set up the band.  I had a place, a rehearsal space downtown.  A lot of musicians.  I think I remember having the Brecker brothers in the band…

TP:    Did you go to Bond Street right away?

SR:    No, that was much later.  I moved uptown.  I had two six-room apartments on 124th Street.  I had the whole top floor, 12 rooms, so I could do a lot of things up there.  I did something for the Canadian Broadcasting System with Cecil McBee and a lot of other musicians up in my studio.  But I was rehearsing at the Marion McCloud School up there, long before… The initial reason why I got the loft downtown was because I didn’t have any place to rehearse, and I had music I wanted to rehearse, and at the school there was no beer, no drinks, no cigarettes, no nothing, so it was a very tight situation for us to rehearse in — but it was available.

But then I started looking around downtown, and then eventually I found Bond Street.  There was a very beautiful woman, Virginia Admiral, the mother of Robert De Niro, and she was very pleased that we made the whole building internationally famous.  Bond Street, incidentally, was a very happening place, by the way.  There was this woman up above us with her lady mate that was the first one who started the books on sexual harassment in the office.  I saw her on TV once.  I said, “Wow, look at her.  She’s got rouge and lipstick on; she’s trying to look like a woman.”  Then up on the next floor there was Mapplethorpe!  Robert Mapplethorpe was up on the fourth floor.

TP:    Well, I’d say we had many strands of American culture at 24 Bond Street!

SR:    24 Bond Street, that’s right.  Mapplethorpe was there.  He was a good friend of mine.  He used to come down.  He loved the music.  I mean, he did some photos of me with my clothes on. [LAUGHS] They’re around!

TP:    The next music will represent Sam Rivers in the ’70s.  We’ve already decided we have to do a Sunday profile on the  next trip to New York.  Coming up is Crystals.

SR:    This is the only big band arrangement I have.  I have 200 compositions and arrangements for big band at this point, and I haven’t been able to record any of them.  I’m still trying to get discovered out here.  I was looking at something on my way up there which says, “Sam Rivers: Often Overlooked.”  That was the first thing it said on this history, “Sam Rivers: Often Overlooked.”  Why?  Why would I be often overlooked?  I don’t understand that.  I’m sure that my place in the history of music is not really where it should be.  But I am not bitter about it, because I really don’t care.  I am going to put my stuff together, and I’m going to have it for posterity.

[MUSIC: Sam Rivers, “Tranquility” (1969); SR w/G. Lewis, “Circles” (1978)]

TP:    In our final hour, as we celebrate Sam Rivers’ 74th birthday on WKCR, we’ll hear some recent recordings.  You’ve recorded prolifically in recent years on other people’s recordings and collaborative situation.  Let’s hear the various recordings and cover the circumstances of each.  The first track is from the 1996 CD, Configuration, on NATO, a French label, with Sam Rivers on reeds; Noel Akchote, guitars; Tony Hymus on piano (who is a composer on much of this); Paul Rogers, bass; Jacques Thollot on drums.

SR:    It’s more or less an international album.  Tony Hymus is from London.  Akchote is French, and he’s also teaching in Switzerland.  The bass player is also from London.  The drummer, Thollot, is French.  This fellow decided to put this together.  But he was mainly interested in doing commemorative kind of music for Cassavetes’ movies.  This is just a preliminary thing that happened during the extra.  Also Tony Hymus is doing a concerto for me which will be performed with the London Symphony in January.  It’s all written, and I’m going over to do that.  The piece needs someone who can improvise and sound… [LAUGHS] This was part of a project the French government is doing.  He put the musicians together, I knew them all, and he asked me how it was.  Everyone on the album is a bandleader, so it’s an all-star group, and each one had to contribute some music.  So I contributed three or four compositions on it.

[MUSIC: Rivers, “Moonbeams” (1996); Rivers (solo), “Profile” (1995); Rivers-Workman, “Solace” (1995)]

TP:    I haven’t known you to do too much solo performance over the years.  I’m sure you have, but it’s not been that documented much.  Is this your first solo recording?

SR:    It is.  It’s the first one I’ve done.

TP:    I guess it’s taking that blank page concept of free improvising to its ultimate extent in a certain way.

SR:    I suppose so.  I was very comfortable in doing it, because I’ve done it in the past, but I have never recorded it.  I have done quite a few solo concerts, but they’ve never been recorded professionally like this one was done.

TP:    How does it differ for you from, say, the duo or trio format of free improvising?

SR:    I’m not really sure it’s much different.  I get added stimulus from the musicians who are playing with me, but that would be the only thing — more stimulus and more creativity.

TP:    How important is that dialogue with an ensemble for you in your improvising?  Or, for that matter, in your composing?  You said you pay heed to who the performers are sometimes when you compose.

SR:    Yes, that’s right.

TP:    Talk about the input of the other improvisers within your concept.

SR:    Improvising is sort of a real democracy kind of situation where everyone is performing in their own particular style or idiom of performing.  But since it’s musically, in a sense, correct, then it forms a unit.  But it’s a unit where everyone is doing their own thing, but it combines to become one unit, one whole like that.  I think life is pretty much like that. [LAUGHS] Even the nucleus revolving around a certain entity through the universe.  I suppose it would be random, in a sense, but physicists have put random into the equations.  So everyone is doing a particular thing, but it comes out to be a complete unit, one particular whole.  But it has to be individuals doing it.  It doesn’t have to be individuals, but it’s a much more powerful, creative situation when everyone is more or less producing their own individual concept.  Which is why producers love to have all-stars, because each person is going to be playing his own particular thing, but then it will combine to become one unit.  They usually try for that.  Sometimes it doesn’t work.  Sometimes there’s a clash.  But usually the musicians will work together.  That’s why producers like all-stars, so they can get the unit happening but everyone will have their own individual voice.  So I’m fortunate to have musicians like that in my group now.

TP:    A little bit less than a year ago, in November, you went in the studio with Julian Priester and a musician who deals with electronic sounds, Tucker Martin(?), and there’s a new record out on Postcards entitled Light and Shadow.  A few words about how that date came about, and your interaction and relationship with Julian Priester.

SR:    My relationship with Julian Priester goes back many, many, many years.  We did some things in the past, and then I played with him sometimes in Herbie’s band when Julian was there and Eddie Henderson and Billy Hart.  So I’ve known Julian over the years.  And we taught together in Seattle.  Ralph Simon is the producer of Postcards, he’s producing most of the music there, and he’s a very talented producer and saxophonist himself.

TP:    I take it this was an improvised, collaborative date. Is that how it was set up?

SR:    Yes, it was improvised.

TP:    Did you do a couple of rehearsals going over stuff and then went into the studio?

SR:    Yes, we did.

[MUSIC: Rivers-Priester-T. Martin, “Heads of the People” (1996); Rivers-Schlippenbach, Backgrounds For Improvisers, “Terrain” (1995)]

TP:    Bea Rivers, do you remember when Sam composed your tune, “Beatrice”?

BEA RIVERS:  Yes, I do.  It was one evening when Tony Williams came by to spend the evening, which he did…

SR:    Ron Carter, too, wasn’t he there?

BEA RIVERS:  Yeah, Ron Carter was there as well.  But Tony Williams would come every day and play with Sam.  One day he came in, and Sam said, “Tony, listen to this.”  Tony listened to it and he said, “Wow, what is the name of that?”  He said, “I think I’ll name it ‘Beatrice.'”  So that’s how it came about.

TP:    That was composed for the date, Fuchsia Swing Song.  It wasn’t one of your older tunes?

SR:    I had already composed it.  I hadn’t planned to put it on the album.  I had different music for the album, but it was a little too advanced for Alfred.  He said he was going to cancel the date, so I went back and got other music.  Fuchsia Swing Song was music I had done four or five years earlier.  I really hadn’t planned on recording that music.  I thought it was much too old to record.

TP:    Was that the music you had recorded in that quartet with Hal Galper, Henry Grimes and Tony Williams?

SR:    Yes, that music.

TP:    So the music performed on Fuchsia Swing Song was all music from 1959 and 1960.

SR:    Yeah, Fuchsia Swing Song was old music.  I had other music, but Alfred… As a matter of fact, all the music that Tony did with Lifetime, he had big problems with Alfred Lion because Alfred didn’t want to do it.  He really couldn’t hear it.  It seems like the music that musicians have the hardest problem getting recorded is the music that withstands the ravages of time.  It’s the ones that last the longest.  You know what I mean?  So you have the hardest problem talking to the producers, and it ends up that this  music twenty years later is still fresh-sounding.  You still have to convince the producers, because they would prefer something that they heard yesterday…

BEA RIVERS:  Over and over again.

SR:    Over and over again.  Some of the recordings that the young musicians are doing, have they considered of what value that’s going to be in another twenty years?  Of no value at all.  It’s throwaway music.  Most of the people that are recording now, it’s throwaway.  I’d rather hear Charlie Parker than hear any of them.

BEA RIVERS:  That’s right.  They’re recording what the masters have already done.

SR:    That’s not good, because they don’t have anything… In the future, how good is this?  The music that’s being done right now by the young old-timers, how good is that going to be in another twenty years?

TP:    Well, only time will tell, I guess.

SR:    [LAUGHS] I guess only time will tell, but I’m really not happy with that.

TP:    We could have a long conversation about that, but if we did, we wouldn’t get to hear the next two tunes.  So maybe we’ll hear it on the Sunday we’ll devote to your music sometime in the future.

[MUSIC:  Rivers-Matthews-Cole, “Point” (1996); Rivers-A. Anderson-Altschul, “Molde” (1973)]

* * *

Sam Rivers (DB Interview, 11-29-99):

TP:    Is there anything inaccurate or that you’d like to add to what you spoke about in the earlier interview?

RIVERS:  I just saw one thing that was misspelled — El Reno, Oklahoma.

TP:    Give me some sense of how the big bands impressed you, and who were the composers and arrangers and instrumentalists you admired in that very formative period in Chicago.

RIVERS:  Well, I was pretty young then, and I was listening more or less for educational purposes, to be used in the future.  My mother and father both understood the music, although they didn’t really care for it that much; they were more into spirituals and classical.  Then I had the records, too, to listen to later on so I could pretty much visually identify who was performing on the records.  So that did help in a sense.  But as far as influences in big band or jazz orchestra, it’s hard for me to say.  16 musicians as a group was more on my mind than anything else.

TP:    You mean the sound of the big band rather than the…

RIVERS:  Yes, the sound of the big band.  More than any particular composer or anything.  I was impressed with the instrumentation and what was to be done with it from the beginning, rather than listening to any particular style or something like that.

TP:    You were very young also in Chicago.  I forgot that you left when you were 11.

RIVERS:  Yes.  Then the bands were still coming through.  My mother was still teaching in North Little Rock, at Shorter College, and there were orchestras that came through there, too. I remember a lot of the groups at that time, just World War 2, that were travelling all over the country.  The same groups came down south.  Earl Hines, Jimmie Lunceford, Ella Fitzgerald with Chick Webb, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Count Basie…

TP:    So you heard all these bands before you went in the armed services.


TP:    Would you say that somewhat defined the sound in your mind’s ear?

RIVERS:  I more or less turned out being an instrumentalist.  I would say I was interested in how the instruments, the musicians performed as individuals in the whole thing.  I had never taken any other view of it.  I know later on that Duke wrote specifically for each person in the band; not really wrote, but he gave the members of the band sketches — because Duke didn’t do very much writing as a whole for orchestra groups; it was more improvised than written down.  Count Basie’s music was all written, but not by Count Basie.  A bunch of people did Earl Hines’ music, so they more or less were hired to write arrangements and compositions for the groups.  Sy Oliver for Jimmy Lunceford, then he started writing for Tommy Dorsey.

TP:    When did saxophone start becoming a preoccupation for you?

RIVERS:  When I went to college at Jarvis Christian College in Texas, and I was in the band there.  I was playing trombone, but they didn’t have a saxophone player, and so I said, “Well, I can play it.”  It was kind of a random act, in a sense, because I started playing saxophone regularly and I really liked it.  I had always played soprano saxophone when I was in high school.  As a matter of fact, all the instruments — trumpets, all the saxophones and baritone and trombone.

TP:    So you’ve been playing wind instruments all your life.

RIVERS:  Right, since I started in high school all the way through.  I was in this high school where you had a room full of instruments, and any instrument you wanted to play, you could pick it out (it was a Catholic school), and the priest would get it repaired, so then you’d play then instrument.  Now you have to buy your instruments.  No one had to buy an instrument then.  If their parents didn’t want to buy them, and you wanted to be a musician, the instruments were donated.  The bands were put together like that.  So I had gone through all the instruments,  since I could take any one I wanted as long as I took care of it.  So I learned all the wind instruments pretty much before I got out of high school.  Then when I got in college, I was playing trombone, because that’s what I had then — I don’t know why.  I changed to saxophone then because they needed a saxophone player.

TP:    Then you started to specialize.

RIVERS:  I specialized on saxophone.

TP:    Did you play a lot outside of the school at that time?

RIVERS:  Yes, I played lots of dances outside the school.  It was a very small town, so any town gatherings…I mean, the band played for it under the direction of ..(?)..

TP:    But your playing was always under the direction of the school band.


TP:    Because I talked to Teddy Edwards, who grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and he talked about going out with various local ensembles when he was 12-13-14, doing a lot of functional playing, and I wondered if that was part of your experience.

RIVERS:  No, not for jazz.  I was out performing when I was 4 years old, but it was spirituals, singing.  But not jazz.  I was born into musicians.  My mother and father and grandfather were all musicians.  I was already a musician long before I decided on jazz.

TP:    So you were singing from the age of 4.

RIVERS:  Right.  We were part of the choirs that my mother directed.

TP:    Is that one reason why you think the way you play saxophone is vocalized?

RIVERS:  I’m sure that process is sort of filtered into it, but I don’t consciously think about it.

TP:    Steve Coleman was saying that you always sing the melodies to everyone, sing everybody’s part to them.

RIVERS:  Yes, I do.  I think that’s the tradition.  It’s really the tradition.  The notes really don’t mean anything if you haven’t seen them before.  The notes only mean something after they have been interpreted.  If you look at some music, you only know how it goes because you heard something similar to that that you’re reading on the paper.  For instance, can you imagine taking a Charlie Parker solo and give it to a classical musician who sight reads who had never heard Charlie Parker?  It would sound completely alien to them.  He might not even be able to recognize it.  Music has always been like this.  In Boston when I was going to the rehearsals I did right around the corner from Symphony Hall, I’d go in, sit and watch Koussevitzky conduct.  I was friends with the people at the back door, backstage, so I could go in and listen to the symphonies.  Every place I’ve listened to musicians, they’ve always hummed the part that they wanted to go.  I always thought of it as you hum… First you write it out, and if you know they haven’t heard it before, so then trying to play it… They can figure it out for themselves, but I don’t want to put them through that!

TP:    You started writing charts when you were in Boston?

RIVERS:  Yes, I started writing when I was in Boston, and in fact that’s one of the reasons why I didn’t leave Boston.  I was pretty much one of the ghost-writers for a lot of jingles, and then I had this job with this publishing company that would send me lyrics, and we would put the music to them.  It was a pretty easy life like that.  I can still do that.  You send me some lyrics if you want… Nobody sends them any more, because I guess they don’t do this any more.  They don’t need music for lyrics any more; they just need the machines, the beat machines.  So that sort of phased out.  You just need a rapper and a [SINGS BEAT] and you’re off, and that finishes it for the music.  I haven’t heard any music that… But that’s what I did.  Send me the lyrics and I put the music to it.  It takes about an hour or so.

TP:    But as far as your original music and the way your concept of organizing music was formed, did that also start to take root in Boston?

RIVERS:  Yes.  I started long before I came to New York.  As a matter of fact, I was writing original music all through the ’50s.

TP:    Talk about the situation in which you did that.

RIVERS:  It was just I had a piano… It’s hard to say.  I bought a bunch of music paper and just started writing.

TP:    Was it for a band?

RIVERS:  Yes, it was for a band.  Because I was part of the Herb Pomeroy’s big band, which was comprised of the teachers who were teaching at Berklee, and I was part… I didn’t do any teaching.  I wanted to do more composing than teaching; I’ve done some teaching, but it’s very demanding.  If you want to be a composer, teaching is far too demanding, and all my respect for the teachers, because it’s a very unheralded business which is very unappreciated.

TP:    Do you remember what year you first affiliated with Herb Pomeroy?

RIVERS:  The relationship goes back to the late ’40s.  He was pretty much instrumental in the creation of Berklee School of Music.  Without Herb Pomeroy I doubt seriously if there would be a Berklee School of Music today.  He pretty much put it together himself, and he deserves all the credit for that, aside from his writing.  He’s an excellent composer and a true organizer.  Arif Mardin was doing some writing, there was Chris Swanson and some other great composers.  I had just started.  The music that we were doing was very shocking music.  Jaki Byard was one of the main writers at that time.  He was one of my idols as far as composing, because he did write in the kind of style I identified with, a style that took all the musicians into consideration.  It was a very technical style, too.  It was a very unique style.  I still think of Jaki as a unique, excellent composer, and it’s still unheralded.

TP:    In the interview we did before, we talk about you getting to Boston right after the war.  Did you go there right after the Navy?

RIVERS:  I went straight to school, to Boston Conservatory of Music.

TP:    So that was ’46.


TP:    You also mentioned you were in a house with a bunch of musicians.  Sounds like the first of many situations you set up where you made your living space a sort of center for musical creation and thought.

RIVERS:  Well, we were all students there at that time.  Jaki Byard was living there, and I was living there, and some other musicians… [Quincy Jones was around, though he wasn’t living there.  Charlie Mariano was living in Boston at home.]  Nat Pierce was there, and Alan Dawson was also living there.  The Perry Brothers and some other musicians were living in the house, but we were all going to school, my brother was living there, Gigi Gryce was also there… There are quite a few musicians I’m leaving out.

TP:    Then you played intermission at this place Ort’s Grille which had a floor show, then you’d play the intermission?

RIVERS:  Right.  On the floor show the musicians… They had Charlie Mariano and Nat Pierce; they were all working there, too.  Jaki Byard was playing.  We all worked there.  It was a restaurant, and pretty much it was a place where you could come and eat.  If you wanted to play a set… That’s what I did.  You’d want to have dinner and come down and play, instead of going to the movies.

TP:    Would you go hear Charlie Parker when he’d come through Boston?

RIVERS:  Yes, Charlie Parker and also Lee Konitz.  We were impressed by Charlie Parker and also Lee Konitz with Tristano.  I did anyway.  I thought his approach was very unique.  Yes, and Charlie Parker.  Dizzy Gillespie of course did far more advanced things than Bird.  Bird was pretty much playing the Blues, and Dizzy would have all these different kind of notes.  I recognized Dizzy was very advanced when I first heard him on record in 1945.  I was getting ready to get discharged from Navy when I heard these big disks.  It was just a thing with Billy Eckstine, Billy Eckstine’s “Blowing The Blues Away” with people like Dexter Gordon and Gene Ammons, and it was nice, a battle of tenors, and then at the end he came in, and I said I’d never heard anything like this before.  It really knocked me out.  I still remember it.  As a matter of fact, we used to do that with the band we had in Boston in the early days.  That’s something I never have talked about.  It was Jimmy Martin’s band in Boston, which was… We had a big band in Boston, and soon I was part of that band.  I was also going to school…

TP:    Who was Jimmy Martin.

RIVERS:  Jimmy Martin was a pianist and a singer, and he organized a band of all of the so-called Boston Beboppers, as we were called.  Jaki Byard was doing the writing for us, and Hampton Reese, who did a lot of music for B.B. King and other… He was an excellent composer.  This was all in the late ’40s.  So we did concerts around, not that many, but we did a few… Joe Gordon was in the band, and Gladstone Scott… I’m trying to think of other musicians who were involved…
TP:    Was Jimmy Woode involved?

RIVERS:  Jimmy Woode was there, but he was more involved in the cocktail lounge.  He had a beautiful woman singing and doing that kind of thing.

TP:    So Boston had a very active scene.

RIVERS:  Yes, it was very busy.  There was a place called Wally’s Grill, then over on Tremont Street, on the other side of town, there were two or three clubs.

TP:    And everybody would be coming through.

RIVERS:  Yes, they were coming through.  There were jam sessions at the union.  We’d put on jam sessions when musicians would come through.  Zoot Sims and the guys would come up to the union, and we’d jam up there.

TP:    Who performed your first charts for big band?  Was it in the Herb Pomeroy band?

RIVERS:  No, my music was not ready at that time.  I was putting it together.  I gave them one composition, but it wasn’t quite finished.  The music we were playing with Herb Pomeroy was very startling music for the time.  The arrangements we were playing were very… Since I had heard everything out there on records, and I knew what was going on, I thought this band was probably the most exhilarating band on the scene at that time.  And the music is still available; that’s all I can say.

I can say that my music on this record is the most exhilarating music of the time, and in a sense it’s startling to a lot of other people.  All the music that’s around, I make sure to listen to everything, and I don’t hear… I’m just doing the music, and I have all these compositions, over 200, and I’ve just managed to get, what is it, 12 on… I’m rehearsing every week, and still putting together my…

TP:    Let me make a statement about you in the ’50s, you tell me if I’m right or wrong, and then we can move forward.  You’re in Boston from about ’46 to about ’64.


TP:    In Boston you are doing this commercial music work with the lyrics and the jingles, you are studying music intensively at a variety of institutions…

RIVERS:  I did the jingles afterwards, after I got out of school.  It’s hard to say when, somewhere in the ’50s…

TP:    Around ’54-’55?

RIVERS:  Around there.  But I stayed in Boston rather than leave.  The rest of the guys left.  Jaki Byard left, Gigi Gryce left; they all left and went to New York, but I stayed because I had work there.

TP:    And while you’re in school and doing the jingle work, you’re also a professional improviser.  So you’re working with Herb Pomeroy’s band, you work at Ort’s Grille, you go on the road with blues bands…

RIVERS:  Right.  I had weekends at a place in Harvard Square every Friday and Saturday with Tony Williams and some other musicians.

TP:    You mentioned that your inklings for freedom in music began to take shape in the band with Tony.

RIVERS:  I suppose so, but it was classical musicians, an avant-garde kind of group where we would play…

TP:    Was Hal Galper in that group?

RIVERS:  No, that was a little later, with another group with Gene D’Astasio on trombone(?), and Tony was in it…  But there was no piano in that group.

A lot of these things were going on at the same time.  It’s not like these things were happening every night.  In a month’s time a lot of these things would be happening, but it wasn’t something that was every day, so we had time to get organized and do things like that.  Hal Galper was on a job in a coffeeshop outside of Harvard Square, which I can’t remember the name of.

TP:    What I’m trying to get to is when the Sam Rivers sound that we know through the recordings from the ’60s to now began to coalesce.  You said that Fuchsia Swing Song has compositions you’d been doing with that band with Hal Galper and Tony Williams.

RIVERS:  Yes, that’s right.  I guess that band was late ’50s.  But I’d been doing music pretty much all through the ’50s.  I started writing for big band seriously in ’57 and ’58.  I have compositions from that period.

TP:    Were they being performed at that time?

RIVERS:  No.  But I was writing them.  I have some compositions from that period that I haven’t begun yet.

TP:    So your opus begins in 1957.

RIVERS:  I would say that.  Maybe ’55 even.  But in ’57 I’m serious.  I’m sure of that.  Without exaggeration, I started in ’57.  I decided to write a whole book for 7 horns — 2 trumpets, trombone and 3 saxophones.  I wrote the whole book, 30 pieces, but I never got a chance to play any of it.  I still have it.  It took a couple of years.

TP:    Now, the number of voices obviously has evolved.  On this record it’s 13 horns.

RIVERS:  I was always considering 13 horns because 13 horns is the standard size of the jazz orchestra, which became fully formed in 1923.  So I have always put this as like 13 horns with rhythm.  Not so much any style; I was always sort of creating my own style.  I listened to everyone else with appreciation, and also to make sure I don’t imitate them.  I have a two-fold reason to listen to everyone, because I want to make sure that if I hear something it sounds like I’m going to do, then it’s easy to rephrase it, then it comes out… Because the music is all about rephrasing, how you phrase the music.  I listen to a lot of concert music, symphony music so to speak, and I hear… It’s more the phrasing than the notes that makes the music.  With different phrasing it would be bebop rather that symphony music.  It’s the phrasing that makes it sound like it does because of the way it’s presented.

TP:    When did you start writing music for 13 horns?

RIVERS:  In 1958.

TP:    Did you have an ensemble in ’58 to play it, though.


TP:    So it sounds to me like that ensemble starts forming after you get to New York.

RIVERS:  No-no, I had some rehearsals in Boston.  I put some rehearsals together.  But the problem was that there weren’t any musicians available.  Everybody who could do the music was also busy, teaching and other things, so I couldn’t put things together.  I was performing with Herb Pomeroy, and I did bring some music into them.  After I heard my first arrangement, when Herb played it, it was okay, it pretty much held its own compared to the great music Herb’s band had… The repertoire Herb has is still a fantastic repertoire, and I think it should be heard more.  But the main reason I went to New York was because I had the music and I wanted to start a group.

TP:    Talk about you started getting that group together.  You had a place on 124th Street, you had two 6-room apartments, you did a lot of activity, then started gravitating downtown for rehearsal space is how I think you put it.

RIVERS:  That’s it.

TP:    When did you move into 24 Bond Street?

RIVERS:  Somewhere around 1968.

TP:    Is that when you started organizing the musicians for the big band?

RIVERS:  No, before that.  As soon as I got to New York I started.  In fact, it was organized before I left Boston.  I was pretty much a transient anyway.  Everyone thought I lived in New York for all these years anyhow, because I always had a service in New York, so very few… If you wanted me, I could come up.  New York to Boston was a 3-4 hour ride, so it wasn’t a problem to get back and forth.  But I set up rehearsals even before I moved.  There were some friends on the Lower East Side who had lofts, and I rehearsed there.  One of the musicians was Gene Perla, the bassist.  So I had set up rehearsals even before I set up rehearsals.

TP:    So Gene Perla was part of the first group of people who were playing your music in New York.

RIVERS:  Yes, and he got a lot of the guys.

TP:    What I want to talk about is Crystals and the circumstances around it.

RIVERS:  Ed Michel was the producer, I’d done some other things with him, and I told him I had this music for big band, so he said okay and we did it.

TP:    At that time you’d been workshopping the music for four-five years at Rivbea, and 8-9 years total, and you’d established a circle of musicians around New York who could play your music and were familiar with the requirements.

RIVERS:  That’s sort of it, but I guess… I had time to really put some thought in my music, because I wasn’t running around worrying about how to get something to eat.  So it was different.  I had time in Boston to put my music together and put some thought to it and fix it up, and some of it was quite complicated.  And when I did get to New York, the musicians were young and they weren’t quite ready for it, and for them it was like going to school.  The traditional musicians were pretty much busy, so I got a lot of young musicians around New York and worked with them.  They weren’t part of the tradition.  So it was trying to bring them up… It was a kind of musical education for them, or something like that.  They’ll probably say the same thing, that the music was pretty advanced for them at that time.  I understood that, too.  I wasn’t a tyrant about it.  I’ve always been laid back because I didn’t want to make anyone nervous when they’re trying to make music.

TP:    Steve said you’re extremely concerned about not hurting people’s feelings.

RIVERS:  Right.  But the musicians when they first came in… Like, Steve was able to read, but some of the other younger musicians weren’t really able to read it.  And some of the guys that were able to read didn’t get the concept for a while.  It’s a different kind of concept on some things, where you’re going to be playing free for 8 bars and then come back in which is alienating to the way a lot of musicians play, even traditional musicians.  The musicians that were the free musicians couldn’t really read the music, so I had to get musicians who were tradition and could play free.  Because getting free musicians to play traditional is out of the questions.  Traditional musicians can play free, but free musicians can’t play traditional.  I like to get traditional musicians, because traditional musicians can definitely go out.  That’s why I concentrated more or less on a certain kind of musician, who can play the blues but also keep evolving.

TP:    Was there a feedback loop type of thing for you where you’d be inspired by particular voices into new compositions when you’d hear your pieces played back, and get ideas from the way they sounded?

RIVERS:  Well, yeah, but I did that at rehearsal! [LAUGHS] I’m always astounded at some of the sounds that come from these… I go back to the scores repeatedly to look to see what it really was on the paper.  Which is possible on some of the things like that.  It’s a source of inspiration to me every time I hear the music.  And I’m fortunate enough that the musicians feel the music, and so there it is.  That’s it.  Even here with these musicians down here it’s the same.  Of course, they’ve been together down here for ten years.

TP:    First let’s talk about this record.  It seems you got a very good mix of musicians who are exactly what you’re talking about.

RIVERS:  Because they’ve all been with me, played with me before.  Most of these musicians I knew from the period when I had Rivbea.

TP:    It’s an interesting mix of players with a more open form orientation who developed their aesthetic in the ’70s, like Chico Freeman, Bluiett, Joseph Bowie, or Ray Anderson, and then people like Steve and Greg and Gary Thomas.  It makes the dynamics of the solos, the arc of each piece really fascinating.

RIVERS:  Yes, I agree.  It’s something that I really can’t explain.  Like I say, I know that these musicians all read well and they all can play changes, and so they’re all coming from a different musical perspective which is what I really like.  If you noticed, every musician there has his own individual approach to the music.  That’s important to me, because I didn’t want anyone that sounded like anyone else.  There’s a lot of people out there that sound like someone else, so I made sure these guys all had their special voice.  That’s the reason why they’re there.

TP:    A few people have talked about how distinctive your rhythmic concept is.  Dave Holland described as overlapping cycles of rhythms.  Can you describe it in a way that would make it clear to somebody like me?

RIVERS:  Years ago, when I was at the conservatory, I was looking at some Stravinsky, and it had all these different time signatures for every bar and everything like this.  I said, “Wait a minute.  Now why….” I wanted to see why.  So I just took some of the music and put it in 4/4 to see how it would look in 4/4.  In other words, what I’m saying is that all these different rhythms… I use all kinds of rhythms, but they’re superimposed over a basic 4/4.  It’s 1…2…3…4, then the others are going 1-2-3-1-2-3, and something else might be going 1-2-3-4-5… It’s different layers of rhythm.  The melodies, which… I write contrapuntally, which means that there’s two and three and four melodies going on at the same time, and they make their harmonies up, but they are really melodies going on.  The harmonies happen, but every voice is playing their own particular thematic material.  But they are also playing a different time signature than the basic one.  The bass is really playing like the roots, and he pretty much is the only stabilizing force that you should hear.  Without the bass there it would be completely an avant-garde, almost classical sound which it is anyway — but without the bass it would be hard to call it jazz.  So it’s like I said superimposed layers of different rhythms which are written as melodies in some things.

That’s one kind.  Then I write traditional.  Right now I’m writing a suite for my daughters and my granddaughters and my great granddaughters (there’s about 10 of them) – I’m just finishing the fourth song now.  This is all with melody.  I’m writing these melodic things from the piano, which is the approach I use when I’m writing something melodic.  When I’m writing for my orchestra I don’t use the piano, because the piano is exceedingly limiting.  You play something and you hear it, and it’s limiting because then you have to depend on those sounds.  Now, if you don’t use a piano, and use your intellect, just think… I don’t use the piano at all unless I’m writing very traditional.

TP:    Do you write on the saxophone?

