Tag Archives: Donald Harrison

Two Conversations With Eddie Palmieri, Who Turns 75 Today

To observe the 75th birthday of maestro Eddie Palmieri, “El Rey de las Blancas y las Negras,” I’m posting a pair of interviews conducted, respectively, in 2003 and 2005. The first is the raw transcript of a conversation with Mr. Palmieri and Arturo O’Farrill for Downbeat in 2003 — trumpet master Brian Lynch dropped  by and joins the conversation towards the end. The second was conducted for the press materials for Palmieri’s 2005 album, Listen Here, on which he convened guest improvisers Michael Brecker, Christian McBride, Regina Carter, David Sanchez, John Scofield, and Nicholas Payton, as well as Lynch and Donald Harrison and Conrad Herwig from his Afro-Caribbean Octet, one of the truly underrated bands of the ’90s.

Eddie Palmieri-Arturo O’Farrill (Birdland, 9-22-03):

TP:    I wanted to start with a comment for Eddie.  I’ve been thinking a lot about you in the last couple of years and listening to a lot of your music.  And it occurs to me that you’re from the same generation as Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner.  You’re a little older, actually, than all of them, but only by a few years.  And all of them within the last decade or so have been revisiting roots, their roots in the music and the things that initially inspired them, with fresh ears.  It seems you’re doing the same thing these days, particularly with La Perfecta and with El Rumbero del Piano.  It seems this last decade has been a period of consolidation.  It’s not a specific question, but could you take it and offer some reflections on what you’ve been doing in the last decade.

PALMIERI:  Well, what happened, after the dance genre really ended, in a sense, of the music called Salsa, then I started to record Latin Jazz.  That’s when I was working with Brian Lynch, Conrad Herwig and Donald Harrison.  We did three CDs, Palmas, Arete and El Vortex.  That was the move.  We started to travel to Europe and started doing concerts, playing Latin Jazz.  What happened was that the last two CDs, which were recorded for RMM, the label company of Ralph Mercado…and we analyzed that to see if we could get back into our main genre, which was, again, the dance orchestra.  Because it’s essentially a dance orchestra.  That’s where you have El Rumbero Del Piano.  After El Rumbero Del Piano, which closed the 20th century, then to open up the 21st century Tito Puente and I did Masterpiece. But Tito passed away, and we were never able to travel or do concerts, which we naturally had planned.  Then I decided to go back… The idea came from a conversation with Conrad Herwig.  He was doing some transcription work on Frank Rosolino, the trombonist, who was his idol, and he said that we should do this for Barry Rogers, who was the co-partner with Jose Rodriguez on the trombone.  That’s where it started.  Then we started to do the work for La Perfecta.  We did the first album, La Perfecta, II. We were quite fortunate to have the flute player Eddy Zervignon, and we took that conjunto to Europe, and it was well received.  Then on the second CD for Concord, Ritmo Caliente, we brought back some of those compositions as well and recorded them again.

TP:    You wrote new music as well.  Was it inspired by the same idea, the same notion?  Did you use the older compositions as a springboard for the new work as well?

PALMIERI:  Well, the old work, as far as the compositions that had been recorded, they knew what we were going to do there.  The new work that was created was from a ballad that we had written, then a gigue    of Bach that I always had in mind, and I knew we could work it out — by adding the batas, it became quite exciting.  That’s how we were able to get some new compositions and mix it with La Perfecta on Ritmo Caliente.

TP:    You just brought up a point that I think is very pertinent for both you and Arturo as bandleaders dealing in this idiom.  This is dance-driven music.  But there aren’t so many venues, I wouldn’t think, for you to play for dancers any more.  I don’t know how many jobs either of you do in a year for dancers, but I wouldn’t think it’s too high a percentage.  Can you address the impact of the function, of the situation on the music that you play and the music you conceive?

O’FARRILL:  It’s funny, because there aren’t really that many great dance halls left.  That’s one of the problems.  In the heyday, during the ’50s and the ’60s, there were a lot of dance halls.  Also, I think this is true.  People don’t know how to dance any more! [LAUGHS] They don’t know how to dance.

PALMIERI:  Yeah.

O’FARRILL:  They’re not taught to dance.  The few dances that I’ve played, I look out on the floor, and there’s no style, no elegance.  So I think there’s an absence of really fine dancing, and that has a lot to do with it.  It has a lot to do with the fact that there’s also no dance clubs.  We played the Copacabana this year with the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, and it was very disappointing, because we didn’t get out as many people as we would have liked, and the dancing was… I mean, it was very lovely, but I think that it’s a lost art.  I think we need to have dancing schools, so people can learn how to dance again!

TP:    When La Perfecta was formed, I’d imagine most of the songs were written and conceived for dancers — and for the greatest dancers around!

O’FARRILL:  You can’t listen to those records without moving.

PALMIERI:  Well, it certainly happened that it was the time and it was the location of the Palladium, and there were the greatest dancers.  To be able to play the Palladium, you had to have an orchestra that was… It was like a challenge between the dancer and the orchestra, who could outlast who, in a sense.  And to be able to get into the Palladium… Then once you got in, then the word of mouth… We were a dance orchestra, and how we presented that with the two trombones and flute was quite interesting and very exciting to dance to.

TP:    It’s the same process as the old big bands, the jazz dance bands, who played with chorus line dancers or played at the Savoy or the Apollo.  A lot of the music, which is an untold story, was done in response to the dancers.  What were the first principles for your compositions?  Rhythmic?  Harmonic?  A combination of both?

PALMIERI:  At the time, it was following the Cuban structures that I heard in the different orchestras that were coming out of Cuba in the ’50s and ’60s.  It never ceased to amaze me how it would excite me to listen to them.  At that time, you could record only within 2 minutes and 45 seconds.  How they were able to get you!  I dedicated all of my time and my career to listening to the structures that were coming out of there.  Once I learned them intuitively, then I learned them scientifically — why they excite.  There were reasons.  There’s a tension and resistance within the forms, and the rhythm section and how it has its own form so it can reach that climax.  That’s what made it interesting for me.

O’FARRILL:  That’s an interesting word — “tension.”  When I listen to your music, man, to me it’s always eminently listenable and eminently danceable.

TP:    And intellectually challenging.

O’FARRILL:  Intellectually challenging, and always with a heavy attention to exactly what you’re talking about — the tension.  The dancing.  The groove.  There’s very few people in the world who have ever achieved what Eddie has done, to make music really intelligently and eminently groove.  I mean, the groove is the factor, too.

PALMIERI:  Thank you.

TP:    Do you think that having intensively played timbales in your early teens… You’ve said that you copied all of Tito Puente’s solos.

PALMIERI:  Oh, yeah.  As a youngster, me and all my friends, we all wanted to be another Tito Puente, and by 13 years old I was playing the timbales with my uncle, who had a typical folkloric orchestra — a conjunto.  For two years.  Then after that, I gave him back the timbales, or sold it to him, whatever, for the next drummer who was coming in.  But that certainly helped me to be able to comprehend what I was listening to later.  In 1955, I went with Johnny Segui.  In 1956 is when I came into the orchestra with the conjunto of Vicentico Valdes, who was also Cuban.  The conjunto that he was presenting was extremely exciting, and the rhythm section was what was happening.  So I was able to capture that also.  After that, I worked with Tito Rodriguez for a couple of years.  By late 1961, then I formed La Perfecta.

TP:    So you had a long apprenticeship.  Your concepts didn’t just come out of nowhere.  You had a lot of time to think about it, and you’ve been playing since you were young.

PALMIERI:  Oh yeah.  And certainly, the different orchestras that I was able to work with and comprehend…

O’FARRILL:  I think it’s very important for all musicians to play some kind of percussion instrument, especially Latin musicians — especially Latin Jazz musicians.  You should be able to play timbal, on the conga, or whatever it is.  To get that concept, you have to play it.  I’m the kind of person who learns by doing.  I can’t learn by rote or by hearing it.  I have to do.  So playing timbales, that has to be a heavy part of your development.

TP:    What percussion instruments do you play, Arturo?

O’FARRILL:  Conga.  That’s it.

TP:    And is playing the drums important to your identity as a pianist, to your tonal personality?

O’FARRILL:  It’s difficult on my hands.  As a pianist, you don’t have to have calluses on the bottom of your fingers.

TP:    You’d better pick up some sticks.

O’FARRILL:  Well, I wish I had thought of that! [LAUGHTER] No, you want the calluses on the tips of your fingers.  But at least for the fingers to have a thorough understanding of the different patterns that come into play in a rhythm section.  A lot of people take Latin Jazz and do a generic thing.  But to really know what each instrument plays, that’s where you begin to have an understanding.  And as a player, you begin to pick up on things.  You can land in places rhythmically, because you’re aware of what the timbal is doing or the bongo.  It’s very important stuff.

TP:    Your approaches to the piano are so different, and yet come from such a similar root.  Arturo is a very florid player.  You play a lot of notes, there’s a lot of facility and elan…

O’FARRILL:  I have to say that’s true.  But when I’m playing… We did this record called… It was a Machito tribute, “Live at Hostos.”  And one of the highlights of my life was that I sounded like Eddie Palmieri! [LAUGHS] On a Papo Vasquez composition.  For a minute there, I had his groove.  It felt so good!  Florid, whatever.  But to have that kind of command of the groove, that to me is very important.

TP:    Where I wanted to take this is: Arturo, even though your father is one of the seminal composers and arrangers in the idiom, you yourself came out of a jazz head and then moved back into the structures of diasporic music and Afro-Cuban music.

O’FARRILL:  Yes.

TP:    And Eddie began as a rumbero type of personality, and then moved to jazz later.  You’re quoted as saying that you hated jazz at first.

PALMIERI:  Yes, I never comprehended it.  Not that I never comprehended it, but I really concentrated on the structures for dancing.  That’s where I really stood, as a dance orchestra leader.  What was I going to do with an exciting orchestra to make the people dance?  But sure enough, then we certainly had to go into the world of jazz harmonics and go into the Latin jazz, as we did on those four CDs.

O’FARRILL:  See, I came from a different background.  It was probably because I did the typical rebellious son thing.  My father was a very great Latin composer-arranger, so I rejected that.  You know how kids are.  You reject what your father does.  So my first influences were Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and that’s all I played.  It wasn’t until many years later that I started listening to Latin music and playing it.

TP:    What were the challenges you faced in adapting your style to the rhythms and structures of Latin music, coming from the orientation you had.  What are the challenges for a jazz-oriented person in adapting themselves to Afro-Cuban music?  Conversely, what are the challenges for someone who is immersed in Afro-Cuban structures to adapt themselves to jazz sensibility and expression?

O’FARRILL:  It’s very different.  There’s a tradition in Latin piano, and you have to respect it.  You have to really understand and know the great pianists, to be able to play in that style without losing your identity.  First of all, it’s a different technique.  Your hands have to move differently.  It’s not florid.  It’s not Bud Powell.  It’s a different concept.  And I think that if you play enough right-handed, heavy, florid, 16th note type stuff, you lose that percussive sense.  Also, it’s a very Cuban kind of piano style that you have to adopt.

TP:    Elaborate on that.

O’FARRILL:  Well, Rene Hernandez.  Peruchin.  That’s the kind of school you’re coming from, with the octaves, thirds… You’re playing stuff that you can’t really do with 16th notes.  You have to really play that stuff with a heavy touch.  And if you grow up playing Bud Powell, that’s not the school.  Bud Powell is the school of 16th notes in the right hand and spare comping in the left hand.  So I had to basically retrain myself to really be able to play that.  And I had to grow up.  I had to get past my teenager crap, and come to love this music.  Because it’s who I am.

PALMIERI:  And for me, like Arturo said, it was the octave playing, which came from the players… Rene Hernandez was one of the greatest arrangers that we had here, naturally, and his father, Chico.  And when we’re playing in the Latin area, the minimal harmonic changes is…we land up, more or less, on tonic and dominant, I-II-V-IV chord changes.  When you get into the jazz, that really was a whole other world for me, and I had never experienced that.  Because I listened to the jazz artists earlier, but never gave it the time and the effort that I gave the dance orchestras.  So then, it was quite difficult for me.  And still, to work out that different… How to change the style of fingering also, to play certain things.  Because when you’re playing in octaves… And that was a time when there was no mikes, so you had to play really…

TP:    You had to play loud.

PALMIERI:  That’s really the worst position, because the extensions are locked in.  So sure enough, I had to get back to some basic fundamental exercises, thirds and minor thirds and sixes, and double note techniques, so that I could be able to play in a different style.  It’s still difficult for me to go from one to the other.

TP:    Arturo, is going from one to the other complex for you as well?  Because both you record and perform in both areas of the music.

O’FARRILL:  Ideally, you want to blur that line.  You don’t want to have that big a changeover.  What I try to work towards is having the two styles be transparent, so that you can play.  As Eddie was talking, I was thinking that there’s a thing in Latin music that we call “timba.”  It’s a lot easier to fudge and fake jazz type stuff than it is to fake “timba.”  Because when you’re playing in Latin music and you’re not really grooving, people pick up on that — especially dancers!  So you can do all this fast stuff, and that’s like nonsense to me.  But when you’re playing a really heavy groove, you’re playing “timba,” that’s a lot harder to fake.  I don’t think you can make it.  I think it really has to come from your soul.  So the thing that I work with is to blur the line between Jazz and Latin, and kind of come out of this fast kind of stuff right into “timba,” right into a heavy, groove-oriented, clave-aware style.

TP:    Eddie, you’re not just a pianist, but I would think there must be an orchestra in your mind all the time when you’re playing.  Is that how it is for you when you’re soloing?

PALMIERI:  What happens, again, it’s how I’m able to go and extend, if it’s a variation, within the chordal structures that… They’re not variant.  For us to lock up…Arturo said the word “timba.”  For me, it’s always, again, holding onto a dominant, and how am I going to be able to extend on that, what was I going to do on that.  That’s where it started to extend, harmonically or whatever, I was able to perform in the sense of what I was playing.  Whole tones came in, and different kinds of tension chords within the structures that I play.  I still keep working on it and keep developing it.

