Tag Archives: DownBeat

For Vijay Iyer’s 46th Birthday, a “Directors’ Cut” Downbeat Cover Story from 2012, a Long Essay in “Rave” From 2008, a Mid-Sized Downbeat Piece about Iyer & Rudresh Mahanthappa From 2001, and an Uncut Blindfold Test From 2007

A day late for pianist-composer-educator-conceptualist Vijay Iyer’s 46th birthday, here’s an omnibus post, containing a “director’s cut” of a 2012 DownBeat cover piece, a 2008 feature in the Indian magazine Rave, a 2001 article focusing on him and then-partner Rudresh Mahanthappa, and an uncut Blindfold Test from 2007.


Vijay Iyer DownBeat Cover Article, 2012:

Coming of age during the ‘90s and early ‘00s, pianist-composer Vijay Iyer considered it almost as essential to define his terms of engagement as to express himself in notes and tones. “I had to find a way to create a space for myself to do what I wanted,” Iyer explained in April. “A lot of that involved generating language that would surround the music itself so that people could understand it,”

Unopened boxes dotted the parlor floor of Iyer’s triplex in a Harlem brownstone. He was barely acclimated: a month earlier, directly after closing the deal, he’d hit the road behind his March trio release, Accelerando [ACT]. In a few hours he’d join bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore for night three of a week’s run at Birdland, to be followed by a fortnight of one-nighters in Europe where Iyer would stay for a few gigs with Fieldwork, the compositionally ambitious trio in which he collaborates with alto saxophonist Steve Lehman and drummer Tyshawn Sorey.

“As Muhal Richard Abrams would say, it was a response to necessity,” Iyer elaborated on his early self-advocacy. “My parents came to the U.S. in the wake of the 1965 Immigration Act; I’m from the first generation of Indian-Americans. People didn’t know what to make of someone like me doing what I do, and their imaginations sometimes ran a bit wild. So it was about introducing myself to the universe, but also about finding my way: ‘What is it that I am revealing?’”

Having effectively addressed the query (consider his top-of-class honors in the Jazz Artist, Jazz Album, Jazz Group, Piano, and Rising Star-Composer categories in the 2012 DownBeat Critics Poll), Iyer, 40, now leans to a “deeds, not words” approach. But neither critical acclaim nor middle-age perspective inhibited Iyer from stating his bemusement, if not irritation, at a pervasive, ongoing “mad scientist of jazz” trope that he perceives in discussions of his albums and performances.

“The Immigration Act opened the door, in a very targeted way, to non-Westerners who were technically trained professionals,” Iyer said in calm, measured cadences. “It selected for a scientific-oriented community within these cultures. That’s the template by which people like me are still understood. I’ve read literally thousands of reviews over 16 albums, and a certain cerebral or mathematical thing keeps getting pegged. I can play ‘Black and Tan Fantasy,’ and they’ll still call it nerdy.”

Nerdy or not, it is undeniable that Iyer—who dual-majored in Math and Physics as a Yale undergraduate, and completed a Ph.D at U.C.-Berkeley (his thesis quantitatively analyzed the neurobiology of musical cognition)—is, as his late ‘90s mentor Steve Coleman understated it, “an analytical, super-intelligent guy.” That said, Iyer is less concerned with the life of the mind in isolation than, as he put it in a 2009 article for the Guardian (a link is on his website), the “dialogue between the physical and the ideal.”

In the piece, Iyer noted his propensity to mesh math and music to reveal unexpected sounds and rhythms. As an instance, he cited the trio’s surging, anthemic treatment of the ‘70s soul jazz hit “Mystic Brew” on Historicity [ACT], their then-current release, constructed by transmuting successive asymmetric Fibonacci (“golden mean”) ratios—specifically 5:3, 8:5, and 13:5—into an angular 21-beat cycle that sounds, he wrote, “simple and natural—like a buoyant, composite version of the original’s 4/4.” To deploy such elaborate rhythmic schemes, Iyer asserted, is no abstruse exercise. Rather, it connects directly to non-western musical traditions grounded in social ritual—the classical Carnatic and folk musics of south India (“intricately organized, melodically nuanced, and rhythmically dazzling, full of systematic permutations”); the African rhythms that antecede “nearly every vernacular music we have in the west.”

On the Grammy-nominated Historicity, Iyer was clearly the lead voice, uncorking a series of solo declamations that explicitly reference and refract into his own argot such key personal influences as Cecil Taylor, Thelonious Monk, and Andrew Hill. On Accelerando, his strategies hew closer to an approach that Coleman described as “more compositional and contextual” than addressing “the actual content of the playing, which Bud Powell and that generation concentrated on.”

“An emergent property of the ensemble is that groove has become paramount,” Iyer said. “A certain wildness you hear in some of my earlier ensembles might be smoothed out; instead a profound sense of pulse propels you through the whole experience. The positive response to Historicity allowed us to tour and opened some doors. In the course of performance, our priorities developed in a direction that has to do with music as action, which is literally the way rhythm works. When we listen to rhythm, a sort of sympathetic oscillator that’s an internal version of the rhythm gets turned on in the brain. That’s what dance is made of.”

The trio has refined its own dance since 2004, when Gilmore joined Iyer’s quartet with Crump and alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, who sidemanned with Iyer on four Bush-era leader albums (Iyer reciprocally played on three of Mahanthappa’s contemporaneous quartet dates) comprised primarily of original music that explored issues of dual cultural heritage. Accelerando shares a common thread with Historicity and the 2010 recital Solo (ACT)—all are age-of-Obama productions—in situating the trio within a palpably “American” landscape.

“It was like the room changed color,” Iyer recalled feeling after Obama’s victory. “As artists of color, we didn’t feel like we were in as embattled a position. It was like we could dream big all of a sudden—stretch and imagine and be ourselves, and not have to force things.”

Titled for a piece that Iyer composed for choreographer Karole Armitage, Accelerando contains four other Iyer originals, and covers of six American composers ranging from Rodney Temperton (“The Star of the Story”) and Flying Lotus (“Mmmhmm”) to Henry Threadgill (“Little Pocket Size Demons”), Herbie Nichols (“Wildflower”) and Duke Ellington (“The Village of the Virgins”). Three years an independent entity, the trio aggregates information from multiple streams, sculpting Iyer’s arrangements and compositions along equilateral triangle principles that make it unclear where melodic responsibilities lie at any given moment. This quality surfaces even more palpably in Youtube concert clips: Crump carves out supple vamps, thick ostinatos, and the occasional walking bassline; Gilmore details with multidirectional pulse and rhythm timbre; at a moment’s notice, the flow morphs into (Crump’s words) “zones of building from pure vibration and resonance, with everyone constantly micro-adjusting the pitch, dealing with textures and colors.”

“I felt the trio had reached a state where it’s as much about how we play as what we play, and the how-ness could be transplanted to another context—still the trio but doing something else,” Iyer said. “But also, I’ve written a lot of music, and when ACT approached me, I wasn’t ready to write a bunch more for the trio.” In fact, Iyer asserted, he had two other recordings in the can. However, ACT’s top-selling group, e.s.t., had recently dissolved after the death of its leader, pianist Esbjörn Svensson, and label head Siegfried Loch wanted to establish Iyer’s trio in the marketplace before releasing other projects. Feeling he’d already “reached a certain level in the United States,” Iyer agreed, hoping to exploit ACT’s strong European presence as a source of “infrastructure for supporting tours or taking out ads or relationships with the media.”

“In retrospect, I can see that to establish a composer-pianist in a certain sphere, it makes business sense to somehow put that person in front,” Iyer said. “Then you can do things that vary from that more classic format. The trio sensibility already was up and running. I wanted to see if we could shine it on something else, including a few of my older tunes, for at least half the program.”


In settling on the trio as his most visible vehicle of self-expression, Iyer effectively put on hiatus his artistic partnership with Mahanthappa, who is himself an ACT recording artist. “It became a logistical reality,” Iyer explained. “We both had things going on, and weren’t able to play together that much. But also, we experienced what we called the ‘you guys’ phenomenon; people would say, ‘When are you guys playing next?’ or get us mixed up. At some level, we need to be able to establish independent trajectories.”

In Crump’s view, the “trio instantly became a more organic beast.” He assessed: “Even though the music was always forward-reaching and everyone was searching, the quartet’s functionality was essentially conservative—a horn and piano front line, melodies-solos, with a rhythm section. There’s potential magic in a trio, and each element has to expand. So the trio enabled more avenues of expression and development, and more engagement in the ensemble’s exploration and overall experience. We’re able to shape-shift so much more.

“In the early days of the quartet, Vijay and Rudresh were working things out. They were mutually very supportive, and helped each other grow, both musically and career-wise. But in a way, it always got to the same place, a blasting, dense zone. Vijay had to get through that to get to the other side; now he’s a much broader and more mature musician.”

Coleman, who introduced them in 1996, stated, “Outside of their shared concern with heritage, I didn’t hear a big connection in their tendencies and tastes.” Mahanthappa agreed. “Our compositional approaches are very different. As a saxophonist, I’m writing for what I can do on an instrument that can play only one note at a time. A lot of Vijay’s writing is based on the rhythmic interplay he can produce between both hands, and how that fits onto the drums.”

“We’re both idiosyncratic musicians, with our fixations, which turned out to be compatible,” Iyer said. “Rudresh went to music school; I didn’t. Maybe my orientation was more composerly, on the level of ensemble and sound and larger structure; his was more playerly, about projecting real intensity. We were trying to deal simultaneously with Carnatic and Hindustani elements and with Monk—I was the Monk guy—and Coltrane—he was the Coltrane guy. Coltrane had dealt with Indian music, so that point of reference was already in the vocabulary of so-called ‘post-bop’ language. When Marcus joined my band, without shedding the rhythmic language we’d been developing, the different elements seemed to become clearer. I became more reserved with the amount of detail I was trying to infuse into the pieces. I guess it’s called maturing.

“The quartet records Rudresh and I did together—and the early Fieldwork albums—articulate the idea of pushing ourselves to the brink of what we can hear, or understand, or execute. Rudresh and I did all this work that got a lot of critical acclaim and attention. On the other hand, it received a response from the musical community that didn’t feel exactly like hostility, but more like bewilderment and willful shunning. To me, the subject was to assert this new reality that speaks through us as a new kind of American. How American are we? How American are we allowed to be? How American are we seen as? You could say it was about articulating and negotiating identities and all those kinds of ‘90s multiculturalism words. But it was really about insinuating ourselves into the country. I’m also drawing on a heritage that includes M-BASE and the AACM, Ellington and Ahmad Jamal, Pop Music and Electronica. It’s like trying to imagine a new world music, kind of following Wadada Leo Smith’s directive from the ‘70s, a sort of world-making with a modernist aspect—to develop something singular and at variance with other things in the world.”

Over the course of their collaboration, Iyer—a self-taught pianist who initially felt “dwarfed” by Mahanthappa’s titanic chops and “solid melodic improvisational concept”—developed his instrumental facility. In recent years, Crump suggested, “the element of being a virtuosic pianist has taken form in Vijay, which in combination with his development as a composer is just beastly.”

“I still wouldn’t say that I have highly refined technique,” Iyer demurred. He cited a remark by the dancer Roseangela Silvestre, whom he met during his immersive late ‘90s apprenticeship with Coleman. “She said technique is a process, about knowing your limits and being able to work within them, but also seeing how you can gently push on or reach beyond those limits. It’s about being able to express yourself with what you have. For me, composition became challenging myself to write things I could barely play, and then having to rise to meet the challenge.

“From playing so many concerts during the last few years, especially a bunch of solo concerts on amazing pianos, I discovered multiple extra dimensions of subtlety on the instrument that I hadn’t been able to access before. Now I find myself addicted to dealing more with things like testing how quiet you can be and still be heard and have an impact. Often in the trio concerts, I’ll play a solo standard in the middle of a set. It’s about things that I can make the piano do, sonic experiences—sonorities and timbres I’ve been finding, the continuum between timbre and harmony, the relative weight of different notes, and relative attack and articulation. It’s been this new-found bounty of exploration, like playing in a garden.”


A month after our initial conversation, Iyer participated in two tribute concerts to Cecil Taylor at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse. He, Amina Claudine Myers and Craig Taborn played solo and duo homages to the maestro; Amiri Baraka read several choice verses, accompanied by Iyer, who began playing with the poet soon after his 1999 move to New York. The day after the first concert, which Taylor had attended, Iyer spoke of Taylor’s impact on his aesthetics.

“You sense this all-encompassing approach to creativity, the perspective of music as everything one does,” said Iyer, a Taylor acolyte since the early ‘90s, when he was gradually transitioning from physics to music as his life’s work. In a 2008 article, he described a raucous 1995 Bay Area performance of Taylor’s creative orchestra music in which he played violin, his first instrument. During a summational solo, Taylor deployed a chord with which Iyer had been experimenting obsessively since hearing Taylor play it on the ballad “Pemmican,” from the live solo album Garden (hat Hut). “It had an uncommon stillness, as if it predates us and will outlast us,” Iyer wrote for Wire. “For all its animated surface qualities and notorious tumult, Taylor’s music somehow possesses a motionless, timeless interior; this chord was proof. I couldn’t conceive of his music as transgressive any more; at moments like these, it seemed to exist as incontrovertible fact.”

This experience, Iyer continued, focused him on the question of “what is hearing or what is sound.” He increasingly honed in on a notion that improvising is the equivalent of being “empowered to take action as yourself.” He wrote: “If music is the sound of bodies in action, then we’re hearing not just sound, but bodies making those sounds. You jump to the level of what’s making that sound rather than a level of abstract analysis that considers the sounds in and of themselves. It’s a source-based perception rather than a pure sound-based perception. It’s not just about making pretty sounds. It’s about those sounds somehow emerging from human activity. The beauty has a story behind it—how did it get there?”

Over the last two decades, Iyer has explored this issue within multiple, sometimes overlapping communities. In the Bay Area, he played and composed experimental music with Taylorphiles like Glenn Spearman and Lisle Ellis, with such AACM-influenced Asian Improv collective members as Mia Masaoka, Francis Wong and Jon Jang, not to mention AACM icon George Lewis, his thesis advisor (during the ‘00s, Iyer has gigged consequentially with Roscoe Mitchell and Wadada Leo Smith). He and trans-genre-oriented peer groupers like Liberty Ellman, Elliott Kavee, and Aaron Stewart established an AACM-inspired infrastructure, setting up bands to present original music that took into account elements drawn from hip-hop, electronica, and sampling. He regularly attended concerts of Carnatic music targeted to the Silicon Valley’s sizable Indian-American population, and took group classes with Ghanaian drummer C.K. Ladzekpo that taught him to “execute rhythms in a way that would motivate people.” On jobs with world-class local drum elders Donald Bailey and E.W. Wainwright—and with his own working trio—he garnered functional experience in the jazz tradition. All these associations prepared him for life with Coleman, who brought Iyer on fieldwork trips to Cuba, Brazil, and India, and offered a platform upon which he could consolidate ideas.

Now, within the trio, Iyer seems to be coalescing these parallel, long-haul investigations into a unitary voice. “Vijay’s relationship to what I call ‘composite reality’ has definitely progressed,” Sorey said, using Anthony Braxtonesque nomenclature. “We’re at a time and place where the idea of cosmopolitanism is such an important tenet in our music. Vijay doesn’t want to classify himself. When I play with Fieldwork or sub with the trio, it no longer feels like there’s any parameter.”

Iyer was spreading his wings in the broader playing field as well. He’d spend the latter third of May at Canada’s Banff Centre, co-hosting the 2012 International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music with Dave Douglas, from whom he will assume the position of Director in 2013. Furthermore, in April, Iyer received an unrestricted $225,000 grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and a $30,000 commission from the Greenfield Foundation for a new work to be performed in 2014. With such honoraria in the pipeline, not to mention another large commission for a collaboration with filmmaker Prashant Bhargava marking the hundredth anniversary of Rite of Spring, and a cohort of talented private students (among them Christian Sands, Christian McBride’s current pianist-of-choice), it would seem that either the jazz “mainstream” has caught up to Iyer, or that Iyer has caught up to it.

Given Iyer’s earlier frustrations at “finding a home in the jazz landscape,” he regards the proposition as complex. “It’s more that I’ve reached a position of acceptance among people who present concerts in this area of music,” he countered. “That allows me to play in front of large audiences, and step by step, I have opportunities to connect that weren’t there before.

“To me, the notion of a jazz mainstream is a peculiar take on a music that was always oppositional and kind of defiant. It’s not fiction, because it exists in a market. But the real mainstream is perhaps more tolerant of aesthetic radicalism. I’ll hear a hip-hop beat that’s made from drops of water in a cup, and some cheap Casio bass drum and tom sounds that are almost comical—aesthetically shocking. Then I’ll look on Youtube and it has 20 million hits—not just a few people underground. I also have to say that, touring with Steve Coleman or Roscoe or Wadada, I’ve seen rooms filled with 3,000 people completely connect to some very intense stuff that we can do in those contexts.”

For now, Iyer was still processing the heady turn of events. “I’ve been in constant motion, and the Doris Duke award dropped on me in the middle of it,” he said. “Two days ago, I woke up, had an appointment in Midtown, and then just walked around New York, and tried to breathe and exercise my shoulders and observe and just be in the world for a change, not running like a crazy person. I’ll continue to do a significant amount of work and gigging. But I’m hoping to transform my day-to-day, so I’m not so anxious all the time.”



Across Two Worlds (Rave—2008):


In the liner notes to Tragicomic, his twelfth album, the pianist-composer Vijay Iyer cites the use of the adjectival descriptive by Cornell West, the African-American philosopher-aesthetician, to denote the sensibility at play in the blues aesthetic, a world view that bedrocks much of 20th century jazz, black popular music, and the blues as such.

“West described the blues aesthetic as stemming from a sustained encounter with the absurd conditions African-Americans faced after slavery was abolished in the United States,” Iyer says. “Suddenly they found themselves categorized as a new kind of person, who previously had been owned as property and now had a certain amount of freedom, but also still faced injustice everywhere, and still had to find a way to continue being who they were. It’s not exactly humor. Irony, I guess, is the word.”

As an American of South Indian descent, born to immigrants who arrived in the United States during the 60s and earned advanced degrees, Iyer, 36, won’t compare his formative experiences to the conditions faced by the direct descendants of American slaves. But in his view, he shares with these aesthetic forebears the imperative of “having to establish and define and create an identity with no real precedents in American culture, of being different in a way that forces you into a critical perspective on what’s around you.”

Hence, in 2006, when he recorded and titled the 11-piece suite, Iyer relates, “I was thinking about what it means to be American today. I have a particular transnational scope; my perspective is very much American, but inflected and informed by Indian histories and heritage. It’s tragicomic – joy and sadness come together. This blues sensibility, rooted in African-American culture and history, has global relevance. We can all learn from and participate in it. The blues is not just a kind of music. It has to do with having a certain kind of cry, a desire to be heard, a refusal to be silenced.”

One of the most visible experimentally-oriented jazz musicians of his generation, Iyer factors his dual cultural heritage into his musical production. With a minimum of motion above the elbows, he uncorks torrents of intricately calibrated sound, sculpting declarative melodies, highbrow jazz harmony, and surging vamps and ostinatos drawn from the intricate rhythmic cycles of South India and West Africa, illuminating symbolic connections between the notes and tones that comprise his musical vocabulary, which, after all, originated in the service of social ritual, and the stories that he uses them to tell. The overall effect is one of stately, almost archetypal grandeur.

Music played a major role in the social rituals followed by Iyer’s parents, both practicing although “not extremely devout” Hindus. “We sang bhajans with other Indian families in the area, and, since there were no temples in Rochester, New York, we made pilgrimages to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, or Toronto to worship with others. Now temples are everywhere, and there’s even one in Rochester! During the ‘60s and ‘70s we were building a community. Now there’s a critical mass, the community exists, and we have an infrastructure, a culture, an identity – we can have a Jhumpa Lahiri, a Kal Penn, a Mira Nair, a Harold and Kumar. That gives people growing up something to look up to, like, ‘Well, I could be that person.’ It’s a very different scenario from my own experience. It wasn’t just skin color that set me apart from most of the people around me, but also having a foreign name, which nobody knew anything about, and just the fact that we were a new kind of American. People didn’t understand who we were or why we were here. It’s not that I experienced this major injustice, but it did create a certain alienation that had to be broken through.”

On the other hand, Iyer notes, “a critical sensibility” also informs the way he processes his Indian heritage. “My parents left India for a reason,” he says. “We visited several times when I was growing up, and my mom and sister would stay with cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents. For an American visiting India, there’s this cliché of the sensory overload, with all sorts of new things you’ve never seen before. But for me it was also very much a homecoming, getting to be with family I barely knew, but were still family – and I felt a bond with them. But aside from the family, my parents never felt that connected to what was happening in India culturally. So I grew up with that ambivalence as well.

“Still, I came to find that my parents couldn’t relate to the idea of self-actualization, even though, at some level, that was one of their goals when they came to the US. But they didn’t see it as that. Their major life choices were mapped out in terms of what they would study, who they would marry, where they would live. It was a new perspective for people like them, from our community, the idea that you do what you want and choose the career you love, even if it seems difficult and will take you away from your family.”

In grappling with these issues, Iyer turned increasingly to music, gradually constructing an artistic response to the question of “Who am I?” A self-taught pianist who discovered jazz in high school, he found himself drawn to the New York pianist Thelonious Monk (1917-1982), whose percussive approach and unique harmonic language continues to influence the jazz sound. “Every sound Monk makes sounds like it’s come through this hard-won process, this life-long search for sounds in the instrument,” Iyer says, explaining Monk’s resonance. A math and physics major at Yale, he discovered “the experimental tradition of creative music – jazz” and became an unrepentant “free jazz zealot.” Still unpersuaded that music would be his life’s work, he matriculated at U.C. Berkeley in 1992 as a Physics PhD candidate, and, while researching a thesis on the neurobiology of musical cognition, began the process of intersecting with the Bay Area’s various “creative communities” by which he developed his mature sound.

“It took me a while to realize that I was going to be a musician,” Iyer says. “I’m sure that’s nothing new to Indian audiences—almost every Carnatic musician I’ve met has an advanced degree in something besides music. Prasanna is a nautical engineer; he learned how to build ships. Umayalpuram Sivaraman has a law degree. It became a common thing to have something to fall back on, because you can’t rely on music as a career and it’s impractical. That’s still true!

“But when I hit the ground in California, I suddenly became a professional, playing in town, doing my thing. I continued my research in physics for two years, burning the midnight oil, playing gigs late at night and somehow waking up for an 8 am quantum mechanics lecture! Finally, it reached a crisis point, where I realized that I would never really be happy if music was not at the center of my life. That decision came when I was 23, and it was traumatic – my mother cried – but I worked through it.”

Ensconced in the Bay Area, Iyer immersed himself in the cadential rhythmic formulas of Carnatic music, which he knew superficially, but not as an artistic discipline to be analyzed. “I decided that if I was going to try to speak some kind of truth or make any authentic statement, I needed to figure out what this music is – or at least, on my own terms, what it means to me. In the Silicon Valley, there’s a big Indian community – technically trained IIT graduates from South India – and they would host a lot of concerts of touring Carnatic musicians. I saw dozens of concerts, got lots of recordings and books, studied how to permute the rhythms, how I might create music that Carnatic musicians could understand and work with.”

In 1996 Iyer also met alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, his partner on many subsequent investigations, most recently Tragicomic.  The son of a South Indian physics professor who emigrated to the States to earn a Harvard PhD, Mahanthappa, who grew up in Colorado, blends a piercing, double-reed-like tone with uncanny technical facility and a sense of line that incorporates wild intervallic leaps.

“We had a lot of aesthetic overlap, were both serious, almost the same age, and in the same predicament, which was trying to figure out how to do this with no points of reference besides ourselves,” Iyer says. “When we met, it was almost an unspoken understanding that if this was going to work, it would only happen by doing it together. What does it mean to be an Indian-American artist coming into the new millennium? What’s the first thing you do? What’s the next? What issues do you want to explore? We were both novices in dealing with ideas from Indian music, but we worked hard and complemented each other. I was interested in rhythm, the moras and korvais, as well as the percussive jazz piano tradition that Monk embodied. Rudresh had been checking out Parveen Sultana, Bishmillah Khan, and Coltrane – the melodic side of everything. It was like he was the voice and I was the drums. We call our duo Raw Materials. The principle is: How can we take these rigorous ideas for putting music together, but address them in a very open way, as improvisers and people who are straddling multiple traditions?”

Although well-aware of the “Indo-Jazz” stylings of the British-Jamaican saxophonist Joe Harriott, Don Ellis and John McLaughlin, as well as the immense influence of Indian sounds on 60s pop, Iyer drew inspiration most directly from the legendary tenor saxophonist John Coltrane and his wife, pianist Alice Coltrane.

“Coltrane for me is the towering figure,” he says. “In the early 60s he hung out with Ravi Shankar and tried to learn about Indian music, not because he wanted his music to sound Indian, but because he had a voracious appetite for all systems of music and thought and was interested in the decisions people made so that this music sounds the way it does, why this music exists. After he died, Alice Coltrane started her own ashram in Southern California, took on a spiritual name, and made devotional music. She actually adapted these bhajans that I sang as a child into a sort of gospel-Detroit funk setting. It wasn’t created to prove a point, with the intent of fusing Indian music and jazz. It was functional music, made to do something. That’s what interests me in general – not these fusion experiments where people try to mix X with Y, but music that emerges out of necessity. I wouldn’t put my music on the same level as Alice Coltrane’s, but all my choices came out of necessity in terms of trying to come to terms with my own relationship to India, to Indian music, to Indian culture. I never imagined myself as an expert on Indian music, but I wanted to harmonize with it, have it play a central role in who I am.”

For that reason, Iyer took deep satisfaction from a 1998 performance at a festival in Mumbai, his mother’s hometown, when he played with his Bay Area band, Jazz Yatra. “I played in clubs and did a big concert with my band, and it was an amazing experience,” he says. “I got exposed to side of Mumbai life – the jazz aficionados and bon vivants, the sort of playboy culture of the city – that I never would have seen hanging out with my relatives at the time. Maybe today I would, because they’re independent, mobile people.

“When we played at the festival, there was a real embrace from the audience. Rudresh was in the band, and they could hear what I guess you’d call the quasi-Indian content in what we were doing. For them to see this band on stage that’s half-Indian, playing real music, not just throwing them a bone, but really serious music coming from their countrymen, had an impact. There weren’t any other people like us on the program. Also, I had a row full of relatives in the audience at this big amphitheater at St. Xavier’s College, and that was also important for me, for my family to see what it is I do.”

It is evident from Tragicomic that Iyer has not tempered his rigorous formalism, but he has increasingly made it his business to place his vision of abstract notes and tones at the service of the word, as evidenced by a steady association and two fully staged collaborations with same-generation poet Mike Ladd, most recently documented on Still Life With Commentator (Savoy).

“I’m interested in the idea that all these traditions are fluid and always changing,” he says. “That’s so with jazz, which was always urban music, cosmopolitan, aware, hybrid and alive, drawing from multiple sources, Likewise, Indian music today is vast, very much connected to the rest of the world. Bollywood music sounds like something you’d hear in a club down the street. I mean, all the Indian cities seem to have a lot of very vibrant activity, probably due to the new technology-related economies. The landscape has changed rapidly in the last decade, and accompanying the growth is more improvisation at every level of culture, where new realities are incorporated and people are coming to terms with their new identities and speaking from that new perspective. So we’re all connected, basically, and all the traditions are interacting. Anyone can learn from them and create new music that’s authentic to who they are. I’m interested in standing still and feeling it all speak through me.”