RIVERS:  I don’t write it… No. [END OF SIDE A] …I don’t have any rules.  It’s sort of like higher mathematics.  I don’t have any rules.  I sit down and I start writing.  I’m not interested in any kind of rule.  I’m not interested in whether this sounds right or not.  I’m not interested in any of that.  I put these things together, and then I go out and listen to it, and I amaze myself.  Because I don’t know what I’ve done!  I don’t try to know what I’ve done! [LAUGHS] I know how to do things, and then I know how to do things which I wouldn’t understand.  Am I complicating it?

TP:    No, I think you’re making it very clear.  You’re embracing the unknown.

RIVERS:  Yes, that’s right.  If I don’t know how to do it, I’m going to still do it.  Then, of course, I know there’s another way I know how to do it!  Then another time I’m going to try to do things I DON’T know how to do.  In a sense, whatever I do is right.  I am the creator.  I don’t understand why musicians sometimes feel inhibited.  No, I am not inhibited at all in music.  Whatever I do is right.  I have no… I can go anywhere with these 12 tones that I want to; whatever I do is correct.  I just put these things together, I dream all these different kinds of sounds together, I put them together, and I take it in to my orchestra and they play it — and I am astounded.

TP:    Osby’s comment was that you broke just about every rule you can imagine, so much that you could have a book of Sam Rivers rules that could constitute a whole new school of thought.

RIVERS:  [LAUGHS] Like I say, you learn the rules, so you should be aware of the rules.  I’m a STRICT traditionalist in that sense.  But when you go further and then start searching… After you go past… Like the record I did of standards, which is just… I’ve gone by the rules all the way, and so now there are no rules.  It’s like higher mathematics.  There are no rules when you get to a certain level.  There’s no such thing.  You set your own limits.  So how do I make it accessible to the audience?  I have to put the rhythm there.  Because we are in a kind of backbeat rhythm era, and everything is like a rhythm thing… No matter what you do about the rhythm…

TP:    You did that with “Sizzle.”

RIVERS:  It’s also in “Inspiration.”  Everything is danceable. Most of it, not all of it.  But most of them are danceable.  And also with the next one coming out, “Culmination,” which will be out in a few weeks.

TP:    Let me take this to your time with Dizzy now.  How long did you know him?

RIVERS:  I knew Dizzy for years and years.  He came to Boston quite a few times.  The first time he came, he came to the Hi-Hat with a quintet, and I was sitting downstairs listening, and then the tenor player came in and it sounded just like Dexter Gordon.  I said, “Wow!  I didn’t know Dexter was with Dizzy.”  So I ran upstairs, and it was John Coltrane!  So that was the first I ever heard Dizzy.  Then after that, all over the world we used to run into each other.  Then I had Ed Cherry…we were getting ready to do some concerts, doing some work at Sweet Basil with the big band.  So Ed Cherry said, “I can’t make it because I’m going with Diz; we’re going to do a tour.  Dizzy’s forming a new quintet.”  I said,  “Maybe I’ll give him a call.”  He said, “Yeah, you could give him a call.”  So Christmas Day I called up Diz… I know it was Christmas Day, but I’m not sure which year it was now.  I was living in New Jersey then, not too far from him.  I said, “Merry Christmas, Diz.  If you ever need a tenor player, give me a call.”  He said, “Yeah, okay, what’s your number?”  I couldn’t believe it.  So he took my number, then sure enough a week later he called me from Canada.  We formed a group with Ed Cherry, Ignacio Berroa and John Lee.  That group was together for four or five years.

TP:    Did being with Dizzy Gillespie have any effect on you that was palpable that you can talk about?

RIVERS:  The way he presented the music was very enlightening to me, to keep it light until you started playing, and then it got heavy.  That’s great because he… The way he presented the music was good.  As a matter of fact, it was the only time in my life that I really worked that much.  I was always on the road.  For the four years it was continuous traveling.  It’s hard to say whether that’s… You don’t really get anything done.  When I look back over it, as far as composing, it wasn’t a very prolific period, because I was traveling too much.  I did write anyway on the road, of course, but… I always used to wonder why a lot of the jazz greats didn’t write more music, and the fact of it is that it’s very difficult to write when you’re travelling all the time.  Duke Ellington was the only one who was able to do it, but then most of his came down to the improvisations of the musicians in the group rather than his composing skills.  Very few musicians, if any, have come up with a whole lot of writing when traveling like 50 weeks out of the year.

TP:    Did being around Dizzy have any impact on your subsequent writing?

RIVERS:  Well, I was around Dizzy’s big band, and my style already was pretty full, and Dizzy didn’t pay… Like Mike Longo said, Dizzy didn’t pay for compositions, and I wasn’t going to offer anything to anyone else’s band if I wasn’t going to get paid for it.  Lalo Schifrin came in; I don’t know whether he paid Lalo Schifrin or not.  But I wasn’t about…

TP:    But I mean being around him didn’t have any particular impact on the way you thought about writing for orchestra or your own compositions.

RIVERS:  No, not really.  Dizzy had one composition we did a lot when touring with Dizzy’s big band, and it was the only one he wrote, which was really great — “Lover Come Back To Me.”  It was a really beautiful arrangement.  I think of that one all the time.  Then he wrote “Night In Tunisia,” which is another one.  There aren’t that many.  But then J.J. Johnson did an arrangement for symphony orchestra on “Night In Tunisia” which is really beautiful.  I played that with Dizzy in concerts.  With Dizzy we played the same tunes every night.  So for me, it was just creating different ideas every night on the same basic changes, which was not a problem, because that’s the way I started in music!  The situation was a little different, because Dizzy and all those guys were really great musicians.  But when I was younger, playing in some of these places the musicians weren’t that good, so I just would take the time to practice, and just do different things.  So I was back to pretty much that stage, where I’m playing with good musicians and I’m playing the same material every night, so I really have to… It’s just a challenge.  Not really a challenge, because I was used to it so much.  The idea of being able to improvise every night was not a big deal for me, because I remember earlier… If you look at the liner notes, if you remember earlier in my career, this trumpet player… Charlie Parker came to St. Louis with Jay McShann, and nobody knew who he was.  So the word around with the musicians was, “Hey, man, there’s a guy in Jay McShann’s band that never plays the same solo twice.”  So obviously, at that time musicians pretty much memorized their solos, and they played the same solo on everything.  On “Flying Home” with Illinois Jacquet; that’s a good example of what was happening in those days.  A solo like that, you memorized your solo.

TP:    I did a liner note for Billy Taylor, who played with Coleman Hawkins for a few years, and he said that he said he memorized the famous solo on “Body and Soul,” but Coleman Hawkins didn’t — he played it differently every night.

RIVERS:  Yes.  He was one of the few musicians… Him and Lester Young… They were the special musicians, the creators.  That was one of their things.  But Charlie Parker was the first one who really stood out as far as doing that.

TP:    That obviously animates you.  In saying you write from your intellect, is that and the free improvising that you do sort of  a seamless entity for you?  Do you access a different part of your consciousness when you’re free improvising?   Because you’ve been doing a lot of that in recent years as well.

RIVERS:  I think that my main contribution to jazz, in which I have least 10 CDs or records out… I am the creator of a particular free form in jazz.  I say this with all modesty, in a sense.  But I have to explain it.  When Ornette Coleman came out, he played thematic material, and then he improvised on the thematic material.  Cecil Taylor, avant-garde, he played themes and then he improvised on the themes.  When Dave Holland and myself went out, we had no thematic material, we didn’t do anything — it was spontaneous creativity right there.  It was all improvisation, in the sense that it came on the spot and every night was different.  I have many CDs out like this.  I don’t feel that I get credit for my contributions.  I would like someone to tell me who was the one who started it if I didn’t.

TP:    But you’ve been documented on that recently after several years hiatus as far as documentation.  Like, the FMP solo CD and the FMP duo with Alex von Schlippenbach which I haven’t got my hands on…

RIVERS:  That’s all improvised.

TP:    And some French musicians.

RIVERS:  No, but that was written music.  I’m just talking the improvised…I mean, the creative music that had nothing to do with… I mean, the thematic material was all created on the spot.  The spontaneous creativity is what I’m talking about.

TP:    Does the frame of mind in which are you are improvising with the frame of mind when you are writing?

RIVERS:  Yes.  If I am doing… Of course, they are different mindsets.  If I am playing the blues, I play the blues.  If I am playing something standard, then I play the standard.  And if I am going to do something that I want to be completely original, then I try to go in without it.  I just leave it wide-open and just start writing.  In fact, as I mentioned, I’m not trying to think of anything; it forms itself.

TP:    It’s all so internalized in you that it forms itself.

RIVERS:  It forms itself.  Some of these ideas I didn’t get from music.  Some of these ideas I got from writers, from people who write.  It’s time to start writing.  You don’t find it odd, do you, to just sit down and start writing?  Every time I start writing… I write something every day.  I do the same thing.  It’s not about sitting down and “What should I write?”

TP:    I always use thematic material.  I write about Sam Rivers, and the conversation becomes like writing for me…

RIVERS:  I get up in the morning and just start writing.  That’s what I do.  I’m not thinking about anything.  Then when I get formulated… I’m thinking about writing some music, of course… When I sit down at the typewriter, I try to use the typewriter as an instrument in the same way.  How many people do that.  I think of my typewriter as another instrument.  I’ve been typing since I was 10 years old, too.

TP:    Talk about how you settled in Orlando and formed this band.

RIVERS:  Well, I was traveling all over the world, and the few places I did miss before I started traveling with Diz, I got them when I was with Diz!  Especially in the United States.  Because the music is popular in Europe and Japan and Australia, so I traveled over there quite a bit.  But here in the United States it’s sort of meager.  But with Dizzy, Dizzy was very popular in the United States, and also in Europe and the world.  So traveling around in Europe and the States, all the different states… I had a chance to see which one was… Because I wanted to get out of New York.  The main reason I wanted to get out of New York is because I was getting tired of the cold.  That was the main reason, nothing else.  Everything was all right.  I could still take care of what I was doing, although it was more things to consume time there than here — thank goodness for that, in a way.  But I was traveling all around, to California, and I looked for a place out there, looked in Arizona and New Mexico, all the places that are nice and warm. [LAUGHS] The reason I settled here, I came here, and I was speaking to some of the musicians here, and I said, oh, it’s nice down here.  So I was thinking about it.  Then we came down here for a vacation.  We were looking for a place so we came down here, met the musicians down there saw, well, there are all these musicians at Disney, and there’s schools down here, and there’s a lot of movie studio work here…

TP:    So you have competent musicians.

RIVERS:  A lot of competent musicians.  And working at Disney is not really the most inspiring thing.

TP:    So they’re hungry for inspiration.

RIVERS:  So it’s kind of captive thing.  They can’t leave because the money is so great, so it’s… But I’m not hooked up in that scene because I don’t want to get trapped in it.  I mean, it’s a very good living.  But I do okay anyway.  I’m here by a lake, watching the people do their diving and fishing… That’s the reason why I’m here.  But the musicians said, “We’ll be there.”  I just put a sign up that said, “Sam Rivers is forming an orchestra, and be at the union, at (?),” and I went there, and there the band was.  Everyone was there before I even got there.  That was going on 9 years ago.  I moved there in 1991, and I started the band exactly the same… I came here because of that.  Because they said the musicians here… It’s the same reason I moved to New York.

TP:    you had a pool of musicians.

RIVERS:  That’s right.

TP:    And have you been writing more than you ever have since you’ve been in Orlando?

RIVERS:  I write more than I ever have because it’s a very talented pool of musicians here.  I take in a composition, and we only need one rehearsal.  So I have to continuously… Like, when I first went to New York, we had to spend three hours on one tune.  That doesn’t happen here.  We spend like 15 minutes on one composition, and whatever length… We might do it two times, and it runs a half-hour, like that.  So it’s a different set here.  I want to keep writing new material.  But then if I go sometimes without, I can always go back to something we did like three years ago that we haven’t done for a while!  I’m in that kind of situation.

TP:    So basically you’re in a wonderful position.  You have a working unit 8 years let’s say 40-45 weeks a year…

RIVERS:  Yes, and we perform, too.  I just finished a concert at Rollins College, where I performed new music for 16 musicians and new compositions for 30 musicians, and it was very successful.  We’re doing a monthly thing.  Next month, Marshall Allen will be down here with the Sun Ra Orchestra.  We are trying to create a scene down here which is very favorable for musicians.

TP:    What is the place that you play regularly?

RIVERS:  Right now I’m playing regularly at the Sapphire Club.  That’s probably the club that features all the new groups that are coming through.  Orlando is producing a lot of the young groups that are coming up, N-Seek(?) and all those people.  It has the technical facilities here to do it quite efficiently.  I have masters of a lot of the music I’ve done here, so I’m in a position to sell them or possibly produce them myself.  But they’re all ready.  There are very good studios down here.

TP:    About how much have you recorded already by yourself?  30-40 tunes?

RIVERS:  I guess.  But I’ve recorded every rehearsal for the past two years on CD, and it’s very good quality, which I can also… See, I have the scores for these things.  I’m going to publish the music and the scores for some…actually for schools, so they can see how the composition is done.  It appeals to the audiences because I’m doing this nice dance beat to it, so I’m trying to play really, really exciting, advanced music with a nice primitive beat.  Combine the intellect with the soul.  It works very good, because I have a very large audience down here, and all over the state — at Gainesville, which is the other college town, the University of Florida.  We’re trying to get some music to come this way.

TP:    I think I’m going to wrap this with one question.  You’ve played the blues a lot, T-Bone Walker and so on.  First I’d like you to tell me about those years, but in a more general way, tell me about how playing the blues and the blues aesthetic impacts your overall aesthetic.

RIVERS:  Well, it’s part of it, like the spirituals are.  It’s something that you really feel.  It’s pretty much at this point running through the cliches, in a sense.  It’s hard to say how I feel about it now.  But I still feel the same way about Gospel music when I hear it.  I’m affected more by Gospel music than I am by the Blues at this point.  When I hear these good Gospel choirs down here, that’s something.  That’s feeling!

TP:    Is it nice to be back in the South for you?

RIVERS:  It certainly is for that reason.  [AFTER BLOWING UP AT ME] I got the best music out there.  I know that this CD is the best… I’ve listened to everything.  Last year the record of the year was really unbelievably embarrassing.  It was Herbie Hancock playing Gershwin.  And the year before that it was this female out there with this really trite Gil Evans stuff.  It’s embarrassing.  What the fuck is going on!?  How does this happen when everybody knows it’s bullshit?
TP:    When I talked with Anthony Cole he said that you were going in different directions with the trio.  We didn’t talk much about the trio.  I read what you wrote about it on the album I have.  Can you talk about it’s evolving, how it’s developing?  He particularly talked about it entailing a new direction for you.

RIVERS:  Well, it is a new direction in the sense that I was fortunate to have three musicians who are multi-instrumentalists.  But that was pretty much falling in the way that I’ve done things over the years.  If a musician played one instrument, he was a virtuoso on one instrument, but he was efficient, fairly fluid on other instruments that wasn’t his main instrument, but he was also able to play parts… I thought what a waste of talent to have the possibility for these other instruments, and not use them to add color, plus give it an extra added stimulus from the different sounds that would be emoted from the different textures that the instruments produce themselves.  So I’ve always pretty much done that, but I’ve never had the good fortune of having good musicians like Anthony Cole specifically and Doug Matthews broadly, because where do you find musicians… What Anthony Cole plays is just as good on piano as he is on drums, and he’s an excellent tenor saxophone player, which he learned on his own…

TP:    He said your comment to him was “find your own scales.”

RIVERS:  I really didn’t need to give him any lessons, because his knowledge was enough.  Which is the way I learned pretty much how to play the changes and everything, was learned from knowledge of the piano.  He was one up on most musicians, because he was a pianist, too.  Pianists have less problems learning an instrument that someone who’s learning an instrument without going through the piano.

TP:    He particularly seems to have inspired you a lot.

RIVERS:  He does.  It’s hard to explain it.  But it’s the way I just emphasized.  His piano is as professional… And I am a professional pianist, so we can do two-piano duets.  We can do things like that.  Then he can also do like reed things, soprano and tenor, and since Doug Mathews plays bass clarinet we have the reed thing going.  But we can do so many things… Like, improvising on changes together, and so many different kinds of things like that in the trio format, or playing free.

TP:    So he gives you a full template of improvisation from traditional to free, almost mirroring what you can do.

RIVERS:  That’s right.  So we can do the same things together.  His knowledge of harmony and changes are just as good as mine, so we don’t have any problems.  I probably have more advanced ideas because of my writing and things like this, but he’s coming on fast, so the ideas that he… Yes, we complement each other.

TP:    And you’ve been playing together pretty much since ’91-’92?

TP:    And as a trio since then?


TP:    So Doug Matthews came into the picture at that time as well.

RIVERS:  Doug Matthews came into the picture about ’93, I think.  We were playing with another musician down here who was very good, who doubled on bass, electric bass and tuba, named Charles Silver.  With him we could use a the combination with tuba.

TP:    How frequently in ’99 has the big band played in Orlando?  Once a week?  Every other week?

RIVERS:  No, it’s been probably once a month.  But we do concerts in other cities.  We do concerts in St. Petersburg and Tampa and Jacksonville and Melbourne.  I could do more if I really wanted to, but then it would be hard on the guys because everyone got their day job!

TP:    Do you rehearse without fail once a week?

RIVERS:  Definitely.  We rehearse whether we play or not every Wednesday evening at the union in Orlando.  It’s open to the public; sometimes people come.  I can rehearse my 30 musicians whenever I… I have 30 musicians total.  I just did a concert with them last week at Rollins College.  We have an open invitation to perform all my new works at the Rollins College at this point.  I do one a month.

TP:    So the 13-horn music is expandable up to 30 pieces or more?

RIVERS:  Well, I have music for 30 musicians, but I also have music for 11 saxophones, 11 reed instruments, then I have for my regular 16 musicians.  It’s different combinations, some with 25 musicians and some music written for 30 musicians.

TP:    So you have musicians to play all the different permutations.  Like, the Winds of Manhattan record was 11 saxophones.

RIVERS:  That was 11 saxophones.  So I have 11 saxophones available.  I’m getting ready to do a concert with 11 saxophones, new music always, because I don’t really perform any old music… Well, it wouldn’t be new to me, but I mean…

TP:    Right to everybody else.

RIVERS:  Yeah.  It hasn’t been performed.  It’s been on the shelf.

TP:    Talk a bit about the way the band in New York sounds different playing your music than the band in Orlando which plays your music all the time, and internalizes it and has that comfort zone, just in a qualitative way.

RIVERS:  Quality…see, that’s it, the quality of the musicians… See, in this day and age the quality of the musicians all over the world … I would be able to find musicians with a certain kind of feeling for the music because the records have been out.  We’re not isolated any more!  I mean, the idea that one set of musicians can do it when another… They all listen to the same music!  So there are talented musicians who don’t go to New York.  New York is full of guys with big egos. [LAUGHS] That’s the way it is there.  It’s not because they’re more talented than anyone else.  It’s just that.  Not to take away from them, because I’m one of the guys that was in New York, and I went there because I knew I was great…

TP:    You had an ego.

RIVERS:  Every musician goes up there because they think they’re the greatest, and that’s it.  Not so much that they’re great, but that they had a contribution to make, and the only way you’re really going to make it is to go to New York.  You go to New York if you have a contribution to make, and everyone understands that.  Because the setup, all the organizational things are there, the press and all this.  You’re there, so you know what I mean.  But they don’t have anything to do with producing records, you see, and you don’t have anything to do with the business.  You see, they comment on the business.  It’s a different thing.  Like what you’re doing now.  You’re commenting on it.  You don’t really have anything to do with the business.  You don’t really have anything to do with the business.  I mean, the business has to be taken care of.  You’re pretty much relating what is going on, or what is getting ready to happen or what has happened.  But you don’t have any real process in doing it.  I’m the one who…we’re the ones who… We are the creators, and without the creators there really isn’t anything to comment on.  So we understand that, too.  So hence our ego.  Okay? [LAUGHS]

But anyway, I was just looking on the Net here at the Amazon.com, and this record is recommended as one of the top 11 CDs of recordings in jazz in 1999.  Number 2 actually.

BEA:  You’re the only one with five stars.

RIVERS:  I’m the only one with five stars.  Roscoe Mitchell has 4½ stars.  He’s #1 and I’m #2.  I’m happy about that.  I’m still here.  And it’s not a comeback.  It’s just been a steady, ongoing thing.  I’ve never left.  I’ve been here all this time.

TP:    With the New York musicians, you had a band of people who all have very individual styles.  That was a real collection of musical personalities on that record…

RIVERS:  Right, all recognized.

TP:    All stylists and people who have established real individual voices over time, younger and older.

RIVERS:  Right.

TP:    In Orlando do the musicians have that same quality?  I’m not looking to bash anyone.  Since I haven’t heard the Orlando band, I can’t tell whether it sounds different or similar, what the nature of the difference is if it’s different.

RIVERS:  Mmm…I would say that the experience of the New York musicians… I’m trying to write so that…I’m trying to write, like, I mean…like, I mean…like… I’m thinking like…I mean, like… Why would I…I mean… Would you ask Beethoven a question like that?

TP:    No.

RIVERS:  “Which symphony in the world, Mr. Beethoven, would you like to play your music?”  Here we go.  Of course, the one that was playing it would be his favorite!

TP:    Well, Beethoven wrote for certain musicians, though.  Most of the Classical musicians had musicians who inspired them, plus their own improvisations themselves.

RIVERS:  Beethoven started writing because other musicians were writing his improvisations and putting them down like their own.  I mean, a lot of musicians who have done that, some of the respected in the world.  Stephen Foster for one.  He just wrote down what he heard.  There are a lot of other musicians who do that, too, but that’s not creativity.

TP:    Which is what you do?

RIVERS:  I don’t do that.  All my ideas come from myself.  I’m saying there are other musicians who have achieved notoriety or celebrity who didn’t, who only wrote down the ideas of other people, wrote down the stuff.  That’s the main reason why Beethoven started writing down his music.  I learned this early, that the reason why Beethoven stopped improvising is because the musicians were coming into his concerts and listening to him improvise and would go back and write the music down and say they wrote it.

TP:    Stealing.

RIVERS:  No.  They said they wrote it.  He didn’t write it down.  So if you don’t write it down, how can you say it’s plagiarism.  So he had to start writing his music in order to say it was his.  So I’m doing the same thing, writing it down.  But out of all the thousands of orchestras in the world, do you think he’d have a specific orchestra that he’d think would like to play his music?  How many symphony orchestras in the United States alone?  How many jazz orchestras in the United States alone?  How many jazz orchestras in the world?

TP:    I take your point.  Of course, at the time Beethoven was writing, he couldn’t foresee what the situation would be now.  He could only focus on what was around him then.

RIVERS:  Yes.  And he had the musicians.  They were all paid by the state, by the church, so they lived a very comfortable living.  They were all taken care of by the King, who pretty much dictated the music they were allowed to write, too.  Well, maybe not Beethoven, but Bach I’m thinking of.  I’m skipping around.

TP:    I do take your point, Mr. Rivers.  I ask the question because in the pool of musicians in New York there are so many distinctive improvisers and distinctive styles, and you’ve played with so many musicians who are world-class improvisers, master improvisers…

RIVERS:  They’ve all made their own contributions.

TP:    What I’m trying to get to, and maybe am not asking…

RIVERS:  Do the sound stronger with the music?  The solos are obviously far more creative, of course… Well, I can’t even say that.  Ted, we live in an age where there are so many musicians… Like I keep saying, there are thousands… It’s hard to say.

TP:    Are you saying that the level of musicianship in the world has transcended location in a certain sense, and it’s much different than when you were younger?

RIVERS:  I’m trying to say that.  Because the records are all over the world.  Everyone hears the music.  Even back to Beethoven’s time, outside his circle he wasn’t even known.  So it’s a different thing.  All over the world, everybody in the world, every place I go, they know the music. [LAUGHS] So to say that these musicians play this music better than those musicians over there and both musicians have heard this music, and one musician decides not to go to New York and another one decides to go… I mean, we have all these different kinds of nuances there, so it’s hard for me to…

Ted, you put me in a difficult spot here trying to tell you… I really can’t answer the question.  Not in this day and age, I can’t answer it.  If you’d asked me this question in the ’40s or the ’50s, then I would say, “Listen, the musicians…I can tell…”  In the middle ’50s, when I listened to a record, I could tell whether he was black or white, I could tell how old he was, I could tell what part of the country he was from — just by listening to his record.  You can’t do that any more.

TP:    You could do that in the ’40s and ’50s.

RIVERS:  In the ’40s and ’50s you could do that.  You could tell where he was born just listening to him.  Where he was born, what state he was from, what type of music he was (?), where he lived, where he was playing, how old he was and whether he was black or white. [LAUGHS] You can’t do that any more.  Except you can tell black or white still.  But other than that, there’s very little difference.  But there’s a difference between a black saxophonist and a white saxophonist.  I don’t know what it is, but I can tell.  So it’s something that’s still there.  I don’t know what that is.  But that’s as far as it goes now.  I can tell ethnic.  I can tell a Spanish musician, I can tell a white musician, and I can tell a black musician.  That part of it is still there.  Other than that, I can’t tell what part of the country he’s from.  I can’t tell whether he’s American or German, if he’s a White musician.

TP:    Let me change the questioning a bit.  I want to ask you about a couple of individuals and to say whatever you want to about them.  In the liner notes to Culmination you wrote something about Charlie Parker that was so fascinating I keep going back to it, what he told you about notes and phrases.  I’d like you to talk about the impact of Charlie Parker on your conception of music.

RIVERS:  It’s something that really comes later on, if it’s ever achieved by some musicians… I don’t think piano players have a problem with that.

TP:    With what?

RIVERS:  That every note is important, no matter how fast you play.  Now, saxophonists and trumpet players, some of them don’t look at it that way.  They look at some notes as just passing tones to something else, a part of a phrase.  the note itself is not really important, but it’s part of a phrase itself.  Charlie Parker did not look at it that way.  He looked at every note, no matter if it was a slur; every note in that slur had been worked out and practiced and rehearsed to make sure, when he decided to use it, if it ever came into his head, he could do it.  That’s what he said, that every note is important.  Then I spoke to another musician who was just as famous as Charlie Parker who said, “Sam, you don’t have to play every change; there are phrases that fit over changes.”  So one musician was talking about phrases that fit over the changes rather than playing the changes itself, and another musician was saying playing the notes, each note is important, and the form a phrase.  Do you get the difference?

TP:    Which musician told you the latter.

RIVERS:  I don’t want to call his name. [LAUGHS]

TP:    Is he alive still?

TP:    You can call his name.

RIVERS:  That’s okay.  I don’t want to say.  I just mean there was a duality in the thoughts of how… Here I’m listening to both these opposites who thought to achieve the same purpose.  So it’s completely opposed, diametrically opposed what these people are talking about, but it works.  And they both and ultimately come to the same conclusion.

TP:    You commented to me that Dizzy Gillespie was a more advanced musician than Charlie Parker.

RIVERS:  The notes he used as part of the chord… It wasn’t a II-V… Charlie Parker was more a blues kind of…he was pentatonic.  Everything was pretty much coming directly from the blues.  Dizzy was coming from the Blues, too, but it was in a different way of finding the odd notes in the chord that wee part of the chord structure of the blues rather than the Blues itself.  So that’s where it was the difference.  I mean, Charlie Parker was playing the blues itself and Diz was pretty much playing the Blues but more or less advanced, substitute chords and everything on top of the basic chords.  So that was the difference.  He was layering other things where Bird was staying with the basic.

TP:    Next person.  Jaki Byard.  You said you met him when you got to Boston.

RIVERS:  1945.

TP:    You knew him from then, and lived with him.

RIVERS:  Yes, we had a whole house at 13 Rutland Square.

TP:    Which you described in our radio interview.  Is that where Bird came when you met him?

RIVERS:  Bird came by there, and then Bird came by most of the time when he was Boston.  Then after I got married, he came by where I lived when I was there teaching in Boston.

TP:    How long have you and Bea been married?

RIVERS:  52 years. [1947]

TP:    Did Jaki Byard have a big impact on you and you on he?  Did you mutually influence each other?

RIVERS:  I’m not sure if I had a big impact on him, but he had a big impact on me because he was much further advanced in the music than I was.  Because when I came… I’d been stationed in California, and nothing was happening in California at that time.  We were completely cut off.  It’s not like today where it’s instant news.  I didn’t even know who Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were, and I just happened to listen to something that was there.  So I didn’t know on the West Coast if… It was not like today where it’s instant news all over the world.  But Jaki Byard was up there, and he had a chance to listen to Bud Powell and all them during his days when he was in the Service.  I’m not sure if he was in the Army or the Navy, but I think he was in the Army.  But the musicians had a fairly boring life in the Service, out there on the base, because there wasn’t anything for them to do but get up in the morning and play for the flag coming up and play for parades and play in the officers quarters in the evening.  Their life was fairly dull.  They were just spending most of the time practicing like that, because they didn’t have to march or anything.  So all they did was practice.  So most musicians who were in the Service, when they came out they were really ready, because they hadn’t done anything but practice!  So Jaki Byard was one of those.  I consider him one of the more exceptional musicians I’ve met in my life anyway, and listening to his arrangements… Like myself, he’s a vastly underrated musician.  Maybe whoever has all of his arrangements… He was a prolific composer, too, and maybe someday they’ll find someone who will give him his musical due as they’re doing to the great Duke Ellington record today.

TP:    Today I was listening to Lazuli, which you did for Timeless ten years, and there was a piece on it called “Devotion” which was a paraphrase of “Body and Soul.”  I guess you did that right in the middle of your years with Dizzy.

RIVERS:  No, it was before Dizzy.

TP:    It was ’89.  You were with Dizzy after ’89.

RIVERS:  Oh, it was ’89.  Then it was right after Dizzy.

TP:    You mentioned in our radio interview that you, like just about any other person your age who played saxophone, memorized “Body and Soul.”  But then you also said that Lester Young was really the man for you.  Can you talk about your early saxophone influences and the nature of those influences?

RIVERS:  What stands out is Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul,” and every tenor player had most of that memorized.  I memorized it then.  See, I already knew it on piano, so I memorized it… In those days Jamey Aebersold wasn’t around, so you had to do all this stuff yourself.  Which is okay.  So I analyzed it to see what he was doing with his changes and all that, and then I learned ..(?).. But it was more like taking his music and analyzing it to see what he was doing.  Then there was Chu Berry’s “Stardust,” which was very nice, too, and I analyzed that one.  Then Lester Young, “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” things by Lester with Nat King Cole which were really beautiful… Nat King Cole wasn’t much of a singer, but he was one of the greatest pianists of all time.

TP:    Did you just say he wasn’t much of a singer?

TP:    I won’t quote you on that.

RIVERS:  [LAUGHS] You can if you want to.  He was a crooner.

TP:    My wife loves Nat King Cole.

RIVERS:  Where was I?

TP:    We were talking about your early saxophone influences.

RIVERS:  I heard the guy with Lucky Millinder’s band.  Jimmy Forrest and Lockjaw I think were in Andy Kirk’s band; I think I saw them.  I saw Jimmie Lunceford’s band with Joe Thomas, I think it was.  They were okay.  But it was only Lester and them.  But in those days there weren’t many records, so you had to figure things out for yourself.  That’s why there were so many different sounding saxophone players back in those days.  Everybody had their own style because there wasn’t anybody really to follow.  Every band that came in town had these different tenor saxophone players.  Some of them were good, and others came in and you’d never remember them — like Honeydripper.  All these good saxophone players and you don’t even know their names any more.  So the few that stick out were the ones who went to New York! [LAUGHS]

TP:    Some in Chicago, I guess.