O’FARRILL:  Eddie plays with a lot of texture.  Eddie plays with what I call sound waves.  He plays with the texture of the piano.  It is orchestral.

TP:    I would imagine that 98% of what you’ve recorded has been your own original music or your own arrangements on music in parallel to what you do.  Which is one reason why, when you played on Conrad Herwig’s “The Latin Side Of John Coltrane,” it was very interesting to hear you improvise on “Africa” or “Impressions.”

PALMIERI:  [LAUGHS] Right!

TP:    So I was wondering if for you playing the piano equals composing?  What’s the relation between improvising and composing for you?

PALMIERI:  To compose for me is what I’m going to be able to…what theme I’m going to work on, what am I looking for.  For me, the majority of the work in Latin was also with the vocalists.  So what theme was going to be on it, what’s the story going to be about.  And naturally, I was more interested always to write constantly more original music, and keep it that way.  That’s why I never ventured into recording with many other artists, except what I recorded on my own.  And then, in improvising, it’s based on those structures that I create within that composition, and what I do with that, and how I move it around is quite enjoyable to me! [LAUGHS] I’m very fortunate that it’s been accepted.  So between the two of them, it’s a great combination, like the composing and the improvisation.

TP:    Were you composing before you left Tito Rodriguez?

PALMIERI:  No, I started really when I formed La Perfecta.

TP:    How many compositions have you published over forty years?

PALMIERI:  I’d say we’re close to maybe 200.

TP:    And how much of that is in the book of your band at any given moment?

PALMIERI:  Well, there’s different books.  I have the enlarged orchestra, you know, with three horns, with five horns, and that’s one book.  Then we have the Latin Jazz.  Then I have the Perfecta work, which is not in its entirety. But the majority of that work, what I’ve written, is unplayed.

TP:    So now you’re revisiting a lot of things, and setting a precedent for going back.

PALMIERI:  I’m bringing some of them back.

TP:    Arturo, you lead the Chico O’Farrill Big Band, which has access to the entire body of work of your father, who was composing as far back as the early ’40s in Havana.  In Ira Gitler’s “Swing To Bop” he said that after he heard “Salt Peanuts” in 1946, he started writing charts for a band he had in a Havana club, and had it for six months.  So from 1946, he was aware of modern jazz.  And he’d arrange for his band and was also an arranger for hire.  So you have a huge repertoire at your disposal. When he formed the big band again in the mid-’90s, how did he choose older repertoire to play?  How did he make his choices?

O’FARRILL:  He chose pieces that were suggested to him.  There’s an old saying that the great composers always have four or five great themes, and they regurgitate them over the years.  Chico has rewritten a lot of music.  So something from the ’40s might show up in the ’90s as a different piece.  It’s smoking. But it has its roots there.  I think it’s a process of working out your ideas that you may not have worked out fully in 1948.  Certainly, a lot of the stuff that we play now… Some of my favorite Chico O’Farrill is from the ’50s.  Some of that stuff is classic.

TP:    The things he did for Norman Granz?

O’FARRILL:  “Almendra,” “The Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite.”  What always strikes me about his writing is that it’s very simple.  It’s not cluttered.  It’s linear.  So over the past three records that we did, people suggested to him what stuff might be brought out of the closet, and then he would rework it.

TP:    Your father did a lot of writing for hire and for studio bands, which is different from Eddie’s experience.  You were always in the Ellington position of having to sustain a performing orchestra and create music for it, and to play for dancers.  Arturo, from your perspective as a bandleader and someone who analyzes music, can you talk about the dynamics of Chico O’Farrill’s music vis-a-vis Eddie Palmieri’s.  Very different perspectives on similar roots.

O’FARRILL:  Right off the bat, you have to remember that Eddie is a monster pianist, too.  My father didn’t play anything.

TP:    He was a trumpet player.

O’FARRILL:  Believe me, as soon as he figured out that he had to practice all the time, he gave it up.  A lot of the music that Eddie writes is for Eddie, and specifically for the unbelievable performance that he gives.  Chico’s music doesn’t do that, because he didn’t create it for himself to perform.  Also, he made the decision early on in his life; he was 21 or 22 when he said, “I can’t play music; I just want to write!”  For him, it was an easier way to be a musician.  It was an easier way for him to work out his musical battles.

TP:    Arturo, you’re obviously influenced in many ways by the example your father set for you, from your teenage rebellion against Latin music to your embrace of it.  I’m sure Eddie was influenced by your uncles who played, but I’m sure the deepest influence for you would have been your older brother Charlie, because you had to follow in his footsteps in bands!

PALMIERI:  Right, Charlie.  And he was the one that would recommend me to the different orchestras.  My brother was nine years older.  We had no other brother, no other sister.  It was just Charlie and I.  So he was certainly my great inspiration as far as his form of attack on the piano.  He really went at it!  That certainly came into me.  I could never really thank him enough for showing me that road.  My brother was quite an exceptional player.  He knew Arturo’s father, Chico O’Farrell, more than I.  I believe I met your dad when he was already elderly; I didn’t know him before.  But Charlie had.  So that was an tremendous asset to me in my playing.

TP:    Arturo, within the last year, you’ve taken on the position as Director of the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra at Lincoln Center, which is an institutional position, and one that involves a lot of responsibility, because you have to accumulate a lot of repertoire that’s representative of this tradition.  How does Eddie’s music, which is so personal… I mean, it’s hard to think of anybody else playing Eddie’s music, because your sound and your vibration is so fundamental to it.  Is there anything you can say about that?

O’FARRILL:  There’s a whole controversy about repertory orchestras.  People always ask me why they exist, and it’s a very good question. Because the people who created this music left an indelible stamp on it.  I just believe that musicians are organic.  They bring to the music a whole nother vibe.  There’s never going to be an Eddie Palmieri. This is the cat!  But to have Eddie’s music continue, whether Eddie’s playing or just sitting in the audience, is very important.  Machito is gone, Mario Bauza is gone; does that mean their music shouldn’t be performed?  Hell, no.

TP:    Which of Eddie’s compositions would be your choices?

O’FARRILL:  It’s a daunting task.  And I’ve got to talk to Eddie, because we’ve got to get some of your music in the book!  Eddie played on the Benefit Gala at Lincoln Center.

PALMIERI:  Yes, I remember.  We had the two orchestras, I think.

O’FARRILL:  The two orchestras side-by-side.  How do you choose?  That’s like asking me…it’s like the kid in the candy shop.  There’s just an amazing amount of music that I would play as a regular part of the canon.  Now, it’s a funny thing, because it’s a very important position…but it’s not. What it is, is just bringing this music forward, bringing it out.  That’s more important than the position or the institution.  And Eddie has been all over the world, playing this music in Finland or in Japan or in Des Moines.  That’s what it’s about.

PALMIERI:  One of the greatest dancers we’ve seen, we saw in Pori.

O’FARRILL:  We played in Pori.  They LOVE his music in Finland.

TP:    One thing about leading a band for forty years is that people come through it and go on to make original contributions of their own.  So in the early ’70s, you have Los Diabilitos, the Gonzalez brothers and Nicky Marrero and people like this, who all went on and added to the vocabulary, Conrad Herwig and Brian Lynch, Richie Flores and Giovanni Hidalgo.  I’m wondering if you can discuss how the vocabulary of Afro-Cuban music has evolved during your career.

PALMIERI:  For me, it’s on the rhythm section side.  But certainly the music that harmonically has been composed going into the Latin Jazz world has extended.  I find it very interesting what’s happening… Again, what we do with it.  How we’re going to present it, where we’re going to present, and how important it is to be presented properly.  It’s a constant challenge.

TP:    How has musicianship changed over the years?

PALMIERI:  They certainly have extended in their preparation, compared to the younger players when… When I started, for example, the elders were very well prepared.  And what I find now, coming out of Puerto Rico, for example, are incredible trumpet players and saxophone players.  Percussion has reached an incredibly high degree.  I have to say that.  Before we would have just a conga player and the bongo who were there to accompany.  But now we have incredible soloists.  You talk about a Giovanni Hidalgo or a Richie Flores, who each came through my orchestra.  I call it my Hispanic Jazz Messengers, with all the different artists who came through my different orchestras.

TP:    Arturo, one of the defining events in jazz over the last 15 years has been the influx of musicians from all over the world who are familiar with jazz and bring their own culture to the music.  How do you see this movement affecting the vocabulary of jazz as a whole?  It seems there used to be more separation between jazz and Latin music.  Now things seem to be converging more. Does that sound right to you?

O’FARRILL:  I think so.  I think you have to be very well equipped to compete in the traditional Latin Jazz world now.  You really do have a wide variety of styles.  You’re talking about Danilo Perez and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and then there’s people also like Papo Vazquez, and Bomba and Plena.  That’s why the world of Latin Jazz is no longer, and actually hasn’t been for many years, just Afro-Cuban. That’s very important to me, because Cuba was very central to the formation of these styles, but now the thing has really gotten quite large.  I mean, you’ve got Chano Dominguez in Spain, and you’ve got… So the world is really opening up for Latin Jazz.  And it’s still Latin.  It still comes from our corner of the world.  But it’s very much more open, very flexible.

The thing I’m proud of is that our musicians tend to really love jazz.  I mean, the ones that come out of our tradition are really very well trained in jazz.  I haven’t quite found that parity in jazz musicians.  Jazz musicians aren’t as well trained in Latin music.  They don’t really research it as much as Latin musicians tend to learn about jazz.  I think it’s a very exciting time for Latin music and jazz to interact.

TP:    It just seems to me that things that used to be considered (and I’ll use the word in quotes) “exotic” in jazz 15 years ago — maybe Dizzy Gillespie was applying them — are now part of the mainstream. Every musician is supposed to know it, basically — at least in New York.

O’FARRILL:  Well, it’s funny, because I run into… Twenty years ago, ten years ago even, drummers…you’d talk about cascara, and they’d look at you like you’re from Mars.  Now every drummer coming out of every conservatory that has a conservatory is learning about cascara and about clave and all these things that were considered exotic 10-15 years ago.

TP:    Eddie, how do you observe this with the musicians who come into your bands?  You do have steady personnel.  How do you see the musicianship?

PALMIERI:  It’s tremendously rounded now.  As Arturo says, we have players coming from all over, and making it quite… For example, from the Afro-Cuban it went to Afro-Caribbean, with the Puerto Rican (?) in the ’60s.  Now it’s Afro-World.  And now it’s all over.  The talent just keeps pouring in.  On my end, I’ve been carrying lately a band of certain personnel.  So it’s not as varied as it was before.  I used to have different musicians coming in and out of the different orchestras.  But now I’m hanging on to certain personnel.  We have Brian Lynch, who comes in and out and performs with us.  But I see it as quite exciting, very educational with the intermixture that’s happening now.  They’re all different players, and they’re interested in the Latin music, and where we’re going to be able to present it and where we’re going to be able to take it.

TP:    In bringing a new piece of music to the band, how do you go about it?  Do you sit down with the drummers and go over their specific parts with them, and ditto with the brass, or is it something they’re expected to know and it evolves over time?

PALMIERI:  Well, with my rhythm section, when we’re doing a recording, they know what they have to do as far as the structure of what we’re playing, and the horn players have their music, and then we gel it together whenever we’re able to have a rehearsal for recordings.  I don’t have that many rehearsals constantly. But when I have new material that’s going to be recorded, certainly I need it.  The problem I’ve had, in a sense, is that in the last certain amount of years I’ve had different types of recordings, and that certainly has hampered the situation of the personnel.

TP:    Well, these days it seems like you’re accessing your whole corpus of work.  You can go to La Perfecta, you can go to the more open ended things of the ’70s, and the vocabulary you built up in the band with Brian and Donald and Conrad.  All those things are there for you, and now you’re consolidating all of them in some sense.

PALMIERI:  Right.  But lately, in the last few years it’s been just the typical La Perfecta orchestra.  When we have certain engagements, the Latin Jazz, we bring out certain other compositions.

TP:    Arturo, you’ve been in the enviable position of having the same big band for many years with very constant personnel.  Talk about how playing every week builds the growth and identity and sound of a band.

O’FARRILL:  There’s no substitute for having a regular gig.  Also, I’m very blessed in that the musicians I have are bona fide Latin players.  They understand how to phrase.  It’s very subtle, it’s very different.  You can’t walk in off the street and be a straight-ahead jazz player and play this music.  You have to be aware of clave, you have to phrase, you have to be aware… Victor Paz once said to me, “You do not wear a tuxedo to the beach.”

PALMIERI:  That was his form of identification.

O’FARRILL:  That’s a very Victor Paz thing.  But what he meant was that you get players who understand Latin music and you put them together, and it’s an invaluable thing.  I am very lucky, very blessed.  I have wonderful musicians who have been doing this for a long time.

TP:    Have either of you been able to do any amount of playing in Africa at all?  Eddie, have you brought your band to any of the African nations?

PALMIERI:  No.  I haven’t been to Africa.  As far as I’ve gotten, we went to Algiers.  Another problem is that to get into an African country, you need shots, and I always wanted to stay away from the shots — at that time.

O’FARRILL:  We went to South Africa.  I’ve been there several times.  The last time we went… They have a Northsea Jazz Festival in Capetown…

TP:    My God, that’s the real extension of imperialism.

O’FARRILL:  You better believe it!  Talk about colonial imperialism!  I was amazed.  I was there with Papo Vazquez, and they loved it.

TP:    Eddie, was listening to African music ever part of your early experience, or was it all Cuban?

PALMIERI:  It was Cuban.  But I knew that the fundamental, naturally, was African.  But it was the music that was coming out of Cuba.  That’s where I really centered my education on.

TP:    How would you describe the difference between the Afro-Cuban approach to these rhythms and the African approach to these rhythms?