Vijay Iyer-Rudresh Mahanthappa (Downbeat-2001):

“The tradition in African-American music is not about making sounds for their own sake. There is always an instrumentality connected with sounds; you make sounds for pedagogical purposes, to embody history or tell stories.” – George Lewis

On October 30th, before an intense audience at Joe’s Pub, a classy lounge tucked away in Manhattan’s Public Theater, pianist Vijay Iyer and his quartet (Rudresh Mahanthappa, alto saxophone; Stephen Crump, bass; Derrick Phillips, drums) imparted a touch of catharsis to an audience of frazzled natives. Celebrating Iyer’s recently issued Panoptic Modes [Red Giant}, the unit authoritatively executed a challenging succession of Iyer compositions marked by declarative melodies, highbrow jazz harmony, and surging vamps and ostinatos drawn from the intricate rhythmic cycles of South India and West Africa. For all their intensity, Iyer’s pieces — he describes his role as “putting together musical situations” — radiated a stately, almost archetypal grandeur. Mahanthappa projected a keening, invocational sound, raw but centered, redolent of microtonal nuance. Phillips transmuted complex metric equations into cogent drum chants that traversed the full timbral range of the trapset. The composer illuminated precise symbolic connections between personal imperatives and the stories, images and states of mind encoded in the rhythms he deploys, which, after all, originated in the service of social ritual.

Both Iyer and Mahanthappa are 30, and their personalities are complementary. Iyer is slight-framed, soft-spoken, cerebral, a vegetarian who drinks nothing stronger than tea; with a minimum of motion above the elbows, he unleashes choreographed torrents of calibrated sound. More Vishnuesque but no less brainy, Mahanthappa favors beer and cigarettes and meat; blowing, he stands erect and still, a leonine mane of black hair framing his arched-back head. Both are first-generation Americans from highly educated South Indian families that immigrated to the United States during the 1960s. Both grew up in communities where Indian descent made them distinct among their peer group, and felt a certain disconnect from Indian culture. For both, cracking the codes of ritual-based music and sustaining a dialogue with it was part and parcel, as Mahanthappa puts it, “of coming face to face with notion of not really being American and not really being Indian.”

A self-taught pianist whose jazz obsession began in high school, Iyer honed an early affinity for the percussive orientation of hardcore New York School piano — Ellington, Monk, Bud Powell, Elmo Hope, Randy Weston, Andrew Hill and Cecil Taylor — during undergraduate years at Yale, where he majored in math and physics and led a trio and sextet. He discovered “the experimental tradition of Creative Music-Jazz” in an undergraduate course with Sun Ra biographer John Szwed, and became an unrepentant “free jazz zealot.” Still unpersuaded that music would be his life’s work, he matriculated at U.C.-Berkeley in 1992 as a Physics Ph.D candidate. He led a weekly bop-to-freedom jam session attended by such distinguished elders as Smiley Winters and Ed Kelly; aligned himself with forward-thinking Asian-American composer-improvisers Jon Jang, Francis Wong, and Miya Masaoka; studied with Berkeley-based Ghanaian percussion master C.K. Ladzekpo; collaborated with progressive hip-hop artists; and played original music with several ensembles comprised of like-minded peer-groupers Liberty Ellman, Aaron Stewart and Elliot Kavee, all up-and-comers in New York.

So music was about to push physics aside when Steve Coleman arrived in the Bay Area to undertake a six-week residency in the Bay Area that launched the young pianist on his systematic exploration of the science of rhythm and meter. Iyer helped Coleman connect with local venues and promoters, began to sit in with his band, and got a call in March 1995 to play with Coleman in Paris over a productive week that produced three influential recordings. Subsequently, Iyer has done projects with Coleman in Cuba, Senegal, and India, soaking up information, yet keeping in mind that “the different musics are very alive, not fixed, ahistorical entities. The people I interacted with represent a particular aspect of these vast traditions; there may be other containers and vessels who might have different shapes. Maybe the mentality that I apply to jazz masters like Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk is the same template or hermeneutics that I apply to these musicians from other traditions.”

Iyer’s training in the abstractions of theoretical science served him well in grappling with Coleman’s ideas. “I have a mind for complexity, and could see Steve’s concepts as mathematical progressions,” Iyer says. “Steve permutes and conjures with numbers, and he saw that I could grasp his structures pretty quickly, although it’s one thing to conceptualize these complex structures and another to internalize them in your body. Steve upped the ante, making such fresh, spontaneous music from such rigorous ideas. I was used to getting by with whoever was willing even to try to play my music. Then I saw what can happen if you put in the time that he does with his band.

“I’ve spent hundreds of hours talking to Steve about his directions and intentions. He always has a working theory about how different cultures connect historically and metaphysically, and he investigates or queries these hypotheses musically, trying to tie them together in an experimental way. It’s a continual process, and you don’t have to subscribe to the same ideas to engage in it. I ended up focusing more on the percussive music of South India, mainly at the conceptual level; I wanted to draw from those ideas in order to invigorate my own music.”

In 1995 Iyer met trombonist/computer installation artist George Lewis, who imparted to Iyer the notion of “framing improvisation itself as a kind of inquiry, or critique or intellectual discourse, without losing the soul or heart of the music.” Lewis and Berkeley faculty members David Wessel and Olly Wilson helped Iyer launch an interdisciplinary Ph.D project exploring music and cognition from a rhythmcentric perspective. That Fall he participated in a Cecil Taylor creative orchestra music project, and that summer he worked at a Coleman-led workshop at Stanford University where he met Mahanthappa.

Mahanthappa reached that Stanford crossroads by a very different route. Raised in Boulder, Colorado, his high school sax idols were Charlie Parker and Michael Brecker; he attended Berklee School of Music from 1990-92, then moved to Chicago. He led a Monday night jam session at a Lincoln Park attended by a small cadre of players who “didn’t fit into the straight-ahead scene or the avant-garde scene — I always felt like I was fighting the system.” In response, Mahanthappa focused on original music, incorporating various South Asian rhythms and scales and melodies into a format congruent with jazz, and evoking the sonic properties of the shenai and nagaswaram, the double-reed instruments of India, on the alto saxophone.

Mahanthappa says that he turned to Indian music “as a way of processing my own identity. Not to mention that it comes very naturally to me; I’ve had that sound in my ear since I was a kid, especially the vocal style. When I heard Steve Coleman’s work with concepts of West African percussion in the early ’90s, it started making even more sense. It’s not necessarily the sonic qualities; Steve doesn’t have a Ghanaian drum line playing with him, and he doesn’t need to. Nor do I feel like I need to have tabla and mrdangam in my quartet.”

Neither Mahanthappa nor Iyer had met another Indian-American jazz musician when Coleman introduced them, and their simpatico was instant. “We bring a lot of the same issues to the table,” Mahanthappa says. “Our musical relationship is amazing; we can do a lot of things that we don’t really have to discuss. I think everyone should be grateful to find one person who they can have such a close bond with in their career.”

After four years in Chicago, Mahanthappa moved to New York, and immediately joined forces with guitarist Ben Monder and groove-masters Ari Hoenig and Francois Moutin. “After six months, I felt like I was playing at a higher level,” he says. “In New York there’s a sense of mutual appreciation for music that’s done well. You could get a band to rehearse three times for a gig that paid 40 bucks at the Internet Cafe!”

“The pace is faster in New York,” says Iyer, who arrived in 1999. “You’re always running around and there’s so much to cope with. My aesthetic has shifted. I used to play a lot less. Not as dense or fast, fewer notes, maybe the chords were sparser. That approach is still part of me, and it informs everything that’s come since. But here you feel you have to release it all every time you play. Maybe it was easier in the Bay Area not to feel like you’re in this rush to say everything.”

Meanwhile, Iyer and Mahanthappa inhabit the diverse improvisational, intellectual and cultural worlds of New York, adding to their personal well of narratives and contributing to the larger pool of knowledge. Having the chance to interact with the elders who walk the same streets and ride the same subways makes history live, strengthens their connection to the jazz lineage.

“The ultimate gratification is to find our work embraced by people like Roscoe Mitchell, Henry Threadgill and even Muhal and Andrew Hill, who I’ve idolized for more than a decade,” says Iyer, who works in Mitchell’s Note Factory. “They’re coming to our gigs and giving us fatherly advice! They’re also human beings, living and working, and getting through life. It’s so much easier to relate to them, and you can imagine placing yourself in at least the same frame of mind.”

“When I run into one of those guys on the street, I’m glad I moved here,” Mahanthappa agrees. “I’m part of the real jazz community. That would have never happened if we had stayed where we were. I can’t think of a lifestyle that allows me to control so many variables, not only the music itself but my entire life! Both of us had tons of options out of high school, but I can’t imagine doing anything else.”


Vijay Iyer (Blindfold Test) – Raw:

1. Joachim Kuhn, “Rabih’s Delight” (from KALIMBA, ACT, 2007) (Kuhn, piano, composer; Majid Bekkas, percussion; Ramon Lopez, drums)

I’m kind of stumped as to who that first one was. It had a nice sense of space in it, and I liked the composition, although I felt that when they went into the improvised section, it was a little formally vague. It sounded a bit unfocused at times in the middle. I liked the drummer. I liked the overall use of space in the way that the whole thing was put together. The percussionist I wasn’t so sure about. I was trying to think of who this might be. At first I thought maybe Omar Sosa, but actually it doesn’t sound like his playing. The way whoever it was dealt with rhythm, when he would play the more rapid figures and stuff, it didn’t sound like his feel to me. Although maybe it was. I haven’t heard him in a few years now. It wasn’t? Okay. I’ll give the overall feel of it 3½ stars, the composition 3 stars. [AFTER] I thought it might be an elder. There’s a certain sense of warmth and composure and I’d say dignity that one finds in the elders.

2. Stephen Scott, “My Funny Valentine” (from Ron Carter, DEAR MILES, Blue Note, 2007) (Carter, bass; Scott, piano; Peyton Crossley, drums; Roger Squitero, percussion)

It’s “My Funny Valentine” played at a crawl. I don’t know about those chimes either. I don’t know who this is either. I get the idea. It’s a very capable and delicate execution. There’s nothing stylistically bold happening, but it’s accomplished. All these auxiliary percussion and the drums are kind of cracking me up, I have to say! The ending saved it. I’m glad I listened to the end. For me, in terms of my overall reaction, I liked the delicacy and the lushness at the end, even with this rhythmic figure that they closed with. But I don’t know who it was. Some names came and went in my head as I was listening. I thought for a moment Hank Jones, but I don’t think it’s Hank, because it seemed, in a way, a little bit more derivative than I would expect of Hank. So I don’t know. [Do you think it was the pianist’s record?] That’s an interesting question. It changes things when I think about it that way. The pianist was kind of playing safe, so that leads me to guess perhaps not. Since you said that, I’m going to guess that it was the drummer’s record. Ron Carter? Ah. Stephen Scott. There was another moment in the beginning, before the band came in, when I thought it might have been Ahmad Jamal. Ron kind of took a back seat considering it’s his record, which is interesting. For originality…it’s not original. This is a new record? Well, it is Ron Carter, who’s done everything. He’s played on some of the most landmark versions of this tune that there are. For me, doing an in the pocket version of “My Funny Valentine” in a record in 2007…that’s just not the choice I would make. But in terms of stars, for execution… The people played it safe, but they did it very smoothly and with elegance, so 3½.

3. Robert Glasper, “Of Dreams To Come” (from IN MY ELEMENT, Blue Note, 2007) (Glasper, piano; Vicente, Archer, bass; Damion Reid, drums)

Robert Glasper? Ah, I’m right. He’s doing these… I haven’t heard his latest record, but it has all the qualities that I associate with him, like a harmonic maze going on, but there’s also an insistent rhythm. He has a really nice touch. He’s really controlled with his touch; I admire that about him. Some of the pianistic things… He does certain kinds of turns and filagrees and ornaments that I associate with him, some of which are sort of gospelish. I like it. And I like his band. [AFTER] I enjoyed that. I’m still trying to get a handle on Glasper in general. I admire him, and I think he’s very accomplished, and I like his tunes. But something about the way he plays them, there isn’t as much space in his own soloing, and his soloing tends to focus on the kind of higher register, so it’s sort of like this lyrical soprano range almost, for most of it. Sometimes I crave a little more space in his playing, and a little bit more exploring the whole range of the piano, particularly in the times I’ve heard him with his trio. But I think he’s a fantastic musician, and I really like seeing band live. Stars? You and your stars! I’ll give the tune… Everyone has to know, so that no one gets offended, that I am being very sparing, and almost nobody in the world will get 5 stars. I’ll give the composition 3½, and I’ll give the playing 4.

4. Danilo Perez, “Epilogo” (from LIVE AT THE JAZZ SHOWCASE, Artist Share, 2004) (Perez, piano, composer; Ben Street, bass; Adam Cruz, drums)

The old studio fade on a live record! That was pretty happening! I have to say, that was kind of smoking. Again, I had a bunch of names in my head. At first, I thought it might have been Gonzalo, but there was a little bit more abandon in it than I usually hear from him, so I’m not sure. Then there were some things I’ve heard Pilc do before, when the piano solo reached a certain climax, and he did all these kind of demented diminished chords kind of ascending into the insanity. But I don’t know. I can’t honestly say it’s either of those guys. In fact, something about the montuno, the way it was played, sounded like it couldn’t have been Gonzalo. I’ll give the whole thing 4 stars. Danilo? That makes more sense. I guess Danilo should have been my next choice. I’m so used to hearing him with Wayne, I’ve forgotten how he’ll get down in his own music. Nice playing, Danilo. Thank you. Fantastic playing by everybody.

5. Brad Mehldau, “She’s Leaving Home” (from DAY IS DONE, Nonesuch, 2006) (Mehldau, piano; Larry Grenadier, bass; Jeff Ballard, drums; Lennon-McCartney, composer)

Is this Brad? I thought so. I’m not a huge Brad listener, but I know enough about him that I figured it had to be him. Mainly, actually, what it was about it… Well, one, obviously, he covers lots of pop tunes, and everybody knows that. But that wasn’t it. It was more that I’ve read him say that Monk is his main influence, and actually I heard that in here, even though he’s doing a Beatles tune, and it’s rendered in this way that’s a little… It’s a little bit poppy, but it isn’t entirely that. But I think mainly the way he got this ringing sound out of the instrument and marshaled the power of the instrument in this way that Monk would, that very few other people did. Anyone who has really thought deeply about Monk will tend to think in those terms. And he seems to be pushing himself, which I admire. The way he’d treat the melody, it was like he was reaching for it. That quality makes it compelling. It’s done in a way that’s very likeable, and it’s nice. It’s a great trio. Was that Larry on bass? It’s fantastic bass playing. They’re really supporting what Brad is doing really well, and they help drive his ideas home. Was this a live record? I guess I think that the arrangement could have been more concise, given that it’s a studio record in particular. It sort of takes you there, and back again, and then there again. Like, it could have… The reason I let it play for so long is that I wanted to know… The thing about when you handle these pop songs… What was the name of this song? “She’s Leaving Home,” that’s right. When you cover these tunes that are so loaded with significance for people… Certainly, there’s a sector of listeners who are just going to get off on the fact that it’s this Beatles song that they love or something. But to me, I think it’s important to have an angle on it, and have a reason for doing it besides that it’s just a beautiful song. But that’s just me. That’s probably my problem more than Brad’s. Brad doesn’t have any problems actually! Anyway, I’ll give the idea of covering this song 3 stars, but I’d give the execution 4 songs.

6. Dave Brubeck, “Georgia On My Mind” (from INDIAN SUMMER, Telarc, 2007) (Brubeck, piano)

I guessed Hank Jones at first, but I had misgivings about doing so, because he doesn’t usually wear his blues thing on his sleeve like that. But some of the chords in there definitely reminded me of Hank. So I’m trying to think who this could be, then. Gosh. I don’t know. This is a new record? Brand new? It’s really about the inner voices in his chords, which not many people have. They’re like the subtle gradations in these voicings that come from decades, obviously, of real careful decision-making. When you have the benefit of that many years of experience… Whoever this person is, it’s either someone who’s older or who’s really kind of grotesquely imitating an elder person. I hope it’s not the latter. Just certain things. Like, he’d add this little leading chromatic thing on a middle voice that would create a progression where there would be none otherwise. So it’s just these sort of inner pathways between parts of the song that people like Hank will find… I have to stop talking about Hank, since it’s not that person. So who does that leave? I don’t think it was Barry Harris. I guess it could be… I get the sense that whoever… I was going to say maybe it’s Kenny Barron, but I don’t think it was, because Kenny would put more variety in it than what I heard. This is really a very direct, lyrical, and heartfelt version of “Georgia on My Mind,” by somebody who feels that song. I don’t know who that is. You want me to grade it before I know who it is? Well, see, the thing is that it’s not just about music in a vacuum. To me, it matters where the shit is coming from. But I’ll give it 4½ stars.

7. Hiromi Uehara, “Time Travel” (from TIME CONTROL, Telarc, 2007) (Uehara, piano, composer; David Fiuczynski, guitar; Tony Grey, bass; Martin Valihora, drums)

That was Hiromi with Fuze on guitar, and I’m glad to see he’s getting some space to stretch on something, because I haven’t heard much from him lately. That was a little bit hilarious—perhaps partly intentionally so. Well, it’s the return of fusion. It’s the return of things that happened 30 years ago, in all the good and bad parts of it. I guess one of the good parts about it is the exuberance that’s evident relentlessly throughout! The bad parts have to do with taste, I guess. I don’t want to say bad, but one of the parts that I don’t go for about this piece and about other things like this is that it’s so overly arranged that it’s almost impossible for it to really seem spontaneous. People get their little moments to shine on vamps or on, as we call it, “fusion swing” sort of grooves (that’s meant in not the most positive way). But everybody has blazing musicianship and stuff like that, and so it’s like foregrounding chops and musicianship and really tight intricacy of arrangement, but there’s so little room for discovery in the course of music like this, because it’s sort of like it’s been all tightly packed together in a… It’s all been wrapped up in a bow, basically. It doesn’t really take the listener through a real-time process. It’s like listening to something that’s so pre-ordained that it’s almost as if the listener isn’t really taken along. That’s I guess one of the drawbacks about music of this nature. But Hiromi is doing great in her career, and I’m really happy that that’s even possible in this day and age. I read that she sold 100,000 copies in Japan or something crazy like that! Very few people are achieving that level of success in this music. That’s cool. Also, in a lot of her music, there’s this kind of cuteness factor, like this “Look at this cool thing that we can do” kind of thing. Perhaps she’ll move past that and get into some other things later in her career. She has plenty of time, because she’s still very young, and the world is her oyster. 2½ stars.

8. Kalman Olah, “Hungarian Sketch #1” (from ALWAYS, Merless, 2007 (Olah, piano, composer; Ron McClure, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums)

I don’t know who that was. I don’t think I’m going to guess right, even if I try. I liked the tune. I liked the composition actually. There’s a chord they kept returning to that reminded me of Andrew Hill chords; that will always win points with me! I guess I was a little bit… It didn’t exactly grab me as a performance. It was nicely done, but I have to say that it’s hard for piano trio music to hold up in the midst of a blindfold test, because they all start to… At their worst, they start to sound the same. Just like when it doesn’t jump out at you, and you’re reminded of the other things that didn’t jump out at you. Not that good music needs to jump out at you all the time. And this was good music. It just wasn’t all that unique to me. The pianist was good, and kept his technique in reserve in a nice way, so there was a moment when he flashed some virtuosity. That was sort of a surprise. So I respect that kind of choice. It was nice. But I don’t know who it was. [Can you discern any ethnicity encoded in this, or in fact, ethnic codes in any of the music we’ve been playing?] I guess the first one was sort of wearing that more on its sleeve. The Kuhn thing. Because of the inclusion of some kind of Moroccan percussion instrument, but also the modal kind of… There was a tinge of exotica going on in that piece, which I am often on the fence about the use of. See, the thing is, in the case of that Kuhn piece, Randy Weston can do something like that, and it doesn’t raise that question mark for me, because it feels like it’s integrated into his whole relationship to the piano. Because he has such a deep thing about sound that when… Because he dwells so much on kind of the basement range of the piano, in those lower octaves, and he explores the overtones that emerge out of that, so that affects his entire harmonic language in this way. But to me, the Kuhn thing was a little bit more like it was a certain kind of journey into exotica. But this piece didn’t really strike me so much as that. Like, it had some Lydian chords in it or something, but that doesn’t… 3 stars. I was kind of neutral about it. To me, the piano playing was accomplished but a little generic for 2007.

9. Lafayette Gilchrist, “In Depth” (from LAFAYETTE GILCHRIST 3, Hyena, 2007) (Gilchrist, piano, composer; Anthony “Blue” Jenkins, bass; Nate Reynolds, drums)

This person is kind of out! This insistence on dwelling on these kind of… Well, the harmonic approach was so consistently strange, but in a very interesting way. I like that aspect of it. I have one guess, and the other is just… The first guess is Michelle Rosewoman. Oh, okay. Then it seems to me like somebody who has ties to… Well, it’s interesting. It’s a strange little that’s like a blues, but it’s dealt with in a very… Altered would be just the tip of the iceberg, really, for what this person is doing, because it’s not altered in a conventional way. It’s this very unique approach to harmony. I was reminded at times of Horace Tapscott and at times of Sun Ra. But obviously, it’s not either of those people. Also, I was thinking that this person seems to have connections to the… I guess the choice of rhythm section, even just for that kind of generic funk beginning to this tune, and using electric bass and the backbeat—everything about that was a bit jarring compared to the way the pianist was playing. The pianist was a little bit looser with rhythm and with time and so on. Though not that it went astray. Just the feel of it was looser. That’s all. I like the tune, so I’ll give the tune 3½ stars. As for execution, I admire that this person stuck to his or her guns harmonically, and really just stayed there, to the point that this is the character of the piece in a very consistent way. But it was a little… Just the whole thing felt a little goofy. So 3 stars.

10. Luis Perdomo, “Tribal Dance” (from AWARENESS, RKM, 2006) (Perdomo, piano, composer; Hans Glawischnig, Henry Grimes, bass; Eric McPherson, Nasheet Waits, drums)

Well, I’m real glad you played that. I guessed that it was Luis’ album. I haven’t heard it, but I knew of its existence, and particularly the fact that there are two bass players on it, and one of them was Grimes. There aren’t many records that are going to sound like that! I remember running into him at Iridium the night of the day of that recording session. Cecil was playing at Iridium. He told me about it, and I was like, “What?” I was excited to hear what that wound up sounding like. To me, Luis is one of the baddest cats on this scene. He has so much command, and he’s dealing like a motherfucker. He’s really great. But people tend to put him squarely in the mainstream, or even on the Latin side of the mainstream, by virtue of his origins. But to me, he has a really broad scope, and I admire the fact that he made such a bold move on his record as to make it this, as to have… I don’t know if the entire record is this format. But just to have this second album feature something like this on it is… It’s not like he wrote a lot of stuff to happen in that particular tune. But also, he set up a situation that was kind of brilliant, I thought. He’s uniting these different sectors of the New York scene in this one move. It starts with this sonic screech, and then you hear him play this kind of modal figure, but it’s all in this groove that’s really tight, and it all kind of falls together, and you get these like very appealing elements from all these different sources that all fall together very nicely. Was that Nasheet I heard in there? I thought so. I really admire that he did this, and I enjoyed it, too. I think that the drum duet… Who was the other one? Eric McPherson? It seemed they were really taking chances in the studio, like, “Okay, we’re going to play this and then see what happens.” So it sounded like there was a little bit… Just towards the end of the drum duet, there was a little bit of like, “What do we do now?’ There was just one moment when it was like that. But other than that, I really enjoyed it, and I’m glad that it happened. So 4½ stars.


Leave a comment

Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Piano, Vijay Iyer

For Pianist-Arranger David Hazeltine’s 59th Birthday, a Downbeat Article From 2005 and an Uncut Blindfold Test From 2009, and 2 Separate Liner Notes

For the master pianist David Hazeltine’s 59th birthday, here’s a big post, containing a 2005 Downbeat article, a more slightly edited Downbeat Blindfold Test, and liner notes for his CDs Inspiration Suite (Sharp-9) and Blues Quarters (Criss Cross).


David Hazeltine (Downbeat Article, 2005):

Barely recorded as recently as 1995, David Hazeltine may be the most exhaustively documented pianist of the ensuing decade.

Hazeltine’s spring release, Modern Standards [Sharp-9], an elegant recital with bassist David Williams and drummer Joe Farnsworth, is his eighth trio date since 1996. That year he recorded The Classic Trio—it lives up to the name—with Peter Washington and Louis Hayes, following 1995’s Four Flights Up, a crackling quartet encounter with trombonist Slide Hampton, and the first of eight Hazeltine-led ensemble sessions for Sharp-9 and Criss-Cross. Hazeltine contributes his distinctive horn voicings and impeccable comping to yet another eight albums with Eric Alexander, Steve Davis, Jim Rotondi, Washington and Farnsworth in the collective sextet One For All, and several dozen sideman dates by One For All personnel and such dignitaries as Slide Hampton, James Moody, Jon Faddis, Louis Hayes, Brian Lynch, Marlena Shaw, and Georgie Fame.

Devoted to the leader’s rearrangements of ‘60s and ‘70s pop, R&B and soundtrack music, Modern Standards is chock-a-block with sophisticated reharmonizations, accessible hooks, beautiful colors, and the long, twisty, immaculately executed lines that are Hazeltine’s signature. A Poinciana vamp frames the Isley Brothers quiet storm hit “For The Love Of You,” and he conjures treacle into diamonds on a detailed trio orchestration of “How Deep Is Your Love,” a Disco Era ditty by the Beegees.

“You can do a lot to a song,” says Hazeltine, who turns 47 this fall. His recorded involvement with the “modern standard” begins with Four Flights Up [“Betcha By Golly, Wow”], followed by the 1997 Criss Cross album, How It Is [“Reasons”]. “Coming up in Milwaukee, I played with a few bands that did all the latest by the Isley Brothers, the Stylistics, Earth, Wind and Fire, and the Commodores. I can’t duplicate their exact mood, because they did it so perfectly, so I want to conceptualize them in my context. If you stick to the original harmony, they won’t sound like anything. I have to find ways to make distinct sections out of passages that weren’t even sections. Addressing these different musical demands and situations is a way to find a new avenue into the tradition.”

An old hand at catering to the whims of singers, and a repository of lyrics, Hazeltine, if so inspired, will ravish a ballad or torch song, as on “You Don’t Know What Love Is” [Close To You, Criss Cross]. But in the manner of saxophonists Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Eddie Harris, all heavy influences on Hazeltinean line construction, he’s as apt to address such material—”Angel Eyes,” “I Should Care,” “My Old Flame,” “These Foolish Things,” “What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life,” “Somewhere”—at bright to blazing tempos. “On these songs, I’m less concerned with the mood of the lyric than the harmonic content,” he says. “Speeding up the harmonic rhythm becomes a point of departure in improvising off a standard tune or set of progressions. In that way, the limitations of an arrangement are a good thing.”

On all his albums, Hazeltine references an exhaustive pianistic lexicon—Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, Barry Harris, Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Buddy Montgomery, and Cedar Walton for starters—and channels them into an immediately identifiable voice. True to the musical culture of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where Hazeltine spent 32 of his first 34 years (his peer group included trumpeters Brian Lynch and E.J. Allen, bassists Gerald Cannon and Jeff Chambers, and drummer Carl Allen), he creates an ambiance of groovy soulfulness, and he never stops swinging.