RIVERS:  Yes, Chicago and in Kansas City.  But if you wanted to record, you had to go to New York and go to Minton’s and places like that.  That’s the way you’d really get discovered.  You could be traveling around the United States with a band on a train…

TP:    Did you go back and forth between Boston and New York after you go out of the Service, or did that happen later?

RIVERS:  No, that happened later.  I didn’t really go to New York.  I went to New York now and then, but I wasn’t really that interested in New York at that time.

TP:    And I think you said you moved to Arkansas in ’34.

RIVERS:  Mmm-hmm.

TP:    Did you go back to Chicago during the summers, or did you pretty much stay in Arkansas?

RIVERS:  I pretty much stayed in Arkansas until I went off to college at Jarvis Christian College in Hawkins, Texas, which I graduated at 15 and went down there.
TP:    So you graduated at ’38.  So anyone you would have heard in Chicago was 1934 and before.

RIVERS:  Well, the musicians I knew about at that time were Roy Eldridge and Billy Eckstine, Andy Kirk… Well, no, Earl Hines was the one, and Duke Ellington.  Cleanhead Vinson had a band, and some of the other guys in Duke’s band.  So I remember all these guys who had bands came through San Francisco when I was stationed out there.

TP:    And you went in the Service in ’42?

RIVERS:  Yes, ’42.

TP:    Was that directly after college?

RIVERS:  I was getting ready to get drafted.  As soon as I graduated I was going to get drafted and go into the Army.  So I didn’t want to go into Army.

TP:    You mentioned playing with Jimmy Witherspoon on the West Coast.  Was that one of your first blues gigs as a saxophonist?

RIVERS:  Well, it was my first gig out there.  I was the only one who could play because I wasn’t in the band.  If I’d been in the band, I wouldn’t be able to do that, because the musicians who played in the band had to play at the officers quarters.  I had a job in the office with the headquarters, so I just typed… I could type, so I did that.  I didn’t want to go into the band anyway.  I had a 9-to-5 job.  I got my own jeep so I could go back and forth to where I was living.  I was supposed to be living off the base, and I’d get the extra subsistence pay.  So I had a chance to play out there and make money like that, working on …(?)… But it was always in my Navy uniform; I didn’t take it off.  When I was playing in the bands I had on my Navy uniform, which was okay.

TP:    Were you stationed on the West Coast for your whole time in the Navy?

RIVERS:  yes.

TP:    So you were based around San Francisco, and you were playing out there during that time.

RIVERS:  Yes, I was playing all the time.  I was in the Navy,

TP:    Who else did you play with besides Jimmy Witherspoon on the West Coast?

RIVERS:  He was the only one.  I’d do jam sessions.  I can’t remember anyone else.  There were jam sessions all the time, but I don’t remember… Richmond was another place; it was a really jumping city, but it was dirt roads and everything — it wasn’t really a city.

TP:    When you look back at Studio Rivbea, what do you make of what you wrought?  You had such an enormous influence on a generation of musicians in New York.  Looking back on it, what are your thoughts.

RIVERS:  Well, I was interested in just having a place where musicians could perform without the stresses you have to go through to perform your own music and without having the man tell you to chill it.  That’s pretty much what it was all about.  That was it.  We couldn’t do it anywhere else.  It’s like that now again in New York, where you don’t hear any music any more, other maybe than John Zorn and maybe the Knitting Factory.  But that’s probably the way it’s always been.  All the time I talk to people about this, how in this music the important people are not popular, and the popular musicians are not important.  So we have a situation going here that doesn’t really seem right.  I hardly (?) a situation like that, where you look at a record label and you know just by the label that the music that’s on it is going to be like traditional and not very creative and in some senses mediocre — I mean, just by looking at the label.  I’m not on an American label.  I’m on a French label.  You have to know that being on an American label is a very suspicious place to be.  It automatically means that nothing is really happening, because you are not allowed to do anything on an American big label.

That’s pretty much it.  Or, no one has asked the big labels to look if there’s somebody out here who’s really doing something creative, and the audiences might go for listening to it.  I’m looking on the Net here, and my record is one of the best-sellers of Jazz here.  I thank the audiences.  Because the critics at Downbeat… You have to tell them I’m still out here, and maybe some day… In the Critics Downbeat Poll, I’ve not even been mentioned!  I feel I must have insulted somebody who worked where who is in a position of power.  I really feel that.  I’ve gone 50 years without even being mentioned as a saxophone player, without even being mentioned in any of the Critics Polls. Guys come up to me, and they can’t even understand it…


* * *

Sam Rivers Colleagues (Comments):

Greg Osby

TP:    How did you respond to the music you played that week at Sweet Basil that subsequently became a record.  Perhaps you could break down for me structurally how you interpret him and what’s unique about the music.

OSBY:  Well, the rehearsals and the week at Sweet Basil, I was a bit skeptical as to how the record was going to turn out.  First of all, Sam’s music had never been captured accurately for me.  It was always slipshod and haphazardly produced.  Just upon personal inspection or dissection or whatever, I knew that Sam had a lot more to offer, and there was a lot more to it than just eclectic avant-garde icon or whatever.

TP:    Did you ever hear Crystals, by the way?

OSBY:  Yeah!  I have an old, tattered vinyl… Because there was no dynamics being exercised, it was like a blast-fest, so much so that the whole saxophone section had to have toilet paper and all kind of stuff shoved in our ears because nobody was really addressing it.  So I was questioning Sam’s choice of sidepersons and did he get the right people that would accurately and vividly interpret what he was doing.  Because the music was killing!  I mean, some of the most highly developed and some of the most advanced music that you can ever imagine, for big band, for small band, for any composer.  He had so many things happening at once, and his progressions and stuff were so non-standard.  I mean, he broke just about every rule that you can imagine, so much so that he could have a whole book of Sam Rivers rules that could constitute a whole new school of thought.

TP:    What would be some of the principles of that school of thought?

OSBY:  See, Sam uses clusters, contrapuntalism and movement as elements of…not just for transitory elements or for colorization elements, but these are like valid sections of music.  I mean, the whole section might be moving, and it’s like a vortex, as opposed to something that’s really calm, and then it goes into something that’s very involved just for the sake of getting to the next piece of music or getting into the next section of the music.  I mean, the whole piece of music might be just one thing.  And it’s something that’s a definite Sam-ism.  I mean, Sam is from that school of…I mean, the same school like Andrew and Cecil, that’s readily identifiable, with utilization of characteristics and things like… That’s more important to me than being famous or being popular or whatever.  This is a cat that is THE cat, and he is A cat.  He is somebody that when you speak of him, you’re speaking about a whole method.  You’re speaking about a whole school of thought.  You’re not talking about somebody who is just merely accomplished or virtuosic or has a couple of achievements or whatever.  This is a cat who has a whole well-rounded concept.  Although I’m not going to be so bold as to say that I know what it is or… A lot of people, their ego won’t allow them to say, “Well, I know what that is” or “this is that.”  I can’t be that definite.

TP:    But you have a sense of it.  You have an interpretation.  You have a point of view.

OSBY:  Yeah.  Because I hear it.  Upon mixing the record, you can isolate certain sectors of music.  You can isolate the brass, you can isolate the trombones, you can isolate the rhythm section or the saxophones or the trumpets or whatever.  I was listening to this stuff, and I was like, wow, man, the saxophones are doing something completely and totally and entirely different than every other section.  There’s about four or five things happening at once as a section.  Then within that section the individuals will be doing different things.  So it’s like a whole band where you break down the integers, and all the digits are doing different things.

TP:    And yet it locks together.
OSBY:  It locks together.

TP:    Which is kind of that African concept of stacking and hatcheting.

OSBY:  Right.  Because in typical big band writing, you have sections parodying other sections.  If you play a second alto saxophone, well, then you can be guaranteed that either the second trumpet player or the second trombone, they’re probably playing the same line or the same voice.  It’s really just doubling sections.  But Sam, he just annihilated that theory.  It’s almost like what Mingus was doing.  He would have every cat in the band doing something different.  But this was a lot more cacophonic.  Because it was like a big band!  But the fact that a lot of people weren’t dealing with it dynamically and playing real loud all the time, you missed a lot of it.  So the record really reflects that, because you can hear the subtlety and you can hear the movement and stuff, as opposed to live in Sweet Basil with all that brick and wood, and it was just loud.  It was just a blast-fest to me, and I was kind of discouraged, but the record…

TP:    And without going into a lot of detail on your feeling of which personnel would work and which wouldn’t, I’d assume you’d think the personnel that would work would be more you and Steve and Gary Thomas and the people associated with you, and maybe less so the people who came up under Sam’s generation.

OSBY:  Right.

TP:    It seems to me, listening to it, that there’s a nice dynamic between the very expressionist qualities that the project onto it vis-a-vis the approach of you and Steve.  It worked well.

OSBY:  Well, it is, absolutely.  You have to have balance.  And our personal preferences aside… I would love to hear Sam’s music interpreted by people who can read really well and who are great soloists and all this kind of stuff.  But then these people have something missing, because they never played with the Brass Fantasy or the Art Ensemble or with David Murray’s various groups or with Threadgill and all that kind of stuff.  So they don’t know how to use the instrument.  They know how to play the instrument, but they don’t know how to use the instrument if you know what I mean.  Therefore, we had people who had that experience, and so they balance out the virtuoso-technician-cerebral types.  That’s why it worked for me.

TP:    Talk about Sam Rivers’ place in history.

OSBY:  Sam probably will go down as one of the esoteric giants.  Kind of like Andrew.  Andrew will never be a poll-winner.  He’ll never grace the cover of Downbeat or anything like that.  And Andrew is one of those cats who is regarded in the community as one of THE cats.  It’s hard for me to interpret.  I know you know, but it’s hard to put that in words for a laypersons.  You say “one of the cats.”  “Oh, he’s not one of the cats.  One of the CATS is somebody like Trane or Bird or somebody…”

TP:    Well, I think what we mean by “one of the cats” is these are people whose lives intersect with the lifeblood of the music, and historically so, which is the case with Sam, through his Boston experience, and even before that in the Navy and on the West Coast, and Andrew being a working musician in Chicago.

OSBY:  Yeah, but see, you have the cats who are widely regarded, Bird and Trane and Diz and Miles and those kind of cats.  Then you have people who within the community, the sub-structure, they say, “Well, these are the CATS that spawned the other cats.” It’s like Sun Ra and John Gilmore and Earl Bostic; these cats begat the cats like Trane.  But you never hear people talk about those other cats.  Like, Andrew Hill begat people like Geri Allen and Jason Moran and James Hurt and people like that.  So we know who the cats are, but when we hear the talk in interviews and so on, all we hear are people like Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner, because those are the popular cats.  Now, they’re the cats, too, and they begat a whole bunch of clones and a whole bunch of disciples and students.  But for people like me, Andrew and Sam and Duke Ellington and Sun Ra, those are like REAL cats…

TP:    Well, they don’t beget clones.

OSBY:  No.  But Lennie Tristano and, you know, these underground cats.  Monk is a cat only because of the popularity of his songs and stuff like that.  See, he’s very esoteric, too.  A lot of people aren’t really tapping into the reality of what his stuff was.  They’re just dealing with the obvious elements.

TP:    Talk about Sam as a saxophone player.

OSBY:  Sam as a saxophone player is incredible.  I don’t really know who he’s coming out of.  And that for me is enough for me to like him. [LAUGHS] That’s all I need.  I don’t know who his influences are.  I have to sit down and interview him personally to find out.  But it’s very unorthodox.  Sometimes it sounds like he’s totally self-taught, and he’s playing the alternative fingerings… He’s doing other things sonically, like choking up on the mouthpiece and doing a lot of throaty things…

TP:    He said when he was a kid (remember, he was born in 1923), he memorized every Lester Young solo and Hawkins and all this, and then he sort of erased the blackboard.  But that’s his root in a very first-hand way, like Von.

OSBY:  Now that you say that, I can hear the Lester Young.  I can hear the Prez in his playing.  Less elements of Coleman Hawkins, but I can definitely hear the Lester Young.  But he totally fragmented that, so I don’t know… It’s really hard to define.

But his music, man… he’s really into some other highbrow musical systems.  He uses Schillinger or Hindemith… He’s into some 20th composition.  He’s definitely into that, because just the symmetry in some of the lines and some of the music that he does is definitely not coming from a jazz base.  It’s coming from somewhere.  I don’t even want to say it’s European or whatever.  I don’t know what it is…

TP:    I think “highbrow” is a good way.  Talk in some general way about the layering of highbrow musical ideas and concepts on top of the vernacular.

OSBY:  The problem is, when a lot of people hear that kind of stuff, they dismiss it at being third-stream or classically derived or whatever.  They say it doesn’t swing, or the intervals are too wide or too disjunct or too jagged or whatever, and it doesn’t sound consonant, it’s just dissonance for dissonance’s sake — and it doesn’t meet its mark.  But that’s the kind of stuff that appeals to me even more, because I can hear the jazz bases, I can hear the swing influences and stuff, because I dig deeper.  I dare to be patient enough to check that out.  But people who only give it a fleeting listen and say, “Well, this cat is obviously influenced by some Europeans…”  So what?  So was just about every other major icon in the music.  But you just hear a lot more of the blues elements in what they do as well.  I hear the blues in Sam’s music.

TP:    Well, he played with T-Bone Walker for a long time!

OSBY:  Yeah.  A lot of people don’t hear that.  They just hear the wildness and the rawness.  I think “raw” is the key word here.  I mean, it’s so raw and it sounds so unrefined…

TP:    And yet it is.

OSBY:  And yet it is.  But a lot of people just hear that it’s like a man on a mission who hasn’t realized his vision.  But I beg to differ.  It’s the same response as people who hear Von Freeman, or even some early Wayne Shorter.  They just think the cat is wild and everything.  Or Coltrane, all the criticism that he got, all the adverse criticism Duke Ellington got… They just don’t hear it.

TP:    And it kind of defines in an aspirational sense what jazz can be.  Kind of putting your personal vision… In other words, all the hard work and preparation you refer to in terms of your own productions, and the passion with which you can articulate that and continue to grow with it.

OSBY:  Absolutely.  It’s not a thumbing of the noses.  It’s not like, “Take that; I can do what I want, and this is my music.”  It’s really people conceptualizing and trying to present the music as they see it, using a logic that’s not popular, or that’s not only not popular, but probably even something new.  These cats get in the lab and they work out theories and stuff.  Sam said he has trunks and trunks and reams and reams of unreleased and unpublished music, and he’s trying to codify it and get it all out now.  That’s why the record is so long.  That’s why we did all those recordings and did all those songs.  It was like enough for a double CD.

Steve Coleman

TP:    Let’s first talk about your earlier contact with the music of Sam Rivers and the things that struck such a chord in you.  Was it when you first got to New York and played with him, or before that?

COLEMAN:  Yeah, when I played with him.  I started making rehearsals at Studio Rivbea.  I’d heard Sam’s name before, but I didn’t know much about his music.  Well, when I got to New York I didn’t know much about anybody’s music.  It wasn’t just Sam.  A lot of guys who were still living, I didn’t know a lot of people’s music.  I mean, I knew some of the people whose names were, well, big names… I knew Sonny Rollins.  I even knew people like Joe Henderson and Freddie Hubbard.  But Sam, even now isn’t as popular as those guy, so I didn’t know his music.  But I’d heard the name “Sam Rivers,” I’d heard the name “Cecil Taylor” or whatever, but anybody who I didn’t get to hear live who came through Chicago… The only place people came through was the Jazz Showcase, and they almost always hired traditional people.  Even some of the guys in Chicago, like the AACM guys who left, I heard most of them in New York.  I played with Muhal at a jam session in Chicago before I came, and I played with George Lewis at a jam session and stuff like that.  But that’s not the same as hearing his music.  It was one of those Von Freeman type things or something like that.

So I really heard Sam when I got to New York and I started trying to play with everybody I could play with.  I think it was Chico Freeman who told me about the rehearsal.  He asked me could I read or whatever, and I said yes, and he told me then to come down there.  I knew Chico because I knew Von.  So I went down there and just started sitting in on rehearsals and stuff like that.  That’s how I met Sam, that’s how I met Dave Holland, that’s how I met a lot of those guys.  I got to New York on May 20, 1978, and it was a few months after that.

TP:    Talk about the ongoing relationship.

COLEMAN:  When I first heard the music it was shocking to me because I had never heard any music like that.  But I was shocked in New York many times during that period!  The first band I heard was Air, and that was shocking; I remember hearing them at Beefsteak Charlie’s.  The second group I heard was Arthur Blythe with the cello and tuba at Sweet Basil, which was shocking.  So I was constantly being shocked in that time period.

So Sam Rivers’ thing was just another shocking experience.  I had played a lot of big band music, but never anything like his music.  It was so original, almost everything about it — rhythmically, harmonically, melodically.  It’s not that he told you what to do, but he hired certain types of people and they were doing certain types of things, so there was a certain kind of looseness that was in the music.  Sometimes it got too loose for me actually.

TP:    Was it loose because of the predispositions of the players or was it loose because of the music?

COLEMAN:  Well, it was loose because of the players, and also because of the way Sam was — because Sam is loose.  But Sam is loose but in a kind of… You know, he was loose in the way that Bird was loose.  I mean, he’s loose, but he knows what he’s doing, and there’s a precision there inside the looseness.  But some of the players were just loose.  My interpretation of the loft scene is it was very loose anyway.  It’s kind of coming off a lot of developments from the ’60s, and players just take it in different directions.  Some players really know what they’re doing and really are working on their music, and others are just sort of in there.  So it’s a mixture of that.  But then again, when you go to the period before, that was happening, too.  But generally speaking, I found that true of that particular scene.  It was very experimental music, and so a lot of times the guys… Sam even put it to me this way at one time.  A lot of times guys just got who they could get, because they didn’t always have a choice of everybody who was on the scene.  Not everybody was into that kind of music or whatever.  So if you wanted to fill out a big band or a group or whatever, a lot of times you would just take who you could get, and it wasn’t always the best cats for the particular situation.  Sam said, “Well, you do the best you can; I’ve been out here a long time.”

TP:    Well, he’d always set up situations, so it wasn’t something new for him.

COLEMAN:  Exactly.  He’s doing the same thing probably in Florida.

TP:    Break it down for me a bit how you see the different components of the music.  What is it that’s so original?

COLEMAN:  It’s hard to describe.  It’s hard to say it’s one thing, because it’s not, and it almost never is.  But rhythmically it’s very different.  Now, I don’t mean necessarily the rhythm section, but the way the melodies laid rhythmically, the rhythms that the melodies were written in.  Because Sam had this very kind of contrapuntal concept, or many lines layered against each other kind of writing.  He does things like turning around the beat and different things like that, which means there’s an odd number of beats in a phrase as opposed to an even number of beats.  Sam would have things turning around, then they would turn back around on themselves and then come back… Some players would call that odd times, but he never wrote out anything in any kind of odd time signature.

TP:    They just fell that way.

COLEMAN:  Well, it was that way.  But you can write anything any way you want to write it.  No matter how out I want to get, I can still write it out in 4/4 if I want to.  He was a master at doing that.  In other words, he deliberately wrote it a certain way so that people could read it.  He told me that, too.  And I noticed this.  I noticed that even though his things were written in 4/4, that wasn’t the way they were.  The same thing with listening to Art Tatum or Charlie Parker or whatever.  There are some things they play which are not in 4/4, but because they’re in that context, people assume that’s what it is.  I don’t know if there’s an easy way of explaining this, but it was an odd number of beats in a lot of the phrases.  [SINGS CHORUS] That’s a 7-beat phrase that keeps turning back on itself.  So every second time it comes around, it’s an even number of beats — 14 beats.  But still, the phrase itself is in 7.  When you’re playing the phrase you can feel that you’re repeating the phrase every 7 beats.  So he had a lot of things like that, which most people don’t have in that music.  It’s a simple thing, but when you have a lot of that happening on top of each other, and you have one phrase doing that in 7 and another one doing it in 5 and another doing it in 4 and another one doing it somewhere else, it has a certain character.  It’s one of the things that I actually copped from him.  It’s one of several things that I’ve borrowed, stolen, whatever you want to call it.

TP:    Any others you’d care to put on the record?

COLEMAN:  Well, there is some intervallic stuff also, intervallic meaning… In every style you can see certain intervals that are predominant and others that are not so predominant.  I mean, there’s only 12 intervals really, but certain people tend to do certain kinds of things.  And Sam’s melodies have certain types of intervals that recur in everything.  This just got in my brain after a while, so it had a heavy influence on my music.  I mean, it’s not just what Sam did, because it’s a combination of a lot of different players.  But some of what Sam did definitely got into my music.  And all these things were coming from his writing more than anything else, because that stuff was just sitting there enough that you could kind of soak it in very quickly, especially if you’re playing the music.  So it’s not so much coming from his playing; it’s coming from what he was writing.  But his writing and playing are essentially the same brain.

TP:    You’re on Colors, the Black Saint record from ’83.  How long did you play with the big band in that first go-round?  Is that around when it fell apart in New York?

COLEMAN:  I did a lot of recording with him I guess up to the time I started steadily playing with Dave Holland — there was a little overlap.  But I would say all between ’79 and ’83 I did a lot of gigs with him, most of which weren’t recorded, of course.  I remember doing gigs at the Public Theater, tons of stuff at Rivbea, gigs all over the place.

TP:    Was he writing original music for that band the whole time?

COLEMAN:  Always.  Yeah, he has tons and tons of music.  The music we’re playing now, none of it is the music we were playing back then.  I don’t remember hardly anything being repeated.  The music we played with Colors was completely different than the music we played in the big band, which was completely different than what we just did…

TP:    And completely different that what was in Crystals.

COLEMAN:  Well, to my mind.  There may have been some things he reworked, like “Beatrice.”  But for the most part, that’s what I’m talking about.  I don’t remember “Whirlwind.”  When we played it just now, I was like, “I don’t remember this.”  Now, he may have played it with somebody else, but I didn’t play it with him.

TP:    How do you see the music on these records as evolving from when you first hooked up with him 15-20 years ago?

COLEMAN:  I hear the biggest difference as the people playing on it rather than so much the music itself.

TP:    In the level of competence?

COLEMAN:  No, I can’t say that, because there were people in the past, like George Lewis and people like that, who were really competent.  Where one person may be less competent in one area, another person may come in.  Well, George is one of those people who really had it together; he reads real well and has a fast mind.  To me, George Lewis and Sam, they represent people who have chosen what they want to do.  They’re not doing what they do because they can’t do something else, if you know what I’m saying.

But I wouldn’t say necessarily it’s a level of competence.  There is a general air today that’s very different than when I first came to New York.  With the guys younger than me, there’s a certain kind of… It’s hard to say.  It could be interpreted as precision, then again it could be interpreted as sterile.  It depends on who you’re talking about and how you’re looking at it.  But in general it’s cleaner.  But that could be not good also.  It depends on how it’s done.  I mean, Bird was very clean, but in a different way.

TP:    Well, you’re very clean.

COLEMAN:  Yeah.  Well, I try to be clean in the way that…

TP:    So is Greg.  You’re precise.  You know what you’re playing, and you’re technique is together, and you’re thorough musicians.

COLEMAN:  Well, I’m very concerned with it being precise, but not mechanical.  I mean, to me Bud Powell was very precise.  At the same time, there’s this sort of spontaneity, almost like a professional raggediness that you hear in his playing, but if you try to practice it you see it’s on a very high level of precision.  But it still has that sound that we used to call in Chicago “the professional beginner” sound.  To me, some players have a high degree of that, and to me that’s the hardest thing to get.  I think Sam has that in his music.  When I was mixing the music, and I was checking out the voicings he was using on “Beatrice” and so on in detail, I mean, there’s some incredible writing happening there that you don’t hear until you really dig down and go into the deeper levels of it.  I mean, I don’t expect the regular person in the audience to hear it.  However, when that detail is there, it adds to the emotional impact of the music, in my opinion.  It adds to the impact and depth of the music, not musical depth, but emotional depth…spiritual depth, for lack of a better word.  With Coltrane’s music you get the same kind of thing, with people who have really dug, and there’s layers and layers of thinking and work and interpretation there.  It hits you a certain way, rather than when somebody is taking it casually, or when somebody has done it on a casual level.

TP:    Talk about him as an instrumentalist, specifically as a saxophonist, and the qualities that really mark his improvising style and his saxophonism.

COLEMAN:  I guess the best word is serpentine.  The first thing that strikes you about somebody is the way they do something.  Not necessarily the notes and things like that, but the way.  And the way is in the sound, the phrasing, the rhythm; those are the things that immediately strike you.  It’s very slippery.  It comes out of what I think of as a certain school of saxophone playing.  It’s not really a school in that they imitate each other or they all went to school or anything…

TP:    It’s an aesthetic.

COLEMAN:  Exactly.  When you go to the older players, there’s always… Certain players that have a lot of depth in their playing, like Coleman Hawkins, you always see a different direction that their influences went — a different way.  For a player like Coleman Hawkins, different schools came out of different sides of his playing.  You see that with players like Charlie Parker, or Coltrane, or Louis Armstrong.  So there’s a certain kind of playing that I can trace back to Coleman Hawkins that I call the “snake school,” which is my best term.  It’s represented by players like Lucky Thompson, Benny Golson, Lockjaw Davis, to give you a few examples.  Even when you get into the more adventurous music, you still have those tendencies.

To me, Sam is in that particular school.  I don’t know any other word to say it.  Because there’s really no term for this; I’m sort of making stuff up.  But he’s in that snake school, kind of in the way… This is my interpretation; it might not be his at all.  To me, Von Freeman is in that school — or he definitely can be.  It has to do with a lot of slipperiness, it has to do with a lot of shifts and directions that they make in their lines and when they’re playing, and the intervals and the rhythm… It’s mainly the rhythm and the phrasing.  Then Sam makes it even more apparent with his phrasing because he has this garbled kind of phrasing, just the way he attacks the notes and does a lot of smears and things like that.  That makes it more pronounced, in my opinion, especially the way he smears the notes.  You can hear this on almost any of his recordings.  If I’m driving along in the car, and Sam comes along on the radio, then you can instantly hear that it’s him.  It’s like right away, just from the sound and phrasing, you can instantly hear it’s him.  For me, the first thing I get is that slippery thing.  It’s sort of like he looks, kind of long and rangy and everything.  And he moves like this, too.  To me, this goes beyond music.  When he’s like directing the band and doing his little dance, for me that’s like a snake dance.  It has that same kind of thing.  And if you ever check out the way he sings the music before the band plays, he sings the shit exactly like it should go.  He’s like “Okay, here we go; one-two, [SINGS].”  He has a certain way that he sings it that really gives you, more than words, how he wants this thing to go — or how he hears it in his head; he’s all animated about it, and that gives you a lot of information.  Everything, the way he’s singing, the way he moves and so on, and then he plays like that.  That gives you an idea, okay, this is how he hears this, this is how he wants it to go.”  There’s nothing he could say to you that would…

TP:    Like the way Monk was physically.

COLEMAN:  Exactly.  There’s a lot of people like that.  And there’s nothing that he could say that would give you more information than watching him move, listening to him sing, just watching the way he is.  He’s just an embodiment of the whole thing.  That’s the best way I can put it.  That goes for his playing his writing, the way he moves, the way he talks.

TP:    Talk about how this project came to be.  Had you been in touch with Sam a lot in the intervening years?

COLEMAN:  Not a whole lot since he moved down to Florida.  But it was always in my mind from the time we did Colors which for me was a disappointment in the production.  I thought it was a great tour, I learned a lot on the tour and I thought we did some great music, but then the tour got capped off by what in my mind was a really sad recording, or representation of it.  After the record came out I was saying I don’t think there’s any good representation of Sam’s music out here.  As you know, a lot of guys who are not real popular are left recording for these real small labels, and many times they have to do the whole record in 5-6 hours, and the mix is thrown together, the record is thrown out there, and there’s nothing happening.  So I thought it would be sad if this great cat left, and there’s like no real representation of his music.  Now, he’s made a lot of small group recordings, and there’s a lot of examples of him doing improvisations with people like Dave Holland and others, but to me the thing that was missing was his writing.  He’s written thousands of things, and the representation is small.  So that was one of the things I proposed along with recording Von Freeman, which I haven’t gotten to do yet.  I always liked Von and I always liked Sam, and I always told myself if it was ever within my power, I would try to see that some of the better quality stuff got recorded from them.  I wanted to record Von with a bigger group also. [ETC.] I knew Sam could do it by himself because he writes everything, so I didn’t have anything at all to do with the music.  I just told Sam, “Well, I want to do something with you; I want to produce, have it be on a good sound quality level, but beyond that, you got it.”  I brought in a couple of people, but mainly I brought in people where he couldn’t find cats or where there were holes.  I didn’t pick the whole band.

TP:    The band is an interesting mix of younger cats who are more, as you say, precise but with an edge, and then people who are contemporaries from the loft period.

COLEMAN:  The bottom line is, it worked out like it worked out.  I wasn’t dissatisfied with the way it worked out.  Had we had more time, probably we could have done better, but I could say that about anything.  I thought it worked out great overall, the whole thing.  I really learned a lot from the experience.  But certain guys who have been playing a certain way a long time, you’re not going to change that overnight.

TP:    I thought there was a great dynamic.

COLEMAN:  I thought there was, too.  The rubbing of these different things produced different effects.  It would have been boring if it was all guys like me or all guys like Ray Anderson or whatever.  The fact that it was different people rubbing elbows made for an interesting mix.  And it’s because of Sam that that mix was there.  It’s not the kind of mix that you could concoct.  If we had concocted it, it would be probably less interesting.  Everybody has strengths.  A lot of the players who were hanging out on the loft scene have a lot of energy, and there’s a lot of raw power there…

TP:    A lot of expression in the horns.

COLEMAN:  Exactly.  So that adds a great deal to the thing.  You find that in a lot of the older music, too, in Duke Ellington’s band and so on.  To me, a lot of the younger guys don’t have that, unless it’s manufactured.  There are players who don’t like that, who say, “Well, that’s bull” or whatever.  But for me, all of that is valid — that energy.  I learned that when I played with Cecil Taylor’s big band, for example. I played with this band, and there was a lot of raw energy there, and if that energy is channeled right it can be killer.  It can get out of hand, but anything can get out of hand!

So I thought it was a really good thing.  I felt my job was to help Sam make this the best we could make, given what we’ve got, given our situation, given the budget, given how much time.   And it helped that we had a gig at Sweet Basil before, which was like rehearsal in a lot of ways, and it also helped that they had a bigger budget than normal, because little problems that came up that took time to work out, and the fact that we had a bigger budget meant we could do that, whereas if we were recording for a real small label that wouldn’t have happened.  What happens with a small situation is that when problems come up, you can’t work them out.  So the chips fall where they may.

TP:    Sam talks about how these pieces are meant to be 50 minutes.  Of course, on a record you can’t do that.

COLEMAN:  Your chops say you can’t do that.

TP:    Do you feel it’s an overly idealistic aspiration on his part?