PALMIERI:  I think it’s the evolution and crystallization of these rhythmical patterns.  They were certainly coming from Africa, but when the “mulattoes,” so to speak, were born in Cuba, it became a mixture of Spaniard and the African, along with the native who was there, and that combination… They took it into another direction, in my opinion, and it was really more eventually from their religious “abacua,” that was strictly African (naturally) and their religious belief to the dance orchestras that then started to come out from Ignacio Pinero earlier, and his Sexteto Habenero from the ’20s and the ’30s, then they started to use those patterns for people to dance.  That’s where I come in.

TP:    So it’s a stylization of the folkloric, or as you once put it, of the primitive.

PALMIERI:  Exactly.

TP:    Arturo, how influenced was your father by the African aspect of Cuban life?  Was he very involved in the rumbas and the folkloric rhythms, or less so?

O’FARRILL:  He grew up in a pretty rural part of Cuba.  Undoubtedly, he heard a lot of ritualistic music.  I think it influenced him greatly.  That kind of music gets in your blood.  It kind of becomes a part of you.  I remember the first time I heard Los Munequitos.  Man, I started bawling!  I was weeping, man.  Because I’d never heard that profound a sentiment, and a sentiment expressed in rhythm, as when I heard those guys.  That’s such a central feature of “Latin Jazz” — and I use that word in quotations.  It has to be folkloric.  It has to have its roots, and it has to respect its African roots.  It has to respect it in terms of its instrumentation and in terms of its textures.  You can’t just slap a conga on something and call it Latin Jazz.  Whether or not my father transcribed the crostic rhythms of the Gon people… He did not do that!

TP:    But he got Machito’s players, who could put their own stamp on anything he might give them, if he wanted that feeling.

O’FARRILL:  I don’t know how much of that stuff is an oral tradition and how much of it is actually transcribable.  Anybody can write these rhythms.  It takes somebody who really knows that stuff to play it well.

TP:    But Eddie, when you were a kid learning Tito Puente’s solos, or hanging out and soaking up Cuban music with Manny Oquendo in the ’50s, was it an oral tradition?  Were you writing it down or learning by doing?

PALMIERI:  Well, naturally, by listening.  That was the main direction.  And then, when I went on to play timbales, I listened to the older records.  Because the orchestras that were recording here were really happening!  Machito, Tito Rodriguez and Tito Puente, who had conjuntos at that time.  Conjunto meant without the saxophone.  So certainly, by listening to them, that was my guide.  Then eventually, I started to do the same when I got hip to the Cuban recordings.  The main time was when I was with the orchestra of Vicentico Valdes.

TP:    Is it different for you playing for dancers vis-a-vis a seated audience?  As a kid, from the age of 13 or 14, you were playing for people who were dancing.

PALMIERI:  Well, it’s certainly a great feeling when you’re performing and you see some great dancers.  That’s something that gives you balance.  It’s absolutely wonderful.  But again, as the genre changed and the art of dancing is lost now, and mostly what we do when we’re presenting the orchestra is have concerts.  On the concerts, certainly everyone is thinking about how do you excite them, get them moving in their chairs and making them feel… When you’re playing one of the jazz rooms, it’s another kind of feeling.  But again, it’s a musical and rhythmic challenge.

O’FARRILL:  You can’t be a musician in New York without playing dances, salsa gigs and whatever. I’ve been playing for dancers since I was a kid.  To me, there’s something slightly artificial about playing for a seated audience!

TP:    And you play for them a lot.

O’FARRILL:  Oh, I do all the time.  When you’re playing this kind of music, invariably, somebody will get up and shake a little bit, and I think that’s what you want. Cabaret laws notwithstanding, I encourage people to get up and dance whenever they feel like it.  You can’t do that at Alice Tully Hall sometimes.  But that’s the real deal.  That’s what this music is about, and getting people moving is central.

TP:    But the pool of musicians now comes primarily from conservators. They’re very technical.  A lot of jazz we hear now has very complex rhythms, but it’s also a very technical thing.  So it’s an interesting challenge, I’d think, to keep that feeling in the music given the climate of the times.

O’FARRILL:  Yes.  There’s the old saying, “You can be very well trained or you can be very well trained.”  A lot of musicians are coming out of conservatories who can play, but that’s a small part of what music is.  My father always said, “Okay, so you can play an instrument.  So what?”  That’s a small part of it.

TP:    Eddie, are you still doing a lot of composing?

PALMIERI:  I haven’t been writing since the last CD.  I stopped since “Ritmo Caliente.”  But there are a few things now that are starting to work up, and I’m seeing what I can do now to prepare for another CD when the opportunity comes with Concord again.

TP:    Has your process in writing been a project-oriented thing, or is it something that’s just part of your everyday life?

PALMIERI:  Well, sometimes I’ve had a project presented to me.  I did the Ballet Hispanico work, and that music was never recorded.  I have it at home.  But usually, it’s when I get inspired by some theme that I want to present or make a statement on, and once I get that, then I start working from the bass line up, and start layering, putting the structures on to write the arrangement.

TP:    Do you make use of the new technology?

PALMIERI:  No.  I haven’t been able to comprehend that.  I leave it alone!

O’FARRILL:  I can’t make heads or tails.  I’ve had Finale for many years. I still prefer pen and pencil and paper.  I can’t cope with it at all.

TP:    And how much composing and arranging do you do?

O’FARRILL:  I do quite a bit.  And still, I can’t use sequencers or samplers or notation software.

TP:    Is it project-oriented for you?

O’FARRILL:  It’s always project-oriented.  For me, deadlines are crucial.  I have to have something presented, where I have to come up with a project or a writing assignment, because left up to my own devices I’ll just procrastinate forever.  So it always has to do with a project or a deadline that is looming.  My father was very much the same way.  Now, Chico had the unusual ability to churn out an arrangement in an hour-and-a-half, three hours — he would do it in pen!

PALMIERI:  Amazing.

O’FARRILL:  He would do it transcribed.  The instruments would be in their proper… So he was kind of a freak that way.  It’s very different for me.  But he also had to have a deadline, and he had to have a specific goal and a real articulated project for him to be able to do that.

TP:    For many years, you’d go to hear an Eddie Palmieri performance, and he’d be playing a keyboard.

PALMIERI:  The reason is that when I play you can’t amplify the acoustic… The feedback is on it.  For me, it’s the feel of the instrument.  That’s why the keyboard was put on top.  I’ll play solo piano first, and then come in with the keyboard.  I get complications with it, too, because of the volume and complaints, but it’s the only way I feel I can cut through.  It’s very seldom you can find a great engineer… We just did the Monterrey Jazz Festival, and they had two Marcus Berrys, I think, so I got the microphones they had, and the acoustic was quite wonderfully amplified.

O’FARRILL:  That’s rare.

PALMIERI:  But still, when I play with the orchestra, if I can’t be stimulated, then I have a problem to stimulate the band, in my opinion.

TP:    So it’s to hear yourself.  To hear yourself think.

O’FARRILL:  The clarity.

PALMIERI:  Yes, and to hear myself play, so I can cut through with the band.  The rhythm section is quite heavy also.  And we use three horns or five horns. So I use the keyboard on top.

TP:    Arturo, you’re basically leading two bands.  There’s the Chico O’Farrill Orchestra.  Is the repertoire expanding for it?

O’FARRILL:  The repertoire is expanding.

TP:    And where are you getting repertoire?

O’FARRILL:  Original music from the members and from myself, and we’re digging out stuff from Chico’s archive.

TP:    With Lincoln Center, I guess you’re cherrypicking from everywhere.

O’FARRILL:  Absolutely.

TP:    How are you conceiving that?  Where are you getting material from?  How big is the book now?

O’FARRILL:  Some of the stuff we’ve had to transcribe, because it’s impossible to get the actual scores from the sources.  For example, the Machito stuff I can find.  It’s irreplaceable.  The scores are gone.  So we pay a transcriber to do that stuff.  And there’s a lot of material that exists.

TP:    How has leading these bands influenced your own personal growth as a musician?  It’s a huge responsibility, and there’s so much more involved than just playing.

O’FARRILL:  It’s funny.  I’m not a happy bandleader, because I find it very difficult to deal with all the issues.  There’s the issue of playing and there’s the issue of creating music, and then there’s the difficulty of dealing with people’s schedules and people’s idiosyncracies.  I don’t have patience for that, to be honest with you.  But certainly it’s expanded me as a musician.  Being responsible for an evening’s performance and a set group of people has heightened my musicianship, my sense of… When you’re rehearsing a band, you want to make sure the trumpets blend, and you want to make sure the dynamics are honored and the people aren’t stepping on one another. That’s pure musicianship.  That takes a lot of skill.  So all that has honed my musical skills.  It’s also created a larger sense of my understanding of this music, which is invaluable.  I’ve had to listen to a lot of music.

TP:    So it’s made your musicianship richer and imparted more depth.

O’FARRILL:  Yes.  And not as a pianist.  As a musical concept.  As a mind.  As a pianist, I’ve tried to stay out of the way.

[PAUSE]

TP:    Brian Lynch is here, and I’m sure he has a few comments or questions for Eddie.

BRIAN:  How has jazz been something… What has the weave been between… You may not describe yourself as a jazz musician per se, but I think jazz has always been a counterpoint.  I always feel one of the unique things about you is the way you’ve epitomized jazz, even though a lot of times you do music that may not be termed as much.  But you seem to exemplify the jazz attitude in a lot of ways that I see it.  The spirit of improvisation, the spirit of doing things differently each time instead of staying in the same place, the rawness of a lot of your music.  I think you’ve attracted a lot of unique personalities.  The one who comes to mind, of course, is Barry Rogers, who came from being a jazz musician, but I think you and him had the same way of thinking — you came from different sides of the street, so to speak, and you met in the middle.  Has jazz always been something that’s been on your mind, no matter what you’ve been playing?

PALMIERI:  Well, jazz phrasings for sure, in the work we did with Barry.  Then that led to… Well, definitely, when I met you, we went into the Latin Jazz, starting the work of “Palmas.”  Once that came in, that was my inroad to the work I did.

BRIAN:  You’ve spoken of listening to some of the jazz greats in the early years, both in person and through the medium of records, and I remember you saying that you had to make a conscious decision about which way you wanted to go, whether to follow jazz or to follow however you want to term the music you’re playing.

PALMIERI:  Right.  What I followed was definitely the dance orchestra.  That’s where my heart was. But certainly, I developed an orientation from my early listening to records by Art Tatum, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock.  We heard the Count Basie band… Remember, the original Birdland was right next door to the Palladium, so the exchange was quite exceptional.  But it’s certainly helped me in terms of how I structure, how I think of the phrasing and the harmonic changes I want to use — it comes from the jazz idiom.

BRIAN:  Arturo, maybe I can ask you something. I feel that so much of the Cuban music I hear you could call jazz.  If you apply the same criteria that you’d call Count Basie or Benny Goodman or that style of jazz: This music is played for the dancers, it’s got improvised solos, it’s got swing — all these qualities.  Do you feel sometimes people kind of miss the point?

O’FARRILL:  I’ve always maintained that the music that came up in Cuba in the ’20s and ’30s paralleled the music that was taking place in the States in New Orleans and Kansas City.  It’s another branch of the roots.  Just like you have your Kansas City school and St. Louis school and Detroit school, you have a Havana school growing at the same time.  I think where people goof is that they don’t accord it the same kind of stature.  You’re right.  The roots of improvisation are there for both musics.  There’s a similar instrumentation style and orchestration style.

BRIAN:  I think it has to do with the appropriation of a certain word, and the appropriation is the word “American.”  That America means just the residents of the United States of America.

O’FARRILL:  That’s very narrow-minded.

BRIAN:  Well, if you talk about jazz being a music of the Americas, instead of American music… I think a lot of things get left out.  The genesis of jazz, in a lot of senses, is pan-Caribbean.

O’FARRILL:  I’m sure if you visited Congo Square in New Orleans at the turn of the century, you’d hear a lot of clave-inspired music.  Guess what?  New Orleans is the Caribbean!

BRIAN:  I was looking through a book of photos by James Van Der Zee and found a picture of Sexteto Habenero in Harlem in the late ’20s.  It looked for all the world like a picture of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five.  All these things are very much together.  So there’s a case for saying that this is all jazz.

TP:    One thing I could bring in is that musically, the styles may be different branches of the same tree, but I think the scene, in certain ways, was more stratified when Eddie was coming up.  A lot of jazz players played in Latin bands, but I think the musics were seen more as very separate.  With the notable exception, of course, of Dizzy Gillespie, who was fifty years ahead of his time.

BRIAN:  I think in 1945 or 1950, the typical jazz musician knew much more about playing Latin rhythms that he did in 1970 or 1980.

O’FARRILL:  Yes, there was a moment there when it fell out of favor.

BRIAN:  Maybe we’re just about back now to a certain… It’s still the same thing.  Back to what you were saying, “jazz musicians” don’t do their homework as much about Latin music as the other way around.  A lot of times they’re missing something in their comprehension of what the requirements for jazz is.  And this maybe gets back to what we were talking about before, about having an incomplete analysis of what jazz is and what it means.

O’FARRILL:  Well, that’s the $64,000 question.  What is jazz?

BRIAN:  What is jazz.  Or what is swing?  I know in my own experience, playing Latin music helped my straight-ahead swing immeasurably.

O’FARRILL:  Oh yeah.  I have to agree with you there.  Your whole rhythmic concept is broadened in Latin music.  Your ability to hear eighth notes and sixteenth note sequences in a flow.

BRIAN:  And also the idea of consensus and playing a groove together.  I came to town in the early ’80s, and sometimes it seemed that swinging was kind of a lost art back then.

O’FARRILL:  Yeah.  It might be a lost art today!  I would add to what Brian was saying.  I think that to look at jazz as separate from Latin is a real fallacy.  Human beings love to categorize things.  They put things in boxes and make understandable that which is not.  The idea that Latin Jazz is so popular is both a blessing and a curse these days, because it further delineates the differences that people have in their mind about the two.

TP:    What did your father think about it?