As you might intuit from the company he keeps, Hazeltine honors firm roots in bebop and the blues. “Bebop is the fundamentals of music, the foundation, something to learn early on,” he says. “It incorporates the same principles of melody that Bach and Mozart used. It’s the building blocks of anything you want to do that’s hip and abstract and modern sounding or forward moving, the grounding that allows you to move on without being silly or corny.”

Primarily self-taught, a professional musician since 13, Hazeltine has drawn his own conclusions from the tradition since formative years. He spent 1979 to 1981 blowing in public behind the likes of Sonny Stitt, Lou Donaldson, Pepper Adams, Charles McPherson, and Chet Baker as house pianist at Milwaukee’s Jazz Gallery. In 1981, at Baker’s instigation, he made his first move to New York City, and gigged with Jon Hendricks for eight months. Unnerved by New York’s cut-throat atmosphere, he returned to Milwaukee in 1982. Instead of making a name for himself as a contemporaneous “young lion,” he earned a Masters, and chaired the Jazz Department at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music from 1985 to 1992. Then, he relates, “I got tired of sitting on the sidelines and wanted to devote all my energy to playing. I returned to New York to get back in the game, to play with people I respected.”

As Hazeltine puts it, “World music became a category right around the time I came back. A new repertoire, too.” During these years, Danilo Perez, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Ed Simon, Marcus Roberts, Eric Reed, Brad Mehldau and Dave Kikoski were mainstreaming the notion of coalescing genres, cultures and musical eras in idiosyncratic ways. Hazeltine’s stated aesthetic of “swinging and lots of pretty harmonies” seemed insufficiently cutting edge to make an immediate impression.

“I had to work other kinds of gigs for a long time,” he states, recalling dues paid at an age when most New York aspirants either have made it or given up the fight. “One was 7 to 2, six nights a week, with an AWFUL big band at the Rainbow Room. A nightmare. Things began to turn once I started playing with Eric Alexander and Joe Farnsworth. By ‘95 I was playing with Marlena Shaw and Slide Hampton, and got my first record date. My whole life changed.”

This summer, Hazeltine will record a Bud Powell project for Venus. Previous commissions for the Japanese label include an homage to Horace Silver (Senor Blues) and two irony-free tributes to Bill Evans (Waltz For Debby and Alice In Wonderland).

“I want to do not just the commonly known Bud Powell tunes, but some that are a little more out there, like “Glass Enclosure,” says Hazeltine. “I won’t play only like Bud Powell. I’m just going to play his music. That’s how I tried to approach Horace. Of course, the more into myself I got, the more the producer objected. I played “Nica’s Dream” at a slow tempo, and put some harmony in there. It was killing. But at the end of the date, he said, ‘Now we’d like to go back. One more time. “Nica’s Dream” FAST!.’ That’s what they put on the record.

“On the Bill Evans projects, I tried to be as much like Bill as I could. When I was 15 or 16, I wore out Bill Evans records trying to figure out what he was playing, because the way he arranged chords—especially the solo stuff—was so beautiful. I wrote out harmonic exercises on his material. I was very disciplined that way at a very early age.”

Given the consistency and high quality of Hazeltine’s sizable oeuvre, it’s puzzling that he hasn’t escaped the “musicians’ musician” trap. But he remains optimistic.

“Some people do a little of this and a little of that, and some do one or two things really well,” he says, implicitly including himself in the latter category. “Even just playing straight-ahead jazz, you can be into so many different levels and go for so many things that it’s a lifetime pursuit.”


David Hazeltine Blindfold Test (Raw):

1. Robert Glasper, “Think of One” (DOUBLE BOOKED, Blue Note, 2009) (Glasper, piano; Vicente Archer, bass; Chris Dave, drums)

I don’t know who it is, but there are bits and pieces of different places in whoever it is. Was that an original piece? No? There’s a lot of Monk influence in the writing. What was the piece? Oh, that’s a Monk tune I don’t know. There were elements that reminded me of Kenny Barron a bit in some of the right-hand techniques, but what tells me it’s not Kenny Barron is that this sounds like a harmonically driven pianist. There are different kinds of pianists—harmonically driven, melodically driven. This guy sounds like… First of all, outstanding technique with both hands, and he’s not afraid to show that, and the free stuff in the beginning, the little introduction, was nice—the piano flourishes, I like to call them. During his solo, he seemed to be more concerned with bringing out the harmony, and he did a great job of it, too. Also, harmonically driven pianists tend to play more with their left hands. When they’re not playing unison-like melodies, they’re always playing chords, so you’re always hearing that left-hand chord thing. This isn’t the type of pianist where you hear steady streams of eighth notes, for example, but just playing around the harmonic structure—very well, though. Then he would take time to play two-handed melodic stuff, very fast, very fluent. 4 stars. I’ve never heard him, but I know of him.

2. Geoff Keezer, “Araña Amarilla” (AUREA, Artist Share, 2009) (Keezer, piano; Steve Wilson, alto saxophone; Essiet Okon Essiet, electric bass; Hugo Alcázar, cajon, djembe, quijada, palmas, percussion; Jon Wikan, cajon, palmas)

Whoever it is, it brings to mind Herbie Hancock—that’s for sure. The nature of the piece and the odd instrumentation—different for jazz. The hand-clapping and the whole thing, it seems like something Herbie would do, just to be out there…I mean, to have the variety that Herbie has, and the scope. There were such overly simple chords being played at times, that I thought only Herbie would do that, just to do it. But then, there were other little harmonic movements that reminded me of Herbie. The bassline reminded me of something from Thrust or one of those electric records that he made. 3½ stars. That was Geoff Keezer?! Is Wayne playing on it? Well, he’s a fantastic pianist. I recently heard him when I was doing a concert in Canada and he was subbing for Danilo Perez with Wayne Shorter. He fit right in, sounded great—he was beautiful. That’s why I asked about Wayne; it had the vibe of that night. This wasn’t typical Keezer. Things were scaled back. That’s why it reminded me of Herbie at first, because it’s all this music, then bringing it way down. Simple. Harmonies without a lot of extensions, without a lot of stuff to them, like Herbie would do. It’s Keezer tamped way down, like he’s trying to do something on a different level. Keezer does a lot of different kinds of things, he has a lot of different aspects, but I would never have thought of him as being that guy. But I’ve just been listening to some stuff that Keezer arranged for Denise Donatelli, a singer. Unbelievable singing and unbelievable writing on Keezer’s part. So thumbs-up for Keezer. I’m impressed with the way that he’s really trying to do something different, that doesn’t let it all hang out, an explosion of sound. It’s very tastefully done.

3. Mulgrew Miller, “Farewell To Dogma” (from Tony Williams, YOUNG AT HEART, Columbia 1996) (Miller, piano, composer; Williams, drums; Ira Coleman, bass)

Well, that was the most interesting thing you’ve played so far. First of all, from the very beginning…I immediately liked the touch, the warmth of the sound, and the fact that he approached it with both hands, the sound he got out of the piano using both hands to create these harmonies. As it moved into it, I thought it sounded like Keith Jarrett, which would explain the beautiful touch. But then he did some Herbie-sounding things; I heard some Herbie Hancock. Then some things happened too many times for it to be Herbie. Then he did a couple of things that sounded very much like things Chick Corea would do. I started thinking maybe it was Kevin Hays, because Kevin has all those guys in his playing—mainly Herbie, though. I liked the tune. What I like about it is that it has many different moods. It’s open enough that whatever mood you want to superimpose on the mood of the tune works at the time. I like how it goes different places, has different highs and lows. Even the ending was a surprise. It kept my interest from the beginning to the end. I liked the trio interplay, too. The drummer was doing some very tasty stuff. But that’s the kind of open, straight-eighth note…that’s how most drummers that I would play with would respond. 4½ stars. [AFTER] It makes perfect sense that it’s Mulgrew, just because you can hear the influences. Also, he plays the piano very well. He’s a very good pianist, with a great touch, and incorporates all registers of the piano in the overall sound.

4. Martial Solal, “Here’s That Rainy Day” (from LONGITUDE, CamJazz, 2008) (Solal, piano; Francois Moutin, bass; Louis Moutin, drums)

My goodness. It IS that rainy day! That’s an interesting approach. Very much melodically driven, but not being melodic. I don’t mean that in a bad way either. I divide people into melodically-driven versus harmonically-driven pianists, but then there are all different aspects of melodic and all different aspects of harmonic. This pianist is melodically driven, but out of the box of where most of us play melodically. So it seems like he or she made a point of playing as far out of the box as possible, while still playing that tune somehow. From the beginning, it sounded like it was reharmonized, but it was so chaotic that it was hard to tell what exactly was happening. But it’s definitely a fresh approach to the song, a standard that’s been played so many times. I’m not sure that how out some of the improvisation sounded was because he was trying to do that, or the chords…that if it was harmonized, he reharmonized it in such a way that it would lead into that. Although it didn’t really sound like that. To me, it sounded like he was trying to play out of the box. Which is a great thing. It sounded fresh. But there were moments where he brought it back in. It had a nice balance that way. It sounded like he had chops to do what he wanted to do. I think technique and chops is really about: Can you do what you’re trying to do? I think he did what he was trying to do. Can everybody play like Art Tatum? No. Can everybody play like Oscar Peterson? No. But technique on an instrument is a difficult thing to discuss, certainly in laymen’s terms. A lot of practicing musicians don’t understand the idea of technique in jazz music. Technique in classical music is a completely different ballgame, because there’s standard repertoire that dictates the technique. In jazz, technique is more dictated by can you get across what you’re trying to get across? Can you play what you’re trying to play? This guy could. It was a fresh approach. Interesting sound. I don’t know that I’d want to listen to it so much. It’s not my cup of tea. But it was interesting. 3 stars. [AFTER] The guy who just played that was 80? Wow. For someone that age, it’s a very unique approach—for playing a tune like that especially. It would be one thing if Cecil Taylor got up and played the piano; that’s one side of the coin. But for this guy to play “Here’s That Rainy Day,” sound like that and be 80, that’s very unusual.

5. Ed Simon, “Poesia” (from POESIA, CamJazz, 2009) (Simon, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums)

Really liked that. My guess was Chick Corea. Whoever it is certainly styled that after Chick. Compositionally, the movement, the progression of the chords sounded like something Chick would do, and the way he played his lines sounded inspired by Chick, but also the rhythms of the lines, the little spaces that he played in between, and the comping that he did with his left hand while he was playing the lines, reminded me so much of Chick Corea’s style. It was reminiscent of ‘70s Chick, like Return to Forever before they went completely electric. There were so many things that were Chicked-out about the guy. Now, I love Chick Corea, and this pianist really reminded me of that style of playing. Was that his original tune? There were a lot of intricate things where he was playing little melodies with the bass in unison with his left hand. Just nice little things that were going on, and kept my interest throughout. The band was great playing together. More than the Mulgrew tune, which was straight-eighth, and the drum part was more accompaniment. Here, everyone was interacting, very together—definitely a coop effort. 4½ stars.

6. Denny Zeitlin, “It Could Happen To You” (from SLICK ROCK, MaxJazz, 2004) (Zeitlin, piano; Buster Williams, bass; Matt Wilson, drums)

That was “It Could Happen To You.” I have no idea who that is. I have no idea where the pianist is coming from. But I very much enjoyed the playing of the head—it’s almost disguised at first. I like all the different kinds of changes that they took the tune through. It was slow and very much open at first… I very much liked, in the playing of the tune at the beginning especially, the way he used his two-handed technique to get a big sound out of the piano, and he really sold the arrangement. Right around the time when I realized it was “It Could Happen To You” is when they started playing it in an obvious way. I also like where it went from there. It sounded like he changed keys several times during the middle of the tune, but I’d need to hear it again…

I really enjoy the two-handed playing. I mean that in a different way than I meant it before. What I mean is using both hands to do certain things, especially harmonically, and to play melodies… I enjoy a pianist who gets as much sound as possible out of the instrument. Rich. And it takes two hands to be rich, really. A lot of pianists play even single note melodies with their right hand while they play chords in their left. Great pianists play melodies with both hands, or play melodies with a finger and accompany that melody with both hands. I like the way this piece evolved, although I was expecting more out of the solo, for all the piano playing that went on and for all the dreaminess that I sat through, I wanted a little more out of the solo. But that’s not to say that I don’t think that this pianist could do it. It’s just to say that I wanted to hear more. 3½ stars.

7. David Kikoski, “Chance” (from MOSTLY STANDARDS, Criss Cross, 2008) (Kikoski, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Jeff Watts, drums; Kenny Kirkland, composer)

I feel like I should know what this tune is. It sounds familiar, like…it’s not an original… It’s a tune that’s sort of in the third-tier standard jazz tune? That sort of thing. First tier would be the standards everyone knows—Charlie Parker tunes, Horace Silver tunes, and so on. Then subsequent tunes, like Wayne Shorter and Herbie… It sounds like it could be a Wayne tune. I liked the song, but it’s not this pianist’s song, but obviously… I really, really liked this pianist and what he did with the harmony. What I liked most about his harmony was the wide range of harmonic information that he actually put in and also that he didn’t put in. Sometimes with his left hand he would only play two notes, and sometimes he played little clusters that on first listening were hard to identify what the voicing was. I really like the way he obscured the harmony. Was it David Kikoski? I have a lot of respect for his harmonic sophistication and the way he touches the piano. It’s the thing of older guys touching the piano a certain way, their approach to the instrument. When he plays, and through this piece, you hear it from beginning to end. It’s not a beautiful arrangement of a head and then some stuff that doesn’t fit with it or make sense. But it’s through-played, from the time he starts playing at the beginning, and then he morphs into the actual song and the other guys come in, then he plays a solo—but it’s on a continuum. There’s an arc to it. Really well-put-together music and thoughtful music. I really enjoy his playing. 4½ stars. I think I recognized the tune because I had a Masters student at Purchase who was doing his thesis on Kenny Kirkland, so he studied a number of his tunes, and I was involved in him getting the tunes together.

8. Benny Green, “F.S.R.” (from WALK ON: THE FINAL TRIO RECORDINGS OF RAY BROWN, Telarc, 1996) (Green, piano; Ray Brown, bass, composer; Greg Hutchinson, drums)

Was it Benny Green? Unbelievable piano playing. That’s all I can say. Fantastic technique. I knew it was Ray Brown before I knew who the pianist was. 3 stars.

9. Barry Harris, “Oblivion” (from THE LAST TIME I SAW PARIS, Venus, 2000) (Harris, piano; George Mraz, bass; Leroy Williams, drums; Bud Powell, composer)

Obviously, Barry Harris, and George Mraz and Leroy Williams. I can’t say enough about Barry. Whatever anyone would have said 40 years ago would be the same thing today. It’s not like he’s reached new heights of genius. The genius has always been there. It’s a genius of melody-making in the style of bebop, the style of Charlie Parker or Bud Powell. As I study music, and continue to study music, there’s something about Barry Harris’ playing I found…you need to keep coming back to it. It’s so right and it’s so correct, like Bird was right and correct, but at the same time it’s so melodically unpredictable, in a way. Maybe to some, it sounds predictable because it’s in the bag that he’s in, or the particular idiom he’s in, the time period that he’s remained in, which is bebop. But the imagination that he has within that time period and that language is unlike anyone else who tried to play that music. It’s unbelievable how melodically articulate and melodically interesting… I can’t think of enough words to say what I think about Barry Harris’ melodicism and his musicality. He has that weird thing about being perfect and yet being unpredictable and imaginative and all those things, just like Bird. Now, on this piece, obviously he’s not at full throttle as he was, say, 20 years ago. But it’s still unmistakably him. It’s still that same melodic integrity. 5 stars. Because it’s Barry.


Liner Notes for The Inspiration Suite, David Hazeltine (Sharp-9, 2007):

The notion of influence is a tricky topic in the arts, not least for jazz musicians, for whom peer group status depends on cultivating a niche—a syntax, a sonic identity; in short, a tonal personality—that is instantly recognizable as theirs. In the struggle to construct a stylistic room of their own, many follow the psychic route described by the critic Harold Bloom in The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Of Poetry, a much-read discourse on how “killing the father” has catalyzed poetic invention.

Like Bloom’s poets, jazz musicians learn their craft from predecessors; and inevitably establish a point of view about their sources. Some “misread” the precursor, imagine them as incomplete, attain originality of expression through “an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation…, a willful revisionism.” For others, like David Hazeltine, mastery and refinement of the canon is the pathway to artistic depth.

Hazeltine regards Buddy Montgomery and Cedar Walton as his most consequential musical fathers, and pays explicit homage to them on The Inspiration Suite. Under their influence, he relates, he developed strategies to digest vocabulary drawn from the core food groups of jazz piano modernism (Tyner, Corea, Hancock, Monk, Barry Harris, for starters), and to synthesize his own idiosyncratic ideas about improvisation, composition and arranging.

As a teen prodigy in ‘70s Milwaukee, Hazeltine got up close and personal with Montgomery, who established his reputation in the ‘50s with the Montgomery Brothers—Monk, an electric bass pioneer, and Wes, the guitar legend—and eventually settled in the beer capital.

“I saw Buddy play in many contexts as a young kid—solo piano and trio, and also with a larger group with percussion instruments,” Hazeltine recalls. “I heard him manipulate harmony and other elements of music both in his own compositions and fixing up standards. He’s great at creating little hooks, familiar sections of the tune—a tag, or an introductory harmonic area that he gets into and brings back at the end of the head or the end of each solo chorus, or a rhythmic idea that he adds onto, say, a Cole Porter tune. It pulls things together. He doesn’t read music, and his playing and writing have all sorts of little jagged edges; they’re ultra-hip, but so off-the-cuff that you can’t guess what’s going to happen next.”

He discovered Walton via record during his mid-teens, after concluding studies with Will Green, a blind pianist who gave the aspirant invaluable functional instruction on the idiomatic fundamentals. “Mr. Green’s approach was a lot like Cedar,” Hazeltine recalls. “He would improvise fugues on the organ in the style of Bach, with perfect, cleanly articulated eighth notes, in the baroque manner that characterizes the way Cedar plays the piano. Cedar appeals to the side of my personality that needs things to be precise and exact. Everything is crystal-clear, well thought through, delivered with the highest degree of musical intention—in terms of phrasing, articulation, reharmonizing. You can expect certain things from him on the highest level, and he is going to give them to you.”

It is manifest that Hazeltine, now 48, commands similar respect from his own peer group, including his front-line partners on The Inspiration Suite. “Dave has a modern sound that holds onto all the elements of the tradition that I love,” says Eric Alexander, Hazeltine’s collaborator on 11 dates by the collective sextet One For All, and a frequent Hazeltine sideman and employer. “When I think of David’s writing and arranging, I think of clarity,” adds vibraphonist Joe Locke, Hazeltine’s co-leader on Good Hearted People [Sharp-9, 1998]. “As far out as Dave can go harmonically, his harmony always honors what the tune is about—it’s honoring the melody.”

Explaining his decision to reference another explicit precursor, the tenor sax-vibes quintet co-led by Harold Land and Bobby Hutcherson at the end of the ‘60s, Hazeltine cites these very same melodic imperatives. “Although Buddy and Cedar differ in the ways I mentioned, they both write incredibly poignant melodies,” he says. “Instead of harmonizing the melodies with three horns, as with One For All, I brought them into focus with one melodic line backed up with the vibraphone. Joe’s four-mallet technique enables him also to strengthen the harmonic underpinnings and match my piano voicings—so I get my One For All feeling after all!”

The title comes from a four-piece suite on which Hazeltine distills the compositional devices of his musical forebears into unmistakably Hazeltinean argot. The connections are less thematic than vibrational—“They are connected in my mind!” Hazeltine jokes.

Echoes of Walton inflect “Motivation,” an assymetrical 34-bar burner (6-10-6-12) with attractive changes. Propelled by Farnsworth’s unerring ride cymbal, Locke, Alexander and the composer navigate the form with punch and panache.

In composing “Reverence,” a medium-slow ballad with a relaxed Latin feel, Hazeltine kept Montgomery’s predispositions in focus. “I tried to hear how Buddy might hear,” he says. “It’s the kind of haunting melody Buddy would write, and the chord progressions are atypical, with a vamp at the very beginning that the soloists incorporate into their improvising, and that we play every time it comes around. I somehow think of that as characteristic of Buddy—though if you asked me to name tunes of his where that happens, I couldn’t.”

Elements from both mentors inform “Insight,” a slick 30-bar line that opens with a magisterial Alexander solo. “It contains insights I got from studying Buddy and Cedar,” Hazeltine says. “The way the theme is developed, how it comes back at the end, only twice as fast. How the last part is 2 bars short because it’s looped into the first part, so there’s no turnaround; it makes for interesting and insightful soloing—you’re finishing, but you’re at the top again.”

The suite concludes with “Gratitude,” a brisk waltz with a continuously developing form that resolves with reharmonized “Giant Steps” progressions. Note Hazeltine’s informed comping behind inspired solos bv Locke and Alexander, and the graceful way he launches his own ingenious solo flight.

The Inspiration Suite contains many other delights—a classic trio reading of “My Ideal” (for comparison, hear Montgomery’s version on the 1999 Sharp-9 session Here Again); a new Hazeltine arrangement of “I Should Care,” presented here as a medium swinger in A-Flat; a “new standardish” Hazeltine original called “Don’t Walk Away” (“the harmony diverges, but the melody is completely diatonic within the scale of D-flat,” Hazeltine elaborates); a surging Latin treatment, pushed by Daniel Sadownick’s elemental congas, of Montgomery’s “Personage of Wes”; an elegant, witty navigation of the harmonic jigsaw puzzle that comprises Walton’s “Shoulders” (“it has rapidly moving, chromatic harmonies at the beginning, then gets into periods where there’s one chord for 4 measures, then turns more normal and has II-V-I’s, but at the very end come strange, fast-moving harmonies in all major chords, which then change to minor chords every other chorus—that’s why people think it’s difficult”).

“I can say that this is more personal than anything I’ve written before,” Hazeltine concludes. “I did it in total deference and reverence to these two guys, and it came straight from my heart—I heard stuff and wanted to write. The intellect never led the heart around. The heart led the intellect.”


David Hazeltine (Liner Notes, Blues Quarters):

“I have to say that quartet playing is my favorite format,” David Hazeltine confides while discussing Blues Quarters, his third leader session for Criss Cross (see How It Is [Criss-1142] and A World For Her [Criss-1170]) in that configuration.

The 41-year-old pianist elaborates: “I like an arranged presentation, and in a quartet you can integrate arrangements, just like in a trio setting. Quartet is less restrictive than with three horns, where I have to synch up the harmony exactly to what I wrote for the horns. Since the saxophone is playing the melodies, I have a chance to experiment behind it. I like to play a supportive role as well as being out front in the solo role. I think it sets me up mentally to play looser solos, to play freer than in a trio format, where I am the only solo voice.”

Hazeltine proved unequivocally his mastery of the trio on The Classic Trio [Sharp-9-1997] and Waltz For Debby [Venus-1998], which rank among the finest examples of the genre recorded in the ’90s. And according to the members of One For All, the all-star collective sextet [see Upward and Onward (Criss-1172) and Optimism (Sharp-9)], he’s largely responsible for blending the individual voices of a unit comprised of unregenerate wailers into an ensemble sound with a defined identity.

“I really feel like I could recognize a Dave Hazeltine composition or arrangement at this point,” Eric Alexander, One For All’s emerging tenor titan who shares the front line on Blues Quarters, commented a few years back. “I’m not sure exactly what it is. It’s definitely a modern sound. But it holds on to all the elements of the tradition that I love and, that I think everyone else in the group loves, and that we try to maintain. His arrangements are sort of the quintessential sound of One For All. Dave likes to pick classic standards, or even new Pop standards, and reharmonize and rearrange them so that they fit into our hard-blowing context. But what’s funny is that Dave has tempered our sound. His arrangements, which can be really fiery and exciting, all have a tender side. It’s hard to explain. He uses beautiful colors, and makes wonderful use of the three horns.”

Alexander and hard-swinging drummer Joe Farnsworth join their One For All colleague on Blues Quarters, a session which achieves a judicious balance between untrammeled imagination and the intuitive sense of ensemble structure that adept improvisers attain through years of bandstand interaction. “The more frequently you play with people, the more predictability there is,” Hazeltine notes. “Now Eric is not predictable in the sense of, ‘oh, I’ve heard him play that before.’ It’s more like I know instinctively and immediately that he’s going to play something high or something a little out there. Eric is always fresh, he’s always playing very different ideas, but there is a structure — you can anticipate what he’s doing and work with him.

“What’s predictable with Joe is that it’s going to feel right, that the feeling always will be there, that whatever I do, he’ll support it. There’s give-and-take, but mainly his impeccable sense of time and swinging feeds me. You can have impeccable time in all different parts of the beat; Farnsworth plays the part of the beat that I like particularly. I think it’s the same part that the great drummers in the history of jazz, like Philly Joe Jones and Louis Hayes, have always played. I’d describe it as time with an edge on it.”

Bassist Dwayne Burno played numerous weekend gigs with Hazeltine, Farnsworth, and various combinations of One-For-All hornmen between 1994 and 1997 at Augie’s, the Upper West Side Manhattan workshop-saloon. Hazeltine notes: “Dwayne is a very good writer and arranger himself, and he has a great understanding of harmony. He’s musically very articulate. When I present him with a tune, he understands what makes it work, and he’ll do things that take it to a different place and yet keep it intact as originally conceived.”

Throughout Blues Quarters Hazeltine plays with lucid fire, consolidating an exhaustive range of references — think Bud Powell, Barry Harris, Cedar Walton, McCoy Tyner — into an immediately identifiable style. He churns out long fluent lines with a home-brewed, organic quality, extracting full motivic potential with the clarity and sophistication of a conservatory musician. “What I like about David,” says the tenor saxophonist Michael Karn, who experienced the Hazeltine effect on his recent Criss-Cross date In Focus, “is that he hears other people’s tunes compositionally. F-minor-7 in one tune is not the same as in another. Should this chord have a big sound? Should it have a smaller sound? Should it be a tight sound or a more open sound? He’s superb at finding the right sound for the right spot in his comping.”

That said, a few words about the tunes:

“Naccara” is dedicated to the pianist’s mother, who died a few years ago. The structure is 12 bars, 6 bars, 10 bars. and then 4 bars; “the set of 10 bars references the melodic theme in the first 12 bars, but it’s in no way a repeated section. It takes the motive from the beginning, runs it through a series of key changes, and kind of summarizes the tune that way.”

Alexander and Hazeltine were playing Miles Davis’ “Milestones” (the 1947 Savoy version) as a standard on recent tours. The tenorist roars through the changes, while Hazeltine’s long solo shows how deeply he’s assimilated the language of Bud Powell refracted through the mirror of Barry Harris, whose Live At The Jazz Workshop Hazeltine calls “a bible of jazz piano trio.” “I keep coming back to that concept,” he comments. “My idea is to try to stretch from that basis.”

Hazeltine wrote “A Touch of Green” for Will Green, who gave the young aspirant invaluable functional instruction on the idiomatic fundamentals of jazz in pre-teen days in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “I know this tune sounds a lot like Cedar Walton,” the pianist jokes, “but Mr. Green’s approach was a lot like Cedar. In fact, I started listening to Cedar just after I stopped studying with him, when I was 15 or 16. Will Green would improvise fugues in the style of Bach on the organ. You know how Cedar plays the piano in an almost baroque manner, with eighth notes that are so perfect and exact and cleanly articulated and precise? That’s how Will Green played, too. Being used to his approach is what allowed me such easy access to Cedar.”