COLEMAN:  Well, yeah.  It’s kind of like the Braxton music on different planets.  It falls within that area.  It’s an ideal.  To me, ideals are great.  They’re fantastic.  If that’s the ideal you hold in your head, if that’s what you aspire to, that’s great.  But it probably will never be that.  I mean, guys’ lips will fall off if you play 5 compositions of 50 minutes each. People just won’t make it.  However, it’s a great idea, and I see what he’s talking about.  Yeah, it could be like that.  But I also think that would be very boring.

TP:    I guess that’s part of the African thing you’re talking about, is the endless music.

COLEMAN:  Yeah.  I understood what Sam is saying there, but I don’t think that’s ever been realized or will be realized, because it’s just a situation.  Also, there’s a stamina issue.

TP:    Would you elaborate more on your comments in the liner notes about the closeness of the music to the West African concept.

COLEMAN:  Well, one thing is what you mentioned about the different levels of the musician and all that kind of thing.  You find that a lot in African music, where people are participating on the level they can participate on.  You find it a lot in community music.  There’s not the idea of everybody being a virtuoso.  Only some people are virtuosos.  Other people are doing other things, performing other functions.  When I see, for example, Duke Ellington’s band or Count Basie’s band, that’s what I see.  You don’t see a thing where everybody is a virtuoso kind of thing.

The one thing I wouldn’t have done, Sam has this super-democratic thing where everybody’s soloing, everybody gets the same amount of space and all that kind of stuff.  I wouldn’t have done it like that.  I would have let the stronger soloists solo for the most part, or get the lion’s share of the space, in order to bring the strongest characteristics out of the music.  I wouldn’t have let everybody solo and everybody get equal space and everybody have 2 seconds, which is what it comes out to be when you’re trying to get all that music done and get all that stuff in on record.  You have these really short improvisations…I mean, that are not collective.  There’s a lot of improvisation, but a lot of stuff that’s collective, which is like composition.  Everything gets mixed together, and you’re not hearing the individual voices so much.  There were people in the band who are strong soloists in all the different sections, and I would have brought them out more.  In my opinion, it would have raised the level of the music.  But Sam had a different idea.  Sam is a very compassionate guy.  He didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings.  So he’d have guys solo who really shouldn’t be soloing.  That wasn’t their function.  I would have had a bit more role-playing, I guess I’m saying.  In that sense, I’m following the African thing.  I’m not going to have a kid do a master drummer’s part.  The master drummer does the master drummer part.  That doesn’t mean the other guys are less important, because that support part is very important.  A guy like Michael Jordan, he needs his support, role players — he can’t do it by himself.   That’s very important.  But in this day of stars and egos and so on, we don’t think like that – in the West.  We think the star is the most important guy.  Well, that’s not true.  It’s the whole team that’s important, and that’s part of what’s wrong with this culture.

TP:    Greg addressed a quality in the orchestrating where, say, the saxophone lines are doing something totally different than every other section, there are four or five things happening at once within the section, so it’s a whole band where you break down the integers, they’re all doing different things but it locks together.  Then my comment was that it’s not unlike the African concept of stacking rhythms, hatcheting…

COLEMAN:  Right.  But it wasn’t usually in sections like that.  In other words, Sam writes a cross-section.  In other words, a tenor and an alto might be playing with a trumpet and trombone.  Then another two trumpets might be playing with the baritone and another alto.

TP:    He described it as doubling sections.

COLEMAN:  He’s writing things where he’s making unusual groups of people.  It might even be the bass and one horn or something like that.  There’s unusual groups of people doing things, then he’ll play that off against the sound of sections, like the brass section or the trumpet section or whatever.  So sometimes he will have traditional sections playing.  Other times he’ll break those sections up, and it will be like me and the lead trumpet player and one of the lower brass or something like that, and it will be a section.  So you have to keep your ears open, because you never really know until you know the music where you’re going to be paired off and who you’re going to end up playing with, and all that kind of thing.  As a result, you have to be strong and play on your own.

TP:    That’s how the pieces become different with every performance, then, in a structural sense, that you don’t know who you’re going to be paired off with?

COLEMAN:  Well, no.  Within the same piece you’re paired off with the same double. The improvisation is what makes it different.  But from piece to piece, until you know that particular piece, it’s different.  And he has so much music that you can’t remember everything.  So from piece to piece it’s always different.  Most people when they write big band music, they’re writing saxophone section stuff out — this real Nestico type of writing where all the saxophones are playing together, all the trumpets are playing together, all the trombones are playing together.  Sam has some of that, too, but more often than not he’ll break the sections up and have different instruments playing with each other, and that gives a different sound.  It’s a really different sound when you have a saxophone, a trumpet and a trombone as a section, or a saxophone, euphonium and trumpet, or whatever.  That’s a really different sound than three saxophones playing.

TP:    One last general question.  Talk a bit about Sam Rivers’ place in the history of the music.

COLEMAN:  In my opinion, there’s two histories of the music.  There’s the history of what gets written down in the books and what’s known and all that kind of stuff, which unfortunately is what most people are going to know.  Then there’s the actual effect that you’ve had on the music and its participants, and which continues through other people you’ve touched.  In that sense, for me, Sam’s influence on the music is huge, because he’s touched people some of whom are themselves going to make a lot of marks.  I mean, there are a lot of unknown people who have this kind of effect, but Sam is more than unknown, so naturally he’s going to be better known, because he’s been on the scene a long time, he’s lived a long time, he’s played with a lot of people over the years.  So from way back in the ’50s all the way up to now he’s affected a lot of people’s lives, from Tony Williams all the way through to what’s happening today.  As a result, through his own work and through the work of these other people, he’s had a big effect.  To me, your effect on the music is cumulative.  It doesn’t just stop with some records you put out that somebody may think is important or whatever.  It’s mostly the interactions you have as you live every day, and the effect you’ve had on certain people.  I know he’s had a huge effect on my life.  I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if it wasn’t for Sam and people like him.  And if there’s anybody out there who claims that I have a big effect on them, well, again, that’s coming from Sam…

TP:    It’s the line of descent.

COLEMAN:  Yeah.  And it plays out all the way to the public.  It’s not just something that stops with the musicians, because what we do collectively is this music.  Even if somebody like Terence Blanchard had not listened to Sam at all and he had no effect on him, and he has a big effect on me, then when I play with Terence Blanchard the effect is still there, regardless of that.  So it carries on and on and on through unusual ways.  I think he’s a very original voice, and very original voices always have a huge effect, in my opinion, even when they’re not well known.  They always have a huge effect because they’re bringing something different to the mix, to the dance.  Put it that way.  If you’re just bringing the same thing to the dance that everybody else is bringing, well, then, it’s already in the dance — it’s no big deal.  But if you’re bringing something different, everybody is like, “Oh, what, wait a minute, what’s this cat doing?”  So that’s adding something to the overall mix.  He has a much bigger effect than somebody who is just bringing the same drink to the party and then throwing it in the punch when there’s already that in there  than somebody who brings a different ingredient.  He has a much bigger effect because that ingredient wasn’t there before.  That’s the way I look at people like Sam Rivers.

TP:    Please talk about him personally, your relation to him…

COLEMAN:  When I first came to New York, he and Bea kind of took me under their wing a bit.  Not completely; I didn’t move in with them or anything like that.  But they definitely took me under their wing, and I would go over and hang out even when there was no music stuff happening.  See, I was fairly poor and didn’t have a lot happening in terms of where I was living and all that kind of stuff.  So I would just hang out a lot at Rivbea, and a lot of times I’d be hanging out with Sam or Bea or Monique.  Sam encouraged me a lot.  He would talk to me.  It wasn’t like a father-son relationship in the traditional sense, but it’s more like that than anything else, I guess.  I definitely felt they were taking me under their wing and encouraging me.  Bea told me early on… She would talk to me and tell me things that Sam wouldn’t necessarily tell me, like, “Sam thinks you have a lot of talent and you’re going to do a lot, so you just have to hang…”  She would tell me a lot of things that I guess Sam would say but wouldn’t say in front of me.  Sam isn’t a cat who throws around a lot of compliments.  That mainly came from Bea.  But you could tell that she was getting a lot of information from Sam, because some of the things she would say weren’t things you’d think she’d know just on her own.  She would just say a lot of things.  I remember when he first heard Gary Thomas, Bea said a lot of the same things about Gary which I thought really came from Sam. But Sam wasn’t the kind of guy who would say that.  He would just get down to the business of doing the music.  But I felt they took me in, in their own kind of weird way — because they’re kind of a weird lot.

TP:    They dance to the beat of their own drummer, as the saying goes.

COLEMAN:  Yes, and I’m like that, too, and I dug that, and I could relate to it.  So they just encouraged me.  When Sam did talk to me, he really encouraged me to try to stay creative and try to build my own sound.  He always said that for him, that’s what the whole thing was about, was really getting out what’s unique inside of you and getting your own sound.  I got the feeling that if he didn’t do that, he didn’t want to do anything.  I felt that way, too, so I was attracted to that part of what he was talking about.  “The really important thing is you’ve got to have your own voice, you’ve got to have your own thing to say.”  I remember a lot of guys in Chicago saying that same kind of thing.  For me, that was the big message and the important thing I get from his example.  He’s one of those cats like Cecil Taylor and Ornette who just stuck it out over the long run.  If they stumbled, they got back up and just kept going.  That’s like a really big inspiration for me, because I’d see if they can do this in what were harder times than today, then what’s my problem?

Dave Holland

TP:    First, tell me how you first touched based with Sam Rivers and came into his orbit.

HOLLAND:  I met Sam in New York in the late ’60s shortly after I’d moved there.  I remember seeing him around town at various locations.  He’d started rehearsing with Cecil Taylor, who had a place sort of downtown around 18th Street and 6th Avenue, which is in the area I was living, so I used to see Sam quite often — he’d be on his way to rehearsal.  The next time we kind of hung out a little bit was touring in the fall of ’69 when I was with Miles and he was with Cecil’s band, and we were doing some double-bill concerts in Europe.  That was sort of the extent of it until late ’71 or early ’72.  I was living in New York, and I’d just come back from the West Coast after working with Circle.  The band broke up, and I worked with Stan Getz for about a year-and-a-half, and during the time I was with Stan I met up with Sam.  How that happened, just to cut a long story short, was Barry Altschul, who was the drummer in Circle, had started going to Sam’s loft at Studio Rivbea and rehearsing with him in the afternoon, and when I got back into town, Barry suggested I come by and do some playing with him.  That’s how it started, and from then on I started working with Sam, and we played in trio and big bands in quartet and quintet format.

TP:    So you basically were involved in all his different projects.

HOLLAND:  Yes.  I’d say it was from early ’72 until early ’81.

TP:    You’re on Sizzle as well as the other…

HOLLAND:  I am, yes.

TP:    Did playing in those different situations with him involve different demands on you…

HOLLAND:  In terms of the orchestration of the groups, one interesting group that we played in was with Joe Daley on tuba, which certainly presented some new challenges for both of us in terms of how we would work together, both of us playing bass instruments.  That was a particularly interesting and challenging situation for us to work on.  But musically, the majority of performances that I did with Sam were improvised music.  We used no written music.  The only written music that we used was with the big band, and all the other performances, even the quartet-quintet performances… Abdul Wadud did some gigs with us with cello-tuba-bass-saxophone-drums.  All this music was improvised.

TP:    You started basically with a tabula rasa, a blank piece of paper, as you put it to me on the radio.

HOLLAND:  That was it.  We’d just start wherever we wanted to.  The great thing for me was that every night we could really go in whatever direction we felt like going, and it gave us a chance to explore a lot of interesting places.

TP:    Did you hear any of the new record, or any of the music?

HOLLAND:  I haven’t heard the record, and I was out of town when they did the week at Sweet Basil.

TP:    Tell me about playing the big band music.  Did it sound like anything you had been involved with before?  How would you describe the dynamics of it, the demands of playing it?

HOLLAND:  It was certainly unique, original music that Sam was writing for the big band then.  It was quite complex at times.  It involved a lot of overlapping rhythmic cycles, and everybody had to very much be aware of how their part works with everybody else’s, of course, and how they interlocked.  The music seems to span…pretty much like Sam’s playing, it spanned the whole tradition of the music.  You could hear bits of Duke Ellington in there just…in terms of references, I mean.  I’m not suggesting it was at all similar, but only that it drew on a sort of broad range of the tradition of big band writing, and it had conventional harmonic elements and more atonal elements going on.  It was a very broad mixture of things.

TP:    It seems to me that he really relies on the groove function of the bass, that the drums are more coloristic in his concept.  True?

HOLLAND:  I don’t know.  I think that very much depends on the players involved.

TP:    He’s player-oriented.

HOLLAND:  Yes.  Sam very much tried to involve the individual styles of the players into the music and integrate them.  The music would take different shapes depending on who was playing it, of course.  But I don’t know if I could say the function of the drum would be… One good example was Charlie Persip came in one time to play with the band, and that was a very interesting time when he played, because he brought his wonderful experience of playing big band music to that music, and I thought it was a great combination.

TP:    Tell me about the Studio Rivbea scene.  The big band workshopped there.  Was it on a once-a-week basis or something?

HOLLAND:  There was a rehearsal more or less once a week, and we’d run through the charts.  The rehearsals were quite loose.  I was frustrated sometimes because I would like to have had more time to develop each piece.  Sam would run through the piece and work on some sections and then move on to the next one, and I was still interested in developing the piece we just finished with.  The rehearsals moved along quite rapidly.  We didn’t spend a lot of time on each piece.

TP:    Could you give a sense of the ambiance of that time, of the ’70s, the music that was happening in lofts, the spirit of the time, the various overlapping circles in New York City, and where Sam fit into that.

HOLLAND:  I think there was a feeling amongst the community that there was a need for some alternative performance spaces, and there were some places opening up.  Ornette Coleman had a place in Soho where he started doing performances.  That was the first thing I remember in that way.  Various other people decided to do that.  Sam opened up his loft, which is actually where he and his family were living, and it became a whole family affair.  It was wonderful.  He, his wife Bea, the daughters and his son all pitched in and helped run the place, helped to make it a very personal kind of thing, a very personal environment for the music to happen in.  It literally put on these wonderful series of concerts which gave musicians a chance to really develop and focus in on their ideas musically and without any commercial constraints.  So it was sort of the breeding ground for a lot of very interesting musical ideas that were being developed during that time, and that weren’t being heard in New York.  Of course, this kind of activity brought together people, and of course opportunities then came up for those groups to work in Europe and elsewhere.  So it was a very important time of people coming together and organizing their music.

TP:    And Rivbea was a key center within that.

HOLLAND:  It was a key center.  The lofts often tended to gravitate around certain groups of musicians or certain approaches to music, let’s say.  There was a loft called Environ…

TP:    John Fischer’s place.

HOLLAND:  Exactly.  And they tended to have one policy… Well, there were overlapping things.  But each loft would have its own set of groups or people that it presented.  There was a very wide range of different things going on.  It was not only a place to perform, of course, but a place to rehearse and a place to congregate for the community of musicians, to come together and discuss what’s going on and to share ideas and so on.  These kinds of places that come along every now and then provide a very important function to the musical community.

TP:    Is there something about Sam Rivers’ personality that makes him… He’s someone who seems to organize a scene around him wherever he is.  He said he did this in Harlem when he first came to New York, and in Boston as well.  What are the dynamics of his personality that make him so charismatic and attractive to other musicians?

HOLLAND:  Well, Sam is a very dedicated musician, to his music, and he’s also dedicated to realizing it and bringing it to fruition in performances and so on.  He was probably one of the ones who was very independent-minded as a musician.  He didn’t wait for people to say, “Would you like to do this?”  He would take the initiative.  So this was why I think that Sam would often have a scene around him, because he was someone who would take the initiative, would have the vision and the drive to put things together.  Also, he is a great composer.  Although his small groups that I was involved in during the ’70s were all open form performances, without any written music, his written music is very distinctive and very personal, and shows a very individual approach to writing and to thinking about music.

TP:    If you were to describe him as a saxophonist to someone who was unfamiliar with him, how would you do it?

HOLLAND:  Sam is a very inclusive player.  He uses all his musical experience when he plays.  That’s something he taught me when I was playing with him, was the idea of just bringing it all into the music, all your experiences into the music.  So when you listen to Sam’s playing and listen to his written music, you hear that range of experience he’s had, from Blues through more traditional forms and up to the present with his own original music.  I think one of the things that’s very interesting in his playing and very individualistic is his approach to rhythm.  He had an influence, I know, on quite a few musicians who worked with him during the ’70s in terms of how he used rhythm in his written for the big band, his overlapping cycles, and the way he utilized rhythmic fields and so on in his music.

TP:    How would you assess his place in the history of the music, particularly in his time?

HOLLAND:  Sam is a player that spanned a number of developments in the music in his career and in his life, and he’s somebody who was able to keep some continuity going through those different stages and have the later things that he’s done still echo the experiences that his earlier music had.  A lot of players, particularly during the ’60s and ’70s who were playing this open form music didn’t bring that kind of experience to the playing, to the music that Sam had, and Sam brought this great foundation within the tradition of the music, but then found a way to express it in this contemporary open-form way.

Chico Freeman

TP:     When did you first hook up with Sam?

CHICO FREEMAN:  I guess it was 1976, when I came here from Chicago.

TP:    Did you know him before?

FREEMAN:  No, I didn’t know him before.  I met him here.

TP:    How did you link up?

FREEMAN:  I guess when I came around, you start come around, hanging, trying to get known and meet people, and I think I met him… I went to Rivbea because someone told me… Well, I’d heard about it before.  When I went over there I met him and Bea.  He had a big band going, and he hired me.  First he heard me (I think I sat in somewhere or something), and then he hired me.

TP:    You’d been involved in the AACM Big Band for a number of years.  Did his big band sound really distinctive?  Original music?  Was it very striking to you?

FREEMAN:  Definitely original music.  His whole style is original.  It was quite different from the AACM Big Band or Muhal’s big band.

TP:    Talk about his style, and what’s original about it.

FREEMAN:  Well, his way of writing.  He has a style he’s developed that’s linear… I mean, he juxtaposes lots of different lines together and things like that, so he’s got a linear juxtaposing approach to lines that he has.  I think it comes from the saxophone.  But he plays good piano, too.  He has I guess like polychords for the harmonies that he does, and then he sort of adapts that to the way he writes lines and things, then he juxtaposes the lines and the harmonies together in the same way.  I remember Don Pullen was in the band when I was there, too.

TP:    Dave Holland was talking about his concept of cyclic overlapping rhythms.

FREEMAN:  That’s it exactly.  I called it juxtaposition.  But cyclic overlapping or juxtaposition.

TP:    How was it different from your experience in Muhal’s band.  Talk about how he ran the band, about his personality as a bandleader, and also, extrapolating from that, about the ambiance of Rivbea and its position in the New York scene at that time as you experienced it.

FREEMAN:  He was different than Muhal in that Muhal was more… Muhal as a composer approached it more from a piano perspective, I think, and Muhal also ran the band very… It was a great band, to tell you the truth.  I really loved working in Muhal’s band.  The Duke Ellington approach was involved, even though it was newer things we were doing.  Sam’s approach was a little more loose in the sense that… In that way they maybe were similar.  There’s a lot of freedom of expression, a lot of solos and things like that.  Sam’s music being so different… And the reading was a challenge.  Reading his music is not easy.

TP:    Why.

FREEMAN:  It’s difficult. [LAUGHS]
TP:    Just because it’s so dense.

FREEMAN:  Yeah, it’s dense, and a lot of things going on, and sometimes the saxophones are playing with the trombones, and then the next you know they’re playing with the trumpet.  There’s a lot of things happening.

TP:    So you can get a sort of vertigo being in a section, like orienting yourself to where you are.

FREEMAN:  Yeah, you have to find that out.  You’d spend five rehearsals just finding out who’s playing what you’re playing, or rhythmically.

TP:    And Sam said the parts sometimes involved you playing 8 bars written and then 8 bars free, and going back and forth…

FREEMAN:  Yes, that, and there were all kinds of things he was doing.  The interesting thing about Rivbea and the ambiance is that Rivbea was kind of self-contained.  It was a rehearsal space, it was a performance space, and it was also a kind of conceptual musical…like a school.  It wasn’t a school in the typical traditional sense of a school, but it had that kind of a… Let me change, and call it a workshop.  It was a workshop kind of situation.  So at the same time Sam was running this big band, he also had his trio with Dave Holland and Barry Altschul during this period.  I used to get a chance to listen to them a lot.  But Sam also made it a place where not only was it for him to showcase his bands, but it was a place where other bands and other musicians had an opportunity… Sam is the reason I pretty much started my European career as a leader.

TP:    How so?

FREEMAN:  Well, Sam had this big concept… He would take the Rivbea Orchestra, which at that time was Barry Altschul, Dave Holland, myself and some other people I can’t… Byard Lancaster, different people who were playing; I can’t remember everybody.  But he had the orchestra, and we went out to do the Northsea Jazz Festival, and there he had a whole night, not just one concert.  That night there was a concert by the orchestra, then we broke down into smaller groups.  I had a small group which was with Dave and Barry, myself, and a vibes player, and I did a concert.  In this case, I was playing my own original music.  Sam allowed that, which was very interesting.  There were a few different groups that the band broke down into.  In a way, that was like my first festival to play as a leader, even though I was in the Rivbea Orchestra.  From that, my response at Northsea, which was really very positive, Sam introduced me to his agent, and his agent began to work with me, and that’s how my career started.  So that was due to him and Bea.  So I have a lot to thank him for.

TP:    Was the music that the Rivbea Orchestra was playing similar to what the orchestra at Sweet Basil played last year and that’s on the record?

FREEMAN:  Some of it was similar.  Not all of it.

TP:    How has it evolved over the years?

FREEMAN:  Well, Sam is an amazing guy.  He has a mind like a steel trap.  He remembers things.  He’s amazing.  Sam used to be in a group called Roots, which at that time was Arthur Blythe, Nathan Davis, Sam, myself, Don Pullen, I think Santi and Idris Muhammad.  I remember once, something happened to the music; it got lost, or some arrangements on a couple of charts got misplaced somehow.  And Sam remembered the whole arrangement, and he wrote the arrangement out, all the parts.  He remembered everything.  He wrote everybody’s part out.  Shocked me.  I mean, I was amazed.

And Sam knows 270 million songs. A lot of people listen to his music, but they don’t realize the standards… He knows every standard…I shouldn’t say every standard that was written… But once we had a test on the bus, man, and everybody tried their best to find a song Sam didn’t know, and no one was successful.

TP:    If you were to try to describe the way he plays saxophone to somebody and what’s distinctive about his style, how would you do that?

FREEMAN:  Well, that’s difficult. [LAUGHS] His style.  How do you describe his style.

TP:    Steve Coleman used the word “serpentine,” and compared it to the way he moves and talks and gestures.  Osby said he reminded him of your Dad.  I don’t know if he means that because they’re about the same age, or because they have similar references and came up under each other.  He’s very vocalized.  He plays like someone who played a lot of blues, which he did.

FREEMAN:  Yeah, I would agree with that.  Serpentine sounds like a good word, too.  His lines are elusive.  They angle.  He’s angular in his lines and stuff like that.  I don’t know if he reminds me of my father.  They have completely different style.  I think they’re both great musicians.  I would compare them in the sense that each has their own distinctive style.  My Dad definitely has a sound, and so does Sam.  It’s a different sound.

TP:    If you were pick a word or image to describe his sound, how would you do it?

FREEMAN:  I’ve never done that actually.  Nothing comes to mind right now, one word that would do it.  The colors that he has are… What distinguishes him more to me, and what I hear are his phrases and the way he begins and ends a phrase.  He sort of sings at the end of a phrase.  He plays a line, and when he rests that last note sings.  He sort of sings it.

TP:    He’s been singing since 4 years old in gospel choirs.  What was your general impression of the week at Sweet Basil and the way the record came out?

FREEMAN:  I thought the record came out really well.  The week at Sweet Basil was good.  I mean, we had great musicians in the band.  The saxophone section particularly was… And the trumpet section was great, too, I must say.  Then of course, having Joe Bowie and Ray Anderson, I like both; those are two of my favorite trombone players.  I really enjoyed the band, and especially the musicians who were there.  And the music was definitely a challenge, and as a result it was good to be there among that caliber of musicians and playing that, and also to take Sam’s music.  You see, with all of that cyclical juxtapositioning and those angular rhythms and things, it was interesting to bring dynamics and all of those other things to that, and make that music live.  It was a challenge.  So I found it to be very interesting.  Yet at the same time, I said it sounds quite complicated, but at the same those complications are built on a basis of simplicity.
TP:    Very advanced structures over a primitive beat.  He always puts the dance beats on it.

FREEMAN:  Yes, it was simple bass.  The bass was simple.  Harmonically it was not… For the solos, the chords were pretty simple and basic, and also the beats and rhythms, but the structures of… The melodic structures were quite complicated, rhythmically and… Again, it’s where he placed things, and he inverts things, and starts things from the middle and from the inside-out and from the outside-in, backwards-to-front and front-to-back, and all in different kinds… Cyclical and juxtapositioning by offsetting them here and there.

TP:    As he put it, it’s like higher mathematics to him; he can’t make a mistake.

FREEMAN:  I’m telling you, it’s his own system.  He’s worked it out.  He’s the master of his own thing.

TP:    Anything you’d like to address that I didn’t cover?

FREEMAN:  Nothing I can think of, except to say he’s responsible for a lot of musicians, helping a lot of musicians and being there for a lot of guys.  He’s always embraced rather than rejected, and I think that a lot of us owe him a debt.  He’s been around for a long time, and he’s definitely one of the innovators and major exponents of this music.

Bob Stewart

TP:    When did you first become aware of Sam Rivers and involved in his music?

BOB STEWART:  That was actually when I moved to New York, around 1966-67.  There was a couple of year period there when he rehearsed uptown at 134th Street, at Bethune Elementary School.  He used to do every Thursday or something like that for a couple of hours.  Carlos Ward on alto saxophone and Charles Stephens on trombone, Joe Gardner, Hamiet Bluiett, all these people were in the band when we would rehearse up there — way before Studio Rivbea.

TP:    What was that music like?

STEWART:  Stylistically, in terms of how he was writing, it was some of the most difficult tuba parts I’d ever seen to that date.  Because he was writing for the tuba, just like he was writing… A lot of composers at that point wrote the tuba part like they were writing a baritone saxophone part.  They just had me paralleling the baritone, which was pretty boring most of the time.  And he was writing for the tuba just like it was another horn.  He wrote in a linear fashion, so that everybody had their own lines, which is what created the harmony more than as… I think he wasn’t thinking so much contrapuntally as he was in lines, so that formed the harmony of the piece.  So the tuba parts were really intricate and difficult rhythmically and interval jumps and leaps that would be in the part…

TP:    Did you have rhythmic responsibilities that other horns didn’t have within that?


TP:    So as a tubist in Sam Rivers’ Big Band you’re playing long lines, and you’re just one of the horns.

STEWART:  Right.  That’s one of the reasons why a number of years later, ’81 and  ’82, I did two what I called Tuba Spectaculars at St. Peter’s Church, covering all phases of the tuba.  In ’81 Major Holley did a presentation, Ray Draper did a presentation, Howard Johnson did one, I did a duo with Arthur Blythe, a whole series of things like that.  The next year I did a presentation of the tuba through the composers Sam Rivers and Gil Evans, and it showed how they both were writing for the tuba, although very differently.  Both composers inspired me to play my horn in a very different fashion, because the stuff they wrote was very difficult to play but each one very differently difficult.

TP:    Is it difficult just because it stretches the limitations of normal technique on the tuba?

STEWART:  No, it’s within the technique of any instrument, although it’s not something that a tuba player gets to see every time, because not everybody is as creative as they are.  Alto players I’m sure see this kind of all stuff the time at that point, but it wasn’t something that a tuba player wouldn’t see all the time.

TP:    Were you ever involved in his free improv situations?  He did a lot of that with Joe Daley in the ’70s.

STEWART:  No, I never did any of that stuff with Dave Holland and Bobby Battle and Barry Altschul and Warren Smith… It was an interesting presentation during that period with tuba and the bass.  But it was right after I’d done all these rehearsals.  Then he went down to Rivbea, which is when he formed that group.  I didn’t rehearse too much with Sam once he formed Studio Rivbea.

TP:    Because you didn’t play with him downtown, you played with him uptown.

STEWART:  I played with him uptown before he went downtown, all the stuff that was formulated going downtown.  It was almost like Minton’s before it went downtown.

TP:    So that was a real serious workshop atmosphere right after he moved here.

STEWART:  Absolutely, because we weren’t getting paid for that, and he didn’t have a whole lot of gigs, so we were just going up there and rehearsing with Sam.  Like I say, it was as enlightening to me as it was to Sam, in terms of he could hear his arrangements.

TP:    That’s what he said, he had all these arrangements and nobody available in Boston to play them.

STEWART:  Exactly.  So when he brought that out, I said, “Whoa…” I still have some of that stuff at home, as a matter of fact.  I xeroxed it all.  It was so difficult it was like working on an etude book or something.  Sam’s etude book.  It was a great thing for my eyes during that time, and it expanded my technique.  This is one of the reasons, like I say, why I did those concerts.  Because Gil Evans didn’t write in such a technically difficult way, but in terms of what he’d ask you to do… He had some things that were very-very high.  He wanted the texture of a tuba to play up high on its instrument, like high around middle-C, D, F, above that, while trumpet and other instruments were playing toward the bottom of their instrument and playing right next to where I was playing, or even play in unison with me.  But there was a tension, because the sound of my instrument up high and theirs from down low…my instrument created the tension.  That’s another thing I learned from Gil, how he would do that with instruments, how he would do that with the tuba, putting it up high while bringing… At the time, Lew Soloff was playing trumpet.  Having Lew playing like in thirds with me, except I would be above him.  So it created this really interesting tension in the band while not necessarily being loud.

TP:    A number of musicians who play with him say there’s a sort of vertigo effect in orienting yourself in the music at any given time because of the overlapping rhythmic cycle concept that he uses.

STEWART:  You had to depend on people differently.  In a regular big band, you can count on somebody going BIH-DE-DAP–UNNH.  You can kind of pop off of a whole section dropping at a downbeat or a …and-a-4, or whatever it happens to be, so you can kind of know where you are.  But in Sam’s music you had to listen differently.  It wasn’t like the kind of cliche places where you can depend on what your part went like.  You had to listen very differently in terms of where the accents were.  It’s rhythmically unique.

TP:    He doesn’t sound like anybody else.

STEWART:  He doesn’t sound like anybody else at all.  Nobody else.  I mean, the closest thing that even feels like that is the way that David Murray writes, but not really.  Just in terms of the ensemble, there’s a…I don’t want to use the word “confusion”… You can’t relate it to all the regular stuff that you do in a big band, and therefore finding out where you are or who you play your part with.  Because quite often it’s very difficult to figure out who you’re playing your part with, so you have to get your cues a different kind of way.

TP:    Let me move to last year and your impressions of the week at Sweet Basil, and relate the music you were playing to what your experience had been 32 years before, and how you like the record.

STEWART:  I love the record.  I was honored to be a part of that project, because it was nice watching this music evolve to now from ’66 or ’77.  Particularly if you think of the whole evolution, if you have a definition of jazz, part of that definition is how musicians evolved and how the technique evolves.  The technique becomes more evolved, and musicians become much more agile on the instruments.  And to watch that very same thing happen in my lifetime is very interesting how a lot of these instruments and musicians hadn’t been used to looking at parts like that coming out of regular big bands.  We never really played his music well then.  But 30 years later, when a few of the same people were in the band… Hamiett Bluiett and I were the only two original members.