O’FARRILL:  I don’t think he gave it much thought.  I think he looked at life as a musical challenge.  The only thing that bothered him was that Latin musicians tend to get paid less, and the music is less well received and not accorded the same respect.  It’s basically an economic issue.  To this day, I think, Latin Jazz tends to pay less, just in terms of economics.  I think my father didn’t care.  He was just a consummate musician.  He just wanted to write music.  He didn’t care if it was Count Basie or Machito.  He just loved what he did.  I don’t think he saw one or the other.

BRIAN:  Jazz is an attitude and a procedure to what you’re doing.  It’s about improvisation.  It’s always about wanting to extend something.  I think a proper relationship with your material is, as Eddie was talking about, extending folkloric materials of one sort or another.

TP:    We were talking about how sophisticated everything has gotten today, and yet the folkloric element is still so fundamental.

BRIAN:  Well, you’re seeing a lot of this trickle back into straight-ahead jazz.  A lot of the polymetric kind of wizardry that’s going on and a lot of the sophisticated bands is kind of coming in through the back door through Caribbean and Afro-Cuban music.  The fact that drummers have a much more pronounced emphasis on the 12/8 in their beat I think has to do with some of that, too.

Eddie Palmieri (for bio for Listen Here) — (Feb. 24, 2005):

TP:   What I think we should do is try to give something to the press so they can see what you think about jazz, why you doing a jazz record is different than what you normally do, and what your relationship has been to jazz, as well as the songs on the record. Plus the different instrumentalists. What’s so interesting is that you have some of the most distinctive personalities out there, and they all sound within your music.  They follow the logic and they’re immediately part of your world. It’s a sort of magic.

EDDIE:   Regina Carter just fell right in.  I had met her, but I wasn’t aware that she also had played Latin music, with charanga bands. So the piece I wrote for her, In Flight, she blew it away.  Her soloing was incredible.

TP:   She played a little pizzicato, almost a tres sound, on “Nica’s Dream.”

EDDIE:   I’ve never done compositions of the jazz artists, because I don’t know the jazz repertoire. But I do know the jazz phrasings and jazz harmonies that I utilize for my own compositions. This time, we utilized some of the compositions like “In Walked Bud,” which we did with Brian Lynch, Conrad Herwig and Donald Harrison. It was going to be for Nicholas Payton, but that composition was just finished, and I gave him another composition, called “E.P. Blues,” on which he plays with the three horns, the band. Nicholas also plays on “Nica’s Dream.” Michael Brecker and Christian McBride just blew me away.

TP:   Let me ask you systematically, tune by tune. Then I can interpolate questions.

EDDIE:   I didn’t use the full rhythm section, which I always do. I missed it in some of the compositions because of the form of the writing, which I turned into more of the Latin flavor.

TP:   Explain how the rhythm you used for this, the drums and conga, is different than using timbales, bongo and congas.

EDDIE:   It wasn’t a major problem. It’s just that when I use the drums, I call that Jazz Latin.  Latin Jazz, if I may, would be when I use my full rhythm which I always had—bongo, conga, and timbal.  But in my opinion, when you put a drummer within that whole rhythm section, the drum is very heavy. He just holds the weight, and it’s very difficult in the mixing.  But usually, when we do it, I either tone down the drum, bring down the volume, or we just eliminate him in certain sections. But I wasn’t going to do that to El Negro; I wanted him to play. Between him and Giovanni, they have a rapport. They did an excellent job. So I left it like that, without the timbales. But in some of the compositions, I missed having my full rhythm section, the conga, bongo and timbales. Just a few of them. The rest were fine. If you notice, we did a duo, we did trio, we did quartet, which I haven’t done.

TP:   Also new, except for the overtures you’ve done. So “In-Flight” was for Regina, and it seemed you were playing with some familiar changes.

EDDIE:   Yes. I came up with the melody, and I figured with the violin it was going to sound real interesting, and that she’d blow it away. Not only the melody, but her soloing on “In-Flight” is extraordinary. I’d met her in Europe, but I hadn’t heard her. I certainly didn’t know she had played in Latin bands. That helped a lot when we started to play.

TP:   I think you told me that you had to change your fingering system to play jazz, that it requires you to alter your actual approach to the instrument.

EDDIE:   Right.  The way you always play in Latin is in the octave, the full octave, and that locks the hand.  The reason for playing the octaves was that there really was no amplification at that time, and hitting four C’s, for example, and lining them up that way so it had a lot of power.  But what happens is you’re not using the fingering the way you would for jazz. So when I went into Latin Jazz, then I had to do some exercises and a different approach of technique to be able to play the Latin Jazz.

TP:   Is there a process of unlearning that goes into this?  You spent so many years creating this unique sound, always with jazz in mind. But this seems to culminate a decade of moving back to a certain element of your early years.

EDDIE:   It was really to let go the form of attack. My soloing, for example. And also, comping behind the jazz players on the Latin Jazz CDs that I did—Palmas, Arete and Vortex. That was a great experience for me at the same time, and I brought it into this CD. So it worked good for me. At the same time that I let go of the other approach in my form of attack, this one helps me in another way. I use more fingering in one of the numbers with John Scofield. I solo…

TP:   “In Flight” is your composition, and there are some changes you work, probably subconscious. “Listen Here” is an Eddie Harris tune. You selected it?

EDDIE:   My son wanted me to do it. We used Michael Brecker and Christian McBride. Michael hadn’t played in a while, and when he came to play, he REALLY played. I had met Michael Brecker with Randy many years ago, from when Barry Rogers was in the orchestra, and they eventually made Dreams together. But I saw them playing once with Horace Silver. Randy had recorded with me at times, but not Michael Brecker. He came and he played incredible in that company.

TP:   Eddie Harris in the ‘60s was one of the most proficient guys at using vamps and boogaloo, which is a sort of pan-Latin-backbeat unity thing. Can you talk about you responded to that in the ‘60s when it was happening? Also, did you know Eddie Harris?

EDDIE:   No, I didn’t know Eddie Harris. But the time of the boogaloo, that was also going into the late ‘60s. There were certain vamps, and then they were singing in English, a few of the young bands coming out at that time.  But in the Eddie Harris compositions I’ve heard, he always simplifies in the harmonic structures, but they have a natural swing ride to them like Listen Here has. And between Michael Brecker and Christian McBride, they certainly had it riding. Then I was right in there in the middle with them.  It turned out great

TP:   What’s it like working with a jazz bass player like Christian McBride?

EDDIE:   He and I met in Aspen. He’s the musical director of the Festival up there. I saw him doing seminars, and he was excellent.  Then we talked about recording. He is tremendous!  His father played with Latin bands in Philly, and one of the Latin bands here… He knew Mario Rivera, people like Cortijo and so on. His Dad was involved in there. He even told me, “My Dad will be jealous that I recorded with you and not him.” But he’s an incredible bass player. You know what he does in jazz.  But he can grab a Latin tumbao and ride that, too. I know because we did a thing together for Donald Harrison, one of my compositions called “Snow Visor.” We did an intro together, and then we played the whole composition.

TP:   Did you have to give them much instruction?

EDDIE:   No instructions. They certainly knew what to do.

TP:   “Vals Con Bata.”

EDDIE:   That has John Scofield and David Sanchez, with Giovanni playing the bata drums.  That’s more or less into the Jazz Waltz, and it came out also… That one was going to be pulled, because it was giving us a lot of trouble in the recording. But we held it for last, and worked on it, and were able to put it on the CD.

TP:   Did you think of it with Scofield and David in mind?  Didn’t David come out of Puerto Rico with you?

EDDIE:   Yes.  He went to Montreux. We closed a show for Miles Davis; Miles didn’t like to close. At the end of his career, he’d rather open and then leave. Then we followed him.

TP:   I wouldn’t want to follow your band.

EDDIE:   [LAUGHS] But David left with me from Puerto Rico. After that, he’s held his own, and he’s very respected in the jazz field and a pride of Puerto Rico.

TP:   Were all the tunes composed for the date?

EDDIE:   “Vals Con Bata” was already done, and I decided to pull it out because I needed a jazz waltz. I love them. It worked fine. John Scofield plays electric guitar, and David solos excellent.

TP:   I guess the jazz waltz is another point of connection between jazz and Afro-Caribbean music because of the triplets. Is that one of the things that appealed to you when you were younger?

EDDIE:   Yes. I always dedicated myself to listening to the Cuban music, and that was really my forte. But if I was ever going to do anything in jazz, it would be in a waltz type thing. I felt very comfortable there. I love them. I’ve recorded 3/4 on certain CDs. I have one called “Bianco’s Waltz,” another is “Resemblance,” which I did with Cal Tjader.

TP:   “Tema Para Eydie” is for one of your daughters.

EDDIE:   One of my daughters who’s here tonight. That turned out to be a duo between John Benitez and I.  John was great, because he can comprehend the Latin playing, and he’s become quite a jazz bass player in his own right, and a great soloist. It was written for the CD.

TP:   Break it down for me a bit.

EDDIE:   It was going to be done like a ballad. On the last CD, I did one called “Tema Para Reneé,” my oldest daughters. This is my second oldest; I’m doing them one at a time. This one was going to be like a ballad with the whole rhythm section. But we were having some complications, not in the recording itself, but in the numbers that were being selected to be done and a few that might change from the instrumental point of view… So instead of doing this one as a ballad with the horns and rhythm section, I decided to do it as a duo. I said, “Instead of playing piano alone, I’ll play with John,” and we did it as a duo.

TP:   Has working on the different fingerings made this a more acceptable thing for you to do on record? Your fans who are into jazz like things like “Cobarde” or “House On Judge Street,” where you make these long, grand intros. But these are a bit different. And what you did with David at Le Jazz Au Bar was also different. Can we say this is something you’ve been evolving to?

EDDIE:   We’re working towards it. Eventually it will be like solo piano, which I do sometimes on sets…

TP:   I wish you’d recorded the opener on this set. And if you do a solo record, I hope it’s on a Bosendorfer. Your left hand deserves it.

EDDIE:   I love the Bosendorfer. I’m working on that. But then the duo made it comfortable for me. At one time, I would never even have attempted to do it. But because I’ve been working on a few things, I thought it should be a duo. And I was very comfortable with John Benitez.

TP:   What makes this the time for you to start working on this. Your place in history would be pretty secure if you weren’t doing this. What was going on in your mind ten years ago that made you start taking this direction.

EDDIE:   Because the dance genre had changed, and my wife said, “the writing on the wall is going toward Latin Jazz.” That’s when I decided to do the Latin Jazz CDs, and then changed my style of playing more. Once I started with the fingering, then I wrote a couple of ballads, like Bolero Dos and Tema Con Reneé, and another one that Brian Lynch put strings on for me. I started to work on other ballads, and that made it more pianistic, more pianistic in my approach to the recording, and played ballads.

TP:   So ballads is more jazz for you… Up-tempo 4/4 swing isn’t really your thing, but playing these beautiful rubato ballads…

EDDIE:   Yes, which I enjoy very much. And then the 3/4, which I use for the jazz waltzes.

TP:   “Tin Tin Deo.” Was Dizzy Gillespie very important to you in the ‘50s.

EDDIE:   [LAUGHS] Dizzy was something special with me.

TP:   Didn’t Jerry Gonzalez go from him to you?

EDDIE:   I don’t know if he went from him to us. The brothers came in around 1974, when…

TP:   Jerry’s on the Puerto Rico concert.

EDDIE:   That’s ‘71. But when we do Sentillo is when we really started to meet. Then Jerry plays congas on one of the compositions on Puerto Rico. Because there was another conga player, [tk]. In the Sing-Sing album also, the brothers were on. As a matter of fact, I wrote the compositions at Andy’s house. I came up with it right there. I said, “I have this in mind,” and then we did it before we went to play at Sing Sing. So in ‘71-‘72, we already were playing together.

TP:   But had you always been aware of Dizzy…

EDDIE:   Yeah. Dizzy went with me to Riker’s Island once. He knew the gentleman who was musical director there, named Carl Warwick. He came with his camera… He was my MC that day. Matter of fact, before he brought me out, he said, “Before I bring out my Latin soul brother, Eddie, have you ever seen such a captive audience?’ That’s how he brought me on to the stage. Then we played and blew them away.

TP:   Let’s say something about Dizzy Gillespie to give the press something. Everyone knows his connection to Afro-Cuban music and what he did with it. But was it personally important to you in the ‘50s and early ‘60s.

EDDIE:   Well, the most important thing for me with Dizzy was the importance of how he got together with Chano Pozo, that one percussionist, coming out of Cuba, was able to change the characteristics of a jazz orchestra. Then that worked, it became very important in the Latin Jazz. So credit must be given to him to the highest degree.  Plus what he did on his own with the jazz bands that he had constantly, and his form of playing. Then how he ended his career with the international band, that he brought in more Cubans. He brought in Arturo Sandoval and Paquito D’Rivera, plus Giovanni and Danilo Perez. They all were in that orchestra.

TP:   So it was more his overall accomplishment than the specifics of his compositions?

EDDIE:   Yes.

TP:   That being said, how did you approach “Tin Tin Deo?”

EDDIE:   Well, I gave “Tin Tin Deo” a Latin intro, and I worked it more like a montuno type thing, the cha-cha-cha type approach to it, a Latin flavor type thing for David Sanchez. Then David took over, and brought that number home.

TP:   So David’s personality is the thing.

EDDIE:   He plays beautifully. You can hear his tone and feeling in the number. It was excellent.

TP:   That’s another jazz characteristic. Not only jazz.  But writing for personalities. You wrote for Barry Rogers… I don’t know what you did when you were writing for Tito Rodriguez. But is that an appealing thing about jazz for you?

EDDIE:   Yeah. Barry was really great, because not only did I write with him in mind and what he did, but we worked together. Working together was great, because I would bring in the composition, and then Barry would add the harmonies of the two trombones, and change them around, and then when we got into different orchestras, he also orchestrated incredibly well. On Santillo, for example, or the composition Puerto Rico. Then when we did The Sun of Latin Music, the Dia a Bonito(?) was a great collaboration between Barry Rogers and I.