Hazeltine conceptualized his treatment of “Spring Is Here” while preparing Waltz For Debby, a 1998 album dedicated to the music of Bill Evans. “This version is with mostly his chords,” Hazeltine remarks. The ballad is beautiful by itself, but Bill Evans’ changes really bring out the melancholy of that song.”

Hazeltine describes the title track as a 16-bar minor blues, an idiom in which the teenage Hazeltine garnered ample experience at sessions around Milwaukee with local luminaries like Hattush Alexander and Manty Ellis. “We didn’t play traditional blues per se,” he qualifies. “There were a of blues form tunes and a lot of blues in the tunes.”

Hazeltine became familiar with “Cry Me A River” through his association with the singer Marlena Shaw, who’s employed him as musical director and arranger since 1994. He treats the Arthur Hamilton flagwaver — it’s been covered by artists from Julie London to Ray Charles to Ella Fitzgerald to Joe Cocker — as a bossa-nova, adding some chords and a vamp that Eric Alexander plays over on the end with incredible invention and virtuosity.

“Playing with singers deeply influenced my ability to accompany people,” Hazeltine claims. “I did it since I was very young, beginning with a woman named Penny Goodwin, with whom I played a lot of high profile gigs in Milwaukee. She was a very talented, gifted singer, but she didn’t know a lot about music, so the things you played behind her influenced the way she was going to sing on any given night. I had to play so that her melody notes were always at the uppermost part of my chords. Otherwise, she’d sing out of tune, or sing something completely different and then blame me. So early on I knew that when playing behind singers, I had to be very accurate and be aware of what the melody is while playing chords. I think that started me on the path of comping melodically, which is the quality of my comping that I think people like.”

The quartet addresses “Cheryl,” a Charlie Parker blues, at a medium bounce a tad slower than the original; Hazeltine opens with a five-minute declamation that’s bebop incarnate, filled with teetery syncopations and intriguing postulations that never stray far from the melody. Then the session concludes with Alexander’s “Doing What,” a racehorse-tempo subversion of the chord changes to Michel Legrand’s “What Are You Doing The Rest of Your Life,” a prime ballad for the likes of Carmen McRae, Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee.

It caps an album marked by authoritative statements by players who can be said to have transcended their influences to the point of being able to dialogue with the tradition on their own terms. That’s what Hazeltine’s done on high profile gigs in recent years with people like James Moody, Slide Hampton, Jimmy Heath and Jon Faddis.

“New York is so demanding, you get so involved in writing and arranging and recording and doing your own thing and trying to find your voice, that it’s easy to forget about your roots,” Hazeltine reflects. “By roots I mean what I grew up with, who I liked listening to, who influenced and inspired me. Playing with these guys has this magical quality of taking me back there, only now I’m doing the playing. I remember listening to James Moody when I was 13 and being very struck by how he played, trying to figure out some of the things he was doing. I have his sound in my head, and when I get to play gigs with him it takes me back into this very simple, ‘I really like that music; I really like the way this sounds,’ as opposed to being all wrapped up into my own forward motion. It’s a unique thing we have as jazz musicians, that in playing with these guys, we are interacting with history. You’re actually getting a chance to create music with people who have created and are continuing to create such great music over the years.”

A couple of generations hence, apprentice improvisers who admired albums like Blues Quarters may have their chance to play with David Hazeltine and Eric Alexander; no doubt, they’ll talk about the experience in similar terms.

Leave a comment

Filed under David Hazeltine, DownBeat, Liner Notes, Piano

For Donny McCaslin’s birthday, a 2009 interview and Liner Notes For The Arabesque CD “Seen From Above” and the Criss Cross CD “Give ‘n’ Go”

Tenor saxophonist-composer Donny McCaslin turned 50 recently, which seems like a good reason to post an interesting interview he did with me in 2009 for a Downbeat piece in which I interviewed four tenor players (Ron Blake, Seamus Blake and Frank Catalano were the others) on developing one’s own sound, as well as liner notes I’ve had the honor to write for an album he recorded for Arabesque in 2000 and another album for Criss Cross in 2005.


Donny McCaslin (Feb. 4, 2009) – (DB Tenor Sound Piece):

TP: I guess the things I want to talk about generally are: First, the process by which you started thinking about the idea of saxophone as a way of expressing a voice as opposed to just playing it. What sort of vocabulary you assimilated and how you applied that vocabulary. Was the process of creating a sound a conscious thing, or a byproduct of the process of learning. Can you take those sort of general ideas and run with it?

DONNY:   Sure. There’s a lot of things I can say. As far as expressing myself on the instrument, that’s something I got into at a fairly early stage. I started playing when I was 12, and I started improvising shortly thereafter. Especially as I started to learn some language, I found improvising to be a great outlet for my emotions. So I think I was engaging with that at a fairly early age.

TP:   Of course, you had your father as an example.

DONNY:   Exactly. My father would often come to… My parents were divorced, and he’d come over to my mother’s place. We lived in the country, and there were these barns behind the house where I lived, and my father would carry his Wurlitzer piano up into one of these barns, he’d set it up, and then we’d play tunes that I had learned or was in the process of learning that he played with his band. The very first song that I learned was “Tequilas,” which is basically a one-chord jam thing—my dad would basically just comp for me. Then we’d go through, we’d play “A Train,” we played “Satin Doll,” we’d play maybe “Doxy,” we’d play a blues. What was great is that he would comp for me tirelessly. Being young, sometimes I’d get upset pretty quickly, because I wanted to play better, and I didn’t like what I was playing, and I’d stop. Other times we’d play at length, for what seemed like hours. I think it was through that kind of experience, and then starting to… I had a combo with Kenny Wolleson in junior high school, and then that continued in high school. As you know, it was a really good high school band, and I had chances to solo. It was there, at 14-15 years, that I started playing with a fair amount of emotional expression, where you could say it was a primary outlet for me emotionally.

TP:   Were you under any stylistic influences at that time? Were you learning the canon?

DONNY:   Yeah. My first hero was definitely to John Coltrane, which was mixed in high school with heavy exposure to Duke Ellington. My band director had Duke Ellington charts via Bill Berry, with whom he’d been in the service. So he had all these Ellington charts, and we were rehearsing those five days a week, and listening to the records sometimes. Those were my main influences. At 14-15 years old, I was listening to “Giant Steps,” and was playing through Trane’s solo. In probably my later high school years, I got into Michael Brecker and was heavily influenced by him. So in terms of language in that era, I would say… Well, Charlie Parker was an influence as well in the beginning, so probably Charlie Parker, Ellington, Trane, and Michael Brecker were my main influences.

TP: When did they start to become part of your emotional expression?

DONNY:   Mostly with Coltrane it was… One thing I was so drawn to in his playing was this deep sense of expression in his solos, and the emotional intensity. I was really drawn to that, even though I didn’t understand what was going on. At that age, I couldn’t handle Meditations or Ascension or Kulu Se Mama or Interstellar Space. That was too far out for me. But I was really in tune with the records before that, listening to them over and over. It was that emotional intensity that touched, and then I was trying to get to the same thing as I was playing, just as a kid with that limited vocabulary.

TP:   What sorts of things would your father or the other older musicians tell you about individuality or about the voice? What cues were you getting from people?

DONNY:   I have to think about that for a second. My father I don’t think really talked much about that, to be honest with you. The guys in his band didn’t talk much about individuality per se. But I think that it’s something that… Gosh…

TP:   How about critiquing your playing? Were you getting critiques?

DONNY:   Yeah. I can think of a couple of things. I can remember once when I was a senior I was in an Advancement of the Arts sort of talent competition thing. It was a big thing. It was throughout the United States, and I flew to Florida for the finals. Bill Charlap was one of the finalists, John Bailey, the trumpet player, myself—and Rufus Reid was like the jazz judge. I remember Rufus saying something to me about not playing so many notes, not playing so much. I can’t remember exactly how he said it, but the gist was to slow down and to not over-play. Herb Pomeroy, when I was at Berklee, said something similar to me after a concert. I was in his various student ensembles probably my whole time at Berklee, and after one of the concerts he came up and said something about how he was happy to hear me play more melodically and not just playing a bunch of notes kind of thing.

Various people I recall recounting telling the Lester Young story of him being on the bus…I think it’s Lester Young… They’re on the road, and a tenor player is shedding on the bus, and he’s playing all this shit, and Lester—or maybe it’s Ben Webster—said to him, ‘Yeah, but can you sing me a song?’ or something like that. Various people…

TP:   It’s Lester.

DONNY:   Yeah, Lester is who I thought.

TP:   Did that sort of thing have an impact on you? Because I gather that a lot of people were very impressed with your facility and power on the instrument as a young guy, which can be very seductive.

DONNY:   Yeah. I think it helped, and I think I listened to that. Over the course of the years, I feel I’ve tried to reflect on it. At the time, it’s hard to remember, honestly. Did I all of a sudden buy a bunch of Lester Young records? No, I didn’t.  But I definitely have listened to him over the course of my career, and have listened to various singers, and really thought about exploring different ways of playing and not just relying on technical prowess or whatever.

TP: Were you someone who transcribed solos, or you’d listen and put them into a framework…

DONNY:   It was both. I didn’t really transcribe solos until I got to Berklee, in college, my freshman year. Then I got into that. Yeah, I transcribed various solos, then I started learning solos, and that was definitely part of how I developed my language. But also listening a fair amount, and just being on the bandstand a lot. It’s a combination of all those things in terms of how I developed my language. In terms of focusing on individuality, that came into play when I started playing with Gary Burton’s band. Even before that, when I got to Berklee, there were a lot of really good saxophone players who had a lot of facility on the instrument and who were checking out the same guys I was checking out. So all of a sudden I was hit with this reality of individualism. I remember hearing this great tenor player, Tommy Smith, play. We had very similar influences, Trane, Michael Brecker and whatnot, but he had a very individual sound at a young age, and I remember being really impressed by that. That made a big impression on me, like, “Wow, he’s not only playing all the stuff I’m playing, but he’s got a personality, and it’s really tangible.” I thought, “Ok, that’s something I should work on, I should try to develop that.” It’s a hard thing to develop when you’re in the middle of trying to assimilate all this language and all these different players. But what I tried to do—again, at Berklee—was pay attention to things that struck me on an aesthetic level, that seemed to be different from what I was hearing people do. I tried to be open to what struck me, and I’d try to take the ball and run with it kind of thing.

Gary Burton, when I started playing with his band, would talk about how thematic development could get you away from playing licks and things that you practiced, and get you into really improvising. I don’t know if he called it “real improvising,” but… Then when I was in his band, he would give… We’d be on the road, and he’d give the occasional clinic with the group, and I would be there and I’d listen to him do this rap about thematic development and improvisation… Again, it’s not like I just all of a sudden changed course in the middle of the stream, but I was just checking it out. Then, during the same time I had to practice some things in wide intervals, and I was always drawn to that sound, and I started thinking, “That’s not something that I hear people do all the time, and that’s something I really like—maybe I should try to explore that.” So I explored it, and continued to explore it over the years. But I embraced that, and then this thing about thematic development I think begins… Again, I was exposed to it through Gary, but it was a few years later when I really started working on it and really started embracing it.

TP:   A lot of people in your generation are faced with this profusion of vocabulary.

DONNY:   Right.

TP:   so much information. One other thing (tell me if I’m wrong) that you might have used to explore new byways was exploring the pan-American conception and playing with Danilo Perez. I’m sure that brought you to all sorts of fresh places.

DONNY:   Well, it did. My initial exposure to that, again, was playing with my father’s band. He had a group that had percussion and played Cal Tjader-esque Latin Jazz. I think just growing up with that, and playing with a salsa band, I really had an affinity for that music. This was after Berklee, when I first moved to New York, but I went on the road with Danilo, and had been playing Argentinean folk music with Fernando Tarres… That really changed things for me in a dramatic way—especially my relationship with Danilo. He gave me some serious pointers along the way that, if I stopped and really shifted course completely.

TP: Can you be a bit more specific?

DONNY:   The first time it happened was in the early ‘90s, when we were on tour in Argentina with Fernando Tarres. Danilo said to me kind of what you’re saying:  “Man, you’ve got all this vocabulary together, but you need to think more about how you present it, and you need to explore phrasing more.” I was like, “Wow, yeah, you’re right.” Then he gave me some examples, like, “Take a bar of 8 eighth notes and divide them into a group of 3 and then a group of 5, and play your melodic idea, but you can give an accent at the beginning of the bar and then on the 4th eight note. So you’re making this 3 and 5.” That was his initial example. I thought, “God, I’d never thought about working on stuff like that.” So I took that idea and really ran with it, and just worked on my phrasing.

TP:   So it applied to music outside of just Danilo’s music.

DONNY:   Oh, of course. Because in this context, actually, we were both sidemen. Then I did a tour with Danilo’s group not long after that, and then there was heavy exposure to clave, and to Afro-Cuban folk music, Panamanian folk music, etc., etc. Again, that was something that really changed my life, and I embraced it, studying that, playing with a lot of different groups—with Santi DiBriano a lot, with Hector Martignon. I just was studying rhythm, or studying those folkloric rhythm patterns and the patterns that go with them rhythmically. For a fair amount of time, I was thinking of the saxophone more as a percussion instrument…in a way. I would take these rhythms and apply them to how I would practice playing over tunes, and just try to strengthen my rhythmic vocabulary.

I know one of the overviews of this article is about individuality, creating a voice. I found that working on that stuff gave me a lot more flexibility rhythmically, and with that, a lot more freedom to explore leaving wide spaces, and looking at all these different ways I could approach the rhythm that freed me up to have a much greater range of expression as an improviser than I had before. That enabled me, I think, to get to a place where I didn’t have to rely on my technical proficiency, that I could think like a drummer, I could think like a singer, and I could have the confidence to do that, and to leave that space, and not feel like I had to fill it up.

TP:   You’re the third straight person who spoke of thinking like a singer. That’s interesting.

DONNY:   Yeah, that’s a really good thing to check out, obviously, if you’re a melody player, is to study the way singers phrase things, the way they’ll sing a melody. I think it has a real immediate effect on the way you’re playing something. Literally, I’m on the bandstand, I’m playing a melody, and I’m imagining that I’m Frank Sinatra, or I’m imagining that I’m Sarah Vaughan.

TP: Literally.

DONNY:   Yeah. Of course, it doesn’t happen every night. But it’s those times when I feel like I’m playing the melody and I’m just on auto-pilot, or nothing is really happening, and, “Wait a minute, let me change the framework about how I’m thinking about this or how I’m dealing with it.”

TP:   Can you speak about tone production? This is in the context of a commonly stated critique of young players of the jazz conservatory generation, that older players often say it’s hard to tell them apart. I don’t know if this is true or not. But Ron Blake was talking about a sort of orthodox way to play the saxophone, a certain mouthpiece, and so on… But the old ethos that you can tell somebody by their sound with one phrase, as with people in the old days.

DONNY:   I would say that I feel like I can tell… If it’s Mark Turner, when I’m listening, right away I can tell it’s him. Or Chris Potter, or Seamus, or David Binney, or Miguel Zenon, I feel like a lot of people these days have distinctive voices, at least to my ears. I don’t have that feeling of everybody sounds the same. Although I can understand where that’s coming from. I’m speaking about people who are probably pretty individualistic players. Certainly, because jazz education has come so far, and as you mentioned, there’s so much information out there, it’s no wonder that a lot of young players will sound similar because they’re getting similar information. But that’s the challenge for them, is how can they take that information, those influences, and come up with their own sound. That’s up to each individual. In terms of equipment and mouthpiece and so on, I certainly never felt like I had to play this or had to play that—outside of playing a Selmer saxophone, which most people play. But you don’t even have to do that. Dave Liebman sounds amazing on what he plays… Different people play different things. But it is obviously very important to find your own sound and your own way of doing things, but that’s just the journey that everybody is on.

TP:   is that a more challenging thing to do these days because of the profusion of information?

DONNY:   Yeah, I think it is. I think it is. I think it is more challenging to come up with something that’s new or interesting…I’m not even saying new, but a way of putting all the information out there together into a coherent, original language. Now, that’s a challenge. That’s a big challenge. Because it’s not just playing over bebop tunes—which is not easy, I’m not insinuating that. But yeah, there’s a lot more to process now. Because of the way the music industry has changed and the way jazz education has changed, it makes it harder, but it’s easier and harder at the same time—if that makes sense. There’s more available, but yet how to put that together into a real individual language is difficult.

TP: Also, a lot of the most individualistic players of this period did a lot of bandstand playing when they were young.

DONNY:   Yeah, I think that’s true. I can give you an example of that in my own life. When I was rehearsing with Gary Burton… he put together this Berklee all-star group of students to do this jazz cruise. I was pretty nervous, and when I was rehearsing, I’d never really got into my comfort… I felt like I was struggling or whatever. But as soon as we got on that cruise, and we played a gig, as soon as we got on the bandstand, I played a lot better, and I felt much more comfortable.  Gary commented on that to me sometime later during the week that it was a big difference. I realized at that point, it was all the experience I had with my father, and with the group I had with Kenny Wolleson—that really helped me out. Because I was able to get into a more creative zone on the bandstand. I wasn’t nervous, because I was more comfortable there than I was rehearsing the music, ironically enough. That’s not the case any more. But being on the bandstand all the time, having to play solo after solo really helped me out.

For me, as I already said on the individual sound thing, it’s being open to it and following your instinct. What touches you musically? It’s maybe something unexpected, but not being afraid to follow that.

TP:   Do you deliberately put yourself in new situations? For example, this new trio recording. Is that the purpose towards which you’re framing yourself in that context, or is that a byproduct of looking for different environments?

DONNY:   It’s the latter. Just looking for a different… the two records I’d done before that were these more produced, more conceptual things, and I was like, “No, let me get back to blowing.” I was consciously like, “I need to do something different,” and this is different, and it’s a format that I love, that’s challenging, that has all this history, and so on.

TP:   Were you thinking during your developmental years about an individual voice?

DONNY:   Definitely.

TP:   Was it totally for you, or otherwise…

DONNY:   it was something I was aware of and concerned about, in a way. Like, “Ok, how can I find my own way?” It was a process that happened over time, but it was definitely on my mind, how can I find my own way of playing music in a way that seems true to me?’ I think I was at a certain point where I had all this technical proficiency, and I had worked on all these Trane solos… In other words, I could play all this shit. But it didn’t mean anything to me. It was at that time of, “well, if this doesn’t mean anything to me, then what DOES mean something to me?” How can I shed away all this BS and get to the heart of what I want to try to say as an improviser? For me, that was really embracing thematic and melodic development, which Gary Burton talked about and Sonny was really my guiding light for that. So it was like really letting go of… I can remember going to sessions in the early ‘90s, playing, and not even getting into playing a lot of notes at all, because I wasn’t hearing it, and I had made this commitment to try to only play what I was really hearing, and be TRULY in the moment as an improviser. That meant, for me, letting go of a lot of the stuff that I could “play,” but I wasn’t truly hearing it. So I tried to let go of that completely and to be totally in the moment as an improviser.

TP: Getting back to these older players who talked about telling a story and the dialogic quality of improvising, or that Charlie Parker would describe the woman walking into the room, and so on. Do any of these notions play into your improvising. He said that he applied some of the tactics he’d studied in theater improv to his musical improvisation? Do such things factor in, or is music a very different entity than verbal language?

DONNY: I definitely think about it in terms of telling a story. I’ll think about the beginning of a solo is like the beginning of a short story—you introduce a subject or a character. Then the character develops the story. That’s in a perfect world what the solo is like.


Donny McCaslin (Seen From Above) – (2000):

Back in 1988, when Donny McCaslin was a 22-year-old senior at Berklee School of Music, vibraphone master Gary Burton hired him for the tenor saxophone chair in his quintet.  The prestigious gig marked phase two of McCaslin’s education.  A New Yorker since 1991, he hasn’t stopped working, navigating the diverse sonic ambiance of a congeries of top-shelf bands in the jazz mecca, which range from state-of-the-art fusion (Steps Ahead) to Latin (Santi DiBriano’s Panamaniacs, Danilo Perez, Fernando Tarres, Hector Martignon) to speculative improvisation (the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band and Lan Xang) to the Mingus Big Band and Maria Schneider’s Orchestra.

All those experiences helped mold the fully-formed musical personality we hear inflecting the open-ended terrain of Seen From Above, Donny McCaslin’s second leader album.  Here’s what the 33-year-old virtuoso brings to the table.  Thoroughly grounded in fundamentals, he knows how to whip up interesting melodies out of the knottiest harmonic progressions, and doesn’t allow melodic essence to waver at even the nastiest tempos.  His lines don’t land where you’d expect them to, he swings incessantly, and he projects a burnished, vocalized sound through the entire range of his horn.  Most importantly, without sacrificing a whit of individuality, McCaslin has internalized a collective attitude to improvising, allowing like-minded partners Ben Monder, Scott Colley and Jim Black, all 30-something 21st century jazzfolk of like sensibility, to imprint their personalities on the musical proceedings.

McCaslin’s story begins in Santa Cruz, California,  a university town and counterculture bastion 80 miles south of San Francisco, where his father Don McCaslin continues to sustain a steady gig as pianist and vibraphonist.  “My Dad has a Cal Tjader thing happening on vibes, and on piano he’s really into Red Garland,” McCaslin states.  “I’d go with him every Sunday morning to the mall where he had a gig from 12 until 5, and help him set up the piano and the vibes.  Before I was able to walk around on my own, he had me sit on a chair in the middle of the band, where I’d watch the whole thing go down for hours.”  A poor study in junior high school photography class, McCaslin decided to enter Beginning Orchestra and — inspired by the saxophonist in his father’s band, “a really colorful guy, very charismatic, a hippie, tie-dye shirts…I remember looking into the bell of his horn and seeing this pool of saliva with a cigarette butt floating in the middle of it; to me as a 12-year-old, he was really cool” — chose the tenor saxophone as his instrument.

McCaslin progressed rapidly, taking advantage of the area’s first-class music programs and first-hand interaction with his father.  “When I was beginning to play, my father would take his Wurlitzer to the barn behind my Mom’s house, set it up, and we’d play for hours on end,” he recalls.  McCaslin also was able to hear top musicians at Kuumbwa, a nonprofit concert venue in Santa Cruz.  “I saw Elvin Jones there with Pat LaBarbera, and Sonny Fortune a couple of weeks later,” says McCaslin, who played a hometown engagement at the attractive room a few weeks before our conversation.  “Every Monday night the big groups came into town, so from age 12 on I was able to hear guys from New York live, which was important and inspirational.”

He continues: “I was the only freshman in my high school band; my director, Don Keller, had a bunch of original Ellington charts, so at 14 we were playing things like ‘Diminuendo and Crescendo In Blue,’ ‘Warm Valley,’ ‘Blood Count,’ ‘Rockin’ in Rhythm.’  I could barely read music, and I was totally in over my head, but I learned a lot.  My earliest influences were Bird and Trane, and then probably Michael Brecker, a little Sonny Rollins, a little Sonny Stitt.  The way Coltrane played seemed so heavy and profound, so urgent; I always have loved the sense of emotional catharsis that can come through improvising, and I felt it embodied in his playing.  Brecker was such a virtuoso, and records like “Steps Ahead” and “80/81″ sounded so modern, like the new happening thing.”

McCaslin matriculated at Berklee in 1984, where he reveled in interaction with a peer group of big-fish young musicians who’d converged in Boston from points around the planet, and took advantage of first-hand contact with teachers like Herb Pomeroy and George Garzone.  “It was very liberating studying with George,” he relates.  “He gave me patterns to practice that broke all the rules you learn in school, a lot of notes outside the chord scale, and wild intervals.  During my years with Gary Burton, I learned a lot about thematic development, thematic improvising, being disciplined in the sense of saying what I had to say clearly and succinctly in, say, two choruses, and then getting out.”

Once in New York, McCaslin began the arduous, rewarding process of shedding chameleonic flexibility to inhabit the skin of his own sound.  “It was only after I’d been in New York for a couple of years that I started to know conceptually how I wanted to play and write,” he confides.  On a recommendation from Burton, he worked with bass legend Eddie Gomez, gigged with various Berklee cohorts, and began to find work playing Latin music of all description.

“I always had an affinity for Latin music in Santa Cruz,” McCaslin notes.  “First, my father was into Cal Tjader and Latin Jazz, and I played in an 8-horn Salsa band called Los Shlepos Tipicos when I was in high school.  While I was in Gary’s band he made a live record with Astor Piazzola at Montreux, which I absorbed.  When I got to New York I sat in with Santi DiBriano at the Village Gate, who started calling me to play with his band the Panamaniacs.  I’d been in the dorm at Berklee with Danilo Perez, who’d played with Santi earlier, and Danilo recommended me to Fernando Tarres, with whom I worked and recorded a lot.  Though I had only a layman’s ear knowledge of clave, I did a couple of tours with Danilo in the ’90s, and he encouraged me to study Afro-Cuban music in a comprehensive way.  I started taking lessons with Bobby Sanabria, and it’s expanded my rhythmic vocabulary immensely.

“Playing with Santi was very important.  The band had tunes that were straight ahead, tunes that were clave-based, tunes that we’d play free on.  I was put into an environment where I had to deal with all these different styles while retaining a unified band approach.  And being the only horn player, I had a lot of space to play and a lot of responsibility.”

McCaslin took on similar responsibilities during his four years with vibraphonist Mike Mainieri in the ’90s edition of Steps Ahead, where he filled the tenor chair Michael Brecker once had held; he’s heard to strong effect on the 1995 recording Vibe [NYC] with musicians like Rachel Z, Michael Cain, Victor Bailey, James Genus and Clarence Penn.  “It was a very good gig,” McCaslin smiles.  “Mike is kind of a hippie at heart, and I relate to him as a person because I grew up in that culture.  Whereas Gary was very exacting as a bandleader, Mike was really loose, gave me a lot of freedom.  Occasionally he would say something, but for the most part he let me do my thing.”

With that background in mind, the stance of open-endedness with discipline that permeates the eight McCaslin originals on Seen From Above makes perfect sense.  “I’ve always had a sense of eclecticism,” McCaslin states.  “When I was at Berklee I played in a Rock band for a while, and I’ve done a lot of funk gigs in New York.  I enjoy playing music.  I’m not a purist about Bebop or whatever, though I love just playing tunes in an open situation with the right guys — it’s like going home.  At the same time, I feel I have something to say as an original music artist, and this is the time to do it.”

The mix wouldn’t work without a band of fluid, flexible improvisers who share McCaslin’s ample comfort zone for articulating a wide umbrella of styles without ever sounding out of their element.  McCaslin knows Ben Monder — who recorded the trio session Dust for Arabesque in 1996 — from frequent gigs with Maria Schneider’s orchestra; the guitarist deploys his vast harmonic vocabulary and nuanced orchestrative capabilities throughout.  Precisely off-center trapsetter Jim Black — known for his work with Tim Berne’s Bloodcount, Dave Douglas’ Tiny Bell Trio, and Pachora — was a Berklee classmate, though, McCaslin confesses, “I’ve hardly played with him since.  The way he plays, utilizing a range of different sounds with a great sense of colors and dynamics, is what I was hearing for some of these tunes.”