TP:    Then there were a bunch of people who played with him at Rivbea, and then some young guys with a different aesthetic.  An interesting mix of musicians.

STEWART:  So it was interesting.  There were three layers of musicians in that group.  Really four, because his rhythm section from Florida is brand new.  And it’s interesting hearing that music really played well, finally after all these years, and people coming back to the music as well as coming to the music fresh, and people that have been in the music for maybe the last ten years rather than 30… Hearing that music having all the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed.  It was absolutely marvelous listening to it and being a part of it.  We did a thing at La Villette in France, and it was a packed concert, and people just were going wild.

TP:    There’s a primal thing.  The energy is just amazing.

STEWART:  Absolutely.

TP:    If you were going to describe it to someone who hadn’t heard it, what would you say to them?  In its advanced, current iteration.

STEWART:  It’s hard to describe.  You could tell them it’s a big band, but it’s like no big band they’ve ever heard.  You tell them it’s big band arrangements, but it’s not like any stereotype of any kind.  Either stereotype or non-stereotype.  If you think about the creative big band things that Gil Evans did for Miles, or the creative big band things that were being done by Thad Jones and Mel Lewis… Still it’s creative, but it’s creative differently.

TP:    Does it sound connected to the tradition to you?

STEWART:  Absolutely.  It’s in the tradition similar to the tradition label that was put on Duke Ellington’s music when they called it “jungle music.”  It’s similar to that tradition, in that, while being contemporary, he’s reached back some kind of way and brought up spirits from old, that… I feel like I’m playing in some kind of African big band.  Just the rhythmic qualities of it and the way the lines are moving very independently of each other, which you hear a lot in African music.  It reaches back to particularly a rhythmic sense…
TP:    The way he put it was it’s very advanced harmonies over primitive… He always puts the dance element into it, and he used the word “primitive” not in a pejorative sense, but more primal, old…

STEWART:  I think that’s what I just said!  It’s a very contemporary music, but still it calls up spirits from way back.

TP:    One more question.  Your impressions of Sam as a saxophone player, and the salient qualities of what he does.

STEWART:  I’ll just give you my experience.  Having known Sam and heard a certain way he plays from the early days, I was thinking of him as an avant-garde saxophone player.  I knew he had chops and I knew he knew what he was doing, but I never really heard him play that other way.  About 12 years ago I was in Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band, and I was so surprised to see he had hired Sam Rivers to be either first or second tenor player.  Right after that Dizzy hired him for his quintet, and Dizzy was straight-ahead compared to what Sam was doing.  I was surprised.  Then when I heard him play in that style, I was absolutely floored at the depth of this man’s knowledge.

TP:    He has a very vocalized sound, doesn’t he.  Steve Coleman used the word “serpentine.”

STEWART:  Oh yeah?  That’s the way he writes, too.  He writes very similar to the way he plays.  I mean, if you don’t hear him sing those parts… That’s one of the things he was doing over in Paris when we did that concert.  He started singing the beginning of the tunes, just to put the feeling into the band.  Before we even got a chance to play, the audience erupted.  He would do it with such energy. [SINGS]

Anthony Cole

TP:    I want to focus this conversation on the Orlando scene.  Give me some sense of Sam’s impact on Orlando and maybe the impact of Orlando on him as well.  Tell me something about the venue that the big band plays in.  I also want to talk to you about your personal interaction with him and role in the big band, more or less.

ANTHONY COLE:  It’s pretty easy for here.  I moved here from L.A. in ’91.

TP:    So you moved to Orlando the same year Sam did.

COLE:  Yes, exactly.  When I moved here I pretty much had retired from playing the drums.  I was playing piano in a jazz quartet and I was going to spend more time on the piano, more or less, than the drums.  My mother, Linda Cole, who is a fine vocalist around here, pretty big around here, was going to jazz jam sessions that they were having at what  was known as the Beecham Jazz and Blues Club at the time.  It’s now known as Sapphire Supper Club — same club.  Every Tuesday night there was a jazz jam going on, and she was pretty much begging me to come over here and go to one with her.  And I didn’t… I had a plan in mind when I moved here from L.A., and I pretty much didn’t want to get into the rigmarole and the hustle-and-bustle and all that, but I went with her, sat in and played some drums.  Sam Rivers had just moved to town, and he happened to be there, and saw me play.  He sat in and did a tune.  We didn’t play together, but after that time he was trying to track me down.  Long story short, we hooked up.

As far as the scene here at the time, there wasn’t much of a scene, other than like anywhere else where you have some local bands and a couple of places where those bands plays, there wasn’t really much of what we know to make a scene.

TP:    You do have the studio musicians.  Like a pool of hungry musicians, as he put it.

COLE:  Right.  Well, all the musicians are out at Disney, playing out at Disney.  You come here and get a job out at Disney and it’s making you good money, so you sacrifice a lot of whatever…

TP:    Creativity.

COLE:  Exactly.  To do that.  Well, I had the opportunity to do that and iced it, because I had got here once a lot of cats were already doing that, and I had got to see the results of that, and knowing that I would lose a lot of my freedom I decided to stay broke.  But anyway, the impact that Sam has had on this area is… Well, he’s pretty much brought to the forefront the reality of jazz, avant-garde jazz, free jazz — however people want to classify the music, because it’s just music, if you know what I mean.  In reverse, the impact it’s had on Sam is the response from the younger generation that he’s gotten from his music, not as much the older generation, or your older jazz crowd.  It’s been the younger crowd that he’s moved here, because his music is closer to the lifeline of what’s going on now.  It doesn’t bore you, it doesn’t just swing along, it actually moves.  I think everyone has been surprised.  I think Sam has been surprised with the response in this area, and of course everyone has been surprised with having a living jazz legend living in this area.

TP:    So in Orlando it’s a situation where Sam Rivers, who is an icon of avant garde jazz, although he’s also, as he likes to make sure you’re aware, a strong traditional musician…

COLE:  Totally.
TP:    …has a large audience, and has touched a chord amongst young people in Orlando.

COLE:  Moreso.  Moreso than the older generation.

TP:    You gave me some sense of why you think that is.  Could we hone that down a bit, get into some specifics, the inner dynamics of the music that make it so appealing.

COLE:  Well, the fact that, like I said, it’s life music.  It moves!

TP:    You mean it has a beat, it’s danceable…

COLE:  It’s danceable if you want to dance.  It’s listenable if you want to listen.  If you want to close your eyes and slip off into a cosmos somewhere, it lets you do that.  It’s life music.  I mean, we have to specify it as certain things because of specific instrumentation or whatever we know as categories or descriptions.  But the music lends itself to whatever you need it to be!  That’s more so like straight-ahead jazz… Swing music is for swing people who dress up and swing-dance, and it’s got that thing.  Contemporary jazz is for those people who love to listen to that boring kind of music.  The thing with Sam’s music, as it’s always been, is that it moves, it’s got life, it goes in and out.

TP:    Were you familiar with Sam’s work in the ’60s and ’70s at the time you met him?

COLE:  A little bit.  Not extensively.

TP:    Are you now?

COLE:  Yeah, a lot more.

TP:    I’m just thinking of the role of his drummers in the ’70s.  He worked with Barry Altschul, who coined the term “freebop” to describe what he did, and it sort of hit me when you were describing the rhythmic component.

COLE:  Exactly.  And that moreso with the dance music.  Sometimes there’s more of a backbeat, like a lot of other trios Sam had.  He’ll tell you himself there’s once again a new direction with the trio he’s gone in.

TP:    You are someone who has an equal comfort zone playing the piano and plaing the drums?

COLE:  I’ve been playing drums since I was 3 years old, and there’s always been a piano around.  My mother plays piano, my uncle Carl played piano, there’s a piano in my grandmother’s house.  Piano is just a natural.  It’s a toy that’s always been there.  It’s nothing that I ever really sat down and went, “Okay, I’m going to do my scales.”  I grew up in an entertaining family.  I come from the Cole Family.  It’s like the Jacksons or the Osmonds.  You know what I mean?  I didn’t have much of going outside and jump-roping or big-wheeling and throwing balls and shit.  I was in the house rehearsing for Christmas shows and Easter shows.  I’ve always been on stage.  So there are things that come naturally to me because it’s just always been there.  If you grow up around nothing but mechanics, you’re going to know a little something about a car.  So it’s just that… We all sing.  I come from a family of singers.  So that’s the primary instrument, is the voice.  I started playing drums when I was 3…
TP:    You sing also.

COLE:  Mmm-hmm.

TP:    Is that part of your career in Orlando as well?

COLE:  yes.

TP:    So you’re not just making your career playing creative music with Sam.  You’re doing a range of activities.

COLE:  Yeah.  My life has been my career.  Whatever, if it involves something musical, then I’m there.  That’s what the career is.  For me, a career has never been anything intended or like aspired or anything.  I’ve never known anything else.

TP:    How specific is Sam in directing you in your function as a drummer with the big band?

COLE:  He just hands me the music.

TP:    Then you interpret totally.

COLE:  Mmm-hmm.  Totally.

TP:    Does he have specific parts for the drums, or does he sing it to you…

COLE:  A lot of times I get the same charts the bass player has, or I’ll get just a map-down of stuff so I know who’s blowing, who’s soloing.  It differs.  But a lot of times I pretty much just get an outline of what’s going on.  With the big band for me a lot of times it’s just all ears.  I mean, there’s things on paper that I definitely follow, where it’s to be followed, but most of the time… When Sam hired me to play in the big band, the only thing he said is, “You don’t have to play any different than you do in the trio.”  So that’s pretty much the door that he gave me.  That’s what he wanted.  But at the same time, there’s a different thing that happens to me when 15 horns are playing.  It’s like driving down your street or driving down a big boulevard, same car, same driver, you’re just in a different place.

TP:    Would you describe a bit how playing with Sam this last decade has affected your sensibility and aesthetic as a musician?

COLE:  Well, it’s confirmed a lot.  Sometimes there’s things you think out of tradition and custom, there are things you think aren’t kosher or acceptable, some things you should keep to yourself or whatever.  And Sam has really pointed out the fact musically moreso that everything is correct.  Nothing is wrong.  Music is music.  It’s all beautiful.  When Sam hired me, he hired me for the musician that I am.  He never once has said, “Well, it should go like this” or “this is what… When I started playing saxophone…well, when I got a saxophone or started messing around with it is when I first went out on the road with Sam, which is in ’92.  I asked him if he’d give me lessons.  He said, “No.”  He said, “Just make up your own scales.”  That’s all he said to me.  So his instruction is moreso, “Do your thing.”  Of course, you’re always going to have influence.  Of course, there’s always things to grab from, but there’s always a specific individual behind the instrument, and that’s really… He’ll tell you in a minute, he’s gone out of his way, especially at the time when Coltrane was happening and there were other saxophonists around…he went out of his way to not sound like someone else.

TP:    He says he listens to everything so he can not sound like them.

COLE:  Right.  Sometimes it’s a conscious effort.

TP:    Talk about the experience of the week at Sweet Basil that germinated these two records, and the experience of the recording.  It’s a very different group of musicians what I’m sure you’re in touch with in Orlando.

COLE:  Well, for me the whole time while that was going on, I was just pretty much thrilled at working with all these musicians who I’ve heard on record and seen on album covers and TV so forth all this time, and actually being in the driver’s seat for these cats.  The music, I eat and sleep it, so the music… For me it was like a haze.  I mean, I met everybody!  And anybody who I didn’t get a chance to meet, they were at the club.

TP:    Everybody got to meet you.

COLE:  Well, yeah, in that case.  But Anthony Cole is a new name.  Chico Freeman is not a new name.  Greg Osby is not a new name.  So for me it was a different pair of shades than for everybody else.  Everybody else, it’s “Holy shit, who’s this drummer you’ve got?” blah-blah-blah, and I’m going, “Oh my God, finally it’s beautiful to meet you.”  And THEN we all played music.  It was kind of like that.  It kind of went in that direction.

TP:    you were there because you belonged there.

COLE:  Yeah.  But a lot of times I don’t really know what goes on behind the scenes with a lot of things.  I’ve got so many irons in the fire now that I just take each moment full on as it is.  Kind of like switching channels.

TP:    Is this the only situation for you in which you’re playing drums in a band?

COLE:  No.

TP:    So there are other bands with which you play drums, other bands with which you play piano, other bands with which you play saxophone, and they are different functionally than Sam’s band.

COLE:  yes.

TP:    Sam talks about wanting traditional musicians because they can play free in a minute but free musicians can’t play traditional.  You’re a traditional musician within that formulation.

COLE:  In that formulation, yes, because I’ve learned the basics.  I can sit down and play “As Time Goes By,” your basic II-V-I chords, those things I learned while I was living out in L.A.  At that time, Free was the last thing you could get me either to listen to or play, because I was learning the inside structure of things.  Now, for me… It’s different for other guys.  But for me, once I got to that point where I knew how to do all that, now, where else do we go from here?  It took working with Sam to feel comfortable or okay a lot of times in the beginning about going out or playing free.  As a drummer, I’ve always been a firehouse; that’s never been a problem.  But on other instruments… It wasn’t even until I started playing saxophone that I understood that instrument being able to take everybody else somewhere else.  Because I’m a drummer, a drummer can make or break a situation, blah-blah-blah, but a lot of times a drummer can’t lead something into free.  A lot of drummers don’t know how to lead into free.  It’s always the time thing.  And when I started working with Sam… Because I’ve worked with a lot of horn players.  When I started working with Sam, he was the first horn player I worked with who would start screaming through the horn in the middle of something.  And that for the first time encouraged a whole different reaction from the drums than I had ever experienced before.  So in that case, that’s one thing he did as far as the influence of the free drumming.  Because like I said, normally you’re used to leading people somewhere.  Sam will take you where he wants you to go.

TP:    In that connection, talk about the way the band on the record interpreted the music vis-a-vis the Orlando musicians who presumably play the music every week.  Some of these guys haven’t played the music for 30 years, some of them not for 25 years, some had never played it.  Talk about the way the Orlando band sounds different.

COLE:  Well, it’s obvious.  With Sam’s music… It’s like if you’re playing something every week for the past 5-6-7 years consistently, not only are you going to have an idea of what something should sound like… A lot of these guys in New York were around when Sam’s thing was going on a long time ago, but from that time up to the record, a lot of other stuff had gone… A lot of people aren’t in contact, whatever; hadn’t played the music.  So the guys up there pretty much know Sam from that time and are familiar with him then, but not necessarily familiar with the way he’s interpreting his music with another band.

TP:    How would you say his interpretation has changed from then to now?

COLE:  I really don’t know, because I don’t know that much about the Then.  I know a lot more about the Now.  If you listen to other big band albums that Sam…

TP:    Well, Crystals is the most notable.

COLE:  Exactly.  And from Crystals to now you can just hear a difference.  I can’t speak for other people.  The only way I know… For me, the experience was cats in New York who know Sam but haven’t played the music for a long time, and cats down here who play the music all the time who haven’t hung out with Sam as much as the other guys in New York did at one time… The CD down here by the big band down here is coming out pretty soon, and you’ll be able to hear the extreme difference immediately between cats who are paying Sam’s music every week and guys who are all-stars.  Now, there’s no bash there.  An all-star is an all-star.  But the guys down here play Sam’s music all the time.

TP:    Right.  So they’ve internalized everything.  It’s second nature.

COLE:  Exactly.  They’re a lot closer to the music.

TP:    Could you tell me a bit more about the Sapphire.  What does it look like.  Break down who you think the audience is.

COLE:  Well, it’s a big supper club.  They have all kinds of music there.  I mean, it’s a supper club.  They have big concert venues there, but it’s a big supper club.  It’s got a dance floor, a big bar, a big-ceilinged place.  It’s the old Blue Note that was here; the same spot that was Valentine’s, the Blue Note, Beecham’s Jazz and Blues Club — it’s the same location.

TP:    What other acts play there?  National acts?

COLE:  Certainly.  National acts from all ranges.

TP:    Who’s been there this last month?

COLE:  I don’t go there unless I’m playing.  I’m right down the street, and play there all the time.  But they have everybody. It’s not like one specific kind of music.

TP:    It’s like a showcase type of place.

COLE:  Yeah, but it’s also like a big concert hall and BIG acts.

TP:    How many people does it hold?

COLE:  Oh, it can hold maybe up to 700-750 people, tight.

TP:    Good sound system?

COLE:  Yeah… A reasonable facsimile for probable cause!

TP:    But the audience that comes on Monday nights is specifically Sam’s audience that he’s built up since ’91.

COLE:  No.  Whoever comes on Monday night is there to see whoever’s playing on Monday night.  It differs.  Sam isn’t there every Monday.  They have different acts every night.  Sometimes they have all ages shows.  Or Punk Rock shows and there’s nothing but kids there.  So it’s a potpourri.


Filed under DownBeat, Sam Rivers, WKCR

John Abercrombie’s Uncut Downbeat Blindfold Test

It’s John Abercrombie’s birthday, giving me an excuse to post the complete proceedings of a Blindfold Test I conducted with him about ten years ago.  His responses were terrific.

* * *

John Abercrombie Blindfold Test (Raw Copy):

1.    James Blood Ulmer, “Sphinx” (from MUSIC SPEAKS LOUDER THAN WORDS, DIW/Koch, 1995/1997) (James Blood Ulmer, g.; Calvin Jones, b.; Rashied Ali, d.) – (5 stars)

I love the feel of this piece.  It reminds me a little bit of something from sort of semi Sonny Sharrock, but not really.  It could be one of these Albert Ayler tunes or something like that, something in that vein.  It sounds like somebody who’s playing with their thumb a little bit, but it’s not Wes!  It doesn’t really sound like him, I didn’t know he played anything this out, but it could be… Could it be Kevin Eubanks?  It sounds too harmonically oriented to be Sonny Sharrock, but that was still my first take on it.  It still could even be somebody like that, but… James Blood?  Wow!  This is great.  I don’t know that tune.  I have to get this.  I’ve heard some other stuff by Blood and I liked it.  I have some of this stuff where he was singing that I enjoyed, but I’ll have to get this.  This definitely sounds very hip to me.  Very open.  And it’s kind of funny; that’s why I thought it was Sonny Sharrock, because of some of the similarities.  He sounds to me more harmonic.  I hear more harmonic information in his playing.  It’s cool.  And I think he does sort of play with his thumb a little bit, because it’s got a little bit of that feel.  It’s plucky.  He chokes the notes a little bit, so it… I’ll give this 5 stars.  I still like it. [AFTER] Now that you tell me it was Rashied Ali, it makes total sense, because I played with him once, and he has a great way of playing a sort of open music.  you really feel like they’re playing on a form or something.  It really has a great swing, a pulse to it.  It’s not just free.  I think that’s what makes it work.  That’s what makes everything sound so great.

2.    Gerardo Nunez, “Calima” (from CALIMA, Alula, 1998) (Nunez, guitar; Danilo Perez, piano; John Patitucci, b; Arto Tuncboyaci, d) – (4 stars)

An acoustic guitar.  Two players or it’s overdubbed.  I hear other parts.  That first part with just the guitar overdubs was just impeccable technique, whoever it is.  I mean, it’s almost perfect technically.  But I can’t tell from that who it is.  I might know, not by the content of what he’s playing, but just somebody playing the guitar that well.  This sounds like a Spanish Classical piece.  I’ll make a stab.  It’s not that guy Fareed Haque, is it?  Fareed is so technically proficient, that that’s what this kind of reminded me of.  The little bit I’ve heard him play Classical stuff, he has that kind of flawless technique.  I like it.  The beginning was beautiful, and this has a nice rhythm feel.  The approach of the guitar player… It sounds like everything’s almost kind of written, or it’s things you would include in a Classical or a Flamenco technique.  But it’s not a famous Flamenco player, I don’t think.  Now you’ve piqued my interest.  It’s not Paco, is it?  I’ve heard Paco do things that are kind of like this, with hand drums and of course that kind of technique is akin to a Flamenco player.  So it’s definitely somebody Spanish.  I can’t guess.  It’s very nice, but I can’t figure out who it is.  I’ll give it 4 stars for the really great feel.  Flawless guitar technique.  Wow.

3.    Jim Hall-Dave Holland, “End The Beguine” (from JIM HALL & BASSES, Telarc, 2001) (Hall, g; Holland, b) – (3-1/2 stars)

The bass player almost sounds like it could be Dave Holland, playing one of his little… But it’s probably not.  The only reason I mentioned Dave Holland (and I don’t think it’s Dave) is because I’ve played little pieces with Dave where it has this kind of feel.  Dave writes some of these little Indianesque-sounding, Arabian… The bass player does sound like he has some of Dave’s rhythmic concept, but I don’t know who… [Why don’t you think it’s Dave?] I don’t know.  I have to listen more.  I have to hear him solo to really know.  [Can you glean anything from the guitar player?] I’m not gleaning well right now.  It’s someone who’s Dave-like, but I don’t think it’s Dave.  The sound is not quite what I’m used to hearing; Dave has a bigger sound.  But then, he could be recorded differently.  And Dave usually sounds a little punchier.  And also Dave has certain rhythmic phrases that he does, because I’ve played with him so much, and I didn’t hear any of those.  But it does have an aura of that. It’s Dave?  Wow.  The guitar sounds like a 12-string.  I thought maybe it was Gismonti playing the 12-string, but I don’t think he and Dave ever played together. But the opening thing didn’t sound anything like something Gismonti would play.  That sounded more jazzy.  This is definitely somebody who’s a jazz player of sorts.  I know it’s not Ralph Towner, because it’s not good enough to be Ralph Towner playing 12-string. [LAUGHS] It’s good, but it’s not like what Ralph would play.  I don’t know if he started out on this instrument.  Did he change… No, there it is.  It’s all the same instrument.  I’m not going to get it. Can you give me a hint? [You’re going to feel bad if you don’t know who it is.] Oh, I think I know who it is now.  See, that’s all you had to say.  It’s Jim.  This sounds so different than what I’m used to hearing Jim play.  Harmonically and rhythmically, some of the chords… Now it does make sense that it’s Jim to me.  But at first it didn’t.  Maybe I still have Blood’s music in my head.  Because the opening, the first reading of the opening sounded a little Delta-like.  I got Dave, though.  I was pretty sure.  This is that album where Jim plays all the different duets.  I haven’t heard it.  Not that I have to, but I’ve never heard Jim play a 12-string guitar.  It’s not the instrument he normally would play.  It’s not the most interesting thing I’ve heard Jim do, but it’s still good, and I needed a hint from you to actually figure out who it was, although I was pretty good about Dave.  3-1/2 stars.  I think if I had heard him play on an electric guitar, with his more rounded tone and the tone I’m used to, playing a similar thing, I would have probably nailed it.  But like you said, it was hearing him play that instrument.

4.    Arsenio Rodriguez, “Rhapsodia del Maravilloso” (from Sabu, PALO CONGO, Blue Note, 1957/1999) (Rodriguez, guitar; “Sabu” L. Martinez, Raul Travieso, Israel Travieso, Ray Romero, congas; Ernesto Baro, bass) – (5 stars)

That’s a different instrument, too.  That’s either a 12-string or a tres.  A tres.  I got it.  That’s not Arsenio Rodriguez, is it?  I love this stuff.  The main reason I know about him, when I used to work years ago in a band called Dreams, was a trombone player who passed away named Barry Rogers, and Barry’s second instrument was the tres.  He used to play trombone and tres with a lot of the Latin bands, and he played me some Arsenio Rodriguez and said this was the cat.  This is more in the context of a rhythm section, but the bass player is very strongly prominent here, too.  This sounds not unlike the duet with Jim Hall and Dave Holland, in a strange way, because the tres is a double-stringed kind of instrument, if I’m not mistaken.  This gets 5 stars.  I’m not surprised I got it. But once I figured out what the instrument was… I know Wes didn’t record on tres!  I can make jokes.  But I know that other people didn’t, so it has to be either the heavyweight guy or somebody I didn’t know.  Beautiful music.

5.    Nels Cline-Gregg Bendian, “Mars” (from INTERSTELLAR SPACE, Atavistic, 1999) (Cline, el.g; Bendian, drums) – (3 stars)

Definitely sounds like a real free electric guitar player, but somebody with a lot of chops.  I don’t recognize… Wow.  Twisted.  I like it.  I can’t tell from the content of what he’s playing who it is. [Do you have any idea of what it is they’re playing?] I may know it.  I’ll listen a little bit more.  That part sounds like a tune!  There are a lot of guys I haven’t heard maybe that much.  Could it be Vernon Reid?  I don’t know.  It’s too jazzy to be Vernon.  Vernon would be more like Hendrix and Rock.  This has that tone, but it’s obviously somebody who’s played… [It’s a West Coast player.] Now I know who it is.  Nels Cline.  Nels is the only guy I know on the West Coast guitar-wise who would play something that might sound like this.  It sounds great.  For my ears there could be a little more dynamics, but I’m not playing it.  It maintains a real high density level at all times.  Which I enjoy playing more than I enjoy listening to, I think.  But I like it.  It’s definitely got some harmonic knowledge and some lines that he’s using… I’ll give it 3 stars. [This is “Mars” from INTERSTELLAR SPACE] Oh, I would never get that!

6.    David Fiuczynski, “Down Under” (from CHARTBUSTERS, Hip-Bop, 1995) (Fiuczynski, guitar; Dr. Lonnie Smith, organ; Lenny White, drums) – (4 stars)

Nice guitar tone.  I like the tone.  It’s over-driven, but in a nice sort of sweet way.  I like that. That part sounded like something Scofield would play.  Amazing technique.  All these lines here are pure Scofield.  Pretty pure.  But the other stuff isn’t.  He’s a funny composite of things, real blues-drenched, a great tone, some real heavy… Those lines didn’t sound… Super slinky technique.  Amazing.  Some of it sounds pretty original.  He definitely sounds like a pastiche of a lot of different players, but amazing control.  This sounds like Larry Young almost.  Dr. Lonnie.  I could tell by these sort of broken arpeggiated things he does that kind of go across the keys.  That’s beautiful.  Now I can guess on the guitar player, and it may be a wrong guess.  Is it Paul Bollenbeck?  I’ve heard Paul play things that are technically like speed of light.  This guy’s got speed-of-light technique.  Definitely 4 stars. [AFTER] Fiuczynski!  He sounds amazing.  He really does.  It’s amazing technique.  Great lines.  Some of them directly culled from the Scofield vocabulary.  Sounds great.  Like I say, he’s a pastiche of many things.  But he sure has picked some good things to put in his trick bag.

7.    Russell Malone, “Heartstrings” (from HEARTSTRINGS, Verve, 2001) (Russell Malone, g.; Kenny Barron, p.; Christian McBride, b; Jeff Watts, d.; strings; arr. Johnny Mandel) – (4-1/2 stars)

Another great guitar sound.  I like this sound.  This sounds a little more familiar to me.  I think I know who this is.  Is it Russell Malone?  I heard this actually driving in a car one time, and I was so taken with the pretty sound he got… It really is a lovely sound.  I distinctly remember it.  When I first heard it, I wasn’t sure who it was, so it was like in a blindfold test.  I was driving my car waiting for the announcer, and I was kind of going through my mind, and Russell’s name was one of the names that popped into my head.  I don’t know his playing that well.  I’ve only heard him on a couple of things, but this is the best thing I’ve heard him do with his tone.  His solo is very bluesy, more than I’m used to hearing him play.  Maybe he’s more of a bluesy player than I realize.  I haven’t checked him out that much.  Isn’t he from Georgia?  I thought the solo was really good.  The time when I did hear this record in my car, this is exactly the tune I heard, and I was struck not only by the sound, but by some really interesting parts in the solo that I wasn’t expecting.  Because the solo has kind of a very laid-back, bluesy feel, and all of a sudden there’s these oddball notes and a couple of funny phrases.  So I thought it was a very good solo, well-constructed and a beautiful tone.  I’ll give it 4-1/2.

8.    Simon Shaheen, “Blue Flame” (from BLUE FLAME, 2001, Ark-21) (Simon Shaheen, oud; Bassam Saba, nay & fl.; Billy Drewes, ss; Adam Rodgers, ag; Francois Moutin, b; Lorenzo Martinez, bongos; Steve Sheehan, caxixi, brushes, cymbals, diembe, durbakka; Jamie Haddad, hadjira drum, cymbals, hadgini) – (5 stars)

It’s an oud.  There’s a couple of oud players I’ve heard, and one is the guy who records… I’ve heard a few.  I brought back some music from Istanbul.  But I can never pronounce this guy’s name.  Isn’t this Rabih… No?  Then maybe I don’t know who this person is.  There’s a couple of guys I used to listen to.  There’s a guy who records for ECM, Anwar, but he wouldn’t play this kind of stuff. This is more rhythmic; he’s more floaty, from what I’ve heard.  Then there’s the guy that used to make the records for Enja years ago, Rabih ..(?).. This is what it reminds me of.  I like the solo a lot, maybe more than the composition.  I like the feel of the composition, but I like the sound of the solo.  I like this part.  It’s really open. It’s almost like a jazz player playing oud.  But it’s not.  It’s an oud player playing oud.  It’s got a looseness to it, though.  Makes me want to play with a pick again, hearing some of these fast lines.  The solo was absolutely beautiful with the rhythm section.  It’s so loose.  It sounds like they’re playing in 5/4.  It takes me a while to figure out sometimes what the odd time signature is, but I’m pretty sure it was 5, which is a very hard time signature to play in — at least for me.  But it was so loose and so effortless.  And the sound of the oud, it’s like one of my favorite instruments.  It almost sounds like somebody took a classical guitar and tuned it down real low so the strings are really elastic.  It’s really one of the warmest instruments.  But this guy, I’m sorry I didn’t know him.  Now I’ll have to go and listen more to him.  5 stars.  It’s totally happening.  I wish I knew him.  Now I will know.

9.    Joe Morris, “Manipulatives” (from UNDERTHRU, Omnitone, 1999) (Morris, guitar; Mat Maneri, violin; Chris Lightcap, b.; Gerald Cleaver, d) – (3 stars)

This almost reminds me of something I did years ago with Barre Phillips and John Surman and Stu Martin.  I played on a couple of tunes on Barre’s record.  The rhythm section sounded like this, kind of in time but really kind of wacky.  This is kind of how I played back then!  It’s interesting, but I wish it was a little more cohesive somehow.  The rhythm section seems to be almost overpowering the soloist a bit.  It also could be the mix.  If you heard these guys play live, maybe it would be the opposite, or maybe it’s perfectly balanced, but it sounds a little more… The thing about this kind of playing to me is… Which is what I liked more about, say, the Blood Ulmer thing.  Even though that was rambling and a little wacky, it’s clear somehow.  It has a real cohesiveness.  This doesn’t have that.  This feels scattered, kind of.  It’s not my most favorite stuff.  It’s probably me!  I have no idea who he is.  I could make an educated guess. Joe Morris.  Wow!  I’m a good educated guesser.  I like this, but for me it lacks the cohesiveness of the Blood Ulmer thing or maybe even the Nels Cline thing you played me.  It’s in that same genre.  Well, my band can no doubt at times sound like this!  It sounds more balanced during the violin solo in terms of the actual sonic density of it.  This is another kind of music that maybe I like to play a little more than actually sit down and listen to it.  But because I play this way, I can appreciate it.  It’s fun to play this way and they sound good.  My educated guess for the violin player is Maneri.  But I don’t know him.  He sounds good.  Now the music is starting to gel for me.  Even though it’s more dense, it sounds better now.  3 stars. I like what they’re trying to do, but it doesn’t sound as cohesive as some of the other stuff to me.