TP:   Let me bring this to the ACJO. Have you been influenced by the way that Brian, Donald and Conrad play? Have they inspired your compositional direction?

EDDIE:   In the Latin Jazz, for sure. When I met Brian Lynch and he started to play, he’s the one who was the stimulus for me to write for them. I already had been using Conrad in the Latin orchestra. So between the two… I said, “Well, I’ll write a composition.”  How do I satisfy the personal desires of the jazz player and their changes, and how do I bring it then in the same composition to satisfy my rhythm section desire, which is more Latin and less chordal changes? In the three CDs, I was able to achieve that.

TP:   So really, having them, plus the practical necessity of moving to a different sound, combined to move you toward jazz.

EDDIE:   Right.

TP:   How about “In Walked Bud”? Was Monk someone you paid attention to?

EDDIE:   Sure. Thelonious Monk… In fact, Willie Bobo years ago called me the Latin Monk because of the dissonance playing that I did. But I never did any of the jazz playing, not even Thelonious Monk, until this one.  Richard Seidel sent me certain compositions, and when I was looking at “In Walked Bud,” I liked it. It was a natural to do it in an up-tempo. It came out all right. Even “Nica’s Dream” later on is in an up-tempo also.

TP:   Were you paying attention to Monk in the ‘50s?

EDDIE:   Well, Barry Rogers also made me very aware of him. We’d exchange LPs, and he brings me a Thelonious Monk LP, the one with the stamp, where he does “Tea For Two,” which is a classic. I exchanged that for a Celia Cruz-Sonora Matancera. He also brought me Kind of Blue, maybe for Chappotin or something like that.

TP:   When Fort Apache did Rumba Para Monk, did it make sense to you? Do Monk’s compositions flow easily into Afro-Caribbean rhythmic structures?

EDDIE:   Certain numbers, yes. I met Thelonious Monk once, when I was playing at the Corso, and he came up to hear the orchestra. He was brought up by a bass player named Victor Venegas, and he brought him upstairs. He blew me away.

TP:   Where was the Corso?

EDDIE:   That was a dancehall on 86th Street off Third Avenue.

TP:   What did he say?

EDDIE:   He didn’t say much. But he enjoyed the band, and that was great.

TP:   Did he dance?

EDDIE:   No. He just sat and listened.

TP:   “La Gitana” is a trio with Scofield on acoustic guitar and John Benitez.

EDDIE: He played beautifully. The instrumentation was originally for a larger band, and we rehearsed it, but it didn’t come in.

TP:   So it became a trio track by accident.

EDDIE:   Right. First it became a duo in the studio, and then a trio.

TP:   “Nica’s Dream.”

EDDIE:   Many years ago, in the ‘60s, I bumped into Horace in the street. I knew he liked Latin music, and I’ll never forget that he asked me, “Are you hip to ‘Nica’s Dream?’” I was walking on Broadway, right by Birdland. The Palladium was right next to Birdland. We were going like this, then he said hello, and I said how much I admired him. I wasn’t into jazz until later on, until I had Barry in the band. Then he brought me to Birdland on a Sunday, and I saw the original John Coltrane quartet also. Which by the way, when I started here on Tuesday, McCoy Tyner was at the soundcheck, and we had a nice talk.

TP:   So Horace Silver was another connection for you.

EDDIE:   Except that I met him. So when Richard Seidel sent me the tunes, I said, “I’d like to look at Nica’s Dream.” We did again up-tempo, a little bit more, and then we wrote a Latin thing at the… For that and “In Walked Bud” I was going to use the Latin rhythm section I like later on, but we didn’t do it, and I left it just drums and conga. But we put a mambo ensemble in there, because I changed the chord structures toward the Latin. That’s what I solo on.

“Mira Flores” is a place in Spain called “En Cortijo a la Mira Flores.” I just used the words “Mira Flores.” That’s where I heard and saw the original crushings of the olive to make the virgin olive oil. It was the historical museum, and then they turned on the machinery, because it worked, and the machinery… It gave me an idea again, and another 3/4 rhythm, which I wrote. There Christian McBride and Brecker exchange solos,  and I accompany them. Michael Brecker told me, “Eddie, it’s a beautiful composition,” and I told him, “If you play it and put it in your repertoire, I’ll be quite honored.”

TP:   So it’s a recent composition as well.

EDDIE:   Right.

TP:   “E.P.  Blues” was also for the session?

EDDIE:   I had Nicholas in mind for In Walked Bud, but he falls on this one, and he exchanges with Brian and Conrad and Donald. He was great. And he was comfortable here.

TP:   By the way, does Donald Harrison’s presence in the ACJO have an impact on you?

EDDIE:   Oh, yeah. He can play drums, and he’s a Big Chief. Now he has his own tribe, since his father passed away. Not only that. Donald can dance, he loves Latin rhythms. That’s why he wanted to come play with us. He told Brian, “I’ve got to get into the Eddie Palmieri band,” and he stuck with me for a while. We did the three CDs. I happen to love Donald Harrison very much. He’s not only a great, great player, but he’s a gentleman to the highest degree, an incredible human being.

Conrad is my compadre. I baptized his son Glen. Conrad to me is the greatest trombonist that I’ve ever met. Conrad is an incredible trombonist. He can execute the instrument, and knows about the structures of how to play it, and how to explain it to the students. Now he’s in a great position, because he’s also a professor at Rutgers.

Brian is an extraordinary talent. He’s one of the greatest trumpet players I’ve ever met. How he is able to comprehend… He’s very well known in the jazz world. But when he came into the Latin thing, I saw him make it his business to buy, like Barry did, for example, the essence of these Latin rhythms from the Latin records…to be able to get the right recordings. Brian Lynch has fulfilled that. He comprehends Latin very well, and that’s very difficult to do.

John Benitez is an incredible bass player. His roots are Latin from Puerto Rico, and he knows that, and he’s also become one of the top jazz bass players. He’s rounded.

TP:   Had Negro played with you before?

EDDIE:   He played here with me along with Richie Flores for a whole week. Negro is an extraordinary drummer. At the same time he plays his jazz, he knows his Cuban music. He gives another unique style that only a few drummers can do.

And Giovanni left with me for Europe as a young man, in 1984. His first tour to Europe.

TP:   You end “E.P. Blues” with a solo. You have the last word. Do you always have the last word on your bands?

EDDIE:   Yeah, sure.

TP:   Was it intended to be the set closer?

EDDIE:   Well, it was the most exciting number.

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Filed under Eddie Palmieri, Interview, Piano

Lou Donaldson: Blindfold Test, 2006, Uncut

In a thread that arose last week in response to a  Facebook recounting by Russell Malone of hearing Lou Donaldson play the alto saxophone at Birdland  (I didn’t get to go, but, by several accounts, he was in magisterial form), several folks cited choice “insult humor” bon mots of the type that Donaldson is famous for  — “Jazz is not recommended for fusion and confusion musicians!”  “If you want to play outside, then play outside the club.” And so on.

Donaldson displayed a certain restraint in his remarks on the 12 selections I played for him in a Blindfold  Test in 2006, not long before his 80th birthday.  But he pulled no punches. What follows is the verbatim, uncut transcript of an interesting session.

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1.  Thelonious Monk-John Coltrane, “Sweet and Lovely” (from Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall, Blue Note, 1957/2005) (Monk, piano; Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Ahmed Abdul-Malik, bass; Shadow Wilson, drums)

That sounded like John Coltrane. It’s a concert somewhere. Piano player really didn’t sound like Monk, but I guess he was copying Monk. If it was Monk, he was in good shape that night. Heh-heh-heh. The drums and bass, I couldn’t tell you anything about that. Probably Frankie Dunlop or somebody. The performance was great. That’s a great rendition of “Sweet and Lovely.” Really top-shelf. This type of music was kind of advanced at that period of time, and they had been working together a long time at the Five Spot, so they had whatever they were playing really together. It sounded like an organized group; it didn’t sound like a session or anything like that. [When you recorded with Monk, had you been playing with him for any amount of time?] No, I never played with him. I just did the record. I worked a couple of weeks with him at the Famous Door in the late ‘50s. That was a great band. Max Roach, Kenny Dorham , and Oscar Pettiford was supposed to be the bass player, but he broke his leg and they brought Mingus in. Monk didn’t like to play with Mingus too well, and he didn’t really play that well that week. I met him at Blue Note, at the company. It was kind of interesting to play with him, because he never wrote anything out. He would sketch a little stuff out now and then, but you were kind of on your own for playing. It was pretty interesting. Kenny Dorham was a good friend of mine, so we had a good time. And Max. Wilbur Ware came and sat in. He played much better with Wilbur, because he liked Wilbur. [Anything to say about Monk’s playing or Coltrane’s playing?] Well, at that period of time, Coltrane was just beginning to start playing the way he eventually ended up playing. He’d been playing more swing-type saxophone up until then. But once he got with Monk, that was a different thing altogether. He would go down and rehearse during the break. You’d hear him in the basement rehearsing, getting stuff together. Because actually, the stuff with Monk was kind of hard to play. Unless you’re used to playing that way, it’s kind of difficult to play that kind of music. I was a young guy, and it was very interesting to me. I liked it. That’s a great record there. I’d give it 4 stars at least. Great record. Great performance. [AFTER] Even now it’s very interesting. At first I thought the drummer was Frankie Dunlop, but it was Shadow Wilson. Shadow was actually the most reliable drummer during that time period. I’m not going to tell you why other guys weren’t too reliable. But guys play and live like they want to live. It’s not my business; it’s their business. But he was the most reliable drummer and the steadiest drummer, especially for a guy like Monk. Or even Trane. He was great.

2.  Vincent Herring, “You Leave Me Breathless” (from Mr. Wizard, High Note, 2004) (Herring, alto saxophone; Danny Grissett, piano; Reuben Rogers, bass; Greg Hutchinson, drums)

I don’t think you got me on that one. That’s Vincent Herring. He’s great. He did his homework. He’s got his stuff together. Tremendous. That’s a nice song, too – “You Leave Me Breathless.” Bass player I’m not familiar with. Is that a recent record? He sounds a lot like Cannonball. We’ve got a lot of young saxophonists playing real good. But it seems that the only people getting recognition are Kenny G and Najee, people like that. 4 stars. That’s nice. Vincent’s a great player. I hope he continues on. Actually, somebody has to continue this type of music, or otherwise we’re in trouble, because it’s a concerted effort by the media and a lot of other people to sneak that other kind of music in. It’s what they call cool jazz. It’s all right. It’s good music, too, but it’s not what we would say authentic jazz music. Whereas this music is more like a jazz musician would play it. He’s improvising. But he’s got a lot of stuff together, too. You can add and take away, add and take away. That’s what makes the music so viable. It lasts so long, because you can add and take away. Sometimes you’ll catch a cat, he’s not playing exactly that way. Still playing the same song. He’s upholding the tradition, especially for the alto saxophone.

3.  Donald Harrison, “Third Plane” (from New York Cool: Live At the Blue Note, Half Note, 2005) (Harrison, alto sax; Ron Carter, bass, composer; Billy Cobham, drums)

That’s one of the younger players. I’m trying to listen to it and digest and see who it might be. It’s one of the younger guys who I haven’t heard that much. Maybe Donald Harrison or Kenny Garrett, somebody like that. They’re playing progressive but they’re playing with a bluesy type feeling. You know how that goes. You want to play up-to-date contemporary, but you still want to retain the essence of the jazz soul. You can play interesting and play a lot of stuff, but you still want to maintain that. It could be somebody else. But the younger players I haven’t heard that much. The older guys I would know a little better. The performance is good. Nice groove. It’s at a concert, so I guess the guys have got into a nice groove. It’s a little adventurous for public consumption. They didn’t have a defining melody, something that would actually stick to the people, make the people be humming and singing it. But it’s creative jazz. What can I tell you? The drummer sounds interesting. Pretty good concert there. 3 stars. It’s a groove tune. A tricky little melody there. [AFTER] Ron Carter’s tune? I don’t know it. Billy Cobham? Oh, that’s an old record, then. It was Donald? Good, I guessed that! I told you anybody that I’ve ever heard over a period of time, I’ll know. Some of the newer guys I don’t know. You couldn’t trick me if you played somebody old. I research all the saxophone players. That’s my business. I have to understand what they’re playing so I know what to play. You stay a little bit ahead of them! That’s a nice groove to that record, but it’s not 100% like the type of stuff we play. All the musicians play a little different style.

4.  David Sanborn, “Tin Tin Deo” (from Closer, Verve, 2005) (Sanborn, alto saxophone; Gil Goldstein, piano; Russell Malone, guitar; Mike Mainieri, vibraphone; Christian McBride, bass; Steve Gadd, drums; Luis Quintero, percussion)

[IMMEDIATELY] That’s David Sanborn. I can tell by his sound. I’ve researched all of the older guys. Even the funk guys, I can tell some of them. Some of them sound the same. But this guy has got a wonderful feeling. Jazz, I don’t know about that, but he’s got the feeling, and he knows how to make records. There’s a trick to making records. I mean, records that will sell. A lot of people can play a lot of stuff, but when you try to make records to sell, it’s a different situation. It’s a good treatment of the song. But see, the way they have it set up, they have a good presence in the studio where they played. They sound beautiful. What they do that other more up to date jazz cats don’t do… They don’t have this kind of rhythm. They don’t play against a background like this. There’s more going on. But actually, I know why they do it this way – because they’re trying to sell the record. Which makes a lot of sense. You don’t play for nothing. You can play the greatest solo in the world, but if you don’t sell it, you’re just wasting time. The background is perfect for what he’s playing. He’s a very interesting guy. You can tell at one time he must have tried to play a lot of jazz music. He told me himself that he always liked Hank Crawford. In fact, he came to see me one time, and we talked a long time. I didn’t know he was from St. Louis, but he’s from St. Louis, Missouri, and I was working out there and he came by. It’s hard to make stars for a commercial record that you’re trying to sell it. But give them 3 stars.