Ditto with Scott Colley, whom McCaslin met during the fellow Californian’s late ’80s tenure with Carmen McRae; he’s presently bassist of choice with Jim Hall and Andrew Hill, and is McCaslin’s bandmate in Lan Xang, an open form collective quartet whose other members are alto saxophonist Dave Binney and drummer Kenny Wolleson.  “I heard Scott playing the bass line that begins ‘Manresa’ as I wrote it,” McCaslin relates.  “I knew he could play it the right way — make it ROCK!   Originally it was called ‘Hippie Rock Tune,’ because that’s exactly what it is to me!  Manresa is a beach in northern California, and it conveys the feeling of home.”

The music of Olivier Messaien inspired McCaslin to write the title track — a lovely melody replete with wide interval jumps — and the up-tempo swinger “Frontiers,” on which McCaslin takes a spectacular solo, achieving an inside-outside feel reminiscent of ’90s tenor hero Joe Lovano.  “Messaien’s harmonic language is so interesting, his rhythmic language is so advanced — his music sounds majestic and emotional,” McCaslin explains.

McCaslin penned “Second Line Sally” — both the George Gruntz Concert Band and Lan Xang have recorded it — during Boston days as a swing number; here it gets a fun-house Zigaboo Modaliste treatment, as Black gives it up for the groove.

“These Were Palaces” is a ballad written at the end of a relationship.   “When playing the tune, I’m thinking of the way Jonatha Brook sings,” McCaslin says.  “Her writing actually has had a big influence on me.  ‘Mick Gee’ has a drum-and-bass feel.  Jim suggested we play it faster than I normally do to give it that edgy feeling to contrast with the other relaxed, grooving tempo.  I wanted it to have a shocking effect, with contrasting extremes.”

For “Strange Pilgrim,” “I wanted a swinging bass line with a quirky melody on top,” McCaslin says.  “I wanted to take a simple tune and do as much as I could to make it into a story that develops.”   It’s followed by “Going To The Territory,” a gospel-blues tinged tune with a Rock inflection that reminds you of early ’70s Keith Jarrett.

“Seen From Above” ends with a relaxed idiomatic McCaslin-Colley duo on the memorable refrain of Kurt Weill’s “September Song,” reaffirming deep roots on an album where McCaslin reveals those sources more through phrasing and improvisational acuity than in the formal architecture of the tunes.  “Santa Cruz was very open in music and in art when I grew up,” McCaslin concludes.  “There were salsa bands, straight-ahead jazz trios, free jazz, and I was exposed to all of it.  It was all just music.  I think that notion is something I share with all the guys in this band.  This record is my music, and it reflects all the influences I’ve absorbed through the years.

“The thing that appeals to me about jazz is the freedom of improvisation. I want to do my best to play at the highest level that I can aesthetically.  Playing with musicians of this caliber, who can lift the music into that really exciting and wonderful place, is what I’ve worked towards and practiced for all these years.”


Liner Notes, Donny McCaslin, Give and Go–2005

Highly regarded by fellow musicians and connoisseurs of hardcore jazz since he settled in New York in 1991, saxophonist Donny McCaslin became a subject of mainstream jazz conversation when he earned a 2005 Grammy nomination for Best Instrumental Solo for his soulful, dramatic, architecturally cogent statement on Buleria, Soleá y Rumba, an extended opus by composer Maria Schneider that appears on Schneider’s Grammy winning CD Concert In The Garden.

On Buleria, McCaslin revealed the qualities that have attracted such demanding bandleaders as Danilo Perez, Dave Douglas, Mike Mainieri, and Gary Burton, who in 1988 recruited McCaslin, then a 22-year-old senior at Berklee School of Music, for the tenor saxophone chair in his quintet. In the notes for Seen From Above, McCaslin’s 2000 date on Arabesque, I summarized them: “Thoroughly grounded in fundamentals, he knows how to whip up interesting melodies out of the knottiest harmonic progressions, and doesn’t allow melodic essence to waver at even the nastiest tempos.  His lines don’t land where you’d expect, he swings incessantly, and he projects a burnished, vocalized sound through the entire range of his horn.  Most importantly, without sacrificing a whit of individuality, McCaslin has internalized a collective attitude to improvising, allowing his partners, all 21st century jazzmen of similar sensibility, to imprint their personalities on the proceedings.”

Let’s add that McCaslin’s penchant for exploration rests upon an authoritative command of the vocabularies of hardcore jazz and the Spanish Tinge, which coexist holistically in his tonal personality. A native of Santa Cruz, California, a university town and counterculture bastion 80 miles south of San Francisco, he first encountered both idioms through his father, Don, a gigging pianist and vibraphonist influenced by Red Garland and Cal Tjader. A student of sax gurus Bill Pierce, Joe Viola and George Garzone during his years at Berklee, McCaslin once earned praise from Leonard Feather for “virtually stealing the show” from Phil Woods, Red Holloway, Flip Phillips and David “Fathead” Newman during a saxophone jam on a cruise ship. On the Latin side, he played in high school years with an 8-horn Salsa band called Los Shlepos Tipicos, and as a ‘90s New Yorker, worked intermittently with Perez, a Berklee dorm-mate, with Argentine guitarist Fernando Tarres, and with the Panamaniacs, a Santi DiBriano-led unit that explored clave, straight-ahead and open feels while retaining a unified sound..

On Give ‘n’ Go, his Criss-Cross leader debut, McCaslin draws on lessons learned with Danilo Perez during 2001-02, when he toured steadily on Perez’ Motherland Project, and on his more recent travels with Maria Schneider, a frequent employer in 2004-05.

“Danilo is a great educator as well as a great musician, and it’s inspiring to be around him,” McCaslin relates. “I’d bring blank music paper with me at soundcheck, and as we’d play he’d tell me he was looking at a certain voicing, or discuss some rhythmic progression, and I’d write it down. It was like being back in school—he was sharing so much information.

“One thing that I appreciate about Maria’s writing is how every single part is meaningful. Whether you’re playing the fourth reed chair or the third trombone chair, all the lines have significance and are melodies in and of themselves. That’s influenced me. Also her lyricism and the sheer beauty of her music. She’s not afraid to do what she’s hearing. You can call it ‘orchestral jazz’ or whatever you want, but it is what it is, and she’s just putting it out there.”  Helped by several preparatory gigs at Manhattan’s 55 Bar and Brooklyn’s L&M Loft, McCaslin puts out seven original compositions with support from an A-list cohort. As on all of McCaslin’s dates, Scott Colley, a fellow Californian, anchors the flow on bass. They met while McCaslin was with Burton and Colley was with Carmen McRae, and first recorded together on the 1995 Dave Binney album Luxury of Guessing. After that session, McCaslin, Binney, Colley and drummer Jeff Hirschfield—the latter subsequently replaced by Santa Cruz native Kenny Wolleson—formed the collective quartet Lan Xang, a touring unit until the end of the ‘90s.

Criss-Cross devotees will be familiar with the work of John Swana, the Philadelphia-based trumpet virtuoso, who appears on four selections. “Alex Sipiagin was always telling me how great he thinks John is,” says McCaslin, referring to the Russian trumpet virtuoso (also a Criss-Cross artist), a frequent bandmate. “I played with his organ trio in Philly, and it was a lot of fun. I felt there was some sort of connection, like stylistically he could play straight-ahead but also open at the same time.”

Here as on Seen From Above, McCaslin uses guitar as the chordal instrument, deploying Steve Cardenas, a Kansas City native who currently plays with the Paul Motian Electric Bebop Band, Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, and a Joey Baron-led quartet called Killer Joey.

“I met Steve more than 15 years ago when he was living in San Francisco, and Kenny Wolleson set up some California gigs for me to do when I came home from college,” McCaslin recalls. “He really gets inside a tune, and brings forth the harmony in a thoughtful way. He’s also a great comper; I feel he hears what I’m doing and makes it sound better, gives me a springboard to play off of.”

A past contributor to Criss-Cross sessions by Alex Sipiagin, Conrad Herwig, Ryan Kisor and J.D. Allen, drummer Gene Jackson is a master at alchemizing hybrid rhythms from ethnic metric signatures. McCaslin began to feel Jackson’s beat on gigs with Sipiagin and on several tours of Japan with singer Monday Ichiru.

“Gene’s playing is very strong, and he likes to go for it and stretch,” McCaslin remarks. “But no matter how busy or wild things get, I still feel a certain sense of grounding that I can latch onto. We egg each other on.

The McCaslin-Jackson simpatico is evident on “Outlaw,” an ebullient long form piece inspired by an Egberto Gismonti tune. McCaslin rehearsed it with Danilo Perez, who included other McCaslin tunes in the Motherland Project repertoire. “One thing we added was the counterpoint bassline in the last section of the melody, which I end up doubling,” McCaslin says. “But the challenge was coming up with the right feel. I’ve played it sometimes as a samba and sometimes with a more straight-eighth rock feel, but it never felt right. Gene and I worked on it, and he came up with what he calls an American samba.” McCaslin and Swana uncork melodic solos with a dollop of saudade.

Based on a synthetic scale from Messaien’s etude book, Modes For Limited Transposition, “Scrappy” is a quirky line with sardonic Monkish phrasing, intriguing intervals, and disjunctive hits. Goosed by the kinetic Jackson, McCaslin and Cardenas incorporate these shapes and dynamics on stimulating solos.

Composed in 2000, “Drift” claims Joe Henderson’s “Black Narcissus” as an antecedent. The A-section has a moody three-feel, while in the B-section Jackson’s rubato soundpainting details the melody and chords. Swana’s exquisite dark tone fits the melody like a custom-tailored suit, and McCaslin sustains the mood, his tenor voice drenched with soulful emotion.

“I was listening to Radiohead at the time I wrote the tune,” says McCaslin of Give and Go, also from 2000. The title refers to the basketball tactic of passing, cutting directly to the basket, and receiving a return pass for an easy shot, a process represented by the Cardenas-McCaslin interchange on the jagged intervals of the theme. “The melody came about when I was improvising on a synthetic scale, and I heard a harmony that to me sounded like a Radiohead-inspired piece. I was looking to hear some music that excites me and stimulates my sense of creativity. I landed on a Radiohead record. The tunes are interesting, the harmony is weird and different, it’s not the typical pop progression, plus all these other things happen in the arrangement through the production.”  The Liberators’ Song is McCaslin’s response to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’  The General In His Labyrinth, a novel in which General Simon Bolivar is the chief protagonist. “It’s a melody and a mood,” says McCaslin of the brooding, Shorteresque refrain, his voice-like tone cosigned by Jackson’s gentle tom-toms and cymbal splashes.

McCaslin addresses clave structures with precision and finesse on “Two/Three,” composed during his stint with Danilo Perez. “I originally conceived of it as a son, but Gene wanted to play it as a rumba,” McCaslin says. “Danilo’s tunes contain a lot of counterpoint between the bass and the melody. Here I conceived of the bass line first, and to me the bass player’s melody is almost the more compelling one.” Colley demonstrates why on his introductory statement over Jackson’s sticked clave modulations. On their ensuing solos, Cardenas, McCaslin (on soprano) and Jackson handle the involved form with elegant panache. Written during McCaslin’s Lan Xang days, Doom Fuss features an angular two-bar bassline pattern and much open-ended McCaslin-Swana call-and-response.

Following his custom of concluding records with a hardcore jazz classic, McCaslin closes with Thelonious Monk’s “Eronel,”  which he learned in Boston days with Ken Schaphorst’s big band. After McCaslin’s reharmonized, rhythmically displaced intro, inspired blowing commences over Jackson’s Frankie Dunlop-inspired swing-with-a-limp.
“I’ve played it at sessions for years,” says McCaslin, who knows how to use a tricky line to sort out the wheat from the chaff. Also, Steve co-authored a book of Monk tunes with Don Sickler, so  I knew he could nail it and get inside the harmony.”

Jazz-obsessed from his formative years, McCaslin tells his stories with the lucid joie de vivre of a natural improviser. But he has never allowed revered traditions to be a ball and chain.

“I love playing tunes and stretching,” he says. “It’s part of my foundation; it feels like home. But I don’t usually play standards when I do gigs as a leader, because I want to get my original music out there. I’ve always had sense of eclecticism. At Berklee I played in a Rock band. I’ve done a lot of funk gigs in New York. I just enjoy playing music.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Donny McCaslin, DownBeat, Liner Notes

For Master Composer-Drummer (and Trombonist-Pianist) Tyshawn Sorey’s 37th Birthday, two interviews from 2007, a DownBeat Players Article from that Year, and a Blindfold Test from 2014

Since 2007, when I spoke with Tyshawn Sorey on WKCR and then had a more comprehensive discussion for a DownBeat “Players” piece, the master composer-drummer (and trombonist-pianist) has grown into an international force in creative music, not to mention a Ph.D and a new appointment as Assistant Professor at Wesleyan University. This post, in honor of Sorey’s 37th birthday, contains the two interviews, the “directors’ cut” Players piece that stemmed from the interviews, and an uncut Blindfold Test that he did with me in 2014.


Tyshawn Sorey (Downbeat Players Article):

Last May, drummer Tyshawn Sorey, playing with a quartet led by Muhal Richard Abrams, orchestrated the flow with utter self-assurance and, without really trying to do so, stole the show. After an opening salvo in which Sorey propelled tenor saxophonist Aaron Stewart and bassist Brad Jones with ferocious dialogical rubato, Abrams entered the mix, mimicking and morphing Sorey’s rhythms, then warp-gearing into an intervallically ambitious solo. A powerful crescendoing Abrams-Sorey duo ensued—Sorey hit a freebop groove, placing texturally contrasting accents on the toms and snare, while stating a a crisp 4/4 on the ride cymbal. Abrams gave way, and Sorey wound down to stillness, bowed his cymbals to extract harmonics, stopped, deliberately took apart his crash cymbal and reassembled it so that the concave bottoms faced outward, elicited more harmonics, transformed his body and the floor into percussion instruments, then reestablished a tempo with sturm und drang on the bass and snare drums.

It was only Sorey’s second engagement with Abrams, who thereby joined a distinguished list of speculative composer-bandleaders—among them, Steve Coleman, Vijay Iyer, Dave Douglas, Butch Morris, and Henry Threadgill—eager to deploy the 27-year-old drummer’s unique skill sets.

“He reminded me of Art Tatum right away,” said Coleman, recalling his first formal encounter with Sorey at Manhattan’s Jazz Gallery several years ago. “Very prodigy-like.”

Tatum is not a reference often applied even to the immortal musicians of the timeline, much less a drummer just out of college, so Coleman elaborated.

“Tyshawn is an ultra-quick learner,” he said. “Usually people who read that well don’t have great memories, and vice-versa, but he has both. He’s very well-schooled, but doesn’t have a schooled sound. Very individual player. Few cliches. He knows traditional stuff, but he’s unpredictable. When he came to the band, he was talking about Anthony Braxton and his Tri-Axium writings, the Schillinger system, Muhal,  and Stockhausen. He’s the opposite of the Young Lion image, more like a guy who would fit in during the loft scene days, but with much more command of structure than most guys who were psychologically on that thing. He can handle any structure I ever could dream up, nail any rhythm and make it fit, and at the same time get wild on it. Sometimes he goes overboard, like snow rolling down a hill that becomes an avalanche; if a top was spinning on a table, he’d tilt the table to upset the equilibrium. You have to know you’re getting that when you hire him.”

Iyer, who recruited Sorey for his group Fieldwork in 2002, cosigned the Tatum comparison. “He has perfect pitch and seemingly total recall,” he said. “My first session with him, we were trying a new piece with stuff that even I couldn’t really execute. He looked at the page for a half-minute and gave it back. Because he hears at that level, he can be creative in any situation, and he never holds back. He can engage with anybody and spin it all into gold.”

“Steve gives very specific rhythmic instructions, and I try to be creative with that information,” said Sorey, who toured with Coleman last summer in a two-drumset ensemble with fellow wunderkind Marcus Gilmore, and played with Iyer at this year’s Vision Festival. “For example, I’ll use my hands to play a rhythm that was initially assigned to my feet, and then vice-versa. Sometimes I’ll play something completely away from that rhythm, figure it out metrically, and do whatever I want. I’m interested in sound itself, not necessarily as part of any one particular lineage. I want to hear the sound of the rhythm on the drumset and feel its beauty. I want to transcend the instrument. That keeps it interesting to me and the listener—and the musicians.”

Out of Newark, New Jersey, Sorey in his teens was gigging in club bands and units associated with various ministries in the vicinity of his home town when he discovered Abrams’ 1968 Delmark recording Levels and Degrees of Light.

“That turned my world upside-down,” said Sorey, whose polymath influence tree includes John Bonham, Michael Shreve, and Mitch Mitchell; Clyde Stubblefield and Zigaboo Modaliste; Max Roach, Elvin Jones and Tony Williams; Kenny Washington, Jeff Watts, Joey Baron and Jim Black. “I play piano, trombone, and mallet instruments, and the concept of multi-instrumentalism intrigued me. I checked out electronic music and music by Xenakis, Stockhausen, and Cage—through Cage, I eventually stretched to the point where pretty much anything in the room could constitute some sound element. I listened to the sounds Andrew Cyrille experimented with on recordings with Cecil Taylor, also the direction the AACM guys took with form, Coltrane’s later music with Rashied Ali, recordings of Albert Ayler, even the music from Buddhist sermons. I started to understand more about the discipline of improvisation, what it means to have a relationship with the musicians and how this manifests through the music itself.”

These days, Sorey tries “to find my own terms”on those ideas while composing for several ensembles, including a quartet that recorded in May for Firehouse 12.

“I want to keep the audience guessing,  and not label me as some free jazz guy, or some textural guy, or some guy who is crazy and can do all these things,” he said. “No matter what style of music I’m playing I want people to say, ‘That’s Tyshawn Sorey.’ That’s where I’m at right now, and where I hope to continue to be.”


Tyshawn Sorey (WKCR, April 26, 2007):

TP: You mentioned that Muhal Richard Abrams’ Levels and Degrees of Light was an important signpost for you, as were other AACM recordings in developing musical ideas and strategies. How did you come to them? Many people your age would have had neither access to nor awareness of that music. I find it interesting that you’re a guy who went through the jazz conservatory system and learned a broad timeline of jazz drumming, and also has these non-idiomatic interests.

SOREY: In fact, a lot of the jazz language I studied myself coming up. Even before high school, I learned how to improvise. This is when I was maybe 12 years old. One of the first tunes I learned actually growing up was Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology”; it’s one of the first things I learned how to improvise on. My teacher exposed me at that time to all kinds of different music—the music of Miles Davis and the music of John Coltrane.  Much of my jazz influence comes from them.

TP:   This was as a kid in Newark?

SOREY:   Yes.

TP:   Who was this teacher?

SOREY:   He passed away some time ago. His name was Michael Cupolo, and he was a jazz-blues type of saxophonist coming up. I guess all of my curiosity spread from there, and checking out a lot of things by Max Roach…because Max Roach was one of the very first people I checked out at all in this music. It intrigued me from the moment I started listening to his music, and listening to Drums Unlimited and things like that. Around the age of 16 or 17, I started becoming curious about other facets of jazz music. It’s funny, because when I was younger, I started out listening to a lot of early jazz—like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Freddie Keppard, all this type of stuff. So I was into checking out a lot of the experimental music. I wasn’t necessarily interested in focusing on one particular facet of jazz music. So that was one problem I wanted to conquer, and the way to do that was to listen to other musics from other composers and other musicians and other facets of the music that brought my playing level to where it is today.

In checking out Muhal’s recording, that was one of the earliest awakenings for me. That was one of the first experimental records I’ve gotten to check out. It opened the door for me towards expanding my sound source, going beyond just the drumset. I am also a multi-instrumentalist. I play piano as well as trombone and mallet instruments. The concept of multi-instrumentalism is what really intrigued me, and it really made me want to explore that more in my music.

So I became a composer at around 14, and then around the time I checked out Muhal’s record, my whole world turned upside-down basically, and then also through studying out of different books about the AACM and on the AACM, and things which mentioned…

TP:   Which books?

SOREY:   I don’t remember the names of the books. This was ten years ago.

TP:   There aren’t that many.

SOREY:   Yes, not that many at all. In fact, I was checking out more music… That’s how I learned more about the AACM, was through checking out liner notes. Checking out a lot of John Coltrane from his later period at this point, things like Ascension and Meditations and Expression and things like that.

TP:   The things that Rashied Ali was playing drums on.

SOREY:   Right. Checking out mostly that. It got me to become a lot more open to what I was listening to at that time. Because at that time, I was very much wanting to play jazz and then do the experimental thing on the side, or something like that. I was very naive.

TP:   You were compartmentalizing the different approaches.

SOREY:   Right. I was very naive about that. Now it’s to the point where pretty much everything I do, no matter what genre of music I play, it’s going to show anyway, the nature of what I like to do.

TP:   But you do play different genres. You play with musicians who use very specific beat structures that are out of the sphere of mainstream jazz. Vijay Iyer uses extended cycles, and so on. Then you play this rubato, texture, open improvisation as well. Is it all the same to you? Is it a holistic concept? Do you enter different areas of thought process in dealing with the different demands?

SOREY:   Never. In fact, in any type of music that I’m playing, no matter who the composer is or anything like that, I always try to put as much of myself into that art as I can. Now, within reason, of course—within the context. But if I’m playing Vijay’s music or Steve Coleman’s music, or if I’m playing in a straight-ahead context, or if I’m doing anything, I generally want to express my individuality as much as possible, and therefore, everything…all of the influence carried out by their work… Therefore, all of that becomes one thing to me. I never try to compartmentalize anything, whenever I’m playing any type of music.

TP:   Are you composing from the perspective of a drummer, or sometimes as a drummer and sometimes more theoretically? How does it play out?

SOREY:   It’s more theoretical than anything. As I told you, I play piano and trombone. Whenever I’m writing my music, especially now, I’m writing for those instruments and I’m writing for the people who I happen to be working with. I never try to  write from a drummer’s perspective, just because for me, the tendency to write with that kind of perspective would be to write something that’s around something that I know how to do already, and I like having the ability to challenge myself as an improviser as a constant challenge. No matter what type of music I play, I strictly try to challenge myself based on whatever I write, whether it’s open or whether it’s metrical or whatever it is. I’m not necessarily writing anything to be difficult or anything to be simple or anything like that. I’m just interested in writing good music that expresses my life experience, and hopefully that will uplift others. That’s my interest. So I don’t really write with the kind of thought process a normal musician probably would. For example, if I were to write something in some kind of meter that I know how to play and I can do all kinds of things on, I’m not particularly interested in pursuing that. I’d rather get more into my own approach and into my playing, and not necessarily into information that I already know about. I don’t really want to do that.

This next track is from my most recent project, Oblique, which ended on January 31, 2007. This concert dates from July 2005 at the now-defunct CB’s Lounge. This band features Loren Stillman on alto saxophone, Brian Klachner on guitar, Carlo DeRosa on bass, Russ Lossing on keyboards, and myself on drums.

TP:   In speaking of drum influences, you mentioned Rashied Ali, Elvin Jones, Max Roach. Let’s discuss more how you’ve assimilated drum influences into your sound and what those influences mean to you at this point.

SOREY:   Basically, any drummer who is willing to push the envelope and is willing to push himself and his values as an improviser, I am interested in listening to. Elvin and Rashied, of course, are two of those people. Also a great drummer who I have admired for the last 2½-3 years is John McLellan, who plays in a lot of ensembles led by Mat Maneri and different people like that. It’s amazing to me, as much as I hear about him, I don’t ever get to see him perform live. I only got to see him perform live once at the 55 Bar with Ben Gerstein. He’s not a drummer, in my opinion…

TP:   Are you mostly interested in drummers who are “not drummers”?

SOREY:   Exactly.

TP:   What is a drummer who isn’t a drummer?

SOREY:   A drummer who isn’t a drummer, in my opinion, is one who transcends the instrument into something else he wouldn’t have been playing otherwise. As I said, I’m a piano player as well, so whenever I play drums I try to think of another instrument besides a drum or tapping out a rhythm. Again, this is dealing in context rather than just as one thing. I could approach it as a pianist, because I’ve listened to a lot of pianists, a lot of piano players and a lot of piano music coming up. So in checking all that out, it carried over into everything I do now on the drums. Even when I’m playing rhythmic things, I try to think like a pianist, and try to think about something other than the drums. Because if I think about the drums, it’s going to sound a little too…I don’t want to say “normal,” but it will sound very typical. It’s a very typical way of thinking in the music today, and right now we have many younger musicians who are trying to transcend their instruments into something else. That’s what makes their music so fascinating to me, is the fact that they are able to do that. John McClellan, of course, in my opinion, is not really, like, a drummer per se, not one who plays the normal role. For me, I’m not really interested in playing any one particular role at all, no matter what music I do.

TP:   Let me ask about some of the musicians you’ve worked with. Vijay Iyer, for example. How did working with those structures affect your thinking? What were the challenges of that gig?

SOREY: Interestingly, I’d been studying South Indian concepts, a lot of different rhythmic concepts based on mathematics and different forms of creating rhythm, before I met Vijay, and getting into the so-called “odd time signatures” and things like that. This was years before I met Vijay.

TP:   So grappling with those structures in itself wasn’t such a challenging thing.

SOREY:   It wasn’t necessarily a challenge, but it was a challenge on my values as an improviser.

TP:   Why?

SOREY:   For several reasons, one being ensemble interplay, which I think… Just a few weeks ago, I was listening to some early recordings that I did with them before we recorded the album Blood Sutra, some four years ago, and I was listening to things we’d done before then… I felt the need to really mature in my work, and to know what I want out of music, as opposed to just playing the music and sounding killing and this and that. I wasn’t necessarily interested in that…

TP:   Come on. You want to sound killing!

SOREY:   [LAUGHS] There’s some truth to that. But in fact, that wasn’t really my goal, that wasn’t really my purpose for making music. I was more interested in why am I doing this, why do I want to go in this direction, what brings me to this direction, why am I here? These are the kinds of things I was asking myself.

TP:   Working out those issues with music.

SOREY:   Exactly. It came from life experience, and that was the answer for me.

TP:   So performing in that band helped you along that path. How about performing in conductions with Butch Morris?

SOREY:   Butch is actually one of the first people to take me to Europe. I was very honored to have been a part of that.  Working with Butch, again, made me question my overall value in music and what I want to get out of music, rather than what I want to present—what I can get out of it for myself. Working with Butch has led me to think very differently as an improviser in having many different vocabularies attached to my playing. It was a growing period for me. At that time, when I was listening to music and when I was playing all of this music, I would play in I guess you would say so-called “free jazz” situations where I felt something was missing from my playing. I felt that there were a lot of strong points that I had within me that needed to be expressed, and the way that started getting expressed was from working with Butch—different vocabularies and different ways of improvising as opposed to just one way all the time. If you hear a saxophone player play a certain figure, you don’t necessarily have to follow that figure. Which now I don’t really like the whole call-and-response thing (or the cat-and-mouse thing) so much now. It was working with Butch, for example, that led me to start thinking about these different ways of improvising.

TP:   Now, call-and-response is one of the fundamental vocabulary tropes of jazz.

SOREY:   That’s right.

TP:   What’s unsatisfactory about it?

SOREY:   It’s not so much about what is unsatisfactory, but more or less what I am interested in. I am interested in all kinds of principles in music. Opposition…

TP:   So that, or not-that.

SOREY:   Exactly.