10.    Kurt Rosenwinkel, “A Life Unfolds” (from THE NEXT STEP, Verve, 2000) (Rosenwinkel, guitar; Mark Turner, ts; Ben Street, bass; Jeff Ballard, drums) – (5 stars)

I’ve got to know this.  It’s probably a 7-string guitar.  Very nice.  Again, sometimes I go for the tone first.  Even if I’m not trying to figure out who it, almost all the players… Actually, everybody you played me today has a good tone, in their own way.  They’re all different, too.  Every one of them had a completely different approach to the tone of the guitar.  This sounds so familiar to me.  It’s a very nice composition.  It’s beautiful.  I think I know who this is.  I think it’s Kurt Rosenwinkel.  I know this.  This is from his second CD.  This is gorgeous.  I remember when bought this CD, and I liked the whole CD, but I remember when I got to this tune, I played it three or four times.  I had to hear it that many times.  This guy has got something that’s different.  I don’t know what the tuning is.  He’s definitely got the guitar retuned on the bottom on some lower strings.  You can hear them… A very clear but warm tone.  Again, I’m attracted to the tone, but he also is a very fluid, melodic player — lyrical, let’s say.  He also sings when he plays.  When I’ve heard him, he sings these little falsetto things.  Sometimes he’ll actually sing the lines, and he’s not just playing some blues ideas.  He’s playing some complicated lines and he sings with it.  So the response to that is he actually hears what he plays!  It’s amazing.  This is a great composition.  5 stars all the way.  Playing, composition…this is great.

11.    St. Germain, “Montego Bay Spleen” (from TOURIST, Blue Note, 2000) (Ernest Ranglin, g.; Ludovic Navarre, conductor; Alexandre Destrez, keyboards; Idresse Diop, talking drum; Carneiro, percussion) – (3 stars)

Nice groove, nice atmosphere.  It’s hard for me to tell who the guitar player is.  The actual guitar playing sounds a little more mainstream than I thought it would sound hearing the rhythm.  I thought the guitar player might play further out, but this is more in playing.  Very sparse.  He’s not playing a lot.  Sure it’s not one of my records?  No… What the hell was that?  That sounded like an edit.  I couldn’t tell; it was so strange. It’s strange, because most of what he’s playing is kind of straight, and then when he played these quirky lines, it didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of what he was playing.  This is a hard one to even make an educated guess at.  The tone is like a jazz guitar tone, a sort of brighter sound.  It’s not my favorite; I like a darker sound.  Well, that’s HIS sound.  I shouldn’t comment. But it sounds like a big guitar with sort of a bright sound, like a big jazz box — or at least a medium-size jazz box.  This one completely stumps me. 3 stars. Ernest Ranglin!  Sorry.  There’s no way I could get it.  I know the name.  Is he from Jamaica?

12.    Sylvain Luc & Bireli Lagrene, “Stompin’ At The Savoy” (from DUET, Dreyfuss, 1999) (Sylvain Luc, Bireli Lagrene, guitars) – (4 stars)

Acoustic guitar duo.  Wow, he’s so astute!  I like the way they’re breaking it up. The one guy is playing almost like a percussion instrument, tapping.  The guy playing the solo sounds very blues-like.  Good blues player.  Mmm!  I like this guitar player a lot.  Whoo!  I want to steal some of his lines.  Impeccable kind of technique, but very bluesy at the same time.  I mean, he’s not like somebody who I’d all of a sudden go, “Oh, that’s Wes or Kenny or Sco or Bill Frisell or Grant Green.”  A lot of this kind of playing… I think it’s great.  I totally admire it, and think it’s fantastic.  But it doesn’t have as much of an instantly identifiable thing.  It’s like amazingly great guitar playing.  Is this the second guy playing now?  I can’t tell.  I think maybe it’s the second guy.  It almost sounds like something I’ve heard before, but I can’t put my finger on it.  I mean, it’s “Stompin’ At The Savoy.”  I know the tune, but I don’t know the… Some of the other things you played me, I might know the player but not the tune.  Here I know the tune but not the players.  Is it Bireli Lagrene?  Yeah, and there’s another guy on this.  I’ve heard this before.  I think this is the other guy playing, but I can’t remember who it is.  Sylvain Luc.  Okay.  I may even have this.  It’s amazing playing. I’ll give it 4 stars because it maybe didn’t sound as original as some of the other things, but man, I wish I had those chops.

13.    Derek Bailey-John Butcher, “High Vortex” (from VORTICES AND ANGELS, Emanem, 1992/2001) (Bailey, guitar; Butcher, ss) – (4 stars)

Sounds like my train is here!  I’d better run and get to the platform.  It’s the 5:07; it’s in early.  I’m trying to figure out if the instrument on the right is actually a guitar, whether it’s processed, or if the bass is being bowed… Derek Bailey?  It’s a horn.  Is it a horn?  I can’t tell. Soprano saxophone?  Then maybe it’s somebody like Evan Parker.  No?  Somebody whose name I probably know, but wouldn’t be able to… [He’s English] I figured he’d be a gentleman.  I’m sure when I hear his name, I’ll know it.  I may even have played with the guy, because I’ve played with some English musicians.  This is the kind of thing that unless you really listen to this music a lot, it would be hard to tell.  But it’s instantly identifiable as Derek Bailey…because he’s instantly identifiable! [LAUGHS] It’s the least guitar-like in terms of what most of the world thinks of as guitar playing, but I knew who it was pretty quickly, whereas some of the other things I wouldn’t know, especially when it’s amazing feats of technique.  I’m impressed with that.  But I know who he is when I hear him.  So that’s kind of an interesting take on it all — style or being able to recognize somebody, even if it’s just abstract, in comparison to what you played before. I’m really nice today.  I’ll give it 4 stars.  I like it.  He sustains a mood that’s kind of interesting. It’s like free playing that’s sort of… You can go on for a long time, because the density is not so dense as a couple of the other things you played for me, that are hard to listen to.  It’s very quiet, it’s almost chamber-like, so you can listen to it and get inside it.

14.    Mark Elf, “Cheek To Cheek” (from DREAM STEPPIN’, Jen-Bay, 2002) (Elf, guitar; Neal Miner, b; Lewis Nash, d.) – (3 stars)

“Cheek to Cheek.”  Again, I know the tune.  We’ll see if I know the player.  But this sounds like somebody, just from the outset, who’s a real traditionalist.  Nice-a feel, like Lawrence Welk used to say.  They’ve got a good feeling.  This could be a lot of different people.  Again, it’s not one of the major guys that I grew up listening to.  It’s not Tal or Jimmy Raney, but it has that kind of sound.  It sounds like a more modern recording.  Nice.  It’s someone who kind of bridges.. They’re a bebopper, but they’ve also got a swing kind of feel to it.  Is it somebody like Howard Alden?  It’s great playing.  I just don’t know… It could be several different people.  That’s why I mentioned Howard.  But yeah, this is maybe a little more bebop than Howard, a little more Howard.  This has a little bit of that swing feel.  He loves the eighth note, and he manages to play just about every one.  There’s a little space.  It’s not somebody like Cal Collins, is it?  There’s a lot of these guys whose playing I’m sort of familiar with, but I don’t really know them that well. [He’s not a Concord artist] Then I wouldn’t know him.  If it’s not ECM or Concord, I’m screwed.  It’s none of the guys I really know.  And I don’t think it’s someone like Bucky Pizzarelli, because he doesn’t play this many lines.  It’s not someone I know.  It’s not Jack Wilkins.  That’s a modern voicing.  Wow!  It’s got me stumped.  I don’t recognize the bass player and drummer particularly.  Everybody is good, but nothing is grabbing me.  It’s funny, he sort of ends with something a little more modern, a little harmonically different.  The other playing was pretty inside, in a way.  It’s very good, but it didn’t strike a bell with me.  3 stars.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, guitar, John Abercrombie

For Dave Holland’s 65th Birthday, a Jazziz feature from 2002, A DownBeat Feature From 2005, and a WKCR interview From 2008

In honor of the 65th birthday of Dave Holland, the master bassist and composer, I’m posting a pair of features—one for Jazziz, from 2002; the other for DownBeat from 2005 in recognition of his victory in the DB Critics Poll—and the transcript of an interview we did at WKCR in 2008 that appeared on the now-defunct http://www.jazz.com ‘zine. This was the last of several live encounters we had WKCR; the first transpired in 1994,  when we had an extensive on-air conversation.

Jazziz Feature:

“Nine times out of 10 when bass players subbed for Ron Carter in Miles’ band,” Herbie Hancock recalls, “Tony Williams would play really loud to cover them up, so they wouldn’t interfere with what the band was doing. And we would know in the first bars whether they should be covered up or not! But we didn’t cover up Dave Holland. His instincts were adequate and it sounded cool. ‘OK, he’s cool.’ That’s what it was.”

It was the end of the long, hot summer of 1968, and the Miles Davis Quintet was beginning a three-week engagement opposite Max Roach at Count Basie’s in Harlem. Holland, a 21-year-old Englishman with blond hair that fell over his shoulders, had flown to New York from London the previous afternoon, brought his bags to Jack DeJohnette’s apartment, and visited Herbie Hancock to review a few tunes. “I turned up at the club the next night and started,” he recalls. “I didn’t talk to anybody; I was just waiting to see what would happen. The next thing I know, Tony Williams is sitting behind the drums, so I get up and take my bass, and still nobody said anything. And Miles goes up to the mike and starts playing the first tune. It was ‘Agitation,’ which I’d heard on record — really just a trumpet line. And then the band comes in with a fast tempo, and we’re gone.”

Thus, the master bassist launched the still ongoing American phase of one of the most distinguished careers in late-20th-century jazz — one marked by inspired musicianship across a 360-degree range of styles. A high-visibility form-buster at the cusp of the ’70s with Miles’ late-acoustic and early-electric bands, Holland bolted when Miles started moving from abstraction to funk. During the remainder of the decade, he navigated uncharted terrain with fluid structuralists Chick Corea and Anthony Braxton and improvised from the tabula rasa with Sam Rivers. He developed a singular language for solo bass and cello. In Gateway, an open-ended trio with John Abercrombie and DeJohnette, he dissected rock, funk, and world-music grooves. And he demonstrated his bona fides in the jazz tradition as a valued sideman in the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra and in groups led by such iconic tonal personalities as Stan Getz, Betty Carter, and Thelonious Monk.

Along the way, Holland created the lyric masterpiece, Conference of the Birds (ECM, 1972), conjuring a set of tunes so strong that even the ferocious gusts of Braxton and Rivers couldn’t fracture their melodic essence. Still, Holland eschewed leader ambitions until 1980, when he fell seriously ill with endocarditis, an infection of the heart valves. He recovered, took stock, and decided never again to neglect inner imperatives. Within a few years, he’d joined forces with M-BASE rhythmetricians Steve Coleman, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, and Robin Eubanks, and with them made a series of records containing some of most compelling speculative music of the ’80s. By 1994, Holland — influenced by a decade of metric exploration and extensive “inside” playing with Hank Jones and Herbie Hancock’s trio — was beginning to look for, in his words, “a harmonic context” within which to frame his personal vision of music. As he told me that year in his precise, meticulous manner, “I’m increasingly involved in creating closed-form music with an open-form sound, creating rhythmic disciplines, writing structures which create possibilities that you wouldn’t necessarily stumble across in open-form playing.”

By 1998, Holland’s quintet comprised Eubanks, vibraphonist Steve Nelson, saxophonist Chris Potter, and drummer Billy Kilson — each a virtuoso improviser of formidable skill. All contributed pieces to Prime Directive (ECM, 1999) and Not For Nothin’ (ECM, 2001), albums that document a unit supremely in balance. Never sublimating their voices, they play with an attitude of openness and ensemble community. These albums are filled with episodic themes, memorable melodies, elegant harmonic progressions, loads of polyphony, call-and-response, background riffs, and a global array of interlocking rhythmic cycles. Propelled and knit together by the leader’s relentless grooves, singing sound, and harmonic acuity, they stand as meaningful signposts of what contemporary jazz can be.

“I combine simple and complex elements,” Holland says. “The music has inner layers that make it interesting to play repeatedly over a period of time. I try to integrate the soloist and rhythm section. I write the counterpoint into the compositions, but it continues on seamlessly when we move into ensemble improvisation.

“The tonal density of keyboard often is not what I’m looking for when I structure music. I’m trying to structure it with air. When I write a large chord with a big span, I want there to be space inside it so that it resonates in an open, transparent way. In the early days I didn’t want to use a chordal instrument; I was writing for open form along the Ornette Coleman model of having a very distinctive melodic line, sometimes with accompanying harmonies, which would launch the piece into a certain sound. But as the ’80s progressed, I started to write increasingly in a way that I needed that chordal presence. Guitar with Kevin Eubanks worked really well for me; the instrument has six strings, and you have to play it with a certain sparseness. Vibraphone is the same way; four mallets is the maximum you can expect to play with, so you’re limited to four-note chords.”

Holland extrapolated those quintet concepts for 13-piece orchestra on his most recent album, What Goes Around [ECM], a 2002 poll-sweeper and Grammy nominee. “The idea was to enhance the improvisational aspects of the music with a broader palette of composition and colors, and a larger cast of characters to write for,” he says. “I was particularly influenced by the way Thad Jones wrote so beautifully for all the instruments, so that each part is interesting unto itself, has its own logic and function, and feels like a melody line. I see the written material as functioning like a pianist or vibraphonist might work. The band comes in and provokes or pushes the soloist in certain ways, but they don’t pull the attention away.”

The content meets the hype. Lyric, contemporary, and constantly stimulating, What Goes Around contains some of the most consequential large-ensemble music in recent memory. “At first, I was intimidated,” Holland says matter-of-factly about his decision to take on the project. “I never trained as an orchestral writer; I got my guidelines through listening to records and reading books. But I felt it was time to take on the creative challenge of enlarging the vocabulary I was working on. My wife, Clare, has always encouraged me to rely more on gut feeling — that first reaction to something. It’s helped put me in touch with how I feel about music. I’ve tried to focus in on that musical language in recent years, and not be afraid of romanticism or lyricism. During the ’70s, I was around a lot of ground-breaking music, and I admired people like Anthony Braxton and Sam Rivers so much that I felt my pretty little songs were maybe a little too mundane. I’ve stopped worrying about that. Let me just put it out there and, as the Sufis say, ‘plant your banner firmly in the desert sand’ and let people see where you are.”


Observed in retrospect, the 40 years of career-shaping twists and turns that comprise Holland’s oeuvre have the appearance of an inexorable conquering march. He began his journey 57 years ago in the inauspicious environs of Wolverhampton, England, a Midlands steel city that in 1951 held some 160,000 souls.

“There’s no music in my family at all,” Holland relates. “My father, who left us when I was about a year old, apparently was an amateur saxophone player in the Army during the war, but I didn’t know him or his family. We lived with my grandparents. My grandfather and uncle worked in factories, and my mother was a secretary. It was a happy house, and I was always encouraged to play music. They’d get me to play my ukulele at family get-togethers and things like that. My mother remarried. It was not a successful marriage, and we had some problems in the family. So I left school when I was 15 to help her out.

“I’d started playing bass guitar in garage bands when I was 13, but it hadn’t occurred to me to treat music as anything but a hobby. I realized that I was making a few pounds a night playing dances and so on, and decided to do it professionally. Then I thought I should hear some other bass players. I found Ray Brown’s name in a DownBeat poll, bought Affinity and Night Train by the Oscar Peterson Trio, and said, ‘I want to sound like that!’ A week later I had an acoustic bass. I memorized Ray’s walking-bass lines, the same as I’d learn the melody of a song, and incorporated the ideas on gigs, reassembling them in my manner. By that process, I learned how to construct the shape of the line, how to lead the harmony, how to support and launch the soloists.

“Jazz connected with me emotionally but also intellectually for the incredible precision and level of playing and for the dialogue that goes on. The idea of conversation has remained a key element for me all the way through. No other music in the Western world is like it because it’s an in-the-moment narrative and it’s different every time. But I had no ambitions to be a ‘jazz musician.’ I just wanted to be a musician and play jazz as one of the things I could do.”

In the summer of 1963, Holland took his first job as a professional acoustic bassist, playing music by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Glenn Miller with a 15-piece dance band at resorts in northern England. At season’s end, a tenor player in the band offered him a gig at a Greek restaurant in London. Holland seized the opportunity. The ambitious teenager began to create a new context for his life.

The period is not well-documented, but Holland’s London years contained the seeds of everything he would subsequently do. He dual tracked, sitting in at clubs in the hopes of networking into London’s fractious, rambunctious jazz scene, and took lessons from James E. Merritt, the principal bassist in the London Philharmonic. Merritt encouraged the prodigy to enroll at Guildhall Music School in 1965.

“I played all the time,” Holland says. “I was principal bassist in the school orchestra after the first year. So, apart from preparing for my bass lesson, I had to prepare the bass section for the orchestral repertoire. I played ‘Rites of Spring’ or the music of Bartok with rehearsal orchestras, and did contemporary chamber music by Xenakis, Penderecki, and Stockhausen. There was a big New Orleans revival in England in the ’60s, and initially I played a lot of Louis Armstrong Hot Five and King Oliver arrangements in pubs. It made a lasting impression. I loved the layers of sound when the clarinet, trumpet, and trombone were improvising together. That’s one reason why I loved Ellington and Mingus. My bands have never been about solo after solo, but about collective dialogue.”

Holland also began to absorb music from non-Western cultures, taking advantage of London’s large Indian community to hear concerts by Vilad Khan and Pannalal Ghosh before informed and enthusiastic audiences. “The incredible development of rhythm in Indian music, the discipline of learning these very involved cycles, and how to subdivide them, was very influential,” he notes. “Evan Parker introduced me to the UNESCO series of world-music records, and I listened to music from Tibet, Afghanistan, and Central Africa. The rhythmic complexity and polyphonic aspect of Pygmy music was incredible. I’d never heard anything like the way two voices would integrate the rhythms and tones so they bounced off each other and created a third, completely different element.[“]

By 1967, Holland was one of London’s busiest session bassists. “I was starting to get a reputation as a good reader, and by this point, they knew that I played a lot of jazz,” he says. He received a call to sub on a recording by the John Dankworth Orchestra of Kenny Wheeler’s Windmill Tilter, a narrative composition of nine movements based loosely around the Don Quixote story. “I got to the studio and played this incredible suite of music,” he recalls. “It was complex, and once I listened to the record and heard the detail of the writing, it blew me away. That was my earliest creative big-band playing. I also played with the Chris McGregor Brotherhood of Breath, which had musicians like Dudu Pukwana, Louis Moholo, Mongezi Feza, and Johnny Dyani. The collective spirit of the music had a big effect on me. Chris was influenced a lot by Ellington, by South African traditional music, and by the contemporary music of Cecil Taylor. He mixed free playing with powerful rhythmic counterpoint melodies that he’d write for the band. And the band played them with an incredible freewheeling spirit. It was like no other band I’d ever played with, and the most interesting big-band work that I did in England.”

Holland’s flawless musicianship and utter disregard for dogma enabled him to bridge London’s various cliques. He played with such Eurocentric free improvisers as Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, John Stevens, and Trevor Watts, as well as with post-boppers like John Surman, Tony Coe, and John Taylor. After 1966, he participated in high-level encounters after-hours at premises formerly occupied by tenor saxophonist/club owner Ronnie Scott. Sometimes he arrived directly from gigs with the likes of Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, or Joe Henderson at Scott’s new venue, where pianist Pat Smythe had recruited him for the house rhythm section, with drummers Tony Oxley and John Marshall.

“To me it’s always been important to play for the music you’re playing,” Holland remarks. “In 1968, I was finishing a month-long engagement at Ronnie Scott’s with Pat Smythe behind a singer named Elaine Delmar, opposite Bill Evans, who had Eddie Gomez and Jack DeJohnette. It was high-level playing — standards, nice arrangements, and so on. Miles came into the club fairly early one night and stayed. I presumed he was there to hear Bill and didn’t think twice that he’d even be listening to us. So it didn’t faze me very much, and I kept playing as I wanted for that context. As I was going up to the stand for my last set, Philly Joe Jones — who lived in London at the time — came up and said, ‘Dave, Miles told me to tell you that he wants you to join his band.’ I think had I done anything else than enhance the situation to the best of my abilities, Miles would never have offered me the gig.”

With Miles, Holland learned to be at once anchored and abstract — how to set up a bottom and also fly. And he developed his skills as a soloist. “One thing Dave got from Miles is the ability to project the intention and sound of his ideas on the instrument,” says Jack DeJohnette, a close friend who first met Holland at Ronnie Scott’s in 1966. “Dave can do a solo and grab people like a horn player. He can get an audience standing on their feet. He learned from Miles how to be consistent and focused, like a ray from a laser beam.”

He also found his instrumental voice. “In London, I would put on different masks, depending on the musical situation,” he says. “I’d listen to Ron alter the bass notes and reharmonize the chords. I’d listen to Ray and try to get that walking feeling and interaction. I listened to Scott LaFaro for the freer dialogue and to Gary Peacock with Albert Ayler for more open-form situations. I listened to Jymie Merritt, who is an unsung hero, but brilliant in the original way he broke up time with Max Roach. I was still in that phase when I joined Miles. Then one night, when Tony Williams was still in the band, we were playing a place called the Black Bottom in Montreal, and I remember suddenly feeling that I was no longer any of those people. Something happened, where I felt a connection with myself. I also started realizing that I wasn’t going to succeed in sounding like anyone else. I came back to New York, and my practicing changed. I forced myself to start from scratch. What’s a major scale about? What do these intervals mean? How are they put together? How many ways can I see to reorganize this idea? How can I break down my rhythmic ideas into a system that will allow me to expand on things I’m already doing? I started getting back much more to the building blocks of the music and brought out the elements I wanted to develop.”

Most importantly, Holland learned to shape narrative from musical flow. “I see theater and music as related in some ways,” he says. “In the theater a cast of characters and scenes and events unfold, one leads to another. Sometimes time is compressed and you suddenly find yourself jumping a couple of years. There are moments of drama and contemplation, and emotional climaxes and then lulls. Miles was a master of this whole element of pace. Each night, on any tune, I experienced a different take on how that development could happen. Every performance is a new investigation into the possibility of assembling a sequence of events that takes the listener through an emotional and intellectual journey. What’s important is how you craft that journey and make it work for the listener. In other words, how you portray the music without compromising its elements and language. Ellington’s great suites — like “Harlem Air Shaft” — take you on a trip, a journey through life, a feeling about something. When music works at its best for me, that’s what it’s doing — taking me on a trip.”


That three-week engagement at Count Basie’s happened to be Herbie Hancock’s last with Miles. He and Holland would not make music again until 1990, when they toured with DeJohnette and Pat Metheny on DeJohnette’s Parallel Realities project.

“Following that, I expressed to him how much I’d enjoyed it, and he asked if I’d like to do some more things,” Holland relates. “He started calling me for the trio. We played extensively together, and it influenced me deeply. Herbie puts the creative demand on himself to play something fresh every night, even on compositions he’s been playing since the ’60s. That level of improvisation is extraordinary, and so is the dialogue he gets into with the other musicians. He’s taking in everything and throwing it right back out. The joy that he puts into his music somehow released something in me. I was taking music very seriously, maybe too seriously. I don’t mean to belittle seriousness, but seriousness has to be tempered with joy. Herbie brought me in touch with the joy of playing music in a special way.”

Hancock returns the compliment. “I put Dave in the category of Ron Carter,” he says flatly. “That’s the top. He carves out his own territory, which is just as valid as what Ron does. He has a sound I happen to like – very rich. And I like his time, where he places the notes when playing walking bass. But he doesn’t depend on walking. He plays different rhythmic and melodic things — even accompanying the piano — and knows when to move from one to the other. He knows all the stuff harmonically, and he’s very intelligent and open, and responds quickly. Adventurous, too; not afraid to venture into unknown waters. Maybe the key word is balance. He’s an extremely well-balanced bass player, top to bottom — it’s just the way he is. If a bass player is too egotistical or has problems with his own self-assurance or identity, it will affect his playing and, therefore, will affect the rest of the band. Dave is his own man. He’s comfortable with himself, and he’s eager to listen and learn — giving and receiving at the same time. I admire him greatly as a human being. His solid, formidable character, all that love and graciousness and respect for humanity exudes through his playing.”

In spite of all this, Holland, who in 1990 was a household name to anyone with a serious interest in jazz, was still continuing to find it difficult, as he puts it, “to step into the limelight and assert myself in terms of what I wanted to do.”

“As a young man I was quite shy,” he continues. “I would often take a long time to voice my opinion until I saw it was safe to do so. I don’t want to get into psychoanalysis of my childhood, but a lot of things happened then that formulated my approach to dealing with life. Like anyone else, I carried a lot of baggage. Sometimes my democratic and sharing approach would weaken my ability to realize an idea — ‘OK, this is only my idea; maybe I should just let whatever is going to happen, happen.’ Actually, around that time I had a long conversation with Betty Carter. She was like Miles in that she could center in on what was important, and she told me some things that were essential in giving me courage to voice my opinions and be more decisive in following through on ideas. ‘It’s your band,’ she said. ‘Your name is on the music.’”


Recorded at the beginning of 2000, What Goes Around is Holland’s inaugural salvo on the big-band front — but probably not the last. “The quintet will remain my full-time project as long as it stays together,” he says. “But I see the big band extending way out into the future as an ongoing challenge.” Last fall, in support of the record, he embarked on a month-long tour of the United States and Europe that served as a platform to develop older compositions and some newer work, including pieces by Robin Eubanks and his old friend Kenny Wheeler. At the tour’s conclusion, he went into the studio with his road-tested unit to make an album scheduled for 2004 release.

“When I started the quintet in ’97 and recorded the first selection of music for the group, I only knew the starting point I wanted,” Holland notes. “I would never have presumed it would lead to Not For Nothin’. In all good bands, the music develops out of the people involved as a group. As the quintet played together, relationships started to appear, and I and the other musicians who are writing have been able to take advantage of the personalities that emerged. That’s now happening with the big band from performing the music every night, which we hadn’t done. Certainly how we use dynamics has developed. Everybody is learning how their own written parts fit in with everything else in the band, which creates a strong, more unified sound.”

That process played out exquisitely during the last set of an exhilarating four-night, mid-tour residence at Birdland. Smiling broadly, his bass firmly planted onstage, Holland struck the downbeat signaling baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan to blow the elemental melody of “Triple Dance.” The trumpets entered with counterlines, then the trombones with another counterline, and the joyful romp — orchestrated by Holland’s endlessly driving grooves and Billy Kilson’s fluent, surging beats — was on. There were no slack moments. The compositions seemed tailored to such distinctive youngsters as Antonio Hart, Mark Turner, Mark Gross, Josh Roseman, and Alex Sipiagin, whose responses propelled the creative momentum. Their deep connection with the music was palpable.

“Miles worked simultaneously at creating a focus for the band but also drawing on the energy and creative power of his younger players,” Holland says. “I’m not prejudiced against older players or younger players; I’m mostly interested in good players. But the player who’s developing and searching and striving gives the music an edge.

“For me, players find each other. You gravitate towards the things that you need to do. And I’ve been fortunate to be in situations where I heard certain players, they heard me, and were interested in working together. Out of that we’ve made some very good music.”

Downbeat Article, 2005:

“I just want dialogue,” says bassist Dave Holland, encapsulating his musical first principles. “The quality of community in ensemble is central to everything I’ve done. Jazz is an in-the-moment narrative, and it’s different every time. No other music in the Western world is like that.”

Musical conversation and endless polyphony permeate Holland’s elegant arrangements on Overtime [Dare2], his second recording with a 13-piece big band and first release on his own imprint.

The title resonates on several levels.

For one thing, Down Beat’s 58-year-old 2005 Critics Poll trifecta winner–Best Jazz Artist, Best Big Band, and Best Bassist–evolved his aesthetics over a long timespan. In the early ’60s he internalized three-horn polyphony performing King Oliver and Louis Armstrong Hot Five arrangements on New Orleans revival pub gigs. He spent 1968 to 1980 on the world stage, improvising extemporaneously on abstract structures and tabula rasa canvases with Miles Davis, Anthony Braxton and Sam Rivers. He applied the freedom principle to multiple-meter structures in collectively oriented ’80s units with Kenny Wheeler, Julian Priester, Steve Coleman, Kevin Eubanks, and Marvin “Smitty” Smith. During the past decade, he’s committed wholeheartedly to chordal environments with a quintet featuring vibraphonist Steve Nelson, trombonist Robin Eubanks, saxophonists Steve Wilson, Chris Potter and Antonio Hart, and drummers Billy Kilson and Nate Smith.

For another, Holland commands a slew of time signatures and metrically modulates them into flow, incorporating four-four swing, triplet structures, and enspiriting beats extrapolated from the ritual musics of pygmy society, India, North Africa, and Indonesia.

“Every performance is a new investigation into the possibility of how to assemble a sequence of events that takes the listener through a journey,” Holland says. Renowned as a conjuror of beautiful melodies since his 1972 masterpiece Conference of the Birds,  he facilitates the voyage by molding complex rhythms and harmonies to communicate his tales, conveying maximum meaning with a minimum of notes.

To use Holland’s phrase, Overtime is “closed-form music with an open-form sound.” In the manner of Ellington, Thad Jones, and Kenny Wheeler, all consequential role models, Holland presents customized parts, themselves attractive counter-melodies, to his hand-picked virtuosos—augmenting the quintet are saxophonists Mark Gross, Antonio Hart, and Gary Smulyan; trumpeters Duane Eubanks, Taylor Haskins, and Alex Sipiagin, and trombonists Jonathan Arons and Josh Roseman. He propels their solo inventions with surging, interactive basslines, and responds to them with his own intense variations.

“I’m looking first for a strong individual character to their playing, and secondly, an ability to function within a group context,” Holland says of his personnel. “I prefer not to explain a lot. The musicians need freedom to offer their own ideas and concepts, and not be restricted within the frame of reference you give them. Now, having a structure to work from means you can create tension and resolutions against the structure, which would not be there without the structure. But the written music is a starting point. I’ll hear somebody do something I would never have dreamed of; what I hear happening around me directly affects the ideas I play and develop.”

Urbane and articulate, Holland speaks in complete sentences and paragraphs, and stays resolutely on message. He seems loath to acknowledge that he is the gravitational center of his creative orchestra. But his band members note that they take cues, musical and otherwise, from the leader.

“Freedom isn’t something you always know what to do with,” says Potter. “Dave gives parameters–maybe a completely open vamp section on a rhythmic pattern he’s working on–in which you have freedom that feels more free than Free.”

“Dave takes  risks,” says Smith, Holland’s latest drummer. “He plays loose, over the bar, under the time, and wants to see how far we can stretch. It’s hard to mess up, because everyone is searching for something new and exciting to do. Even the mistakes are golden. He’ll sing me some skeletal pattern that launches the music, usually a clave, in 7 or 9 or 11 or 13. I’ll play it, and maybe add something. He’ll say, ‘Keep that,’ or ‘No matter what you do, I want you to hit this.’ But I’m always thinking about that clave.”