5.  Lee Konitz-Ted Brown, (“317 E. 32nd”) (from Dig-It, Steeplechase, 1999) (Konitz, alto saxophone; Brown, tenor saxophone; Ron McClure, bass; Jeff Williams, drums)

Lee Konitz, without a doubt. Sounds like two saxophones on there. Has he got an echo chamber? Lee kind of lays back on the rhythm when he plays. He made a good record called Relaxin’ With Lee. That’s not it, but that’s the way he plays – relaxing while he plays. A lot of guys force the rhythm. They’re right on the rhythm and they force it. But he doesn’t do that. I don’t know exactly who the tenor player is, but I’d say Warne Marsh? No? I know Lee and Warne used to play a lot. Oh, it’s a late record? It’s not my cup of tea. But they did some different stuff with the kind of style that originally was played during the ‘50s. Lennie Tristano and all of them had a little bit different approach. That’s what makes jazz creative, is a little different approach to what is being played. Actually, I wouldn’t play that way. I always have to have a piano to begin with. When I think of playing without a piano, it’s suspect. Piano always plays a certain sequence of chords and changes, and if you don’t play on those changes, you’re doing something else. BS’ing. Most of the time. Not this, though. This is actually the way he conceives what he wants to play. But I’ve heard many records where we have one sequence going on with the piano, but the horns are not playing the same thing. They’re not following that sequence. It doesn’t make any sense, because if you’re not going to follow the sequence, there’s no need to have a piano or bass or whatever you’ve got underneath. What we call background. But he’s got his own identity, I’m telling you. You strive for that the whole time you play music, for that I.D., because that’s what determines that people know what it is and who it is. Actually now, the way they have these jazz schools and colleges, a lot of musicians come out playing just about the same way. It’s hard to determine who’s who. When I was coming up, everybody had an I.D. Two or three notes, I could tell you exactly who it is. You can’t do that today, because a lot of musicians are trained in just about the same way. It seems like they’ve got the same instructors. See, in the old days, when you came from California, you sounded a different way; if you came from Texas or came from Chicago… You could tell from the way guys played what section of the country they were from. Can’t do that any more. That’s gone. That’s “Out of Nowhere.” I can hear it. That’s what I’m saying, there’s a certain chord pattern you can hear most of the time. Lee’s got a lot of stuff he does on weird songs. But that’s his concept; that’s how he plays. We’ll give it 3 stars.

6.  Phil Woods, “I’m So Scared of Girls When They’re Good-Looking” (from The Rev and I, Blue Note, 1998) (Woods, alto saxophone; Cedar Walton, piano; Peter Washington, bass; Ben Riley, drums)

That must be a new record. Sounds like Phil Woods to me. I haven’t heard this record, but it sounds like Phil. A very consistent player and always a good performer. He’s got it together, what can I tell you? It’s a nice arrangement, too, whatever that is. It’s hard to maintain that consistency over a long period of time. He’s got pulmonary problems. I’m getting it now. It’s just a matter of time before I’ll probably have to stop playing a lot. I never smoked or did anything, but just working in clubs… I’m asthmatic, so it’s a little different. I was always careful. I didn’t get myself exposed to a lot of stuff, which he did. He had some other things going for a while. But it didn’t really slow him down. Bird was impossible. I’ve been asthmatic all my life, but I avoid certain things. I never thought I’d be able to play a saxophone as long as I have. [Did you start to play saxophone as a way of dealing with asthma?] That’s right. The clarinet. I started using the clarinet, and the diaphragm breathing helped me a lot. But now it’s catching up with me. It took a long time. I’m almost 80. In few months, I’ll be 80. Music is a funny thing, man. It will keep you alive. Because while you’re doing that, you don’t think about anything else, so you ignore a lot of other problems. It’s hard to tell who the rhythm section because they’re just playing background. Playing well, though. I’ll give that a 4, man. That’s nice.

7.  Charles McPherson, “Blue and Boogie” (from Manhattan Nocturne, Arabesque, 1998) (McPherson, alto sax; Mulgrew Miller, piano; Ray Drummond, bass; Victor Lewis, drums)

I’ll make a guess on this one. It sounds like Charles McPherson, but I’m not sure. [Good guess.] The rhythm section, I couldn’t tell you. Piano player sounds a bit like Mulgrew. Oh, I guessed that, too? [LAUGHS]     The drummer I wouldn’t know, nor the bass player, but they’re really cooking. I’ve got to give a 5 for this one. See, I’m a bebop player myself, and that’s what this is. I like this kind of groove and I like this kind of tempo. I like Charles, too, but I couldn’t recognize him then. His phrasing made me guess it was him, though. His resolutions keep going in and out, in and out, and he’s a bebop player, and that’s the way we play. If you listen to Charles or Sonny Stitt or Cannonball, they play that way. They play right on the beat, right on the meter, don’t lay back – right on it. It’s a great record. Carrying on the tradition. Great.

8.  Kenny Garrett, “I Only Have Eyes For You” (from Bobby Hutcherson, Skyline, Verve, 2001) (Hutcherson, vibraphone; Garrett, alto saxophone; Geri Allen, piano; Christian McBride, bass; Al Foster, drums)

It sounds like Kenny Garrett. But he hasn’t played anything yet. I have to wait until he plays something. He kind of lays back on it when he plays. A lot of the younger guys I haven’t heard that much, but I’ve heard a little bit of them. I’ll listen to see who it is. Yeah, that’s him. I got it. The vibes I don’t know. I never saw him playing with no vibes. Bass and drums I couldn’t tell you; they’re probably some younger guys who I don’t know. The performance is interesting. He’s doing a little searching, but it’s interesting. See, the younger musicians have a tendency to do that. I guess they’re taught that they have to go a little outside when they improvise. But actually, you don’t have to do it. You can stay right in the chord structure and still improvise a lot. But a lot of the younger guys like to try to go out a little, play a little what we call different kind of changes. Not exactly the original. Substitute is all right if it’s compatible with the way the sequence is going. But the only problem with the substitute, if you don’t substitute something that’s compatible with the sequence, you’re not really playing the song any more. You’re playing something else. Which is possible to do, because you can practice and study a lot of stuff, and play almost opposite to where the chord changes are going. The vibraphonist sounds like Milt. But I don’t know. You’ve got me there. See, it went way outside there! It’s coming in the door backwards. But most of the young players have a tendency to do that. I guess when they teach them, they tell them they have to play that way – they’ll be creating something. But you don’t necessarily have to do that. 3 stars. Nice little arrangement.

9.  Ornette Coleman, “Latin Genetics” (from In All Languages, Verve/Harmolodic, 1987) (Coleman, alto saxophone, composer; Don Cherry, pocket trumpet; Charlie Haden, bass; Billy Higgins, drums)

You can take that off right away. [LAUGHS] That’s not jazz, that’s Yazz!! [LAUGHS] Any similarity between that and jazz music is purely accidental. [Why is that?] That’s not what jazz is all about. You’ve got to play with a blues feeling on a groove, and a melodic line – none of that is there. It’s music. It’s probably great music. But it’s not jazz music. [Any idea who the drummer is?] Is this a recent record? I don’t know. It would be hard for me to tell you. Billy Higgins was the original drummer with that group. I used to see the group every night at the Five Spot. [What was that like?] It was interesting. But I have to go along with Redd Foxx. Redd Foxx came down and when he came out they asked him “What about that music?” He said, “They tell me that’s the music of tomorrow. That’s what I hear tomorrow. Tonight I want to hear some music of today!” [LAUGHS] No, it’s interesting music. I’m just joking around with you. It’s interesting music, but it’s not what we’d call real jazz music. [What anything it is interesting to you?] Well, it’s different. What can I tell you? It’s different. Everything that’s different interests me. I listen to it, to see what it is. A lot of those little things he plays, I like! But I wouldn’t consider that jazz music. See, you got to realize, I came up listening to Charlie Parker, Johnny Hodges, Earl Bostic, Tab Smith, people like that. There’s a certain way a saxophone is a supposed to sound. If it doesn’t sound that way, then I… [Ornette Coleman came up playing in those type of bands...] No, he never did. I went to his home in Fort Worth, and they told me they never let him play around because he was always too weird. Of course, that’s his prerogative. If he wants to play that way, good! [David Fathead Newman said that when they were teenager, Ornette played the Charlie Parker tunes, and then he veered off into other areas. As teenagers they’d learn the tunes, play them in their own sessions, and then he went in his own direction.] I don’t  want to disagree with Fathead, who’s a good friend of mine, but I talked with a lot of guys who were down there who said that wasn’t the case. They said he never could play the bebop stuff. I asked a lot of people. But that’s neither here nor there. That’s the way he plays and that’s the way he wants to play. Good for him. Stars? [LAUGHS] Stars fell on Alabama. Look, you can’t beat around the bush with music. You either play it or you don’t. You try to do too much sometimes, it ends up doing nothing. It’s like everything else. You got to be careful of what you do. Jazz had a certain tempo or certain groove that was there, and that’s what made it sound different from other music. Now, offhand, listening to that, if you want me to categorize it, I would say it’s Folk music. Which is good, too. That’s good music, too. But jazz? Unh-uh. Nada. I like Ornette. Ornette’s a good friend of mine. He’s a nice guy. But that’s the way he wants to play. So be it.

10.  Jim Snidero, “Prisoner Of Love” (from Close-Up, Milestone, 2004) (Snidero, alto saxophone; David Hazeltine, piano; Paul Gill, bass; Billy Drummond, drums)

Nice. Very beautiful. Beautiful tone and everything, but I don’t know who it is. “Prisoner of Love.” At first I thought it was Vincent Herring, but you already played him for me. You’re trying to trick me, see? But you couldn’t do it, could you. [LAUGHS] That sounds like him, but what can I tell you. The only person I know who even plays that way is George Coleman. He plays sort of like that. But whoever it is is somebody I don’t know. I like it, but I don’t know who that is. 4 stars. See, that’s the way I play ballads. I can’t say it’s me, because it’s not. [Did this person listen to you?] Of course. If he’s not as old as I am, he had to: That’s the way I play them.

11.  Gary Bartz-Sphere, “Hornin’ In” (from Sphere, Verve, 1998) (Bartz, alto saxophone; Kenny Barron, piano; Buster Williams, bass; Ben Riley, drums)

You might think I’m crazy, but that sounds like Clifford Jordan. I used to play this tune with Monk, but I didn’t record it with him. See, that’s a Chicago-type player. Charles Davis… Who would play that way? [He’s not from Chicago and he’s not from Philadelphia?] He’s from New York? [Wasn’t born in New York, but been here a long time.] That sounds like an old record. Late ‘90s? That’s a good Monk tune. It’s a recreation of a good Monk tune. What can I tell you? They played it well, whoever it was. The saxophonist sounded all right. What can I tell you? Sounded like they were reading music to me. 2 stars. [AFTER] It didn’t sound like them at all. I heard that group many times. Sorry about that, Gary.

12.   Charlie Parker-Dizzy Gillespie, “Salt Peanuts” (from Town Hall, New York City, June 22, 1945, Uptown, 2005) (Parker, alto saxophone; Gillespie, trumpet, composer; Al Haig, piano; Curley Russell, bass; Max Roach, drums)

Syphilis Sid. That’s Joe Harris on drums. Well, let me listen a little more. Sounds like Al Haig on piano. I can tell you that. That kind of stuff you won’t hear any more. That’s gone. It’s amazing music. For that time period, that was amazing music. It’s still amazing, but that time period it was earthshaking! [Do you know this recording?] No, I don’t know it. It sounds like it was recorded at probably Carnegie Hall. Town Hall? The recording sounds very good. That’s a great record there. That’s a 5 there. No doubt about it.

The best records that Dizzy and Charlie Parker made, Sidney Catlett played the drums. The best records they ever made. Sidney Catlett, Slam Stewart on bass, and the piano player was… Oh God, I’m getting senile. But that’s the best record they ever made. This piano player, I never heard him on another record, but he played on that one. Great record. Sid Catlett was a great drummer, because he never got in the way. A lot of drummers can get in the way and disrupt what’s being played. But he never did. Listen to him. You don’t know a drum is being played; all you do is feel the rhythm. And they loved him, too. When I first came, I was all about all these musicians, and I used to study them. Everywhere they played, I would go. I would be right there. I came to New York in 1948,  but I came to stay in 1950. I used to go everywhere. I’d go down to 52nd Street, all the places, and check them out. I made a study of them, and made a study of all the guys who were kind of inhibited by some substance, and I found out that a lot of them, if they didn’t have great musical talent, it didn’t help the performance. You know what I’m saying? Actually, what happened to me, I went to see Dizzy one night… I can’t remember the club. But anyway, Charlie Parker didn’t come, so they used Don Byas. I kept going for three nights because I wanted to see Charlie Parker, and actually, when Charlie Parker came back, the band sounded better to me with Don Byas. Don Byas was a tremendous saxophonist. He never really got the credit he deserved. Same with Lucky Thompson. But as history goes, they write about who they want to write and they build up who they want to build up. Don Byas did leave early, but he came back a couple of times on special occasions. But music is a funny thing.

Like I said, that music has got the feeling, the rhythm and everything right in it, whereas in later forms of that same music, musicians kind of overdid it. They learned what they were doing, then they tried to supplement it and put other stuff in there, and kind of overdid it. Consequently, they ran a lot of people away from the music, because they were trying to overdo it a little bit. [Were you able to play bebop on gigs in New York?] Yeah. I played anything I wanted to play, because I always played something that I knew the people would understand and like at the beginning of the set. Then the last tune, if I played “Cherokee” or something, they wouldn’t mind. They’re satisfied. But a lot of cats make a bad mistake by trying to play too intricate at the beginning of the set. See, back then, people had a tendency to want to dance to the music, too, so you had to be careful, especially if you were working on a steady job. [You were working a lot uptown, not so much midtown or downtown in the early ‘50s, right?] No, wasn’t nothing in Midtown but Birdland. When I came they had other clubs, but they were closed.