TP:   How about playing with Steve Coleman, who’s involved in ritual rhythms, where you’d need to extrapolate those ideas onto the drumset. In all three cases, you’re dealing with musicians for whom the interpretation of their music requires a great deal of discipline. Their music can’t be called free jazz…

SOREY: Exactly. Well, for me, all music has discipline. Whether it’s mine or if I’m playing an improvisation or whatever, all music has discipline in it.

Steve Coleman’s music has given me a great deal of discipline. Even working with Dave Douglas has given me a great deal of discipline to work with. I remember having lunch with Dave, and we were discussing my approach to solos and my approach to the band, and he asked me, “What do you want from this? What do you want from the music?” What I want from the music is a further understanding of myself through all the different ways possible. In working with Steve, not only rhythmically has it helped me become more advanced in terms of my drummer’s vocabulary in terms of so-called “independence” and “coordination” and things like that, but it’s also helped me to become interested in the study of other music, and appreciating the sound of whatever it is that he wrote out for the drumset. For example, if he were to give me a part with I-Ching symbols on it, and I were to interpret it, I would like to hear the sound of that now, as opposed to getting away from it and doing my own thing. I really want to hear the sound of it all and to feel the beauty of that, and what that sounds like. That’s one of the key things that’s helped me to focus my vocabulary a lot more on the rhythmic concept.

TP:   Do you play other percussion instruments? Do you incorporate them into your drumkit or your sound?

SOREY:   No. Usually I incorporate everything else that’s in the room! But I try not to bring any extra parts or anything like that.

TP:   No tambourine here, or castanets there…

SOREY:   Just a strict, regular type of drumset.

TP:   How many different projects are you leading now?

SOREY:   Three. Oblique is the one I’ve ended. There’s the Tysawn Sorey Quartet, which will be playing tonight. The Soto Velez Band, which premiered at the venue Clemente Soto Velez; we’ve premiered some work there. Another group is a quintet that I’m right now forming, doing a lot of my early work as a composer as well as later stuff.

TP:   How do they differ in content?

SOREY:   The quartet focuses on a lot of composed music as well as a lot of free improvisation. The Soto Velez Band is not as compositionally intense, but there’s a lot more improvisation in that than there is in the quartet. The quintet I’m forming right now deals with a lot of things based on chord structures and meters and so on.

TP:   Three very different fields of activity.

SOREY:   Yes.

TP:   Two-three years out, how do you see your activity divided up between your own projects, projects with other people, etc.?

SOREY:   Ultimately, I’d be interested in doing my own projects exclusively; that is, getting more opportunities to present my work. Which fortunately, at least for this half of the year, I’ve been given a lot of opportunities to present my music. I hope more will come my way, and I hope more of my work as a multifaceted composer and musician becomes recognizable.


Tyshawn Sorey (May 17, 2007):

TP:   I want to start with this concert you played with Muhal. Was it the first time you played with him?

TYSHAWN:   Just this past Friday? No.

TP:   How long have you been playing with him?

TYSHAWN:   This is the second concert we’ve done. I’d say it must have been… I guess we closed the last concert series, and now we’ve started this concert series. So four months or so.

TP:   So this year you started playing Muhal’s quartet music. Did Muhal find out about you through Aaron?

TYSHAWN:   He found out about me through Aaron k[Stewart]. Like I said in the other interview, Aaron was one of the first people who ever really exposed me to New York, exposed me to the scene. He basically took me in and was like a big brother to me. He introduced me to some of the music of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which I already knew something about, but he got me even more interested in the music. I met Muhal actually in Venice, when he and Roscoe Mitchell and George Lewis were doing a concert. I met them at the Venice Biennale Festival in 2003 for the first time.

TP:   Who you’d known about since high school.

TYSHAWN:   Right.

TP:   Are there any dynamics to playing with Muhal that were unique, or bring you out of… I realize that you don’t have a lot of habits, and you try hard to break any you might find yourself falling into. You asserted your  personality very strongly, but Muhal’s stuff is so strong that it was very ensemble-oriented anyway. He seemed to be orchestrating around you, in a sense. So it was a very interesting concert.

TYSHAWN:   I had a lot of fun. It  was a great experience for me. There’s something special about playing his music. While he lets the individual be himself in the music, there’s also an element of discipline, as I’ve said, in his music that’s very apparent, and it comes out very strongly just in terms of the players who I play with. I have the utmost respect for people like Aaron and Brad Jones and Muhal. For me, this is something that I was always interested in exploring, in terms of the ensemble interplay and the level of interplay we’ve gotten into. I’ve always been interested in that, and I was glad to be able to fit within it. I was surprised actually that I got the second call from Muhal. The first gig, which was a quintet project with Aaron, Howard Johnson, a bass player named Sadi(?), Muhal and myself… I was actually surprised that I got the second call, because I felt very bad about my contribution. But at the same time, I rethought about it before I got the second call, and I thought it was the perfect environment for me to be in, especially with people whom I really respect on that level.

TP:   Over the years you’ve played with a number of the older musicians who’ve been involved in speculative improvising for years and years, but also a lot of your peer group. As a general question, can you talk about the ways in which the older musicians’ attitudes towards music… Do you see any generational difference in the way they think about things?

TYSHAWN:   Oh, there’s a big difference. Since I was young… I was 14 years old when I got involved in a group. Up until now, I was always the youngest person in the group. I would sit in with blues bands and so on, with older musicians, and play a lot of jazz group situations and a lot of multi-genre settings close to where I lived. These people really helped me grow, not only on a musical level, but on a personal level as well.

TP:   The older musicians. This was in Newark?

TYSHAWN:   This was in Newark, Irvington, places like that. But primarily around Newark. I was in high school when this was going on—of course, I was underage. There’s a place close to the center of downtown Newark where they had blues jam sessions and things like that, and I remember walking in one night, just seeing a drummer set up. I had no idea what was going on. I just happened to walk in, and he was setting up some stuff, and he asked me to sit in with this blues band. This was around ‘96-‘97. He asked me to sit in and play, and I played, and he said I sounded good. But he was telling me also some different life experiences that he went through as an artist and also as a person, and these things I guess somehow crept into my music—all of these experiences.

TP:   How so?

TYSHAWN: Well, the thought process.  It basically altered my thought process, how I can go about pacing… These older musicians took me in and made me realize some aspects of my playing that I could work through discussing life experiences…

TP:   Pacing was one of them.

TYSHAWN:   Pacing was very important.

TP:   By pacing, you mean not throwing out all your ideas every second.

TYSHAWN:   Not throwing out all your ideas, yeah. That was my biggest problem, especially when I first came to New York. Because I felt very pressured to please everyone, or I felt very pressured to be “the workingest person in New York City.” I guess after a certain point, I became disinterested in that. I became more interested in drawing back from my experience when I was younger, and applying that to my musical output now.

TP:   When did you first start hitting the New York scene?

TYSHAWN:   Around 2002.

TP:   Was that when you hit with Butch Morris at the Bowery Poetry Workshop?

TYSHAWN:   Right.  In that period. Before that, I had played with Vijay. Aaron also introduced me to Vijay on February 2, 2002 (or February 4th), where Fieldwork was doing a concert, and Aaron told me about Vijay at that time, and he asked me to come to the concert. So I did, and Vijay introduced himself, and we discussed some things, and Aaron was talking about me to Vijay. I met Butch through Michele Rosewoman, who was also one of the first people I’ve worked with. In fact, the first person who actually took me to Europe. I met Butch through her at a party that we had. I had no idea that Butch would ever call me for everything, and in June, all of a sudden, I received a phone call from Butch asking me to participate in his conduction. Right away, when I walked in there, I didn’t know what to do. I felt like I didn’t know anything about what was going on when I walked in there, and dealing with his conduction vocabulary… It was kind of like a shock factor I was in, because I wasn’t really that experienced in improvising on such a level where I had to be completely disciplined. That was one of the first opportunities I had to do that. It was a hell of an experience. It was five weeks we had in July 2002, and I learned quite a bit. Again, I was the youngest person in the group—still! [LAUGHS]

TP:   Let me take you back. Are you born in Newark?

TYSHAWN:   I was born in Newark. Born and raised.

TP:   You’re from downtown, urban Newark.

TYSHAWN:   Yeah. Right in the center.

TP:   Did you have musicians in the family?


TP:   What things drew you to music and the drums?

TYSHAWN:   I didn’t really have musicians in my family. I have a cousin who plays keyboards and stuff like that professionally. But that wasn’t really what drew me to music, because it was always inherent from the getgo. Since I was 2 years old, I knew I wanted to do this. Through my father and different people exposing me to recordings, my uncle exposing me to different jazz recordings… Back then, I was more of a purist. I would only listen to jazz.

TP:   Back when? When you were 2?

TYSHAWN:   No. When I was maybe 5 or 6, I decided that I only wanted to listen to just jazz and things that were closely related to it.

TP:   You were 5 or 6? How did you know about it? Where did you hear it?

TYSHAWN:   It was all music to me.

TP:   But where…

TYSHAWN:   I heard it at home.

TP:   Your parents had jazz records.

TYSHAWN:   Yes. My father especially. My mother was more of an R&B type person and stuff like that, because that’s what she was exposed to. My father was a very open-minded person about music and different things. Sometimes, even today, I’ll play him recordings of the most extreme, the most abstract stuff, and he’d be very open.

TP:   He’s into it.

TYSHAWN:   Yes. So he owned a lot of different records from different genres and things like that.

TP:   So he’s a jazz fan. He’d probably be a link to some of the people you play with.

TYSHAWN:   Right. He had all kinds of different records, all kinds of different genres, and I would listen to all of them. I didn’t really view it as listening to jazz per se, or anything like that. It was all the same to me. But then, when I became I guess around 5 or 6 years old, I decided that I just wanted to stick with one genre, and that was jazz. I don’t know why I did that. I shouldn’t have done that, because I think my vocabulary would be even more broad than it is today given that.

TP:   Well, you were 5 or 6.

TYSHAWN:   Right. I didn’t know what I was doing! Essentially, my father, some two years later, had taken me to Newark Symphony Hall to meet Dizzy Gillespie at a concert he was doing. I had a couple of records by Dizzy already on my own. My uncle would always take me record-shopping, and he’d let me pick 2 or 3 different records at a time, every time we went record-shopping. So I had two records of Dizzy already, and I was excited, I really wanted to meet him. I had no idea he was still alive. I saw no biography or nothing like that. When I went over there to meet him, Dizzy was one of the sweetest people that I could ever… I had no idea I would ever meet him, first of all.

TP:   How did your uncle know him?

TYSHAWN:   We didn’t know him at all.

TP:   He just brought you back. “Here’s my little boy…”

TYSHAWN:   Yeah! And that I was interested in playing music. He let me mess with his valves and mess with the trumpet and stuff like that. Actually, I have a picture at home of him when I was doing that. I was around 7 years old at the time. The concert was great, I remember.

TP:   That’s when he had the United Nations Band.

TYSHAWN:   Yes, exactly. It was killing. Then a year later, my uncle took me to see two different jazz groups, Miles Davis and the group Hiroshima—around ‘88 or ‘89. I didn’t get to meet Miles, but I was just blown away by everything that was going on at the time. Then I realized how purist I was in my approach to listening to music and things like that.

TP:   Were you playing drums by that time?

TYSHAWN:   No. I was just banging around on boxes and pots, pans…

TP:   Were you playing piano or trombone by then?

TYSHAWN:   I was playing piano and trombone by then.

TP:   Was that in the schools in Newark?

TYSHAWN:   No. That was self-taught. I was largely self-taught in everything I do. The trombone I picked up out of interest. I remember seeing a television commercial or something like that with somebody playing trombone. I couldn’t pick drums in my school because they didn’t have that instrument there. I mean, they had a snare drum or something, but they didn’t really have a full drumkit for me to explore the instrument. So the only thing I did was I said, “Okay, I’ll just pick trombone.” I didn’t want to pick saxophone because I thought it would be very difficult to play.”

TP:   As opposed to trombone!

TYSHAWN:   As opposed to trombone! Ironically, that’s the hardest… So I took trombone, and took classes and how to read and improved my reading. But mostly what I did at the time was by ear.

TP:   Trombone and piano. You’d listen to records and try to play along…

TYSHAWN:   Yeah, that kind of thing.

TP:   When did you start playing drums?

TYSHAWN:   I started playing a real drumset (I’ll put it that way) by the time I was 14 or 15.

TP:   Before that were you playing rhythms?

TYSHAWN:   I was just playing rhythms and tapping with my hands and stuff. I kind of intuitively had an idea on how to play the instrument, because I would watch videos of people doing it. So I had an intuitive idea on how the instrument worked. I just didn’t have much idea about coordination and technique and all that stuff.

TP:   I’m sure you had good time.

TYSHAWN:   Time was pretty decent. I could keep a nice groove and things like that. But until that I point, I would borrow drumsets, or I would practice like at church,  or wherever I had the opportunity to get on a drumset.

TP:   Was church a place where you could play?

TYSHAWN:   Not necessarily. I wasn’t even part of the ministry. For whatever reason, they wouldn’t allow me to play with the ministry.

TP:   You listened to a lot of records, so you probably know a lot more than most people who were 14 in 1994 about the music’s history and who the personalities are. Were there particular drummers at that point who were interesting to you?

TYSHAWN:   Well, several different genres. Again, it came out of a more broad perspective, as opposed to jazz drummers or something like that. But I listened to people like Mitch Mitchell or John Bonham, and then I would listen to Elvin and Tony, then I would listen to John Robinson or somebody… All kinds of different people from different genres, and some international music as well—a lot of Spanish music, some folkloric Cuban music.

TP:   Were you the type of kid who would hear Tony Williams with Miles and you’d try to break down what Tony was doing…

TYSHAWN:   Exactly.

TP:   You would try to emulate these guys.

TYSHAWN:   Try to emulate these guys.

TP:   Who were the main guys you’d try to emulate? You’d use trial and error, I assume, because there wasn’t youtube at the time.

TYSHAWN:   Right! It all started by checking out the movie Woodstock and listening to Carlos Santana’s group play, and Michael Shreve, who back then was 17 or 18 years old, and watching him take a solo… Sometimes I would try to copy things from there. I also listened to a lot of Max Roach, who at the time really drew me to the music. When I was 2 years old, Max Roach was one of the first people I listened to.

TP:   You heard him at 2 and you can remember it.

TYSHAWN:   Yes. My father told me. We had Charlie Parker records all over the world. So we had a lot of stuff. I still have those records, too. That’s how I remember. Elvin Jones I’ve checked out a bunch. He’s the reason why I’m still playing today.

TP:   Why?

TYSHAWN:   Because of what he brings to the music and the creative element that he has. His improvisation. Him and Tony both, in terms of their approach to improvisation and what it means to really explore oneself. Tony Williams I checked out. There was no way I could play any of that information, but I’ve checked it out anyway and I’ve tried to dissect as much of it as I could through transcription and through literally copying things that they’ve done—tuning drums like them, sitting just like them, similar hand techniques that they use. Literally trying to emulate what they’ve done.

TP:   But you seem always… Well, maybe it’s from being exposed to all this. But your tastes are very broad. I don’t know if that’s something to address or not.

TYSHAWN:   Oh, yeah. Definitely it is.

TP:   Do you think that’s a generational thing?

TYSHAWN:   It could be a generational thing. A lot of the people in my age area…I mean, they were only interested in hip-hop, and that’s all they would listen to. Since I was 6 years old and going to the barber shop with my dad, he would take me to get my hair cut… Going to the barber shop has always been an experience I looked forward to. Because the barber who cut my hair owned all of these recordings, all of these R&B artists and things like that. He also helped expose me to different things, checking out people like Millie Jackson, James Brown, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, and he would give me all of these 45s every time I would come to the barber shop, and I’d go home and listen to them all night.

TP:   You’re the second guy I talked to in a last couple of weeks who said that they had this sort of learning experience at the barber shop. But it sounds like you got your playing together pretty quick. Then you started playing neighborhood gigs type of thing…

TYSHAWN:   I pretty much came out of the church, I guess you could say. Playing in the church. I played in several different churches. As I said, I couldn’t play in my home church ministry, but I have played as part of other ministries before, getting back to where my cousin, who plays keyboards professionally… He actually got me hooked up with those opportunities to play in those churches.

TP:   These are churches in Newark and the surrounding…


TP:   What sort of music? Shuffle rhythm type music?

TYSHAWN:   Yeah, more that kind of stuff, or gospel music that has an R&B edge to it. That kind of stuff. I grew up doing that.

TP:   That must have been good training as far as time and pacing and keeping people interested…

TYSHAWN:   It was a wonderful experience. I’ll never forget, we were playing the church service in Montclair, it was an evening service, and there was a fill that I tried to do that sounded…as I remember now, it’s very advanced. You don’t really hear a lot of gospel drummers play these type of fills or anything. I don’t know exactly how to describe it, but I did do a lot of subdivisions of beats and things like that while I played. He turned and looked at me and he said, “Don’t do that.” That was one of the first experiences I had in terms of learning discipline and how to really lock in and really groove with people, and how to make people feel while I’m playing the music.

TP:   It doesn’t seem there are a whole lot of gigs that can help you swing as much as doing a church gig when you’re 14-15-16 years old.

TYSHAWN:   Right. Although the local band that I participated in, the first group, we played a lot of jazz tunes. We played stuff by Horace Silver. We played things by…

TP:   In church?

TYSHAWN:   No, this is completely different. We played things by Marvin Gaye, we played stuff by Smokey Robinson, we’d play something by… There was just all kinds of different music we did, and I’m thankful to have had that experience, because all of that is pretty much a part of what I do.

TP:   During those years, were you aware that the newer jazz tradition, James Moody and Wayne Shorter and Sarah Vaughan and Larry Young and Woody Shaw and Hank Mobley and all that… I know WBGO was very active during those years, so among other things, it would have helped to keep that consciousness going. But I’m wondering if that was important to you as a young guy.

TYSHAWN:   It was. In fact, I listened a lot more to WKCR than I did to WBGO. A lot of what WBGO was playing…it sounded like they were playing the same music a lot, and I looked for a different source to get to music, and I found WKCR. On that station, you hear a lot of Charlie Parker a lot of stuff that you can’t get out here these days. There was one time when I would get a whole bunch of blank tapes and record stuff from WKCR. I used to have this collection of cassette tapes where I would pull stuff from the radio program—like the delta blues programs they used to have, a lot of early jazz programs, Charlie Parker programs—and document it. I’ve done a lot of documentation. I did a lot of CD shopping, record shopping, and things like that during that period.  But WKCR I would say was and still is my main source for getting the information I’m interested in.

TP:   But the reason I was mentioning WBGO is the role it plays in the cultural infrastructure of Newark, and if they had any impact in your consciousness of the musicians I mentioned and the history of Newark jazz music. Or Savoy Records, or Amiri Baraka…

TYSHAWN:   I learned a lot about my culture in Newark while listening to WBGO as well. WKCR wasn’t exactly my only source, but it was my main source of information. Listening to WBGO helped me to understand the history of Newark, and what musicians came out of there, and what they felt for the music. I had no idea Wayne Shorter was from Newark until I graduated high school. He went to my alma mater, Arts High School. Sarah went there, so did Woody Shaw, Ike Quebec, some other people. Then they had Savoy Records, which wasn’t too far from where I lived, right in downtown Newark. So I knew about jazz heritage in Newark, and then when I checked out WKCR I learned about the New York scene and what was going on here.

TP:   As you say, everybody was into hip-hop. Were you able to get along with your peer group, or were you sort of an outcast type of…

TYSHAWN:   No! I was very much an outcast. In fact, the bus attendant who… I always took the bus to school until I was around 11 or 12 years old. I needed to have music around me all the time, or else… It was a big thing for me. I was listening to so much music at that point, to the point that people looked at me as pretty weird. I was listening to the country music that WKCR would play at 6-7 o’clock in the morning on the weekends, and I would record that stuff, and then I’d bring it with me. I had a tape recorder with speakers and I had a headset. My bus attendant said, “You can’t get on the bus with this music.” “I enjoy it, I like it.” It got the point where she gave me a break and said, “All right, you can listen to it, but just put the headset on.” So I was listening to all kinds of music on the bus, that I’d taped from the nights before. So I was very much a person who was looked at as very strange, number one, for listening to country music on a school bus in front of a bunch of hip-hop kids, you know what I mean… I guess I was always viewed as different in school because of the music I checked out and what my interests were.

TP:   Lucky for you that you had the church community, with people who would accept you for what you are.

TYSHAWN:   Right.

TP:   When did the notion of speculative improvising take hold, taking it outside, the area you find yourself in… You went to William Patterson, and you couldn’t really be playing that way when James Williams was teaching a class, even if James was tight with Joe McPhee. Or Harold Mabern… If you were playing with them, you had to play…

TYSHAWN:   Right. Very straight-ahead.

TP:   I’m sure you could hold down that type of gig if such a thing came along.

TYSHAWN:   Right.

TP:   Now, most people your age… This is a different time than the ‘60s. It’s hard to live the starving artist life because things are just too expensive. There’s no safety net. You can’t live in a cold water flat in the East Village for $100 a month. That pragmatism is one reason why people…

TYSHAWN:   Shy away.

TP:   …shy away from that. What was moving you in that direction?

TYSHAWN:   It’s when I started listening to Coltrane’s music, and then later on the music of Jackie McLean. Some other people also. People like Elmo Hope, Thelonious Monk, people like that. I investigated more into what they were doing, and saw that it was very individualistic at the time they came up. That’s when my attention to Muhal Richard Abrams came about. Because I had no idea who this man was. I was just reading a book about what transpired during the ‘60s, and Muhal’s name was in the book. I said, “Who is that?” I tried to find out who he is. I couldn’t find Levels and Degrees of Light at all. I looked all over for that record, and I could not find it for a long time until I saw a CD copy of it, and then I picked it up and checked it out. I said, “Whoa, what are these guys…”

TP:   So you dug that right away?

TYSHAWN:   Uh-huh.

TP:   Can you recall what you dug about it? You weren’t playing anything in that vibe at the time, were you?

TYSHAWN:   No. What I dug was the realization and understanding of form on such a level where it was totally advanced from what was going on at that time. Me, myself, through listening to Wayne Shorter and people like that, and seeing how many different ways form can take, the standard song form and things like that, looking at all these different ways of defining the form of a song and things like that, and I’m seeing what the AACM guys are doing, and they’re taking it in a completely different direction than what I’d known. So what captivated me most was how they demonstrated that.

TP:   Describe from your perspective what it is they did that was outside the norm.

TYSHAWN:   Well, the improvisation… They were improvising, and it felt very natural to me.

TP:   But when you say it was different from what you’d known, do you mean different from the Ascension and Interstellar Space type of thing, or do you mean…

TYSHAWN:   It was different from that, in the way that they were playing with each other. It didn’t sound like a typical jazz ensemble at all. Even though you have people who play those instruments, saxophones and piano, it still was very different for me. There would be points where the piano didn’t play, sometimes there would be one or two instruments playing, and then there would be another point where the whole group is playing, and then another… That’s what really sparked the interest further than that. Because I didn’t understand what was going on at the time, but as I got more into the music, especially of the AACM, I started to understand more about the discipline of improvisation and about what it means to have a relationship, not only musically but also personally, with the musicians and how it manifests through the music itself.

TP:   Was this a solitary pursuit during that time? Did you find people with whom you could start working on these ideas?

TYSHAWN:   No. Not at all..

TP:   This was before you went to college.

TYSHAWN:   This was in high school.

TP:   What happened in college? Was that a good experience for you?

TYSHAWN:   In college I was very much still a straight-ahead player, but I would also have the ability to be able to play so-called “free forms” of music and things like that. My composition also had advanced by that point. My forms became more “weird.” They became more interesting. People would say, “Yeah, you’re drawing a lot from Wayne Shorter and Duke Ellington” and so on, but then over time in college, it progressed into a thing where it is right now, to a point where I’m basically trying to find my own terms when it comes writing music or investigation of material.

TP:   Who were your main instructors at William Patterson?

TYSHAWN:   John Riley, a great big band drummer and a great teacher. I asked him several questions about many different traditional musics and forms of jazz, and he was very receptive to discussing those things with me. I thank him for that. Bill Goodwin. Kevin Norton. I studied with them over my whole course there.

TP:   I’d imagine the impact of the latter two was less on drum techniques than helping you find your way conceptually.

TYSHAWN:   Exactly. With Kevin it was that way. We be in a situation in our lesson where we’d play together, he’d play vibraphone and I’d play drums. After we were done playing, he’d always ask me, “What were you thinking about during this? Were you thinking compositionally? Were you thinking the opposite of what I was doing? Were you thinking the same texturally as what I was doing?” He made me start thinking more about these things, which drew me back to my first listening to Muhal’s record. That’s the thing that I needed to understand, was all these ways of improvisation that do not necessarily fall into this confined state where everybody follows each other. It really made me start to think differently about how I would play with other musicians, whether it’s duo or large group. It made me think of all these things when it came to free playing or more conceptual type stuff.

TP:   I assume you started gigging in this regard once you were in college.

TYSHAWN:   Once I was in college, yeah, I started gigging more. I started doing a lot of club dates where we played bebop standards and that type of stuff. I did a lot of that actually for about 3 years.

TP:   When you play bebop, who do you sound like?

TYSHAWN:   Myself still, but… I guess it’s like a cross between Elvin, Max and myself, all kind of mixed in together, in that I do a lot of rhythmic variation in my solos, a lot of different subdivisions. I still throw that in sometimes, which was my element…

TP:   You swung a little with Muhal. Got out of it pretty quick, though.

TYSHAWN:   Definitely. I love doing those kind of dates. I wish I could do it more often, but I’m known for I guess doing some of the most extreme…

TP:   Well, you are known as a very extreme drummer. Do you feel like you’re being…

TYSHAWN:   I feel like I’m being pigeonholed, in a sense. Not a lot of people know I can do that, except for close friends or people who actually have done club dates with me. For example, in the next month I’ll be going out to D.C., to Twins Jazz Club, which is a very straight-ahead type of place, and I’ll be playing 3 club dates there—2 with a saxophone player named Anthony Nelson, and another who I’m waiting to hear from. But the two gigs I’m doing with Anthony are confirmed. He’s very much a straight-ahead bebop type player, and we’ve been working together for the last close to ten years.

TP:   So that’s satisfying for you, too.

TYSHAWN:   Oh, yeah. To be able to do that…

TP:   You haven’t turned your… Well, again, maybe that’s a generational thing, too. For a lot of the older players, the decision not to play that way was very firm – “I’m NOT going to play like that” at all costs. In 2001 I covered a workshop Cecil Taylor did at Turtle Bay Music School, and a lot of the players could play bebop or they could play… Maybe it’s because of music schools, or the Internet…

TYSHAWN:   Well, there’s so much more access now than there was when I grew up, to the point where musicians are becoming a lot more proficient very quickly. It’s now at the point where we have the Internet, we have youtube, we have line-wire, all these different things we’re drawing information from. That’s why I think the musicians are more proficient now.

TP:   Aaron Stewart was the guy who brought you into the NY scene. Did you meet him at William Patterson? How did it happen?