Holland never allows experimental imperatives to interfere with projecting a communicative groove. “Dave is able to transform odd meters and have you nod your head even though it’s not on 2 and 4,” says Duane Eubanks.

“I never played much odd-meter music before this band,” says Smulyan, a veteran of the Vanguard Orchestra, in which Holland played in the early ’70s. “On our first gigs, everyone was counting like crazy. After a few years, I said to Dave, ‘I’m getting a little worried. I’m starting to feel it.’ He just laughed. Now we don’t count. It’s a particular language all its own, and you decode it.

“He’s an amazing bass player. He and I play a lot of bass-baritone figures together, and he’s incredible to hook up with—his pulse, his drive, his sense of rhythm, his groove are all so strong.”

Holland is adamant that freedom entails responsibility. “People’s personal lives are nothing to do with me,”  he says. “My interest is that the gig happens the way it’s supposed to, that the band is ready to play, and that the conditions of our contractual agreements are kept.”

“It doesn’t get much better than this aesthetically, so cats won’t act out of line,” says Eubanks. “Dave’s not cocky. He’s very aware who he is, and he’s satisfied with it. Now, if things deviate, he’ll step in. He’s a stickler for punctuality. He’s at least 10 minutes early every time. Usually 15. Once I missed a flight, though I made the gig. He pulled me over, like, ‘Man, take advantage of the situation.’ Even when he’s mad at you, it’s like he’s not mad at you.”

“Dave’s humility grabbed me first,” says Gross. “He eliminates the distance between bandleader and band-member. For instance, everyone knows I love coffee. Backstage at a gig once, just joking, I said, ‘What is this? No coffee back here?’ Dave went to the promoter and said, ‘Mark wants some coffee. What can we do about that?’ I was really embarrassed! Later he asked, ‘Did you get your coffee, Mark?’ I thanked him. ‘Oh, no problem.’ Of course, once you get on stage, he IS the bandleader, but he commands that through the music, not so much through words.

“He won’t tolerate unprofessionalism or disrespect. Once at a festival, the promoters brought out a vibraphone for Steve Nelson that was like a high school toy set.. Dave said, ‘This is not what he plays on; he needs the professional set of vibes that we stipulated in the rider.’ ‘We can’t get them, Mr. Holland.’ ‘Well, I’m not playing.’ Now, this is a huge festival, lots of money involved. He told the band, ‘Stay at the hotel. This gig might be cancelled. Don’t worry; you all WILL be paid.’”

“A few days after 9/11, we flew to Monterrey,” Hart relates. “That’s a testament to how we feel about Dave, because we were scared; nobody wanted to get on the plane. Before we played, he talked to the people about being strong and turning this tragedy around. It wasn’t a spiritual spiel, but I thought his words were needed, to help us understand we need to push forward, do our job and try to bring beauty into the world.”

With the orchestra booked in Europe for the entire month of July, Holland intends to let the market determine his next step.

“We’ve been able to work consistently throughout the year, but I don’t want to overwork the band or put it on the road when conditions aren’t correct,” he says. “I want everyone to feel good about the situation–that we’re paid properly, and play nice venues.”

Asked how he envisions his sixties, Holland responds, “I tend to do things as they come up.” He cites a forthcoming project with Indian percussion master Trilok Gurtu as an example. “I did a solo concert in Sardinia 18 months ago when Trilok was there with his band, and I invited him to join me at the end for a few pieces. We had a great time, and I wanted to continue. We just spent three days working on new music, and our conversation about some Indian traditions of learning the rhythmic discipline in Indian music gave me many new ideas to think about. If you’d asked about my future plans the week before that concert, Trilok was not in them, but now it’s a reality.

“It’s an ongoing journey that hasn’t reached its end. At least for the near future, the quintet and big band will continue, and this thing with Trilok is the next step. Special projects, like my tour last summer with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Brian Blade, come up periodically. I’ll take it a step at a time, and we’ll see. I’ll let you know when I get there.”


Dave Holland (www.jazz.com originally from a broadcast on WKCR, Oct. 9, 2008):

On Pass It On [Dare2/Universal], recorded in 2006, Dave Holland offers his first suite of compositions incorporating the piano. It’s the latest iteration of Holland’s exploration of what he calls “the harmonic context,” one that he launched in the middle ‘80s, when guitarist Kevin Eubanks joined his groundbreaking ensemble with MBASE rhythmetricians Robin Eubanks, Steve Coleman, and Marvin Smitty Smith, with whom Holland made several recordings containing some of most compelling speculative music of that decade. By then, the master bassist already could retrospect upon one of the most distinguished careers in late-20th-century jazz, marked by inspired musicianship across a 360-degree range of styles. A high-visibility form-buster at the cusp of the ’70s with Miles Davis’ late-acoustic and early-electric bands, Holland bolted when Miles started moving from abstraction to funk. During the remainder of the decade, he navigated uncharted terrain with Anthony Braxton and improvised from the tabula rasa with Sam Rivers. He developed a book of music for solo bass and cello. In Gateway, a collective trio with John Abercrombie and DeJohnette, he dissected rock, funk, and world-music grooves. Not inconsequentially, he also demonstrated bona fides in the jazz tradition as a valued sideman in the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra and in groups led by such hardcore jazz royalty as Thelonious Monk, Stan Getz, Betty Carter, and Hank Jones.

As the ‘90s progressed, Holland drew upon all those experiences in creating “closed form music with an open form sound, creating rhythmic disciplines, writing structures which create possibilities that you wouldn’t necessarily stumble across in open-form playing,” first for his sui generis quintet, now in its eleventh year, and then for his thirteen-piece big band, most recently represented on Overtime [Dare2]. The quintet and big band music is chock-a-block with episodic themes, memorable melodies, elegant harmonic progressions, loads of polyphony, call-and-response, background riffs, and a global array of interlocking rhythmic cycles. Propelled and knit together by the leader’s relentless grooves, ringing sound, and harmonic acuity, they stand as meaningful signposts of what contemporary jazz can be.

“I combine simple and complex elements,” Holland said at the time. “The music has inner layers that make it interesting to play repeatedly over a period of time. I try to integrate the soloist and rhythm section. I write the counterpoint into the compositions, but it continues on seamlessly when we move into ensemble improvisation.”

During the second week of October, Holland supported Pass It On with a four-night engagement at New York’s Birdland, and joined me at WKCR to talk about it and other matters.

TP: This group is your first with a piano. Can you describe the progression by which you assembled it?

DAVE: I’ve really been following the musical directions I’ve been inspired to go in. My first working band was around ‘82. We had at that time a three-horn front line with Kenny Wheeler, Steve Coleman, and Julian Priester, respectively, on trumpet, alto saxophone, and trombone. That group lasted until about ‘87, when I started a quartet that featured Kevin Eubanks on guitar—I wanted to write some music that needed that chordal context, but I didn’t want a chordal instrument that overly defined the harmonic context of the music. The guitar still left an openness to it. Following that group, I started a band that involved Steve Nelson, a wonderful vibraphonist who lives in the New York area. Steve and I have been playing together for about fifteen years, and we are still working together in the quintet that I have with Chris Potter on saxophone, Robin Eubanks on trombone, Nate Smith on drums, and Steve Nelson.

TP: You’ve had that group as such for about a decade.

DAVE: Actually, eleven years now. So the music has been going in the direction of including a harmony instrument like vibes or piano. Now, Steve’s style of playing the vibes is unique and I love what he brings to the music. But again, there is a sparseness to the instrument. It mostly works, at maximum, with four mallets, so you have a certain limitation with how dense the chords are.

For the last couple of years, I’d been thinking about another sound to the group, and wanted to start a new opportunity. In a way, it started with thinking about the rhythm section, two people I’d played with very briefly, but wanted to do a lot more with. One was Mulgrew Miller, the other was Eric Harland. I was starting to think about what music would suit that band, and the three-horn front line would give me some other compositional instrumentation opportunities. So that was the genesis of this group.

TP: As a young guy, before you came to the United States, you were house bassist at Ronnie Scott’s club in London…

DAVE: Amongst other things, yes.

TP: Amongst other things. You were playing in the traditional jazz rhythm section behind the acts coming through, with I guess the pianist Pat Smythe…

DAVE: He was one of the pianists. Gordon Beck was another. There were several people. But I worked a lot with Pat Smythe, a wonderful English piano player. In England I also played with a couple of groups that didn’t use piano. I had a trio that was put together by John Surman, the great baritone player, and Alan Jackson was the drummer—the bass had a great chance to influence not only the rhythm, but the harmony of the group, and it led to playing in a very free harmonic context. At that time, in the ‘60s, I was being influenced by Ornette Coleman’s music, Albert Ayler, and many of the things that were going on. I was in another group with John Stevens, the English drummer, with Evan Parker and Derek Bailey, and we were exploring open improvisation contexts. After I was in the States, in the ‘70s, I worked with Sam Rivers, a trio, and with Anthony Braxton, in a quartet with Kenny Wheeler and then George Lewis. These also were an instrumentation that didn’t have a chordal instrument. So when I started my first group, I naturally leaned towards that, and wanted to keep that area of the music very open-ended.

But as the music evolved, I started to feel that I wanted to use more closed-form music. In other words, instead of more open-ended songs, I started writing things where the form had some influence as well on the playing. As that started to evolve, I was writing more chordal music again, and I thought I should bring in a chordal instrument, which I did, from guitar to the vibraphone to the piano.

TP: Speak a bit about your simpatico, your chemistry with Mulgrew Miller and Eric Harland, what it was that you heard in their sounds that inspired you to bring them into your orbit.

DAVE: I always feel that the person behind the music—their feeling about life and working with other people, their generosity, and all these kinds of things—is what comes through in any great musician. I’ve found both Mulgrew and Eric to be really wonderful people, and through that, their music is very embracing and inclusive and communally minded. How people work together becomes a very important aspect for me—not just as strong individuals, but how they work together as a team and how open they are to what’s going on in the band.

More specifically, for me Mulgrew embodies the tradition of the piano, going back to early influences. It’s all there in his playing. But he’s managed to create a very individual, personal, and contemporary way of using those influences. He is also a consummate accompanist. It’s a thrill to hear what he’s playing behind the soloist; not only soloing on piano, but what he does within the rhythm section.

To me, Eric is a unique drummer. Again, he’s a great listener. He’s very supportive. He’s totally in touch with the musical moment that we’re involved in as we play, and he’s always pushing to create a new rhythmic context for the group and finding new ways to approach the pieces that we’ve been playing. There’s a very nice balance between a sort of free approach and a formal approach to the music, so it covers a lot of ground for me. Of course, the feel of what he does is wonderful, too.

TP: And just as in 1985, you’re using three horns in the front line and lots of polyphony, which gives you ample opportunity to use a lot of different configurations within the flow of any musical performance.

DAVE: Yes, I went back to that front line of trumpet, alto saxophone and trombone, because it gives you so much possibility for creating a context for the music—you get a different sound and other compositional possibilities. It gives you all the harmonic possibilities you can think of in voicing, and it’s a wonderful challenge to figure out how to utilize the instruments to their full potential. You can almost have it sound like a big band, you can have counterpoint, supportive background figures for soloists, and all these kinds of things, which aren’t quite as easy to do with two horns. I think once you’ve learned to write for three horns, you can then go on to write for many other things.

TP: The presence of those sounds and possibilities in your mind’s ear goes back, if I’m not mistaken, to your early years in England when you played in New Orleans style bands and heard that emphasis on polyphony close-up.

DAVE: The early gigs I got as a jazz player in London were in pubs playing New Orleans style music. I loved the independence of the front line and the celebratory feeling when the ensemble all played together, the counterpoint and so on. It was employed, of course, by many other musicians. Ellington, Charles Mingus, many people who have sort of…

TP: You’ve just mentioned two of the best.

DAVE: Well, where do you want me to start!? I have to give you the ideals that stand out to me. Those are. They had ways of combining written parts with written parts, and ensemble improvisation, and all these kind of things that I’m still interested in finding different ways to present.

TP: During the ‘70s, because you were playing so much as a sideman with Sam Rivers and Anthony Braxton, whatever compositional ideas that you had, which were expressed on an album that remains one of my favorites, Conference of the Birds, with both Braxton and Sam Rivers in ‘72, were subsumed in a certain way. You did some solo recordings and so on, but not ensemble albums. When you started bandleading, did you already have a big backlog of work?

DAVE: No, not particularly.

TP: That development was precipitated by an illness, I think.

DAVE: We’ve got a lot of things to talk about there. First of all, I’ve always felt that there is an apprenticeship involved—as it applies to me, anyway—to being a musician. Of course, it’s a lifelong learning process. Now, when I made Conference of the Birds in ‘72, I was 25. I still felt I had a lot of things to learn about being a bandleader, about what it was that I wanted to do. I was trying to focus in on what were important elements in the music that I wanted to pursue in my own work, and I was quite happy to be still working as a sideman during the ‘70s. Sam’s band used his compositions, in the case of the big band or a couple of the other larger ensembles that he did. But in the small group that I mostly played with, we never used any written music. It was all open improvisation. After 7 or 8 years of playing together, it sounded like it was written, but it was in fact improvised, and it was a wonderful opportunity to start every night with a blank page in front of you and just fill it in with whatever happened to be on your mind that evening. Braxton was quite the opposite. He was a very detailed composer, a structuralist, who composed very demanding music that he would present to you that required a lot of attention and concentration and interpretation. That was almost a counter-balance to what I did with Sam. Those two things were very interestingly placed in my life. I didn’t write for that either; that was all Anthony’s music.

The groups I did write for were Gateway Trio, and some solo work. By the time ‘82 came around, I’d decided it was time. I was reluctantly being pushed by myself to start a group. I said, “Ok, enough of this sitting on the fence; what is it I really want to do?” There was some music I wanted to play that I wasn’t finding a place for in any of the contexts I was already in. As I was preparing for that, I contracted a very serious illness called endocarditis, which is a bacterial infection of the heart valve, and I ended up taking a year out, having to have surgery and various other things. It ended up in a very positive way—I had a new lease on life, no medications or anything like that. I had a very close call. I was very lucky. But as a result of that close call, as I think probably many people will tell you who have been in similar situations, I felt a renewed appreciation for what I did have, and a renewed commitment to making a full-blown effort to put out there the music that I was really wanting to play. That resulted in the first quintet, with Kenny Wheeler, Steve Coleman, Julian Priester, and Smitty Smith.

TP: That band was an interesting incubator for a lot of ideas that were subsequently expressed and developed more fully on the broader scene.

DAVE: There were a lot of great influences coming into the group. Conceptually, we were all coming from somewhat varied backgrounds, but there were connecting points. Julian Priester already had an incredible career by the time he came to my group—he’d been with Max Roach’s band particularly, as well as the sextet that Herbie started after he left Miles, and he brought all that experience with him. Julian told me that he’d played the Newport Festival with Max in the ‘50s, and they were presenting tunes in 5/4, which was very unusual then. Of course, Max made a groundbreaking record in ‘56 called Jazz in 3/4 Time, which was a huge deal at that point, because nobody in the music played in 3/4 time.

Of course, Kenny was an old friend from England. I had extreme respect for him as a composer, and he had been a very important influence on my writing—I had always wanted to do more with him. He had played with Braxton, and so I wanted to continue that relationship.

I met Steve Coleman through Sam Rivers. He was one of the alto players in Sam’s big band. When I met him, I didn’t really know his background in music, where he was coming from and what he was doing. I just liked his playing. I liked his sound. I liked the seriousness of his approach. I thought he was working on something unique. I’d heard him with Abbey Lincoln at a festival in Austria, and asked him, “Steve, would you be interested in this group I’m starting?” So he became involved.

The first drummer we had was Steve Ellington, who had also been with Sam Rivers’ trio. Steve lived in Atlanta, and it made it difficult for us to arrange rehearsals and so on. I met Smitty Smith at a jam session, Smitty just blew me away, and I asked him to join the band.

So all these influences were brought together. Steve had been playing with Doug Hammond, a very interesting drummer who was living in New York at the time. They had been working on some interesting concepts which Steve had been developing himself, and Smitty was hungry for something to get his teeth into and work on. All these things kind of came together compositionally and in the improvisational realm to create a very wide range of influences. I think we all kind of learned from each other. Earlier than that, I had written some music which had used some different time signatures, but I hadn’t really gone deep into it. I’d also worked with John McLaughlin, the guitarist, who had done this. But that area became an area of great interest to the group, and we started to move towards consideration of what kinds of forms we could write that would influence the music in different ways, and that evolved over a period of time. I have to say that it was a very important period in my life for realigning my direction in music—as I said, writing closed form music and eventually moving towards including a chordal instrument into what I was doing.

TP: You also, in your own personal investigations, had been involved in researching North African music, Indian music, pygmy music, music from different cultures in the world.

DAVE: Yes.

TP: Which also dates back to your earlier investigations in England, and those spurred later work.

DAVE: There was a big Indian community in London, and some really astounding musicians, like Vilad Khan and some of the of great vina players, would come through London and do concerts. The concerts were interesting, because the Indian audience seemed to have such a great knowledge of what was going on. They would be so involved in the whole development of the music, and would make exclamations during the performance when things would happen and so on. So it was a very engaging kind of audience that was happening.

I also got interested in African music, and the UNESCO series of records—The Ba-Benzali Pygmies from Central Africa in particular, and also records from the Central African Republic and Nigerian Hausa music—that were put out during that time were a great source of information. I also got interested in Tibetan Buddhist music, partly because of Coltrane’s influence. I’ve always been interested in a lot of different music. I’ve always been a music fan as well as a musician. I love finding new things to listen to, finding new ways to put music together. As a musician is you go through your life collecting things. You find something that’s interesting to you, explore it, and perhaps find a way to integrate it into the things you’re already working on. For me, it’s a matter of keeping the movement of learning and exploring new ideas, and bringing new ideas into your music.

TP: Have your investigations with the new sextet had any impact on what you do with the quintet, which by now is such a well-established entity?

DAVE: The quintet has a concept of its own, I think. After playing together eleven years, we’ve made some strong connections musically and personally. We have a large book of music that we refer to when we do concerts, and we’re still adding music to that book. So it’s still evolving. As I like to do, and I think also the other composers involved, I like to write for the people in the band. So I see the music I present in these two different contexts as more or less different. I’m not trying to cross over the two.

I don’t know if it’s being influenced by the sextet. I’m being influenced by it, so I suppose it could be! As we perform these pieces, new approaches come out. But I can’t really say whether they are going to find their way into the quintet. In the end, everything is sort of in a big pot of ideas that I’m working on.

TP: Indeed, you’ve embraced a 360-degree range of ideas and strategies over the last 45 years.

DAVE: I’m trying to just follow the musical ideas that seem relevant to me at the different times I’m playing, and to do things that interest me, that feed the fire of my creative ideas that hopefully will inspire me to create some new things. Just the other day, I was reflecting that I seem to have been building up a circle of people since I started my own projects. That circle is expanding. They are people who I am learning how to play with, they’re learning about the music I’m presenting, and so on. It’s a sort of large work in progress, and there’s different aspects to it. All three horn players in this group have been part of the big band, and the concepts we’ve developed there influence how we’ve approached the sextet music, I’m sure. A certain understanding builds up amongst your associates about how things get approached, the musical language that’s being used, and so on. I see that continuing. A lot of time has gone by, so those projects have expanded and morphed into other things. Some people are in two or three different projects, some are just in one. I’m happy to be so fortunate to have associations with such wonderful, generous musicians who are so dedicated to excellence, to playing music, and to giving everything they’ve got, the full essence of who they are in their music.

TP: That generosity may have something to do with your comportment as a bandleader as well. Did you draw on anyone’s examples in evolving your approach?

DAVE: The underlying principle for me is respect—respecting another person on a lot of levels. Respecting them creatively for what they do, and giving as much creative space as you can in the music to their ideas and what they do. I basically work on the principle of trying to treat people as I like to be treated. When I’m in a band, it’s nice to have some direction, to have some idea of where we’re going with the music and what’s intended. But it’s also nice to have a lot of freedom within that to make decisions, to figure out for yourself what’s required, and not have the bandleader tell everybody what to do in that way. My theory is that if you’ve got the right people in the band you don’t have to say a whole lot. Robin said in one piece, “Dave just likes to wind up the band and let it go.” I thought that was an interesting way to put it. If you’ve got the right people, it’s possible to do that. Then you try to figure out some music that hopefully will inspire them and give them a feeling of being able to express themselves.

Who do I have as examples? I’ll go back to Ellington and the way he kept his group together. I don’t know what the inner workings were. I know there were a lot of stormy moments in that band. I’m speaking more about how he approached it creatively, and how he thought about the other musicians. Miles is a great example to me for how to do more with less, not to overly instruct the musicians, and even sometimes under-instruct them and make them think, “Well, what is it I’m supposed to do?” I remember reading that Coltrane spent the first period with the band asking Miles, “What is it you want me to do?” and Miles just ignored him until Coltrane finally realized that he had to figure that out for himself. Examples like that have hopefully instructed me on how to give just enough leadership to the group without smothering the creative talents of the people involved in it.

TP: You don’t do much sideman work any more, but you did spend the past summer on a massive caravan with Herbie Hancock, all around the world, playing a lot of electric bass.

DAVE: Yes, I think more than half of the music we played on the concerts was on electric bass.

TP: What was that like? You haven’t played electric bass for a minute or two.

DAVE: Quite. More than a minute. Actually, the last time I was playing it on gigs (and in fact, that was an acoustic bass guitar, which is a different type of instrument) was in the mid ‘90s, and that was actually with Herbie also. We did a record called The New Standard, and on several tracks on that I used this acoustic bass guitar. It’s a great instrument. We took it out on tour, and I used it on there. Prior to that, I think it was 1990 when I last played the solid body electric, and that was on the Parallel Realities tour we did then with Jack DeJohnette and Herbie and Pat Metheny.

So it had been a long time, and it took me by surprise, because Herbie didn’t tell me til about two days before the rehearsals. We had a chat on the phone, and he said, “I just want to run down the set to you, and I was thinking about trying these tunes”—and he started naming the tunes. Of course, some were from the new album, The River: The Joni Letters, but there were also several things from his earlier days. In fact, the tour ended up being somewhat of a review of Herbie’s career, going back to tunes like “Actual Proof” that the Headhunters did, and “Chameleon.”

TP: There would be long encores.

DAVE: We had some long encores! I think the longest concert we did was nearly three hours, and certainly an hour of that was encore. But it was great fun. Any time I’m with Herbie, there’s a lot of fun involved in playing the music with him.

But getting back to the bass guitar, it was a surprise to me. Even though both are bass instruments, they are quite different in the touch and concept. We had a few days of rehearsals, and I was trying to come to terms with it. Then we went out on the road and started working. I have to say that I was still struggling with it for the first week-and-a-half or so—not very enthusiastic about it at the beginning, I have to admit. But the music kind of took over, and playing with Herbie and Vinnie Colaiuta on drums… Vinnie is an extraordinary drummer, whom I’d only played with on the record we’d done with Herbie, The River. I knew he was a great musician, but boy, he showed me so much stuff in his playing! So those things were very inspiring to me, and as time went by I got into the bass guitar again and had a lot of fun with it.

TP: But we’re not going to see it in your own musical production.

DAVE: I’m going to reserve that comment to see what happens. I certainly enjoyed it. Who knows?

TP: What is forthcoming is a project you’ve worked on and presented publicly here and there, but not approached systematically, which is an octet.

DAVE: It’s a five-horn octet. It’s based a little bit on the model of the small Ellington band. I loved that front line he had with trumpet, trombone, and three saxophones, alto, tenor and baritone, and I wanted to model something after that sound that Ellington produced. The horn players all have played in the big band, of course. A couple of pieces are reduced octet versions of the big band pieces that we’ve played, but a fair amount of the music was written exclusively for the octet. We’ve done it as an adjunct project. We launched it, I believe, in 2000 (we took it to England for an Arts Council tour), and we’ve featured it on a few concerts, but as you say, we haven’t done anything with it in the recording realm.

I’ve been looking at this record company as a way to document some different projects, and the quintet has been well-documented on a lot of CDs. One of the last three records on Dare2 has been with the quintet, but I wanted to keep going on and do some other projects, and the octet seemed worth doing. We did a concert earlier this year, and some people in the audience yelled out, “Hey, when are you going to record it?” I thought, “Well, maybe it’s time to record the octet.” That will be done in January.

TP: There was a time when your recorded output always seemed to be about three years behind the fact, just because you had so much going on. Will this change with ownership of your own label?

DAVE: I did my last few records for ECM very independently, in the sense that I scheduled the recording session and financed it all myself, and then, after we’d done, presented it to ECM as a finished product, and asked if they were interested in putting it out, which they did. That’s been the case since the middle ‘90s. So in that sense, my scheduling of the project is the same. I do have a bit more control about release times, but of course, we still do have to follow the conventions in terms of when is a good time for records to come out, that you don’t step on the last record that you did too early.

I think the biggest change is the fact that the masters now belong to us, to the company, and we have some controlling interest in terms of how it’s promoted and presented—we decide the cover art and all these kinds of things. The covers of the last three records were all done by a good friend of mine, Niklaus Troxler, who does the Willisau Jazz Festival. He’s a very acclaimed graphic artist, and I’ve always appreciated his work, so I wanted him on board to do the covers for me.

TP: Talk to any musician these days, and they’ll say that travel is much more difficult than it used to be. You’ll go on the road next week, and even as you enter your sixties you continue to be quite the road warrior. You travel a lot, which is no easy thing for bassists and drummers because of the difficulties of transporting the instrument. Describe what you’ve been using for the last couple of years.

DAVE: Prior to that, I’d been traveling with my regular instrument all my life. The weight of that instrument, plus the case it travels in, is about 100 pounds, which up to a few years ago was no problem. You either had a very friendly check-in person who said, “Fine,” or you paid $50, $100, a couple of hundred dollars, depending on your flight, and you checked it in. Starting 3 or 4 years ago (well, even before that), after all the security was ramped up and new requirements were made, things got extremely difficult with flying. But in recent years, they’ve created a weight limit, both because of the economics of the airlines, but also that the baggage handlers union have limited what weight they’re willing to pick up. If you’re a baggage handler, that’s completely reasonable—you don’t want to have pick up 150 pounds and load it onto a plane. The limit now is 70 pounds for checked baggage. Sometimes you’re allowed 50 pounds before you pay the extra weight. But if it’s over 70 pounds, they are entitled to refuse you access to the flight with your baggage. So I found increasingly that I was having more and more problems checking the bass on. Even on a round-trip flight to California, for instance, on an airline that I use all the time, and have the cards for frequent flying and so on, they wouldn’t take it. They flew me to California but wouldn’t fly me back to New York. I had to spend an hour-and-a-half talking to supervisors, and all this kind of thing.

It just got too much. Too much stress, too much doubt as to whether you were going to make the gig, if you have to find another flight. I was hearing stories about bass players stranded in Europe and having to wait two days to get another flight. It just became too much, and I didn’t want to have that kind of stress.

A few years ago, a bass player, Ira Coleman, approached a bass repairer and maker, David Gage, here in New York, with an idea for creating a slightly modified version of a double bass that would reduce the weight and reduce the case size. As a result, that instrument weighs around 50-52 pounds, and so it’s well within the range of acceptable baggage. I’ve been playing that instrument when I tour for about 2½ years now. It’s a new instrument, and of course, it doesn’t have the complexity perhaps of the older instrument, but in most situations where we’re performing, we’re dealing with sound systems, P.A. systems, playing through speakers, and with the right technician at the board… Luckily, I’m able to travel with my own sound technician now, so we have good control over what happens in that area. So we’ve been able to find a solution to this problem.

I have to say I do resent the situation. I think it’s absolutely terrible that airlines have created a situation where musicians can’t travel with their own instrument. One solution is that bass players borrow an instrument at every gig, which to me is very unsatisfactory because every instrument is so unique, and every aspect of the instrument—the string settings and the type of strings—is different each night. I would much prefer to have an instrument that I can use consistently every time I perform. So this has actually solved a lot of problems. It’s called a Czech-Ease bass, and to me, it’s a very good solution to the whole problem we’re dealing with. Many bass players I know are using it now. I think David Gage has made a real contribution for us bass players to have designed this instrument and made it possible to at least travel with a good instrument.

TP: Another forthcoming project that you mentioned is a collaboration with some flamenco artists, which I suppose dovetails with your interest in… Is there another phrase besides “odd meters” that we can use to discuss 7/4, 9/4, and 5/4 time signatures? Do you go for “odd meters?

DAVE: I don’t know what you would call it. To me, if you speak to a Turkish musician, 7 is not odd. So I think “odd meters” is not a very good term. I say that I like playing in different time signatures.

TP: Anyway, you’ll be playing in the flamenco world.

DAVE: And what a world that is. A couple of years ago I was approached by a man in Spain, Mario Campo, who was a representative of ECM in Spain, but also has his own small label that he started several years ago, with the goal of doing very good-quality recordings of flamenco music, which unfortunately had not happened in the flamenco world. He had the idea that I might be interested in a project with a flamenco artist, and after we talked about a couple of people, we finally found a musician, Pepe Habichuela, who is from a very distinguished family of Spanish gypsy musicians and bullfighters and singers. I think he’s a fifth-generation guitarist. So I had a meeting with Pepe. My Spanish is extremely limited and his English is extremely limited, but we managed to communicate a respect for each other, I think, which was a very nice start to the whole relationship. A year ago last May, I went to Spain and did some concerts and spent several days rehearsing with him and some members of his entourage, some of whom are family members, and some associates that he’s played with. The group that we’ve landed on is a three-guitar group with 2 cajons (the traditional box drum that’s actually from South America, but it’s been included in flamenco music in recent years) and bass—so it’s a six-piece group.

My idea for doing it was really to enter into the flamenco world. Finding a meeting place is very hard sometimes for two different traditions. I’ve been involved with a great Arabic musician, Anouar Brahem, a player of the oud, and really, when we play together, I am very much entering into Anouar’s world. That’s the way it works. The kind of music I’m doing, for instance, with this sextet would be not appropriate for that situation, and the same for the flamenco music. I really wanted to treat the flamenco music with respect and not take away from the great stature of that music. I made that clear to Pepe, and I said to him, “Please, would you teach me your music?” He’d written a lot of things, and we started working through some songs and different dance forms. A lot of the music is based on dance forms like the fandango and the seguria and the buleria, and many others. I found I’d actually underestimated, if that’s possible, the beauty of flamenco music. I hadn’t realized quite the depth and intricacy of it all. Of course, a lot of it had to be learned, memorized—and very complex forms.

So we started working on it, and we did a series of concerts. We went back this year, did some more concerts, some more rehearsals, and I’ve proposed now we’re going to do a record of this music in March. It will be out on my label, Dare2, and we’re going to try to document some of this music. There will be a couple of originals of mine on the record also. But in large part, it’s going to be Pepe’s music and performed by that group.

TP: So the two forthcoming recording projects are this flamenco project and the octet.

DAVE: Yes. I’m not yet sure in what order we’ll release them. Really, I’m more interested in recording them and getting them documented at the time it’s appropriate, and then we’ll see what makes the most sense as far as releases are concerned.

TP: So both will be out at Dare2 records, which is available through your website, http://www.daveholland.com?

DAVE: Well, you’ll get the information there. That website doesn’t have the facility to download from at the moment. But we’re starting a new website that will be http://www.dare2records.com, which will be a full-service website where you’ll be able to download not only tracks from the records, but also live performances. We’ve recorded a lot of live performances over the last four or five years, of various projects I’ve been doing, and we’ll eventually make those available on the website eventually.