It’s been a pleasure. And I’d like to thank all my fans for many years of support, and I hope I haven’t offended anybody with this interview!

[—30—]

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Filed under Alto Saxophone, Blindfold Test, DownBeat

Dr. Lonnie Smith is 69

As reviews of Dr. Lonnie Smith’s recent engagement at Ronnie Scott’s in London make clear, the Hammond B3 master, who turned 69 today, remains an American original, as cliche-free in his attire as when expressing himself through notes and tones. After listening to him for years, I had the opportunity to learn this first-hand when I profiled Smith for DownBeat four or five years ago. Hopefully we’ll have a chance to experience his magic for many years to come.

* * * * *

“I don’t do soundchecks,” Doctor Lonnie Smith noted as he entered Manhattan’s Jazz Standard ninety minutes before hit-time on night one of his pre-Christmas week. It was cocktail hour, and stragglers from a private party ambled leisurely from the room with doggie bags filled with barbecued ribs and chicken. Smith, however, was ready to attend to business. So were his bandmates, an as-yet unrehearsed quintet billed as Crescent Boogaloo for the presence of New Orleanians Donald Harrison and Nicholas Payton, along with Peter Bernstein, a Manhattan native, and Bill Stewart, a son of Iowa.

Smith’s white hair was tied back in a bun. His white beard was combed out. His black rasta hat sat at a precise angle over his forehead. With the help of his trademark conjure cane, he picked his way to the bandstand to gauge the idiosyncracies of the house-owned Hammond B3. As the staff moved tables and chairs into position, Smith proceeded to poke and prod as Harrison and Payton, both in town just that afternoon, warmed up with licks and long tones. Bernstein tweaked his amp, Stewart tuned his drums and adjusted his cymbals. Smith set forth the chords for Tadd Dameron’s “Good Bait,” Stewart went four-to-the-floor, and Smith, already grooving, eyes darting, played an intense solo, harmonizing his line in a fervent grunt. Harrison blew a half chorus. So did Payton.  Satisfied, Smith smiled, halted the proceedings, chatted briefly with the house engineer, and left the room.

Forty-five minutes later, barbecue-munching, spirits-sipping patrons packed the house. Smith reemerged, now topped with his trademark black turban. Again, he kicked off “Good Bait,” embellishing the melody with a funky bassline not unlike the one he’d laid down forty years before on “Alligator Boogaloo,” the still-popular Lou Donaldson jukebox hit on which Smith generated the grooves with George Benson and Idris Muhammad. As Harrison uncorked a darting solo, Smith shifted the drawbars with his right hand without allowing the bass to flag, then segued into a characteristically dramatic solo that built to climax and decrescendo. Without a word, he launched the theme of Frank Foster’s “Simone,” simultaneously floating the melody and articulating another inexorably raunchy bassline over Stewart’s staunch 5/4. As his solo transpired, he tilted his head almost at a right angle to the Leslie speaker behind him, extracting signifying squawks and fuzz. Over Stewart’s declarative swamp beat on the Beatles’ “Come Together,” Smith continued to jab-and-weave atop another ferocious bass figure, juxtaposing long runs with short bursts, then gave way to Harrison’s intense wailing-the-blues alto solo and Payton’s low-register effusion, nodding like a pendulum as he comped, growling scat syllables to conclude.

It was time to cool down the inflamed congregants, and Smith ratcheted down with an abstract, rubato fanfare at a subtone murmur, gradually transitioning to an exposition of the elegiac theme of “Chelsea Bridge.” Supporting nuanced solos by Payton and Harrison, Smith turned the organ into a virtual choir, which, on his own concluding statement, blasted off the firmament and into ether. On the intro to “Willow Weep For Me,” he continued to orchestrate, interpolating fragments of “Parisian Thoroughfare” and “Rhapsody in Blue,” and splattering synth-like Sun Ra platters of color, sustaining a slow drone to complement Bernstein’s melody statement and Payton’s brief melodic variations. On his own solo, he postulated a long, swaying bassline, picking each note with care. Gradually, he raised the tempo, harmonizing the line and locking in, eyes closed, before unwinding with a slow blues over a shuffle. On the brisk set-closer, “Oleo,” Smith spun out crisply articulated bop lines, prodding an informed succession of solos with stabbing, Bud Powell-like comp.

The house began to clear for the second, sold-out show. Smith—who seemed barely to have broken a sweat while spontaneously conjuring a perfect set from, as it were, a blank canvas—exchanged a pleasantry or two with fans and friends, and retreated to the bar for dinner.

[BREAK]

At 65, Smith occupies a singular niche in 21st century improvisation. Along with less visible B3′ers such as Gene Ludwig and Gloria Coleman, he’s one of the last survivors to have lived and breathed his instrument’s down-home, good-time function that provided a foot-patting  soundtrack at blue-collar inner city lounges and grilles across urban Afro-America until the era of Ronald Reagan. Deejays and producers still sample the famously funky grooves of such early career albums as Alligator Boogaloo, Mama Wailer, a Kudu session from 1974, or Afro-Desia, a 1975 Groove Merchant date on which Joe Lovano debuted as a sideman. Smith himself never stopped sidemanning with Donaldson, and spent much of the ‘90s offering omnidirectional testimony in bracing contrast to the leader’s straight-down-the-middle declamations. These days he performs mostly as a leader, still building full-bodied basslines from the bottom up. He also continues to deploy the presentational style that he developed early on, projecting earthy roots while developing ever more sophisticated ways to satisfy a hunger to embrace a universe of sound, an imperative that also drove the jazz fusion avatars of his generation, psychedelic mother-shippers like George Clinton and Bootsy Collins, or, for that matter, Sun Ra.

“He’s the king of nuance,” said Harrison between sets. “Lonnie can switch so quickly from one feeling to another; he’s figured out how to do it.”

“He uses a lot more harmony than he used to,” said Joey DeFrancesco, whose father, a Niagara Falls native, crossed paths with Smith on the early ‘60s Buffalo scene, where both soaked up local hero Joe Madison. “But no matter what he does, his bass always grooves, so it’s swinging, and he comes up with a lot of different sounds. He’s got the whole thing going.”

Few musicians have played more frequently with Smith than Bernstein, his bandmate with Donaldson since the early ‘90s, who often plays guitar in Smith’s trios. “Lonnie trusts his instincts like nobody else that I play with,” Bernstein said. “He’s totally unafraid to stop on a dime, change the direction of the music, and see what happens. He sings, and on one level, that’s his approach to playing the instrument. On the other level, he is the orchestra accompanying the singer, accompanying himself. He gets inside the tune, melts it down, then brings it into a form. He’ll try anything”

Organist Sam Yahel experienced Smith’s experimental proclivities first-hand during the early ‘90s when he loaned Smith his Korg CX-3 portable organ for a gig at Augie’s, then a hardcore jazz haven on the Upper West Side and now the premises of Smoke.

“I’d been gigging all over the city with it, and thought I had it figured out,” Yahel said. “But after I set it up for Lonnie, I was blown away by the sounds he got out of this thing. He’s one of the first guys I heard who expanded the sonic palette. From “Alligator Boogaloo,” I perceived him as this amazing player in the tradition of Jimmy Smith, which he is. But when I heard him live, I understood that he was bringing something else to the table—a capacity for abstraction. He pulled out sounds that we didn’t realize were there. When I heard him on the real organ, I was even more blown away by his ability to come from an abstract place, and then reach that place of soulfulness. Unlike Larry Young, who freed up the harmony and lyricism of the right hand by freeing up the left hand so that the bass didn’t always have to nail the groove, but could float, come behind or a little ahead, Lonnie never sacrificed the idea that the bass is ALWAYS incredibly grooving. Indirectly or directly, he influenced my generation. When you hear him play an introduction, you feel that anything could happen. Your creative juices can’t help but flow when you walk away.”

“Lonnie approaches his solos thematically, and is a very thoughtful improviser,” said Larry Goldings, who witnessed the aforementioned night at Augie’s. “Now, he has a bunch of very personalized sounds—organ effects—that I still can’t figure out and copy. But more important is the way he builds the solo, with a lot of space and tremendous drama. In a way, that’s mostly what he’s about. He wants to tell a story, and he knows how to get the audience on the edge of their seat. By the end you really feel like you’ve been through something.”

[BREAK]

“The first night was very hard,” Smith reported a week later. “But I had faith because they were great players. What made it hard is that you have to make sure all the equipment is working right, and their organ was a little rough for me. But once you start playing, it’s okay—you figure out what to do with it.”

“Figuring out what to do with it” has been Smith’s modus operandi from the jump, and the dictum served him well around 1961, when he returned to Buffalo from an undistinguished Air Force stint in Texas as an electronics specialist (“I didn’t want to take orders from anybody, so they discharged me”), and started singing with his brothers on local jobs.

“I always sang,” he recalled. “My family sang spiritual music at home, and before I went into the service, I’d sung in churches. Then, we had a four-part harmony singing group called the Supremes, which we changed to the Teen Kings. A disk jockey named Lucky Pierre managed us, and we made a record. But also, I always loved to play musical instruments. The first time I touched a piano, I’d just graduated to third grade, and I went to visit my aunt. No one was watching me, and I got up to the piano and figured out how to play ‘Crying in the Chapel.’ I still remember the key—F-sharp.

“I never had a piano, but I learned a little about the keyboard by fooling around. I knew some boogie-woogie, and natural things like that. My mother and I used to scat to instrumental songs, and I played trumpet and tuba in high school, but I’d play piano in the school auditorium, or at someone’s house, like Grover Washington, who I grew up with. I’d play songs by Fats Domino or Little Richard—what they played had a lot of feeling, and wasn’t so complex that you couldn’t understand what they were doing; once you listened to the record, you said, ‘Oh, okay,’ and you’d have it. A friend played me Jimmy Smith’s ‘Midnight Special’ record, and I heard Wild Bill Davis, Bill Doggett and Milt Buckner, too. My brothers played bass, guitar and drums, and on the jobs, I’d sing a few songs, then sit on the side while they kept playing. I wanted to get up there so bad! It looked like were having too much fun. I borrowed a Wurlitzer. I’d play a couple of songs, and I’d be happy.”

Obsessed with the keyboard, Smith began spending most of his down time at a downtown music store owned by a generous soul named Art Kubera. “He asked me why, and I said, ‘Sir, if I had an instrument, I could work, I could make a living,’” Smith recounted. “It must have stuck. One day, I came in, and he closed up, took me in the back, where he stayed, and showed me a new Hammond he’d had to take back. They were in the thousands then. He said, ‘If you can move it, it’s yours.’ I got a pickup truck, and moved it.”

While learning the complex sequence of stops and presets that generates the Hammond sound, Smith played the house keyboard at a local boite called the Little Paris. One night, Jack McDuff, in town for an engagement at Buffalo’s top jazz venue, the Pine Grill, came by when the place was packed. “McDuff told me he was standing on one side of the room, and the people were jumping so much that the vibrations from the floor moved him to the other side,” Smith said. “He’d heard I had an organ, and wanted to rent it—a friend of his was coming to town. I wasn’t sure, but he said, ‘One day maybe I’ll be able to help you.’ Guess who the friend was. Lou Donaldson.”

In 1964, McDuff fulfilled this karmic promise, allowing Smith—now booked out of Ohio, he had gainful employment backing acts like Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, the Coasters, and the Impressions, Etta James, and Jimmy Reed—to sit in with his popular George Benson-Red Holloway-Joe Dukes quartet on a Buffalo gig. About to branch off on his own, Benson liked Smith’s groove. He took his number, but didn’t call.

“I’d been playing in New York City at Smalls, and Grant Green was trying to get me to record with him,” Smith stated. “But I’d heard Grant Green on records, I’d just started playing, and I knew I wasn’t ready.” Green’s manager, Jimmy Boyd, was also working with Benson, and had Smith’s number. “They were playing in Pittsburgh, and needed another organist, and Jimmy said, ‘I know just who to get.’ George said, ‘That’s who I was looking for.’ I gave my group two-week notice, and my last gig was in Buffalo. George came to get me that night, and we went to his mom’s house in Pittsburgh, learned two songs in his basement, and took off for New York.”

First, they entered the 845 Club in the Bronx. The owner then booked them to follow Grant Green at his Harlem club, the Palm Café, on 125th Street, down the block from the Apollo. An extended run at Minton’s Playhouse followed.

“The Palm Café had go-go dancers, and George and I would sing duets,” Smith recalled. “James Brown was at the Apollo, and he came down every night, jumped up on the organ and said, ‘don’t you move; you stay right there.’ Esther Phillips would play a bit of organ, too; I’d stay there and they’d tickle the top. James Brown wanted us to go with him, but we just kept on our route, which was the correct thing to do. John Hammond heard about us, and he came by and signed us to Columbia Records. The rest was history.”

[BREAK]

“I was a rebel when I was younger,” Smith said. “I never liked the business of music. When I didn’t want to be bothered, I’d go somewhere and hide.”

A Harlem resident since the ‘60s, Smith sold ample units for Columbia, Blue Note and CTI, and he made it his business to reach out to his fan base, criss-crossing the highways with his Hammond in tow. Sometimes he made long pit stops—six months in Milwaukee in the late ‘70s, and several extended ‘80s residences around Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Still a road warrior at 65, he remarks that although he would prefer to work several months a year, and as little as possible in the winter, it would be very difficult to scale back and retain the lifestyle to which he is accustomed.

Smith’s rebellious proclivities extended to the aesthetic realm of repertoire and interpretation. “Before I started playing with George, I was into the kind of music John Coltrane and Miles Davis were playing, and I was crazy about McCoy Tyner and Ahmad Jamal, Thelonious Monk and Erroll Garner,” he said. “I love classical music and the different sounds of the instruments. I wrote a song called “I Be Blue” that I recorded with Lou Donaldson. I wrote it thinking of Lady Day, this beautiful melody with this ugly sound grinding up underneath the chords, like seeing yourself threading through thick water. I was doing this years ago, but it was too early.