TYSHAWN:   It’s an interesting story. This guitar player… The first time I came to New York and played in front of real professional musicians…not to say that Mr. Nelson wasn’t a professional at the time… But I say that because people with the profile of Gene Jackson, Mark Helias, Michele Rosewoman, Steve Wilson… In college, I went to a concert of there. This was after 9/11. I said, “I’m not going to go to New York for at least a year.” I was terrified at what happened. But around November, they were doing a concert at the Up Over Jazz Café. It was Mark Shim… I’d known Michele for three years at that point; she’d been teaching at Montclair State University Summer Jazz Camp. She wrote me an email saying, “I’d like to see how you sound these days, because I haven’t heard you in a while; won’t you come down to Up Over and check out the concert.” So I went there to check out the concert, but when I got in the door I didn’t expect that she was going to ask me to sit in. When I walked in the door, she said, “I’m going to have you play on a couple of things.” I was scared. I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of people like Gene Jackson, who I think is one of the greatest drummers out here today. I wanted to make sure I was ready. She caught me totally off-guard. So I went to the stage, and we played a couple of tunes. Mark Helias. Mark Shim was on the gig, and he found out about me through her. After the set was over, after I’d played the tunes with them, he said, “Man, you should be out here working right now. You’re very talented…” and this and that… “and here’s my phone number,” and this-and-that. Then he gave Jonathan Kreisberg, the guitar player, my telephone number, and I worked with him on this gig with Shim. Then Shim arranged… There was a rehearsal with Kreisberg, and Shim said, “Can you stay a little later.” I said, “Sure, I can stay…” I didn’t think I was going to stay in New York. But I said, “Okay, I’ll stay.” Shim said, “I have a friend coming over,” and that was Aaron. This was in 2001.

TP:   You did this tour with Butch and then you played with Vijay… Other gigs, too. Michelle was into working with a lot of diasporic and Afro-Cuban rhythms. You were incorporating those, too?

TYSHAWN:   Yes. Also working with her helped me to understand what it means to actually play that material, and how it relates to several different religions. I didn’t know anything about some of these African religions or the Yoruba music…the ritual music.

TP:   After Muhal’s gig the other night, I went to Vijay’s hit with Marcus Gilmore, and Vijay said, “I wish I’d gone to see that; what did Tyshawn do?”


TP:   I said, “It was very focused, very compositional.” I mentioned that you’d taken things apart, put them back together, playing them… He said that one time you played with him, you’d actually hit the drum so hard that you punctured the head. 


TP:   I’d like you to talk about putting your individuality into all those different contexts.

TYSHAWN:   I try to work within whatever the context is. Working with Muhal, like I said, allows me to be myself within the context of what he does and within the context of his music. He’s a very open person. It’s very rare to play with people like him, and to be around someone like him. On the other hand, to play with someone like Anthony Nelson or to play at the jam sessions at Cleopatra’s Needle is completely different. But I like to apply some aspect of my individuality into whatever music I’m doing, and I try to play within the context of the song but I also try to think to myself, “what is the listener going to gather?” I don’t want to sound like any one person. For example, if I were to play some rock tune or something like that, I don’t want somebody to tell me, “Well, you sound like Vinnie Colaiuta” or “You sound like this or that.” I don’t want that to happen. If they heard a recording and they didn’t see  a concert or anything, l want them to be able to say, “That’s Tyshawn Sorey playing.”  I want that individuality to come through in whatever I’m playing.

TP:   So you don’t necessarily have to deconstruct the kit on a bebop gig to claim your individual sound.

TYSHAWN:   Not at all.

TP:   For your own music, is any one component more… You seem very interested in textural exploration of the kit, and trying to put together compositionally as many sounds as you can either within metric flow or not. Is that just one aspect of your creative individual interests? Does it also interest you to do rhythmic subdivisions, or to swing or not-swing…

TYSHAWN:   Oh, yeah.

TP:   Would you say that now you’re in a phase of your exploration?

TYSHAWN:   I feel like that, yes. As I said, the exploration phase never stops. It’s never apparent.

TP:   Particularly the textural things you’re doing.

TYSHAWN:   Right now, it’s just as important to me to discover textures on the instruments that I know already and some I do not know already. It’s better for me to do that than just go wild on the drumkit for an hour. Because I’m missing the beauty of everything that could happen, or missing the beauty of possibility—or lack of it, in some cases. But I feel like this is a very important phase for me, because now it helps me to discover my individuality a lot more than I was used to. I’m interested in sound as itself; not necessarily as part of any one particular lineage, but I’m interested in the sound of the instrument itself.  For me, it’s about the instrument and it’s about what you can do to enhance the music on such a level where it doesn’t follow the cliches that are involved in improvisation.

Music for me is all the same. I like to get involved with my instrument as much as possible, to the point where, like I said, I’m going to keep the audience guessing, and not label me as some free jazz guy or some textural guy or some guy who is crazy and he can do all of these things… I don’t want to be labeled as such. I want people to be able to identify me no matter what style of music I’m playing. That’s where I’m at right now, and where I hope to continue to be.

TP:   What sort of gigs would you like to be doing that you’re not doing now?

TYSHAWN:   A hip-hop gig, or some straight-ahead type situation—but where I could still express myself, of course. Basically, everything that became part of my musical makeup, which is pretty much all the music I’ve listened to. Classical music, classical contemporary music, R&B, Funk, jazz, avant-garde, experimental music, electronic music. Everything. I’d like to be part of all of it.

TP:   You were speaking of iconic drummers. But for people your age, people like Tain and Lewis Nash were also important. Were you paying attention to any of them?

TYSHAWN:   Kenny Washington especially. I don’t know if we discussed this on WKCR, but I took part of NJPAC’s Jazz for Teens program, and he was the drum teacher there, and he really nailed me! It was some of the most profound teaching I’ve ever experienced. He was telling me to check out this, check out that, gave me a list of things I needed to check out and listen to. He was actually one of the people I started listening to when I was as young as 9 years old.

TP:   He was still with Flanagan then.

TYSHAWN:   Right. There’s a record on Telarc, To Bird With Love, with him and Lewis Nash, and I was really floored with their technical brilliance, and how disciplined they were in playing the music, and how much life they brought into it.

TP:   Serious bebop playing. 

TYSHAWN:   Yeah. For me, that stuff was killing. It’s really great. I’ve listened to Tain, of course. Before I left high school, I was checking out a lot of Tain. I was interested in Branford’s music, and I heard about the direction that music started to take. There were days when I tried to emulate him as well in college. I set up my drums like him, and I would have almost the same exact cymbal setup he would have, and all this stuff. I would try to emulate as much stuff as I’ve checked out as possible. I was listening to people like Jim Black at the time, and I tried to emulate his style. I tried to do Joey Baron. I’ve checked out a lot of those people as well.

TP:   What’s your kit like? Your setup.

TYSHAWN:   I use a regular traditional four-piece setup that most jazz drummers use. A flat ride cymbal on my left, ride cymbal on my right, crash cymbal on my far right, and a pair of hi-hats. That’s all I use. Almost every gig I do, that’s it.

TP:   Are you particular about the tuning?

TYSHAWN:   I’m very particular about my tuning, yes. I mean to say, I don’t want anything to sound like what someone else’s tuning could be like. But at the same time, you can’t avoid that, because there are so many people out here. I try to tune my drums as articulately as possible while sustaining kind of a low pitch. So I try to have some kind of body to the sound that I’m producing, even though there’s a lot of articulation there as well.

Aaron pretty much is the source of a lot of what I do today. The first Jazz Gallery concert I ever did was with Vijay, and he came to the first night, and my drums were tuned just the way I normally tune them, sort of how Tain would tune his drums, a very dark, round kind of sound. Aaron came up to me and said, “You sounded fine; I can hear the cymbals, but I can’t really hear the articulation of the drums, and I can’t hear a lot of what your ideas are. The next day I went personally out to Sam Ash Music in Paramus, New Jersey (they didn’t have one in my area at the time, though now they do), and bought a bunch of drum heads, some drum sticks, some drum keys, all kinds of stuff that I would never have done otherwise. I bought all this new stuff, and I got to the Jazz Gallery around 5:30 or 6 the next night,  took everything apart and retuned it, cranked things up a little more, and everything was very bright-sounding, and everything all of a sudden was more articulate. The night of that concert, it seemed my ideas came out so much better than it did the first night. I even set up differently. I set my cymbals up differently. I sat differently. I had to use a different hand technique because of the way I set everything up. I could see that my ideas were flowing so much better, and became a lot more clearer. Even Vijay noticed that on the second concert. He said, “Did you fix your drumset, or did you change the way you hit it?” I said, “Yeah. Completely!” A complete change.

TP:   You’re going to Europe with Steve Coleman in a month or so. He’s extremely specific about rhythm, about certain metrical things. Have you found it a very rewarding experience?

TYSHAWN:   It was a very rewarding experience, in that I can appreciate the beauty of whatever it is he writes. But again, like with Muhal, he lets me express myself as an individual within the context of whatever is going on. For example, the way Steve looks at music is very different than the way I used to look at it—which is still kind of the same. Whenever I play his music, he has very specific instructions regarding what rhythms I should play. Sometimes I try to figure out what I can do to make it creative and to be creative with that specific information. I’ll  change the relationship of whatever rhythms he would give me between my hands and feet; play one rhythm that was on my feet to my hands, and then vice-versa. Sometimes I’ll play something that’s completely away from it, and try to metrically figure out what it actually is, and I’ll just play that and just play myself, whatever I want to. It’s a great experience for me to be as creative as possible with very specific information like that.

But I didn’t want it to sound too rigid either. I don’t want it to sound like, “Well, this is what the groove is.”  I  want to keep it interesting for myself and for the listener—and for the musicians.

TP:   You said that you think people tend to pigeonhole, and people who think historically might think of you as a modern-day Sunny Murray or Rashied or Andrew and so on, and there are certainly elements there.

TYSHAWN:   That’s right.

TP:   Have those drummers given you any feedback as well?

TYSHAWN:   I ran into Andrew last week at the New School, and we talked for a bit. I’m interested in studying with him. I’m going to try to get a couple of lessons to even go further beyond what I have going now. We actually met in Ulrichsberg, Austria, some two years ago. Fieldwork played and Marilyn Crispell, Henry Grimes, and Andrew were playing the next night. I went to that concert, and it was the first time I’d seen Andrew in a live performance setting. I remember Andrew taking this solo, he just took the snare drum off the stand and was doing things with the drum with his feet, and creating different rhythmic things using that. His whole solo was based on that, and then he started using the whole kit and doing a bunch of different stuff with that. The solo must have been 5 or 10 minutes. After he was done, I was just in tears, because I couldn’t believe how much sound he was able to get out of a traditional setup—like I have. He didn’t have a bunch of bells or gongs or toys or none of that. He had sticks…

TP:   He used to play the wall, and his chest…

TYSHAWN:   He was playing his face, too, I remember!

TP:   How long have you been taking the kit apart?

TYSHAWN:   Five-six years.

TP:   Playing the wall, these dramatic textural contrasts you like to do…

TYSHAWN:   This is when I was checking out a lot of electronic music and music by classical contemporary composers like Xenakis, Stockhausen, Cage… Actually, John Cage interested me more into stretching my sound source, to the point where it pretty much became that anything in the room could constitute some sound element. I wasn’t thinking like that at the time, but when I started checking that stuff out, it really opened up my whole sound world. Also checking out Cyrille’s recordings with Cecil Taylor, and listening to the sounds he would experiment with. Also the AACM guys. When I was listening to the AACM, I wanted to get into this whole sound world that I didn’t know about. Because of my curiosity, I wanted to get into that. That’s when I started checking out Cecil Taylor, and when I started checking out Coltrane’s later music with Rashied, and recordings of Albert Ayler, and then listening to other music as well. Like, sometimes, listening to Buddhist sermons, which might have music in it as well.

TP:   Do you think long term? Do you think of what you’d like to be doing when you’re 35? Where you’d like your music, your career to be?

TYSHAWN:   I don’t see it as a goal that you reach at a certain point or a goal that you reach at the end.  It’s more about the search for myself dealing with whatever sound world I’m interested in. It’s more about that than the actual finding of something. I don’t want to put any particular pressure on myself to fulfill a certain goal, but I can only say that wherever my career takes me is where I’ll be happy, because I’ll get to still be myself. If I’m successful at that, that’s great; if I’m not as successful as the next person, then that’s also fine. But I know within myself that I’m doing what I want to do.

TP:   Apart from music, you’re teaching?

TYSHAWN:   I’m teaching, yes, at the New School—private students. I learn a lot from them as well. It’s been a special experience. A lot of students I taught there… For me, it’s not really about, “Okay, I’m going to give you lessons and that’s it.”  I try to develop relationships with them and try to make sure that they are following the path they want to go. I’m interested in that as well, and I’m the type of person who puts that kind of thing on myself. I tell all my students I don’t want them to feel pigeonholed, like they’re a rock guy or they’re a jazz guy or they’re a free guy. I think they’re a musician, and that’s all that matters really. Everybody is different. It’s will just have to come out in whatever music you play.



Tyshawn Sorey (BFT—Final Edit):

Steve Coleman, who does not dispense compliments lightly, once compared Tyshawn Sorey’s drumkit and percussion skills to the legendary mega-virtuoso pianist Art Tatum. But for the 34-year drummer-trombonist-pianist-composer, who recently released his fourth album, Alloy [Pi], it’s less about chops than about “feeling the beauty of the sound of rhythm on the drumset, rather than any one particular lineage.”

Wadada Leo Smith Great Lakes Quartet
“Lake Ontario” (The Great Lakes Suites, TUM, 2014) (Smith, trumpet; Henry Threadgill, flute and bass flute; John Lindberg, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums)

Barry Altschul has such a distinctive sound, with the flat ride cymbal and tightly tuned drum setup. It’s not him? I like the economical setup, that he’s dealing in the music so honestly without a lot of extended accessories. I’m thinking Pheeroan Aklaff, too, with that big sound, which I gravitate to. The composition was beautifully played and well-executed; no matter how loud the solo, the drummer played with tremendous clarity and stayed out of the way, never bombastic. A giving way of playing, which I hear in many older drummers. 5 stars.

Steve Wilson-Lewis Nash Duo
“Jitterbug Waltz” (Duologue, MCGJazz, 2014) (Nash, drums; Wilson, soprano saxophone)

The time feels internalized, which I especially like. It’s clear that the drummer is playing in 3/4, but it’s more implied than heard. I especially appreciate that he’s keeping time with the entire drumkit. The drums are clean, articulate, very well-tuned, resonant. The touch is light, but full. He’s not interested in playing a whole bunch of drums; he’s playing for the song. It reminds me of Lewis Nash. I’ve listened to him extensively. One of our most valuable drummers. He has such control and mastery; he can play anything and still be there. 5 stars is not enough.

The Whammies
“The Kiss (for Maurice Ravel)” (Play The Music of Steve Lacy, Vol. 3: Live, Driff, 2014) (Han Bennink, drums; Jorrit Dijkstra, lyricon; Mary Oliver, violin; Jason Roebke, bass; Pandelis Karayorgis, piano; Jeb Bishop, trombone)

I’m thinking of things like Mario Davidovsky’s Synchronisms and Milton Babbitt’s works with instruments and electronics behaving together. It’s gorgeous—violin, synthesizer and bass. The drummer reminds me of Han Bennink. Is this ICP? No? Wolter Wierbos on trombone? Han’s playing is so dynamic and powerful, and his touch is identifiable—his brushwork and pressure techniques he applies to the snare. He incorporates everything into the music. I appreciate hearing a drummer in his seventies who still takes so many chances, is open to fostering collaborative relationships, whose goal is to bring out the best in a lot of musicians. There are times when what he does can be a little much for me, but that’s my problem. It’s not his. 5 stars.

Paul Lytton-Agustí Fernández-Barry Guy
“In Praise Of Shadows” (Topos, Maya, 2007) (Fernández, piano; Guy, bass; Lytton, drums)

Agusti Fernández, Barry Guy and Paul Lytton, who is at the forefront of contemporary drumming today. He’s immediately identifiable. A lot of what he does reminds me of electronics. He gets such a clear, articulate sound, while doing many things in a non-traditional way. He sounds like a composer who is thinking of numerous sonic possibilities within the drumkit by doing different things with his hands or mounting found objects, like little cymbals that dampen the sound of the drum (and at the same time create a higher pitch attack so that you hear a drier sound), or using brushes to get crackling sounds. Everyone moved together in terms of density, but also listened together and maximized the possibilities in each respective instrument. 5 stars is not enough.

Mike Clark
“Past Lives” (Blueprints of Jazz, Vol. 1, Talking House, 2006) (Clark, drums; Donald Harrison, alto saxophone; Christian Scott, trumpet; Jed Levy, tenor saxophone; Christian McBride, bass)

The drums are mixed so high, it’s obvious that the drummer led the session. Bright sound. I dig that. Beautiful song. The drummer was highly active, but was also thinking compositionally, playing differently behind each soloist while maintaining the high energy and forward motion and using the entire drumkit. The tempo didn’t fluctuate one bit. 5 stars.

Albert “Tootie” Heath
“It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago” (#10) (Tootie’s Tempo, Sunnyside, 2013) (Heath, drums; Ethan Iverson, piano; Ben Street, bass)

The drums are flowing, developing its own space even before the piano and bass develop all the melodic stuff—as though the two things are developing at once. I like that he barely used any cymbals. You get a sense he’s working with a language in playing the groove, which feels very natural, and the way he accents the pattern is dynamic. I also like the tuning—very melodic, not drowning anything out. 5 stars. [after] That rendition conveyed the sense of flow in Paul Motian’s music.

Doug Hammond
“It’s Now” (Rose: Doug Hammond Tentet Live, Idibib, 2011) (Hammond, drums; Dwight Adams, trumpet; Wendell Harrison, clarinet; Stéphane Payen, Román Filiú, alto saxophone; Jean Toussaint, tenor saxophone; Dick Griffin, trombone; Kirk Lightsey, piano; Aaron James, bass)

Hard to guess. It’s someone from an older generation, playing an accompanying role, not getting in the way of the soloists, who are strong. Is it the drummer’s composition? There’s a high degree of counterpoint in certain places, which is beautiful. It reminds me of Max Roach’s writing. I like the use of cowbell and toms, broken up in a very nice groove. I hear it not just as a cool pattern, but a melody, a composed part that serves as an axis, the glue that holds it all together. 5 stars for the composition and 5 the drumming. [after] Doug Hammond is one of my main influences. I know his earlier things with Abdul Wadud and Steve Coleman where he’d compose grooves as a way of determining form, not his writing for larger groups. He’s responsible for much of what’s happening in drumming today.

Leave a comment

Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, WKCR

For Saxophonist-Composer Yosvany Terry’s 45th Birthday, a Jazziz Feature From 2014, Two Interviews from 2013, and A Downbeat Profile (and the Interview for that Profile) From 2013

Today is the 45th birthday of the master alto saxophonist-composer Yosvany Terry, which is a good excuse to post documents of three formal encounters I’ve had with him since 2006. At the top is a 2014 feature piece that I wrote about Yosvany for Jazziz magazine framed around the release of New Throned King, his investigation of arara culture. Following that are two interviews from 2013 for a Jazz Times piece in which I interviewed 8 Cuban musicians who had transplanted to the U.S. about their education in Cuba. Following that is a short Downbeat profile from 2006 framed around his CD Metamorphosis, and following that is a long interview that we did for that piece.


Yosvany Terry, Jazziz Feature Article, 2014:

“It’s interesting that this happened in New York,” Yosvany Terry says, reflecting on the chain of events that culminated in the June release of New Throned King (5Pasion). Joined on the CD by a 10-piece all-star band comprised primarily of fellow Cubans transplanted to the New York metropolitan area, the 43-year-old alto saxophonist-chekere player refracts the rhythms and chants that animate Cuba’s obscure [i]Arará[i] religious ceremonial with a comprehensive, poetic conception of modern jazz harmony and phrasing.

In early June, over a lunch of shrimp croquettes, roast pork, yuca and moro rice in a Cuban restaurant in Greenwich Village, Terry offered the involved back story that led to New Throned King. The chain of events sprang into motion in 2006, when Terry, a Harlem resident since emigrating from Cuba in 1999, applied for a grant to research Arará traditions. His fascination with the subject had gestated a year before his move to New York, while he was touring on a Steve Coleman-led collaboration with the folkloric ensemble Afro Cuba de Matanzas, who played Arará chants on congas. “I loved the chants, and I wanted to discover more where they came from,” Terry recalls. “But I had never seen real Arará drums in person.”

Brought to Cuba from Dahomey (now Benin), Arará drums, which animate Haiti’s vodún religion, were not to be found outside  Matanzas province, where the famously hermetic Sabalú cabildo — a religious/social organization originally formed by African slaves — that has preserved the tradition over multiple generations, maintains hawk-eyed custody. The drums portray deities with characteristics similar to those described by the Yoruba bata drum choirs that fuel the majority of Cuba’s traditional Afro-descended ritual practices. Arará drums are tuned lower and sculpted from different wood than batas, and are used to generate rhythmic patterns, chants and dances that differ entirely from those generated by their Nigeria-rooted counterparts.  “A community can use the Arará patterns to tell another community to prepare for war,” Terry said. “Batas are more ceremonial, to play for the king and other occasions.”

In December 2006, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors awarded Terry an $85,000 grant. In September 2007, he made an initial visit to Matanzas, where he contacted Mario Rodriguez, a.k.a. El Maño, a master practitioner of the Arará, bata and abakuá dialects. This trilingual guru figure played a key role in the Sabalú cabildo, which, Terry says, has “turned away great musicians and ethnomusicologists” on suspicion of their motives. However, El Maño knew Terry’s father, a violinist and singer who had built a national reputation since the 1950s as leader of the prominent charanga ensemble Orquesta Maravillas de Florida, based in the Camagüey Province, 260 miles east of Matanzas. El Maño decided to share his knowledge and assumed the role of Terry’s padrino, or godfather.

Parallel to these lessons, Terry commissioned a set of Arará drums, which, he says, would enable him “to hear the way the Arará chants were supposed to work with the original instruments and in the right environment.” He continues: “Seeing the drums was like a flashback. These were the exact same drums, deities and cultural traditions that I grew up with from the vodún tradition in the Haitian side of my family, even though Camagüey and Matanzas have no relation to one another in Cuba.”

With assistance from Matanzas-born percussionist Sandy Pérez — an Oakland, California, resident who put Terry in touch with El Maño — Terry taught the rhythms and chants assimilated in these encounters to master percussionists Román Diaz and Pedrito Martínez, both Cuban-born first-callers in New York. Although familiar with the Arará religion as rendered in Havana, their hometown, where, Terry says, “there is no chance you see those drums,” neither drummer knew the idiomatic Matanzas style. The three powerhouses formed the core of an ensemble that Terry convened to make a demo CD of five initial compositions framed around the traditional Arará toques,  representing, Terry says, “my take on going to a ceremony, but with a different aesthetic vision that includes everything I’ve been exposed to since I started studying music in Cuba and then living in New York.” Joining the drummers were the leader’s bassist brother, Yunior Terry, Cuban pianist Osmany Paredes and — to add “an American perspective” — Oakland native Justin Brown on trap set. Terry named the unit Ye-Dé-Bgé, after a Fon phrase meaning “with the approval of the spirits,” and led them through several concerts around New York City and northern California in 2008.

After this initial salvo, Terry continued to study with El Maño, exponentially expanding his information base as he earned the trust of the members of the Sabalú cabildo. (In early 2011, he and brother Yunior were initiated into the sect.) During this period, Terry fleshed out the older pieces and composed several new ones, among them “Mase Nadodo,” written in conjunction with a commissioned poem by Ishmael Reed depicting the Minos warrior women of Dahomey, and “Reuniendo la Nación,” a drum chant that Terry augmented with ghostly sounds from Haitian DJ Val Jeanty and improvised piano from Jason Moran.
Terry’s sense of familial obligation to preserve and extend the cabildo’s traditions became even more palpable after Rodriguez died in August 2011. “Without El Maño, I wouldn’t have any information; nothing I could use was available on the internet or on CDs or anywhere,” Terry says. “I think he realized that I was not just a student interested in learning the patterns and chants, but someone who sees himself as part of the same lineage. In that way he embraced me. When my cousins saw me playing the drums in my house, they knew these were same drums they’d known as children. So I was able to connect my family tradition with Arará. One path developed in Haiti and one developed in Cuba.”


In Terry’s view, neither New Throned King nor the Ye-Dé-Bgé ensemble could exist outside of New York City. Indeed, he ascribes his decision to emigrate to a deeply felt need to further his education by “living and participating in the mecca of music and the arts.” Having digested New York in his own manner, he has arrived at his own sound and, paradoxically, moved closer to his roots.

“I understood that my journey was not complete,” Terry says. “I wanted to meet the great masters of the jazz community, to learn directly from the source, not from books. That forces you to look more within yourself, to state who you are and what you really think about music, about life and your aesthetic perspective. Living here, you hear jazz mixed with Middle Eastern music, with music from areas of South America that you don’t hear in Cuba, with music by people from Europe, Japan and around the world. We no longer think of music in terms of Cuban flavor. For us, jazz is everything together. So my intention was not just to recreate Arará culture, but to do something with it from a New York standpoint.”

When he moved to Manhattan, Terry, then 28, was well-prepared to stake his claim within the world’s most competitive jazz scene. The early training he received from his father engendered intimacy with a broad array of folkloric styles and an ability to play the gourd-like chekere with the narrative flair of a griot. Comprehensive training in the Euro-canon at Cuba’s rigorous music conservatories polished his musicianship and sharpened his technique. “Even in Cuba,” he says, “I liked the concept that I could play multiple styles.”

After graduating from the Escuela Nacional de Arte in Havana in 1992, Terry freelanced in Cuban jazz and dance bands, with folk and rock ’n’ roll singers and with nuevo trova singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez, who exposed him to a Pan-American musical conception. He joined pianist-composer Carlos Masa, who brought Terry onto the European festival circuit and exposed him to Steve Coleman’s musical production. Terry met Coleman in 1995  at the Stanford Jazz Workshop, launching an intense, mutually beneficial relationship.

“Steve was one of the first people who told me to come to New York,” Terry says of his former guru. “In fact, he was the first person to bring me here.” Like several of his jazz-oriented generational peers from the Southern Americas, Terry benefitted from Coleman’s willingness to share seminal saxophone recordings by Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, and to impart his vast knowledge of the codes embedded in h the notes and tones.

“When we met, I told Yosvany that I was coming to Cuba to do a project with Afro Cuba de Matanzas and Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, and that I wanted him to be my Mario Bauzá,” Coleman recalls, naming the trumpeter-composer who introduced Dizzy Gillespie to Afro-Cuban  while they were section mates in Cab Calloway’s Orchestra in the late 1930s. “I needed someone who knew Cuban traditions and a bit about the folkloric stuff, but was also familiar with what we do. Right away I noticed that he’s serious, intelligent and curious, with an ability to break things down. Yosvany was always quick at rhythms, like he was familiar with them already. He had a lot of questions about our tradition; I had a lot of questions about his. We traded information over a long period of time, conversations deep into the night about all kinds of stuff. I would say it changed both our lives in terms of directions and paths.

“He was immediately interested in the experimental nature of that project. He also had leadership qualities, an ability to organize. His English was always good, so he was my main communication with those musicians, who didn’t speak English at the time. I think Yosvany did more for me than Mario Bauzá did for Dizzy.”

Once ensconced in New York, Terry continued freelancing, playing an assortment of styles on gigs with a range of forward-thinking musicians, including Coleman, Dave Douglas, Brian Lynch, Jeff Watts, Jason Lindner, Avishai Cohen the bassist, Avishai Cohen the trumpeter, Manuel Valera, Eddie Palmieri and Dafnis Prieto. Although the Rockefeller grant signified a transition from sideman work to a leadership role, Terry continues to apply a pluralistic orientation to his various endeavors (which still includes an abundance of work as a sideman).