TP: So for the last four-five years, you’re in the ranks of musician-entrepreneurs.

DAVE: A lot of people are bemoaning the record industry, and certainly it’s going through some problems at the moment, as are most businesses. But there are also some new opportunities, and I think that musicians, as they have in the past, need to look at the situation creatively and decide what they can do to make the most of what’s available. The Internet has created a great window to the world for musicians to be able to communicate with their public and to get communication back from them, and also to let people know what they’re doing and to make their music available. One of the things I like about it is that it’s released us from the constraints of albums. We can actually release one or two tracks of a project, and not have to think about a complete album’s worth of material necessarily at once.

TP: Sometimes less is better than more.

DAVE: I think the choices are what counts—the fact that the consumer has a choice of downloading a track, or two tracks, or whatever. Mostly I’m interested in putting the music in the hands and the ears of the people who would like to take advantage of and maximize the possibilities.



Filed under Article, Dave Holland, DownBeat, Jazziz, WKCR

William Parker Blindfold Test From Ten Years Ago, Uncut

The Vision Fest began yesterday, and is in full swing. So it  seems apropos to give a nod to William Parker, a monster bassist, tireless worker, and generous spirit. Without him—and without his wife, the dancer and organizer Patricia Nicholson Parker—this great event would be a very different entity…if it existed at all.

About ten years ago, William agreed to sit with me for the DownBeat Blindfold Test. For reasons that would take too long to explain, he had to listen to everything with cheap headphones through a Sony Diskman — and got through it like a champ! This, of course, is the raw copy.

* * *

William Parker (Blindfold Test):

1.  Cachao, “Descarga A,” Master Sessions: Vol. 2 (Columbia, 1995) [4 stars]

I think, from the bowing in the beginning, that that was Israel Lopez — Cachao.  People have been telling me about him for years and years, and I’ve just heard specks here and there.  Unfortunately, right now, I don’t own one of his CD’s.  But I enjoyed that very much.  It was just a happy folk feeling that I really like in a lot of music I prefer to listen to, because it’s bright and had a song going through it — and his bass playing is right on.  It’s very-very-very nice.  And the singing, the trombones, the saxophones, everything was very-very-very tasty.  So I would give that four stars.

2.  Andrew Hill,  “Wailing Wall,” Smokestack, (Blue Note, 1963/1995) [4 stars] (Richard Davis & Eddie Khan, basses;  Hill, piano; Roy Haynes, drums)

[ONE MINUTE IN] This is two basses. [2 MINUTES IN} This is Richard Davis. [2½ MINUTES] I’m trying to figure out who this piano player is.  Is that Andrew Hill?  Andrew Hill, Eddie Khan, Richard Davis. [Who’s the drummer?  You know.] This is a piece called “Wailing Wall.”  What was getting me was, it wasn’t… The piano wasn’t as eccentric as I’m used to with Andrew Hill — or say as personal — at first.  But then he found that space that sort of gets into his area of…that brings out his personality.  The bowed bass was with Richard Davis, and that was excellent, excellent, excellent.  And Eddie Khan… They both had deep bass sounds, really thick sounds, and I particularly like that on the bass.  That was a perfect vehicle for two basses, with that piano sort of backdrop.  I’m not sure who the drummer was.  The drummer was double-timing.  I’m not sure who that was.  Because it was mostly cymbal.  Joe Chambers, Tony Williams… I’m just guessing who was on the record. [That was Roy Haynes.] Roy Haynes, okay.  He’s not a usual sort of person on these records.  Because he didn’t do that many with Andrew. [Well, he did Black Fire, too.] Well, I enjoyed that very much also.  I would give that 4 stars.

3.  Fred Hopkins & Deidre Murray, “Dedicated To Ronnie Boykins,” Firestorm (Victo, 1992). [4-1/2 stars]

Barre Phillips.  No?  I’ve heard this bassist before.  I’ve heard this sound before.  Was this recorded in a church?  It’s got that open sound. [THEN] It’s got that cello and bass.  [LATER]  It’s not Deidre Murray… [LATER] I’m going to take a guess.  I’m not really sure.  This isn’t Deidre Murray and Fred Hopkins.  Oh, it is?  Usually I can spot Deidre Murray like that. [It’s Fred’s piece.] It’s Fred’s piece, okay.  For lack of better terms, it sounded a bit more Classical, or even European-sounding than what they usually do.  But everything they do has always been top-notch.  I think Fred’s passing was so unfortunate, because he was great.  I would give that 4½ stars.  That was very-very-very nice.  I guess sometimes when the sound is right in front of you, it’s like looking for something and then because it’s right there you don’t see it. [They did it at East Side Sound.) That was a very nice sound.

4.  Ron Carter,  “Laverne Walk”, Piccolo (Milestone, 1977/1999). [3-1/2 stars] (Carter, piccolo bass; Buster Williams, bass; Kenny Barron, piano; Ben Riley, drums; Oscar Pettiford, composer)

Right off I can tell that they’re having fun.  What often happens when two bassists get together, there’s like a thing where bass players can play together without being in competition, and they sort of really know how to complement each other. But I’ve got to figure out who this is. [LATER] That slide is like a Ray Brown thing, but the tone doesn’t really sound like Ray Brown the way it’s recorded.  But those slides… [LATER] This bass player, John Clayton.  [ANOTHER MINUTE] They were really interwoven in there, playing in the same register sometimes, and except for a few slides I could not distinguish who was who. [Were they playing the same instrument?] Well, it’s hard to tell.  Because nowadays, a lot of bassists play in the upper register, miked through a pickup.  So I really couldn’t hear the acoustic sound of the bass too well on that one. [Did you know the tune?] I don’t know the tune.  But I thought the performance of it and the spirit with which they were playing was good.  They weren’t trying to be political or revolutionary on that one!  They were just trying to get a groove and make something happen. [LATER] When I heard the left-hand skip I thought of Ron Carter, and I also thought of Buster Williams, but I couldn’t clearly distinguish them.  What I’d say about Ron Carter in general is that he’s been one of the foundations for sort of post Paul Chambers bass playing, walking bass lines — he’s influenced a lot of people there.  Also, his choice of notes and his placement of notes in certain spots, not playing a lot of notes.  And also keeping a bass sound on his bass, so to speak.  That one I would give 3-1/2 stars.  I think that they weren’t necessarily getting to any musical essences there, but it was a good performance of jazz, and interplay between two basses.  I’m sure if I was in the room and watching this live, it would really be a lot more present and happening than listening to it on a CD.  I think you lose a lot when you’re listening to two basses on CD.

5.  Ray Brown,  “Tricotism,”  Much In Common (Verve, 1962/1996) [5 stars] (with orchestra, arr. Ernie Wilkins;  Oscar pettiford, composer)

Oh, they said who it was at the end of the tune, but to tell you the truth, I wouldn’t have said Ray Brown.  I didn’t hear any particular Ray Brown licks there, or I guess I never heard Ray Brown in that particular context.  That was very-very-very modern type of playing, and I always thought of him as a slower type thinker.  I think in bassists you have people who sort of play fast, and then you have other bassists who really dig into the note and play slower.  I always thought of him as someone who had a deeper, more soulful type of feeling when he plays.  Also sometimes you get bass amnesia; everything blends into one.  But that was an excellent performance.  I’d give that 5 stars. [Did you know the tune?] I didn’t know the tune.  When I was listening to it, I started to say, “Is that Oscar Pettiford?”  That’s the connection there.  I thought maybe he was trying to reflect on Oscar Pettiford, because it wasn’t in the area that I associate with Ray Brown necessarily.

6.  Oscar Pettiford, “Stardust,” Vienna Blues: The Complete Session (Black Lion, 1959/1990) [3½ stars] (Oscar Pettiford, bass; Attila Zoller, guitar; Jimmy Pratt, drums; Hoagy Carmichael, composer)

Those stops.  I don’t know who this is.  It’s hard to tell when they don’t play any wrong notes! [LATER, AT 5:30] I’m not sure who this is.  But they’re playing all the right notes!  It’s a nice ballad.  But I think sometimes you need some off-notes or off-sounds to give the music a little edge.  I think he’s putting some in now with those strums, but… [LATER] This is Oscar Pettiford. [As a young player, would you study Oscar Pettiford or Ray Brown?] Not really.  That was a little bit before my time.  I was studying stuff that had happened the last ten years rather than the last twenty years.  But let me just say that that performance… I do have an affection for Oscar Pettiford, but I only could give that 3-1/2 stars.  To me it was just functional.  It was nice, but it didn’t really go over the top too much.

7.  Bill Dixon-Alan Silva, “Summer Song/Two/Evening,” Bill Dixon In Italy: Vol. 2 (Black Saint, 1980) (dixon, trumpet, composer; Silva, bass)

Alan Silva and Bill Dixon.  In this performance, Alan is not playing any… His phrases are symmetrical but within their own space.  Then he’s putting an edge on the sound where you would least expect it, while simultaneously underpinning the trumpet but also creating his own sort of road that the trumpet is reacting off of.  Bill is one of the masters at playing trumpet lines in this slower tempo, just creating layers and layers of sound built on top of each other in this continuous ballad that has… It’s like trees.  It’s very in synch with Nature.  If you could put a trumpet in a tree and blow the wind through it, that’s what Bill sounds like.  Then Alan underneath him sounds like… If Mother Nature could play the bass, that’s what it would sound like.  I would give this 5 stars.  It’s excellent.

8.  Evan Parker (soprano saxophone) & Barry Guy (bass) “Slope,” Obliquities (Maya, 1994).

Oh my God. [LATER] Sometimes you can’t tell if it’s a violin, cello or bass just yet.  Because the bass players nowadays play in the violin range, they play in the cello range, and when you have more than one player it’s hard to tell, but I do hear a cello in there. [NO] A violin. [NO] Bass!  That’s what I’m saying.  You can’t… I’m trying to figure out who the saxophone player is.  Very nice.  Very nice colors and textures.  But I don’t hear any personal codes yet from the string section that I can recognize. [LATER] To be able to hear any musician and know who it is, you have to hear them numerous times. [You’ve played next to this guy.] [LISTENS] I’m reluctant to say who the saxophone player is, because if I say the wrong person I’ll get in big trouble.  [Who do you think it is?  You’re probably already in trouble.] [SILENT] Oh, man, never mind! [LAUGHS] Is this Evan Parker? [4½ minutes] And Barry Guy. [BREAK] Is there a cello in here, or is it just duo?  It’s a duo?  Barry sounds like two basses there, because he plays so fast that he looks like two basses.  It’s like watching a sped-up movie, because he can go up to the top and down to the bottom.  But this is a very nice performance.  I would give this 4-1/2 stars.

9.  Paul Chambers. “The P.C. Blues” Red’s Blues (Prestige, 1998). (Paul Chambers, bass, composer; Red Garland, piano; Arthur Taylor, drums)

It’s a blues.  And they’re playing in 4/4 time, the drummer is keeping the time.  Let’s see what happens now.  Nice!  These are authentic players.  Deep bass work.  I like the idea of simplicity in the bass work and the tone.  Very nice tone, very nice time.  In a piece like this you don’t really have to go crazy or anything, just keep it basic and let your tone and time be the spokesmen.  At this point I don’t hear who the bassist is.  I have to listen a little bit more. [BREAK] Very solid.  It’s somebody that sounds like they’re in the school… [DURING SOLO] This is Paul Chambers.  Because he’s bowing on nylon strings and it’s a little raspy.  But the time and the tone were very sweet.  I’d give this 4-1/2 stars. [Do you know who the pianist was?] That was Wynton Kelly?  I’m not… Those guys were the creators of their genre in music.  So it’s not just authentic; it is the real thing.

10. George Mraz, “Mr. Pastorius,” Bottom Lines (Milestone, 1997) (Mraz, bass; Cyrus Chestnut, piano, synthesizer; Al Foster, drums)

From just initially hearing this… Now, this is an electric bass or acoustic bass? [Acoustic bass with a synth.] Well, the sound is a little dry, and no one seems to be vibrating their instruments acoustically.  I don’t really hear it.  That sort of takes down the usefulness of the music for me to a point.  It’s nice for what it is, but for me it doesn’t have enough bite.  They seem to be proficient at what they’re doing, but it’s just a matter of if you have a particular taste and like what they’re doing.  So I don’t know who this is.  But the way it’s recorded, the lead instrument sounds a little electronic.  I’m not even sure what instrument it is.  I mean, I would say that the music isn’t… It sounds a bit like a soundtrack, and I’d say it basically isn’t vibrating enough for me to do the nervous system any good.  So it may be harsh, but I have to give this 2-1/2 stars. [LATER] Now that you’re telling me who this is:  I’m familiar with George Mraz, from Czechoslovakia, and he is an excellent bassist, and he can produce excellent music.  I just think it was hidden in the arrangement of that particular song.  To me, if it’s acoustic bass, the wood has got to vibrate to get the sound.  That’s what it’s set up to do.

11. Charlie Haden (w/ Paul Bley & Paul Motian), “Blues For Josh,” Memoirs (Black Saint, 1990).

It sounds like Charlie Haden, who is a bassist who I guess gets recognized immediately by a lot of people.  It’s like people who have a more individual voice. Like when we hear Ted Panken on the radio, we recognize that it’s him immediately!  He’s from the Ozarks, and he’s got this country-folk thing happening in his bass playing that always really speaks, and he’s got a feel for what he’s doing that’s in his own time zone.  He’s not trying to play like the classic bass players, so to speak.  That’s what you really have to do in music.  You have to try to find your own way of playing time, or not playing time, or playing music.  That’s sort of the goal.  Because everyone’s got their own feeling inside.  I think your personality can come out when you discover what’s you.  That’s one of the things that Charlie Haden has.  So that’s him on bass.  That’s Paul Motian on drums.  And Geri Allen?  Paul Bley.  Well, Paul Bley has his own language on the piano.  So this again is a classic trio that… They’ve been making music together for years.  That gives you some stars right there, for being able to stay alive in the Jazz Business for all those years — you can give some credit just for that.  That doesn’t mean that every performance you give is wonderful, but I think this is a very nice piece of music.  So I would give that 4 stars.

12. Glen Moore, “Jade Visions,” Dragonetti’s Dream (Intuition, 1995).

That’s a Scott LaFaro composition. [AFTER LISTENING TO THE WHOLE PIECE]  That’s a bass player from the West Coast. [Yes.] David Friesen. [No.  Why do you say it’s from the West Coast?] Because it’s big tree sound music, and it sounds folksy.  It reminded me a little bit of the bass player David Friesen, but if it’s not him, then I don’t know who that was. [LATER] Oh, that’s Glen Moore.  He’s the other guy whose name would come up, because he’s got an  open, tree-like sound.  I used to listen to him when he played with this group called Oregon.  They did all these concerts at WBAI, the Free Music Store.  He played the composition straight, and it was just the sound…the bass was ringing.  That was a very good recorded sound.  It really reminded me of playing out in the forest in the morning.  Because there’s certain music that’s just for particular times of the day, and if you listen to it the wrong time of the day you’d have a totally wrong impression of it.  Like, if we were walking through a forest and we heard the sound of his bass, it would be magnificent.  But if you’re in a smoky nightclub that particular music would be almost too majestic for a place like that.  That was very meditative.  4 stars.  That was very nice.

13. Dave Holland, “Bedouin,” Points of View (ECM, 1998). (Dave Holland, bass, composer; Robin Eubanks, trombone; Steve Wilson, soprano saxophone; Steve Nelson, vibraphone; Billy Kilson, drums).

He’s a slider.  He slides like guitar players and sitar players.  …younger players, and this was recorded in the ’80s or ’90s.  The way the composition is laid out and the rhythms that the horns are playing and the way the beat… It almost has a Hip-Hop feel.  Nice trombone player. [BREAK] I don’t know who this is.  I’d just be guessing.  Because they’re musicians I usually wouldn’t…don’t listen to.  Not because I would refuse to listen to them.  Just that as you become older in this field of music… A lot of people keep up with what’s going on, and then a lot of people just listen to the same records they have in their cabinet!  So I don’t know if I ever have actually purchased a CD in the ’90s! [Do you have any sense who the bass player is?  He had a solo at the top.] Well, he seems to be very flexible.  He’s someone that might also play electric bass. [Once upon a time.] Once upon a time.  [LATER] Oh, this is Dave Holland.  So that’s Robin Eubanks.  He’s a nice trombone player.  Dave Holland has a singing sound on his instrument, and you usually can tell who it is by his phrasing and his sound.  But I didn’t really hear that.  This was more condensed or in the ensemble.  That was very tricky.  I would give that 3-1/2 stars.  Because again, it was nice, but it didn’t have any particular special message to me.  But it was a nice tune, and nicely executed.  Because I’ve heard another cut on this record which I actually liked a lot more than this.  I guess that one was a bit more dynamic and exciting.  This was a groove piece.

14. Malachi Favors/Roscoe Mitchell, “Keep on Keeping On,” Hey, Donald (Delmark, 1997) (Malachi Favors, bass, composer; Roscoe Mitchell, alto saxophone)

That’s Malachi Favors and Roscoe Mitchell playing a duet.  Roscoe goes from one end of the sound spectrum to the other.  He has his very open forms; he has his folk feeling, his simple song feelings.  That was a hymn almost. [It was Malachi Favors’ tune.] Okay.  Malachi is one of the all-time masters of the bass.  If he had played pizzicato…I could really-really-really recognize him pizzicato.  But he’s also got this nice, deep, dry sound playing arco. For being Malachi’s tune, I’d give that 5 stars.

15. Mark Helias, “Semaphore,” Open Loose (Koch, 1998) (Helias, bass, composer; Ellery Eskelin, tenor saxophone; Tom Rainey, drums)

Is it three or four people? [AT 2 MINUTES] In this short period of time, the bassist has gone into three or four different areas.  He has a very strong sound and a very good sense of timing. [PONDERS] David Murray on saxophone?  No.  Is this an American band? [It’s a New York band.] I like it a lot.  Everyone’s got a strong sound.  I hear a breathiness in the saxophone player.  That’s why I mentioned David, or even… It’s not hard like Archie Shepp; it’s a lighter sound. [Any idea who the bass player is?] I’m not sure.  Is this Mark… Which Mark? [LATER] Mark Dresser?  No.  It’s Mark Helias!  See, I’ve never heard his band.  So this is Ellery Eskelin and Tom Rainey.  I played a duo a couple of weeks ago with Ellery Eskelin and he does have that sound.  But I’ve never heard Mark Helias’ own bands.  I thought he had more than a trio.  This is very nice.  They got their own space happening.  I’m going to give this the full 5 stars.  Mark Dresser also has an excellent band which I just heard which has an excellent saxophone player and drummer, but it was a little different than this.  This is nice.  They’re getting some nice colors and textures.  When you don’t have a piano in the way, the bass can really guide the group and underpin everything and move things around.  And this is Open-Loose!  Very nice.
All bass players write their own music.  I wonder why that is.

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Filed under Bass, Blindfold Test, DownBeat

Paul Motian & Steve Nelson

Not saying I’ll make it (the best laid plans and all that), but it’s my intention to go to the Village Vanguard this evening to hear the final night of  Paul Motian’s week-long MJQ homage with Steve Nelson, Craig Taborn and Thomas Morgan. I’m very curious about this gig. This collection of personalities can play it straight or deconstruct – what will they do? With no disrespect to any other vibraphonist on the scene, Steve Nelson is my favorite on the instrument amongst a cohort of equals — everything is taste, after all. Comparing him to Joe Locke or Bobby Hutcherson or Gary Burton, or Stefon Harris (wunderkind Warren Wolf is getting there, and Tyler Blanton…and let’s not get into an hierarchical name game anyway, or I might get a mallet upside my head) is an endeavor about as useful it was for Robert Friedlander and I when, during games of baseball card war in the mid ’60s, we’d fight over whether Willie Mays trumped Hank Aaron or Roberto Clemente or Frank Robinson. Steve plays with such freshness in so many contexts, and his snaky rhythmic feel  is singular. So for my first post, I’ll  paste below a piece I wrote about Steve for DownBeat in 2007 that never made it into print. Now, this is a penultimate final draft, not the FINAL-final draft, and I would have worked more on the ending. But anyway, here it is.

* * * *

“The next young cat is going to play inside, outside, jazz, classical, play the blues, be a good reader, play with everybody—a total command,” said vibraphonist Steve Nelson last October, reflecting on the future of his instrument. “It might be a she, I don’t know. But somebody is going to take the vibraphone to a different level.”

More than a few distinguished members of Nelson’s peer group opine that although Nelson, 53, is neither a serial poll-winner nor a frequent leader of sessions, he himself is the most completely realized and original performer on the vibraphone and marimba to emerge in the wake of ’50s and ’60s pioneers like Milt Jackson, Cal Tjader, Bobby Hutcherson, Gary Burton, Walt Dickerson, and Cal Tjader. One such is Dave Holland, Nelson’s employer since 1996, with whom Nelson was preparing to embark to Asia and Australia for two weeks of gigs.

“I’ve always looked for players who are very deeply rooted in the tradition, who can move the tradition into new, contemporary areas, and Steve is one of those people,” Holland said. “The reason I use a vibraphone in my quintet and big band is because he exists. He’s an original thinker who comes to conclusions one wouldn’t expect, and he’s used our compositions as a vehicle to break new ground for the instrument.”

Upon his return, Nelson would enter Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola for a week with Wingspan, pianist Mulgrew Miller’s sextet, adding another chapter to a two-decade tenure with the band. Asked to describe Nelson’s qualities, Miller was effusive. “Steve has no limitations,” he remarked. “I can write just about anything, and he’ll make it sound beautiful. He’s definitely a swinger, but even more important is his creative fire. Like Kenny Garrett, he was already an individualist early on; they played like they were old souls already.”

Joining A-team bass-drum tandem Peter Washington and Lewis Nash, Miller plays piano on Sound-Effects [High Note], an inexorably propulsive, blues-tinged eight-tune recital that is Nelson’s first leader date since 1999. The repertoire, recorded over the course of an evening and realized mostly as first takes, includes three Nelson originals and five jazz standards, including “Night Mist Blues,” by Ahmad Jamal,” “Up Jumped Spring,” by Freddie Hubbard, and “Arioso” by the late James Williams, another frequent Nelson partner and employer throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Others who recruited Nelson for record dates or retained him for consequential tours of duty during those years include Kirk Lightsey, George Shearing, Kenny Barron, Donald Brown, Geoff Keezer, David “Fathead” Newman, and Nash.

“It was happening from the first beat,” Nash recalled of the session, which could stand as a contemporary paradigm of 21st century hardcore jazz aesthetics. “It expresses how Steve felt right then. He could easily make a record of very adventurous, modern things which are pushing the envelope in various ways, but a musician like him doesn’t feel he HAS to do that. He can go into the studio and play how he wants to play.”

“It’s a matter of the highest difficulty to play those tempos and get that kind of flow and phrasing and interplay and sound, to make the vibraphone breathe and sustain that good, swinging groove,” Nelson said in response to a comment that perhaps, given the opportunity to conduct a few pre-studio rehearsals, he might have recorded the “adventurous, modern things” to which Nash referred. “It’s not as basic as some might think. Milt Jackson did it very well, but very few people have done it, including myself. I’m trying to get to it.”|

Nelson’s protests to the contrary, his colleagues are emphatic that the 53-year-old vibraphonist-marimbist has “it” in abundance. “Steve is one of the great improvisers I’ve played with in the sense of taking chances and breaking new ground,” Holland stated over the phone from Japan. “I’ve played with him night after night, year after year, and he never fails to surprise me. Last night, for example, he did something I’ve never heard him do before, which was to use a very fast tremolo and play the voicings percussively around the rhythms that [drummer] Nate Smith was playing, which created an amazing effect. He finds so many different ways to create tonal textures with mallet combinations—we all turn our heads sideways to see the voicings he’s playing, because we can feel them. He has roots in the blues which always seem to come through somewhere, no matter what we’re playing, and he grasps all the great traditions of accompaniment through having played with so many of the great piano players.”

“I almost put him in another category than other musicians I play with,” said Chris Potter, Nelson’s bandmate with Dave Holland since 1997. “I don’t know where he channels from, or how he conceptualizes all this stuff, but I’ve played countless gigs with Steve, and I never know what he’s going to play. He’ll go along normally, then turn completely left. Or not. You just don’t know. It’s true improvisation, reacting to some inner dictates that he has access to.”

“He’s a wonderfully economical player who can say a lot with very little,” said Smith. “He’s a very abstract thinker in his comping, his rhythmic responses to odd meters, but it all makes sense, and he paints beautiful pictures with the soft and beautiful tunes he brings to the band. They say still waters run deep, and he’s the perfect example of that saying.”

The still waters metaphor also applies to Nelson’s gestural vocabulary—he coils over the keyboard, jabbing and weaving with an economy of moves to create asynchronous punctuations that bring to mind Thelonious Monk’s pouncing comp, or Muhammad’s Ali’s motto, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” “The only thing that touches the vibraphone when you’re playing is one little piece of your foot, so you use all the wide space around you,” Nelson explained.

Nelson brings to bear a full complement of rhythmic acumen on Stompin’ at the Savoy and It Don’t Mean A Thing [M&I], both inventive Nash-led trio dates for the Japanese market on which Peter Washington plays bass. “Steve understands that the vibes are melodic as well as percussive,” Nash remarks. “He builds ideas not only harmonically or linearly, but through dynamics—he knows when to strike the bar to make it speak in a certain way. He double-times and plays across the barline; the shapes of his lines give the illusion that you’re hearing polyrhythms, because his rhythm fits on top of the primary pulse, which creates a tension. He’s extremely knowledgeable about chord structure and harmonic theory, which allows him to be free even on the most basic harmonic structures. He makes even the most tried-and-true songs sound fresh. But when he plays in situations with different meters and uncharacteristic harmonies, or vamps and ostinatos over one harmonic framework, he makes that work, too.”

The sum result, stated Keezer, who deployed Nelson on four of his ‘90s dates, is “a completely original voice—home-made might be the word. I don’t hear him coming heavily out of Milt Jackson or Bobby Hutcherson, or any other vibraphonist, but more taking that postmodern language that Woody Shaw, Mulgrew, and Kenny Garrett use, and translating it onto the vibes. His free time sense is the quality I hear now in Herbie Hancock or Wayne Shorter, which suggests that they could play anything at any time and it would sound right. It’s hard to quantify, but it’s a mark of mastery in playing.”


There are reasons why Nelson, a virtuoso musician who has made consequential contributions both to the development of speculative improvising and the tradition, is less visible to the broader jazz audience than his talent warrants. For one thing, as Nash comments, “People see with their eyes, but they don’t hear with them, and you don’t necessarily match Steve’s reticence and understated personality with this kind of musicianship. He’s not jumping up and turning somersaults and flips.”

Another reason is timing. Like Bobby Watson, Brian Lynch, Fred Hersch, Steve Coleman, Joe Locke, and David Hazeltine, all tradition-to-the-future virtuosos born in the middle to late ‘50s, Nelson cut his hardcore jazz teeth with local mentors on his home-town’s indigenous jazz scene. For Nelson, out of Pittsburgh, this occurred at the cusp of the plugged-in ‘70s, with such local heros as drummers Roger Humphries, Joe Harris, and J.C. Moses, trumpeter Tommy Turrentine, saxophonists Eric Kloss, Nathan Davis, and Kenny Fisher, guitarist Jerry Byrd, and Nelson’s direct influence, a steelworker named George A. Monroe who played vibraphone in the Milt Jackson style.

“The guys in Pittsburgh were great musicians, and I could use everything they taught me when I went to college,” Nelson recalled. “Mr. Monroe was the father of my high school buddy. I heard him play one day, and I fell in love with the sound of the vibes. He started teaching me, and thought I had some talent, so he kept on teaching me. Taught me things on piano that I could copy directly—lines and so on—and a lot of tunes. Coming up in Pittsburgh, you learned your standards, and I still enjoy playing them.”

“Steve was an amazing younger player, perhaps the brightest student I ever had,” recalled Kenny Barron, who taught Nelson at Rutgers, where he earned the nickname “absent-minded professor,” during the ‘70s. “He came to Rutgers being able to play—he knew all my tunes, and I started using him in my group.”

“We were trying to be dedicated, but it was a difficult time to maintain your focus,” Nelson recalled. “But as we moved along, we got caught in the whole Young Lions thing of the early ‘80s—we weren’t older, established guys either at the time, and we never really got a chance to expand as leaders and get our names pushed out there.”

In a certain sense, Nelson’s versatility and open attitude, his dedication to serving the dictates of the moment without concern for their “progressive” or “conservative” implication, may also work against his recognition quotient in a climate when complexity and genre coalescence are in high regard.

“It wouldn’t be that different,” Nelson said in response to an observation that, given several preparatory gigs and rehearsals, Sound-Effects might have explored some different areas. “I might write a 12-bar blues with different harmonies and extensions, but it would still be a nice, medium tempo blues. I think the most important thing you can do is to play what you love. If that happens to be ultra-modern or ragtime, or something in between, that’s great. But if it’s from your heart and it’s honest, then you’re contributing to the music. Herbie Hancock was always one of my favorite musicians, because if you put him in a blues band, or a funk band, or a straight-ahead band, he’ll play the heck out of all of them. A really good musician can contribute, no matter where they go.

“When I joined Dave, I was starting to think about the unique qualities of the vibraphone. Rather than transfer piano chords or guitar chords to the vibes, what intervals can I create? How can I space things to exploit the vibraphone as a percussive instrument? On piano, you have all 10 fingers. The shape of the vibraphone keyboard gives you different intervallic ideas; with the four mallets, you can get different ways to voice chords—I guess you could call them dissonant—that you might not otherwise think of. Those intervals allow you to use space more effectively than with other instruments. I can hit a chord, and let it ring out over the band, which leaves a lot of air for the drums, with their advanced rhythmic concept, to respond to, then the soloist puts something on top.”

Nelson added: “Although we’ve had a lot of impact on other bands playing in odd meters, to me, the real important aspect of Dave’s thing is the interplay and free flowing of ideas that his structures encourage.”

He recalled an early 2007 engagement with Kirk Lightsey at Manhattan’s Jazz Standard that provided an opportunities for conversation in notes and tones. “We played ‘Temptation,’ which contained wide-open areas between the melody for segues, and we had to listen hard,” he said. “Now, Kirk has a different tone and touch on the piano than Mulgrew Miller does, but I don’t make conscious adjustments for either of them. Now, with George Shearing, the concept was the sound of the band, rather than interplay. You’re playing at a such a soft dynamic level with the guitar and piano, that you’re inside each other’s sound—it’s like a spiritual happening. Truth is, I loved it. With any musician, if you play what you hear, it magically works. If you have the basic building blocks of musicianship together, you’ll be able to play with anybody.”

Which provoked a final question on this ideal sideman’s future plans.

“It’s becoming more important to me to be a leader, because you develop your own ideas, and want to put them out there,” he responded. “But the truth is that learning how to play that instrument is my central focus. Not many of us play vibraphone. There aren’t a lot of method books to go through. You wind up trying to play like saxophone or trumpet, or do other things that people ask, but I don’t know that we always think so much about how to create a language and a sound for the vibraphone itself. If I ever figure it out, I’ll write a book!”


Filed under DownBeat, Drummer, Paul Motian, Steve Nelson