“When I left George, I went through a period of playing completely free-form music, which was too out for the people. I didn’t care at that time. I had a hit record, and I’d play something they hadn’t heard. As the years passed, I started tuning in on the people more. Those are the people who are with you. The young people buy my music today because I stopped and listened.”

The young people also respond to Smith’s expressive face, his headgear, his honorific—in short, his showmanship. The term, by the way, makes him bristle. Nor does he care to comment on “Doctor” and the turban.

“When I get up there, you might see showmanship,” Smith remarked. “I’m not even thinking about it because I’m really shy. But when I play, a lot of those things come out because I want people to feel loose and enjoy themselves. If you don’t draw anybody, you’re not coming back. See, we used to have dancers and comedians—a show. Young people don’t know what we did to keep this music going. Do you think I make faces to be making faces? No! I can’t stand it; they’re always taking pictures of me making faces.

“I have so much passion. I had an algebra teacher who got real involved, and would shout, ‘Yeah, that’s it!’ and start writing out the answer. That’s how I feel when I’m playing, so enthused and so happy. I’m pleasing myself first, and you’re next. The Hammond has such a warm sound—the feel of the earth, the sun, the moon, the water—and it matches so well with the Leslie. The horn that goes around inside the Leslie moves slow and fast—when you close the switch on it, it’s like a nasal type sound; when you open the switch, it’s like the earth opened, or someone who’d been stopped up with a cold and everything opens up, or when you let caged birds go free and they fly everywhere. Later, I’m out of breath, I don’t want to talk, I don’t want to do nothin’, I just want to go home and relax. It’s so pleasant—unless somebody really pisses you off on the stage. Sure, sometimes people you play with don’t match too good. But 99% of the time I’m having a ball.”

Pressed on the issue, Smith mentioned that he started turbaning-up during his teens, and that “‘doctor’ was given to me because I was doctoring up my music.” He paused. “I know you were trying to get to it. You got it.

“If you remember, Sun Ra had a miner’s cap, and Sonny Rollins had the Mohawk hairdo. But I’m a doctor of music, I’ve been playing long enough to operate on it, and I do have a degree, and I will operate on you. I’m a neurosurgeon. If you need something done to you, I can do it. But when I go up on that stand, the only thing I’m thinking of is music. And I’m thinking to touch you with that music. I don’t think about the turban, I don’t think about the doctor—I just think about I’m going to touch you.”

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Donald Harrison Turns 51 Today

This evening, alto saxophonist  Donald Harrison, “Duck” to his friends, observes his 51st birthday with opening night of a three-night run at the Jazz Standard linked to his participation in the acclaimed HBO series Treme, for which his personal biography is the source of two characters. Joining Harrison for the engagement is his working quintet, a trio of Mardi Gras Indian musicians, and, on percussion and voice, Cyril Neville of the Neville Brothers.  He’s one of the masters, and ought not to be missed.

Ten years ago, I had an opportunity to write a DownBeat profile on Harrison, which appears below.

* * * * *

The alto saxophonist Donald Harrison is particular — make that very particular — about his gumbo. After two decades in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene-Clinton Hill district, the 41-year-old son of New Orleans had never found a decent local version of his hometown delicacy, and a new spot on Fulton Street called Restaurant New Orleans has piqued his curiosity. There we sit on a crisp December afternoon, and as we wait for our bowls, he discusses Congo Nation, a smallish Mardi Gras Indian krewe of musicians that he founded a year ago and represents as Big Chief. Adorned in elaborately detailed, brilliantly colored regalia, this year’s edition — including iconic Crescent City drummer Idris Muhammad, masking for the first time at 60 — will parade, sing and dance through the streets of New Orleans during Mardi Gras festivities on February 12th. Harrison has been shopping for Muhammad’s costume, and will begin to sew it when he returns home to New Orleans a few weeks hence.

Black New Orleanians began to mask as American Indians in the 19th century, and the ritual chants and steps of this tradition descend in a more or less uninterrupted line to Congo Square, where African slaves were allowed to congregate and play the drums on Sundays. Harrison learned both the moves of the game and its cultural context from his father, Donald Harrison, Sr., himself a widely respected Big Chief of several tribes, including Creole Wild West, the Wild Eagles and the Guardians of the Flame. Mr. Harrison passed away in 1998, carrying with him a comprehensive knowledge of Mardi Gras Indian folklore, a keen sense of its African origins, and a clear vision of what it might contribute to contemporary culture. Erudite and charismatic, he not only walked the walk but talked the talk, able to communicate his message as effectively to the man on the street as in the halls of academe.

He imprinted the message on his son, for whom the spectacle of Mardi Gras Indian ceremonial is part and parcel of earliest memory. “I see it in the back of my head,” Harrison says as the gumbo arrives. “I was in my outfit, and I could see the other Indians  running and their feathers moving up and down fast; I remember hearing the music and the singing. I grew up in it, and I know the inside stuff — how to sew, how to dance, how to sing, how to meet another chief, what to say, what to do. For me it’s the same sort of mindset as a jazz band, because you’re supposed to take the whole thing and sow your own fruit, tell your story within the context of your tribe. I’ve been in what we call a circle, and that takes you to another level. You’re in touch with all those elements — spiritual, warrior, the music, the art, the dancing, the fear, the courage. Every emotion is right there, and they’re all present at the same time. It ties together what you know now with things that were happening at the inception of everything.”

Donald digs into his gumbo, a savory roux infused with crab and shrimp. “I can relate to this,” he smiles. As we eat, let’s bring the Harrison story up to date.

Mr. Harrison bought Donald his first saxophone in elementary school. The aspirant tried it, liked it, put it away, then became serious for keeps at 14, learning second-line and traditional repertoire in Doc Paulin’s brass band and finding work in local funk bands. “Donald had a good feel for music from being around the Indians,” recalls outcat saxophonist-educator Kidd Jordan, his primary instructor during those years. “When he was playing by ear, before his technique was straight and he learned about changes, I thought he was going to come up with something in the style of Ornette Coleman. He was hearing some real creative things. I could hear a rawness that knocked me out.”

A few years later, Mr. Harrison put Charlie Parker’s “Relaxin’ At Camarillo” and “Kind of Blue” on the turntable, and converted his son to hardcore jazz religion. He enrolled at the New Orleans Center of Contemporary Arts (NOCCA), where such faculty as Jordan, Ellis Marsalis and Alvin Batiste taught such students as Branford and Wynton Marsalis, Kent Jordan, and the slightly younger Terence Blanchard.

“The first time I heard Donald, I was amazed at his level of maturity,” recalls Blanchard, a 15-year-old sophomore when Harrison was a senior. “He never had a problem getting around his instrument or with chord changes. You didn’t hear any young guys in the city playing like that on the alto.”

Several distinctive characteristics marked the Harrison sound when he arrived at Berklee School of Music — by way of Batiste’s program at Southern University — in 1979. His technique featured a seamless five-octave range and fluid fingering, as though the saxophone were an extension of his arm, while his style blended the grand harmonic partials of John Coltrane, the soulful oomph and precise articulation of Cannonball Adderley, and phrasing that recalled the fleet rhythmic displacements of Charlie Parker. “Donald had a freeness to his playing that was beyond the bebop thing,” says Blanchard. “He had so much ability to go in different directions that you could hear him changing his mind in the middle of his solo.”

Spending as much time in New York as Boston, Harrison sat in at every opportunity, landing a gig with Roy Haynes and — at Miles Davis’ instigation — buffaloing a Fat Tuesday’s bandstand occupied by Freddie Hubbard, George Benson, Kenny Barron, Ron Carter and Al Foster. Elders and peers took notice; in 1982, Branford Marsalis recommended his homie to Art Blakey for the Jazz Messengers sax chair. Until 1986, Harrison and Blanchard — who in 1982 released “New York Second Line” [Concord], debuting Harrison’s penchant for framing modern jazz with second line and Mardi Gras Indian rhythms — played alongside each other in a dynamic Messengers unit. When it was time to cut the cord, the tandem combined their surnames and signed a three-album contract with Columbia.

“Unless you’ve done something, you won’t think of it,” Harrison remarks, gently daubing hot sauce over a second course of lightly fried catfish. “I can tell a story from being an Indian. I hear guys doing second-line music who were totally against it initially, so I know our music influenced them or turned them around to think differently.”

“‘New York Second Line’ sounded delightfully strange to me when I was in high school,’ says pianist Eric Reed, 31, who produced and performed on much of “Real Life Stories” [Nagel-Heyer], one of three Harrison-led recordings due for 2002 release. “It became apparent to me that a new sound was taking place. The way Donald and Terence were interpreting their New Orleans influence was profound and amazing; on ‘Nascence’ [Columbia] the way they had Ralph Peterson incorporate the second line into an updated backbeat, syncopated-offbeat feeling was nothing short of genius. They did everything that Wynton’s group was doing with Branford and Tain, except, again, they made the New Orleans core of it so hip! — and they were doing it before Wynton had decided it was hip to do.  The music was accessible and felt great because the groove was so strong. There was nothing pretentious about it, just two young guys who were playing their experience, saying whatever it was they needed to say through their instruments, and they didn’t feel a need to intellectualize or over-explain the process.”

“Donald functioned wonderfully in Art Blakey’s band, but you could hear he wanted to do his own thing,” Blanchard says. “Our band seemed to be more of a perfect fit for him, because it was truly a workshop, and he could work on his concepts. He was always trying to mix things, compounding different rhythms on top of each other or playing in different registers simultaneously in a pianistic manner, with a melody in one register and an accompaniment in another. He had a big influence on my sound.”

In 1989 Blanchard — then developing a new embouchure and finding opportunities to write film music — left the partnership, a circumstance Harrison describes as “messy, but no hard feelings.” Partly for financial reasons, the altoist retreated to New Orleans, and soon was masking with his father’s tribe. Fortified by experiences garnered from a decade traveling the world and invigorated from immersion in the ’80s Brooklyn scene, where Reggae, Soca, Calypso, Haitian, Salsa, Go-Go, Hip-Hop and various African musical and dance styles coexisted and intermingled, Harrison reconnected with his roots from a mature perspective.

“I went out with my father and the Indians at Mardi Gras, and a light switch went on inside my brain,” Harrison says. “I started hearing the swing ride cymbal pattern that Art Blakey and Papa Jo Jones played inside of the African rhythms that the tambourines and drums were playing.  Mixing the Indian rhythms with the swing beat led me to put funk and reggae rhythms with the swing beat, which I call Nouveau Swing.”

Joined by his father, Dr. John, Indian percussionist Howard “Smiley” Ricks, and jazz youngbloods Carl Allen and Cyrus Chestnut from the second iteration of Harrison-Blanchard, Harrison presented his hybrid concept on “Indian Blues” [Candid], a 1991 classic that links “Two Way Pocky Way” to “Cherokee.” The following year, trumpeter Brian Lynch, a close friend and fellow Messenger alumnus, recruited Harrison into Eddie Palmieri’s Salsa-Jazz ensemble.

“Eddie plays from a dance perspective, he knows how to write rhythms so everything is in place, and listening to that music every night deepened my understanding,” Harrison states. “I had to develop techniques to make slides and smears on the saxophone, and learn to play the rhythms in the right clave. The rhythms were natural for me; I always knew how to dip and dive into them even if I didn’t know the specifics. But Eddie helped me to be able to speak in that music, and it carries over to what I write and play now.

“If I’m writing, say, a second line song, I know the dance, what my feet and shoulders are doing to lock up to the different rhythms of the drums. If you listen to the drummers of the Samba and look at the feet, you know it’s matching up. Certain things interlock in Classical music, too. Miles Davis told me, ‘You hear something; to make it yours, just change it up a little bit.’ It is a language, and you can change the language and add different words. I hear the kids in Brooklyn adding new words to the English language all the time! ‘Whattup, Ma?’  They’re saying hello to a woman. They keep changing, and always know what they’re saying. You can change the music, too; the traditional part is making sure everything matches up. When you write from that perspective, it’s always locked in.”

Harrison demonstrates his point on “Real Life Stories,” his fourth melody-rich document of Nouveau Swing since 1996. He’s worked with bassist Vicente Archer and drummer John Lampkin –  both “young guys who understand the modern texture and can play it in the context either of a jazz band or a dance band” — for several years, and each is intimate with Harrison’s fine-tuned, elegantly worked-out grooves. The altoist plays with relaxed abandon and perfect time, soaring soulfully through the attractive, gospelized “Confirmation” changes of “Keep The Faith,” spinning a sinewy statement over a funky Latin feel on “Night In Tunisia,” playing with the harmonic contours of “Oleo” as though engaging in advanced mathematics. There’s a tinge of barely restrained wildness in his tone, evoking memories of ’80s flights that distinguished Harrison’s tonal personality from his peer group.

“I used to get dogged by the critics and some musicians,” Harrison recollects. “I wasn’t inside enough for the mainstream players and I wasn’t out enough for people who liked avant-garde. But I know my peer group listened to the records with Buhaina and Terence; a lot of young saxophonists then were quoting my solos without even realizing it. I’m comfortable with what I’m doing now; I’m getting back to the way I thought when I was 19, before I began to listen to people and worry about what they said. Once I started listening to Bird, I took the approach that this music is evolutionary, which means that in order to understand it and be a master, you have to study the whole history.”

Harrison spears a final forkful of catfish. “Each person is unique,” he concludes. “The beauty of jazz is to find the things that are truly you, tell a story, and touch people. That’s why I say it’s all about love. I enjoy going out in this world, watching people, being around people, seeing the joy that what we do can bring to them. Besides all the intellect and high thinking that we put in the music, when it’s all said and done, what do you feel?

“I was never trying to be the greatest. I always felt that if you could be one of the cats, you did a great job, because the cats were so great. We do the best we can and keep moving on. Like Art Blakey used to say, ‘Light your candle and hope that somebody will see it.’”

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