The Arará project was the most imminent of these during the spring. Terry presented it over a four-night run at the Jazz Standard with the members of Ye-Dé-Bgé and dynamic, costumed dancer Francisco Barroso, who found alternate pathways to refine and develop the repertoire. “Each one is a cultural bearer who knows the traditions,” Terry says of his bandmates.  “Without their knowledge the project could not be given birth and could not have grown.”

Terry emphasizes that his quest to learn and refract the music he was listening to “even before I was in my mother’s womb” is far from finished. “It will take several years to complete my big idea,” he says. “I need to learn all the ceremonies in depth, so that I can then write a mass for it. How could Mozart compose his Requiem without being a believer, to know what a requiem means, and how to write a ‘Kyrie’ — all the parts of the Mass? My approach is to compose as though representing the entire mass of the church in classical music, but within the Arará tradition.

“Hearing these chants is like seeing my grandmother, my aunts — everyone in the family — dancing in the ceremony. To be able to work with things that are part of what made you puts you on a different plane than someone who just does the research and tries to work with that. You understand everything, even what a chant means. When you hear the chant, you can see the old lady who came to the ceremony all the time, doing so many different things. It couldn’t be more personal.”


In 2010, Terry received a call from Brad Learmonth, the Program Director of Harlem Stage. “He asked if I could write a musical opera,” Terry recalls. “I said, ‘Yes, I can do it. Why not?’ I had never done anything like it, and I never thought I’d do anything like it. But I always think that if a human being did it, I am supposed to do it, too.”

Terry was tasked with composing music for Makandal, conceived a decade ago in Miami by Carl Hancock Rux, who wrote the trilingual book and libretto. The narrative interweaves the stories of François Makandal, an escaped Maroon slave of the mid-18th century who directed effective slave resistance for two decades from the hills of Haiti until he was betrayed and burned at the stake in 1758, and of a boatload of Haitians, Cubans and Dominicans clandestinely crossing the waters in search of brighter prospects. Both the historical and contemporary protagonists interact consequentially with the spirit world, portrayed by Edouard Duval-Carrié in images and by Terry in notes and tones.

At an open rehearsal for funders and board members in late June, a six-piece ensemble rendered Terry’s deftly deployed mélange of traditional Cuban music, classical music, jazz and electronica, both as backdrop to the dramatic action and choreography, and in direct engagement with the nine extraordinary singers who comprise the cast.

“It was a super-challenging project, not like writing compositions for my band,” Terry says. “It wouldn’t work to use a European composer, because they needed someone who knows the Caribbean traditions and can use them within the environment of the piece. So it allowed me to bring in all my different roots. I wasn’t familiar with Carl’s work, but we spent a lot of time together, sharing, exchanging information. I did a great deal of research so I’d have a concept of the material I’m working with.

“To do this, I felt that I needed to add more tools to the art of composition, so I was forced to go back to school, which I’d been wanting to do. I took counterpoint lessons at Juilliard’s evening program, and studied composition, orchestration, analysis and more counterpoint with Leo Edwards at Mannes School of Music. Music existed before I was born, and it will be here after I’m gone. The more I can try to grasp and learn, it will only make me stronger. I consider myself an eternal student.”


Yosvany Terry on Cuba Education — Part 1 (May 16, 2013):
TP: You’re from a very well-established musical family and I’d guess got your early musical training and ideas within the home before going to school.

YT: Yes, for sure. I started studying music within the family at 5 years old, with my father and also with a private teacher. He got us a private teacher to start music studies. We knew from an early age that we wanted to be musicians. Having said that, since music was in the family, everything was different for me in that case. So we learned a great deal from my family and also through friends, too. So it’s completely different than when you just go to school and the only music environment you have in your life at that time is the school.

TP: When did you start to study music in school formally?

YT: I started studying music in school formally at I guess 10 years old.

TP: Did you go to one of the regional schools when you were 10? Can you take me through the process a bit? I assume, then, that you didn’t attend a casa de cultura.

YT: No, not at all. I would say the first exposure that I had to music within the school system there that is… Each area has a music program that the school tunes to… The name of it is like “Singing With the Invisible Teachers.” Through that program, people are introduced to music in the sense of learning a little bit about singing in tune, and singing songs, and things like that. Very basic. I started, as I said, at home, but at 10 I went to what they call there the vocational arts school. The vocational arts school is a school that is built in every province in Cuba. Since it was built in every province, then you can guarantee that in Cuba the education is centralized by the government, and then it was a way to make sure also that all the students would get the same education in every province, in every little municipality. Say, for instance, that the vocational arts school was in Camagüey, and when I started my family had already moved to Camagüey, but by then, my older brother, Yoel, he was going… We were living in the municipality of Florida in Camagüey. So he would go from Camagüey to Florida, and then from Florida to Camagüey to go into the school. In other words, since he was from a little further away, he was going as a boarding student, too. So when I started also, and when Yunior, my brother, started at school, it was as a boarding student. And now, Yunior started early, because Yunior started at at 7 years old already in the boarding school. His first violin teacher at the school was a Russian teacher. In my case, my first saxophone teacher was from Camagüey, and he was a great saxophone player, and also an arranger, and he composed and arranged for one of the important bands in town. So that was a little bit what I got at the school.

TP: Had your teacher studied in Russia?

YT: No. My saxophone teacher studied in Cuba. In fact, he graduated in ENA, in Havana, which is the national arts school. What happened for saxophone is that most of the stuff… Also, the program for saxophone is modeled to the French program for saxophone in France. So yeah, it was fully classical music that we studied. The school is a classical music school. They taught a little, little bit of what they call music from Cuba in the school, and in that regard, I was fortunate to have my father, because my father was …[DROPS OUT]…

TP: You said you were fortunate to have your father…

YT: I was fortunate to have my father, because it was through my father that I was introduced to all the popular music culture of Cuba. Because even when I lived in Florida, my town in the municality of Camagüey, during the carnivals and major events in the province, all the big orchestras that would play in Florida would stop by my house, because they were all friends with my father. So it is now …(?)…. the same way… [DROPS OUT] [9:32]; L’Orquesta Aragon, Los Van Van, all these orchestras always stopped by my house in the carnivals, because they were very good friends with my father, and had known him for a long time. So the house was like a cultural center for the Cuban music, and we were fortunate to be around that.

TP: So you were able to absorb the whole timeline of Cuban popular and folkloric music.

YT: [DROPPED OUT] [10:39] … Afro-Cuban music, it was also present in my family, because from both sides of my family they were practitioners of the different religions that came from Africa. So since an early age before I know, I was going to ceremonies and everything even before I… [DROPS OUT] Because both sides of my family would practice within the …[DROPS OUT]…

Both sides of my families were practitioners of religions that came from Africa, and that is how I was exposed at a very early to different cults that still prevailed in the Caribbean, related with Afro-Cuban religions.

TP: Did you assimilate all the traditions in a very holistic way? Did your training in the African rhythms cause you not to play the classical exercises as a classical player might want, or was relatively easy to handle all the idioms on their own terms?

YT: The fact that I was exposed to the music at a very early age, and also from all the religion, it was a plus, because in terms of understanding rhythms, I was already exposed to many other things before getting to a school. So it made things easier, in a way, given the sophistication in all the rhythms of the Afro-Cuban religions. So of course, that helped greatly. It was never a problem, the fact that I knew that… It was never a problem to learn classical music or… I mean, it didn’t stop anything. If something, it really helped, because those were knowledge that I didn’t learn in the school at all.

TP: At about what age did you start to become conscious of jazz and interested in it?

YT: At 13 or 14.

TP: From family, or friends at school, or a teacher…

YT: That was from my family. Because my older brother was the one who had… He was introduced to jazz, and I think he was at that time introduced to one of the Chick Corea CDs, Friends. I was fascinated with the music, because it had nothing to do with what we were learning at school or what I’d heard before. Then there was this moment that they would go into this thing that was improvisation, that was like, “Oh, what is that?” So right afterwards, I discovered there were two jazz stations that we could get on the radio waves, so we quickly started tuning in every night to all these radio stations in order to hear jazz, and then we started going to… We found out that the library in my town had a huge jazz collection of LPs and things that we just didn’t know about. They had records by Coltrane and you could hear Charlie Parker. And then, at the school, they had also jazz later on, that they would play every… The guy who was working as the sound engineer in the school was also a fan of jazz, so he would play jazz in the afternoons. It was like that.

Then later on, one of the teachers at the school was a great saxophone player and a jazz player, Alfredo Thompson, and it was through him that I started learning jazz harmony. He just taught us a great deal of harmony, phrasing, and exposed us to a lot of music, too. So it was like that, by word of mouth and people who would bring information… I don’t know if you’re familiar with Ernesto Simpson.

TP: Of course. Great drummer.

YT: The drummer. So Ernesto Simpson back then was playing with one of the important bands in Havana. But his family lived in the building just next to us, and both families were really good friends. So I remember at age 13 or 14, whenever he would come into town, he’d perform with the group that he was with…I’ll remember the name of the group in a second… I remember waking up early, and then knocking at the door to see if they’d brought in a new style from Havana, what music he brought, and so on. So it was through him, for instance… He was the first one who brought me Elvin Jones and Trane and things like that. So it was something like that. Since there is no music store where you could buy any music, and they were not in Camagüey specifically any really old jazz musician, it was something that happened like that—by word of mouth, and knowing…some of the teachers discovered that the public library had jazz, discovered what the jazz station was, and discovered that there were some people that we knew who were familiar with this kind of music that we just discovered and was so hip for us.

TP: As a young musician with a lot of information under your belt already, what was it that it was appealing to you at the time?

YT: What appealed to me about jazz that I liked from the beginning was, you would hear them playing the themes, the melody, and then they would go into this zone that you didn’t know what it was, and that was improvisation. So for us, for me, that was really fascinating. You’d hear them playing the melody, but then all of a sudden, wow, everybody went into improvising. That kind of thing we didn’t have in classical music, the classical music that we were learning in the school, and it also was very different that the improvisation approach within the Cuban aesthetics. So we do have improvisation in Cuba, within the Cuban language and vocabulary. It’s different, because harmonically it was a whole different approach to improvisation. So I think it was improvisation and soloing, the part that really fascinated me.

TP: As your education continued, were you able to express these interests within the school, or did it always happen parallel to school, outside of school?

YT: I would say that the school was really hermetic and closed, in the sense that they would like people to learn classical music. Again, I was fortunate that my saxophone teachers, they were familiar with jazz, and of course they would let us be excited with it and would let us also bring jazz standards to play in the school. But the great thing is, if you want to play jazz, you have to be also good in classical music. So we couldn’t become bad students just because we were just playing jazz. So in other words, I always say that given that I discovered jazz and was interested in jazz, that forced us also to be the best classical music student, because we needed to prove the fact that we like jazz was not going to turn us into bad classical musicians. And the school was a classical music school, so in fact, we have to do double everything. You have to be really good in classical music in order to be able to play jazz.

TP: At what age did you go to Havana?

YT: Around 17. Once we started discovering jazz at age 13-14, then we discovered Irakere, then we discovered Emiliano Salvador, then we discovered Paquito D’Rivera, we discovered all the musicians who were doing jazz in Cuba.

TP: Did your father know them?

YT: Yes. My father knew Chucho. He knew who Emiliano was, but he wasn’t friends with him because Emiliano Salvador was a local figure more in Havana. The difference with Irakere is, like, Irakere also played a lot of popular dance music, and they would do tours and play in the carnivals in Cuba, so that was one of the few chances to see them perform, not only performing dancing Cuban music but also they would play an instrumental tune, completely a Cuban jazz tune. So that was completely (?—22:52).

In my province, also, like I said, one of the saxophone teachers was a great jazz musician. So there was a band in Camagüey that was named Fever Opus. They would have a regular gig every Sunday playing their original compositions, and it was jazz. For us, that was also another way to see live bands playing. I remember also, for instance, Gonzalo Rubalcaba going on tour with his sextet all around the country; when he stopped in Camagüey to play with it, we went to see it, too.

TP: So you got to Havana in 1989.

YT: Yes.

TP: And you did attend conservatory then, yes?

YT: Uh-huh.

TP: What did you major in?

YT: I studied saxophone.

TP: Can you speak a bit to when your own conceptual ideas began to emerge? When you arrived in Havana?

YT: No. I started exploring with improvisation in Camagüey. So by the time I got to Havana, I was already improvising, so I quickly joined the jazz musicians in Havana. So when I went to Havana at the school, I met Osmany Paredes, who was there. I met Dafnis. I met Elio Villafranca. I met Roberto Carcasses. I met also ….(?—25:29)… All the musicians I was performing with then. Also Julio Padrón. That was an opportunity to meet a lot of people who were really great musicians, but they were also playing jazz for a long time.

TP: People have said that it was tremendously competitive, at each stage of the way, the best of the best converging, and this had an impact on the way the music was thought of and the way it sounded.

YT: Yes, I think that it was competitive, too. The fact that we had to be really good students, and the fact that there were so many great musicians. Ok, I’ll give you the idea. It was like being at Manhattan School of Music or the New School or Berklee, but with the difference that there are all these great musicians at the school, but not only are they all great jazz musicians, but they’re all playing classical music. So now the amount of information that they’re dealing with is …[DROPS OUT—27:01]… In my case, I always loved classical music, so it wasn’t that I was just in the school because that was the only way to learn music. No. I love classical music, and still to this day I practice classical music and I play classical music with different people in New York. So it was a great challenge and it was a great… Well, like I said, coming to one of those great schools that you will run into many of the great musicians playing on the scene today, but they were all in the school, and you were friends with them at that time.

TP: As far as getting groups together and playing for audiences in Havana, was it complicated? Easy? I gather you couldn’t get paid for gigs like that playing in Havana. How did you deal with the issue of gigging and making a living as a musician?

YT: Well, there’s two things. Once you’re a student, you’re not thinking about how you’re going to support yourself. My family was supporting us. They provided us the money, the resources for us to be fine in the school. So I started gigging with groups from the school at the jazz festival in Havana. Money was the last thing that we ever thought about. We were just so focused on music, that in my case I never thought about any money. Then, right when I graduated from the school, I started playing with a local…with a singer-songwriter, with Santiago Feliu, for the first two years. Then I was playing with another group, the Grupo (?—29:16), and in that group there used to be musicians who worked with Emiliano Salvador. So they were all great jazz musicians. I was with that band for two years. From then, I started working with Silvio Rodríguez. Silvio Rodríguez was the person I started touring abroad from Cuba, in South America—Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia, Chile. That was with the band Diakara.

When I stopped working with Silvio, I stayed as a freelance musician, because at that moment I wanted to play just the music that I wanted, and it was at that time that I created Columna B with Dafis, Roberto Carcasses and Descemer Bueno. We started playing in all the venues and things like that. But the band… We got to be in one of the Cuban… We went on tour with Columna B, into Spain, and I started coming to the United States, because I had met one of the co-founders of Stanford Jazz Workshop, so he invited me to teach at Stanford. [Bob Murphy] He came to Cuba because he was interested in Afro-Cuban music, and there was a course being organized by someone from the Bay Area that would bring a lot of people from the Bay Area interested in Cuban music and musicians, to learn Afro-Cuban music in Havana. It was through those courses that I met John Santos, Wayne Wallace, Rebecca Mauleón, who is now head of the Education Board of the San Francisco Jazz Festival. All of these people came to Cuba because they were interested in learning Cuban music. They were really playing a lot of Afro-Cuban music in the Bay Area. But for them, that was an opportunity to come and learn with the master. Because in those courses, Changuito was teaching, Tata Güines was teaching, my father also was teaching, and all the great musicians of Cuba.

So Bob Murphy came to one of those courses, and I met him, and he realized that I was playing with a different band, and we… Then it was like that, and he invited me to be part of the Stanford Jazz Workshop, to teach over there. It was through the Stanford Jazz Workshop that I came for the first time to the U.S. It was known after the second time that I was at the workshop that I spoke to the director, told him that I had the band, Columna B, and it would be nice to bring the band. So it was through a grant from Meet The Composer that…it was to collaborate with a composer from the United States, and in this case it was Wayne Wallace, and there was a choreographer, Judith Sanchez,  and myself. So with us three, we were commissioned to write a piece with an element of collaboration between both countries. It was that way that I brought Columna B to be part of the project, which was Miguel ‘Anga’ Diaz, Dafnis, Descemer, and also my father came in, too. So that’s how Columna B got to the United States.

TP: What year did you start touring with Silvio Rodríguez?

YT: In ‘92. [20 years old] I had just graduated. It was end of ‘92, I remember.

TP: What year did you start Columna B?

YT: Columna B didn’t start until ‘97.

TP: What year did the Bay Area musicians come to Havana for the Master classes?

YT: They started coming from ‘91-‘92. So it was not until ‘94 that they invited me to Stanford Jazz Workshop, and it was not until ‘95 that I came to the United States, because the first time they didn’t grant me the visa because they said that I was too young and I was going to defect in the United States. So the next year, when I applied, and I had a great friend intervene in my case, who was at the time the UNICEF ambassador in Cuba. Then they grant me the visa, and when they saw that I returned to Cuba, then they started granting me the visa every year to go to the United States. In fact, I had a great relationship with the American (?—36:41) in Cuba, so I would receive… Then we had such a great relationship that they would send me every month the DownBeat magazine, so that was another way to be informed about what was going on in the jazz scene.

TP: Was it during these years that folkloric percussion started being part of the curriculum in the conservatory? Dafnis told me that his pedagogy was classically-oriented, and that at a certain point, because of interest from foreigners, they started teaching folkloric percussion and Cuban traditions and so on. Does coincide with Stanford Jazz Workshop and these events in the early ‘90s.

YT: Yes, with the Afro-Cuban music courses. Afro-Cuban music courses I think were really key, especially for the school and the educational system, to notice that a lot of foreigners were interested in Cuba for its culture. So even though we had Cuban music in our curriculum at the school, I don’t think that it was taught at the same level that was taught the other classical music. So right after that especially, the very, very last year… I remember in my case, in the very last year of my courses, they started to put more emphasis in the courses teaching Cuban music in our program in the school. Like I said, I was fortunate that music was in my family. So everything that I am learning in popular Cuban music was from my father, from my family. It wasn’t from the school. So if I had learn from the school, then I had ….(?—38:54)…. when they decided that Cuban music was important for them to put in the programs.  I think it actually became part of the pedagogy at the end of the ‘80s-beginning of the ‘90s—‘88-‘89, and on into the ‘90s.

TP: And you think the motivation is because there was interest from abroad.

YT: Yeah. People were going to Cuba not to learn about Mozart and about Beethoven and Stravinsky, but people were learning …(?—40:21)… in Cuban music which was going around the world. But what happened is, the people that get together and put together the programs for the classical music school in Cuba, they are not necessarily the popular musicians playing with all the popular bands. So as a result, they have a different orientation in what is important to them in music. That’s what I’ve always believed.

That’s why, yes, you study in theory who was Beny Moré , who was all the… There’s more inclination to teach about the Cuban classical music. Then the Cuban popular music is just taught in one semester out of the four years of one school and out of the four years of the other school. I was always like: Why are we studying our music only for one semester? There are so many things that would interact from there. So that was the case. But like I said, all my saxophone teachers were… My first saxophone teacher was a great arranger and a saxophone player. He played baritone. Then in the second school I went to, one of the saxophone teachers, who really wasn’t actually my saxophone teacher but he was teaching tenor, he was a great jazz musician. That’s why, by the time I came to Havana, I knew so much about jazz, because I was already learning learning with my teacher in the school. In that school, it was… In terms of saxophone players, Roman Filiu was there, Felipe Lamoglia, all these great saxophone players, were in the school. César Lopez, who was in Irakere later, also is from Camagüey. There’s a lot of great players who come in from Camagüey. Even if they are not from Camagüey, they went to study in Camagüey for some reason.

TP: I don’t want to take too much more of your time, because I know you have to start getting ready to perform.

YT: I know there are so many things that happened during these years that you want to know. We can talk another time, if you want, and we can talk for a little while more now.

TP: I don’t think I need you to say that your preparation in the conservatory and what you got outside the conservatory made it relatively easy for you to adapt to the different challenges you faced outside of Cuba, with all the different circumstances you have to function it. I’m pretty sure I know the answer to this question, but it would be helpful if you could talk about it. Could you synthesize, state in a relatively general way, how you draw on the information you received in the conservatory in the music you’ve been putting out in the last decade or so? Dafnis said, for example, that studying theory and composition has been tremendously helpful for him in organizing his ideas in composition.

YT: I’ll give you my take on it. I think studying at the school and in Cuba, and being exposed to all this classical music program at a very early age, gives you also a discipline of how to approach and learn music. I think one of the things that made Cuban musicians different from musicians in different parts of the world is all of the information that they have in music from a very early age. I must admit, in the Cuban cases, not only the Classical music but also the music of our culture. That is also really important for us.

In terms of composition and theory and all that, of course it’s important to me. As a composer, even when I came to New York, I went even further to study at Juilliard… I went to Juilliard to study counterpoint, and I went to Mannes to study composition, to study orchestration, to study analysis, to study theory, because I wanted to deepen all this knowledge that I brought from Cuba. Since I was in New York, it was even to me more important. I wanted to really master composition and all of that… I went to school here in the United States to keep learning, because I believe also, like, there were certain things that I didn’t learn in Cuba because of information. I didn’t go to study composition directly at the ISA, so composition was always important to me, but I always studied on my own and with people. Therefore, the amount of technique that you are exposed to in terms of composition, orchestration, analysis, and counterpoint…that I have been exposed to…is starting in New York. Going to the classical music school in New York to study that has been tremendous. And I keep in contact with all my friends that I went to school with in Cuba, that they also went to study classical composition outside of Cuba, and we all coincide with all the information that we have incorporated for ourselves as composers.

It is true that the fact that I went to the school makes you a strong musician, and it’s always… To me, also, I have a different vision, because I am a teacher at the New School, and I can see the way that the program has been put together. I see areas where there is a gap of information that the student needs in order to become a better musician at an early age, so they can …(?—48:43)… at the school to start discovering on their own what to do. It’s like all of the students that I teach at the New School, I always send them to take orchestration classes at Mannes. I always send them to take analysis, conducting, all these classes at Mannes, because I said, ‘Listen, you are not just a jazz musician; you are a musician. To be a musician is more important than just to know one different kind of vocabulary in music. So you’re a musician, you’re supposed to…like Mozart, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, or Beethoven, you’re supposed to be able to understand and work at the higher level with understanding of music. So it is great that you are learning everything here at this school, but we need to know what music is about. Music is something that has been around forever, and it’s going to be around afterwards. So there’s so many things that we need to learn to for that. So it’s like I always push them to work to their limit, because this is the belief that I have in music. To me, music is just one.

So that’s the way that I think with the school. I don’t know if it answers your question.

TP: There’s no one answer. Did you ever at any point feel limited in what you could attain in Cuba, in how far you could go with music, or being able to express your musical ideas… You left Cuba. A lot of musicians left Cuba. Yet, you were nourished in this extraordinary way in Cuba, that probably couldn’t have happened elsewhere. What are the advantages and what are the disadvantages of being here?

YT: That is a good question. There is a big reason why I left Cuba. I left Cuba because, like any other musician interested to learn music and interested to master and assimilate a lot of information from all over the world, you need to know what the mecca of the arts are. In the 19th century, the mecca of the world for music was in Paris, so a lot of musicians were moving to Paris to learn and be part of that important energy that was happening at that time. There was so much information going around. The mecca of the music and the arts moved to New York then. So since the mecca of the music was in New York, I realized that I needed to come to New York if I wanted to be part of all of this great information and things that were going on around the mecca. I’ll tell you something, too. If the mecca of the world in ten years moved to Burundi in Africa, I would go there, too, because it’s there where I really need to be in order to learn about that.

Of course, I understood that my journey was not complete in Cuba, and I needed to go out to do it. Because it’s like everybody has to do it in their time. So for me to come to New York, it was important, because wow, it’s there that I have the potential to meet all these other people that were great masters and idols and heroes to me that I needed to learn from. I mean, you don’t go there… I am not going to learn that from Rio De Janeiro. I am not going to learn that from Cuba. You’re always going to learn what do you think is this business about? Well, you will not learn from the horse’s mouth, you know? This is an oral tradition. Jazz is really an oral tradition to this day. You need to hear from people. There’s a lot of information that you just don’t learn from the books. The same happened even with classical music.

That’s why you always have to travel where the good teacher is, because it is with this teacher that you’re going to get a lot of information passed orally. Yes, it is true that you can get all the Bach fugues and Mozart concertos and everybody… All this is printed in books, and you can get it even in South Africa. But no, you need to go to Europe to study with the great performers and teacher in order to get the information that has been passed orally from that tradition.

TP: One thing I’m curious about, but feel a little shy in asking, is what sort of effect the armature of Marxist-Leninist aesthetics as applied to education affected you in any particular way? It’s hard to tell. Since I never had direct experience with it myself, it’s hard for me to get how it impacted people who were raised under that umbrella.

YT: It’s like…music and politics don’t go together. You know? At the same time, I was born in Cuba, which is a Communist country, and I consider myself a very political person. I think one of the greatest effects that I saw from that society in Cuba was that it made the highest education available to everybody, whereas I see here that you can study at a lot of the greatest schools, but you need to have a lot of money, too, to be able to have access to them or be lucky enough to have a scholarship to go to those schools. To me, one of the best things that could ever happen in Cuba is that that system made education available to everybody. In every little corner, in the most remote place, there are people coming from there who had the greatest music education. Even though I agree or not in my political views with the system, I cannot deny that I had really the greatest teachers I could ever have to learn anything that I learned, and this knowledge is going to travel with me to the end of my life.



Yosvany Terry on Cuba Education — Part 2 (June 6, 2013):

TP: I’m not clear on how the plantilla system affected everyone, as it seems to have.

YT: Ok. It’s a simple concept. Plantilla is more…what it means within the music term is like contract and format, and the band instrumentation at the time. So to have a plantilla within the company, that means that you have basically a contract with the band. Let’s say, for instance… Every group, to be part of the company, they need to be plantillas.

TP: What is the company? The state?

YT: No, the companies are the music companies. Actually, the same term can be used at any regular companies, say, like, within the civil engineer company or agriculture company or a building products company. So plantilla are all the…how do you say in English…how do you call it when you work in the university and you’re part of the faculty, but you are… Let’s say, in my case, I teach at the New School, but I am an adjunct faculty. I am not full-time faculty. So plantilla is like a full-time contract. That’s what it means. That’s actually the meaning. It’s a full-time contract. So when you have a plantilla in the music company, your group has a full-time contract, and sometimes you have a contract, but you have a temporary contract—so you are not plantilla. You are not a full-time contract. That’s actually what it means.

TP: But the contract is with the regional empresa… In other words, who is the contract with? And what are the implications of the plantilla? Is it restrictive? Or does it make it difficult to move from one band… Or did it? I’m talking about conditions 20 years ago. I hear things have loosened up some now. But yes, was it restrictive in terms of moving from one band to another.

YT: I’ll give you an example. Say, for example, I am forming a new band, and I’ve got to gather all the musicians, I prepare their repertoire and everything. Now, I have to audition for one of the music companies in order to get a plantilla, a full contract, so that my band can receive a salary from the music company. All the music companies are sponsored by the government. Therefore, let’s say when we had Columna B, before we started getting a salary from any music company, we created the band and we started playing, but then we said, “Ok, we need to belong to a company.” Because if you don’t belong to a music company, then it is impossible to travel abroad of Cuba, because all of the tours are managed through the Instituto de la Musica or the Ministry of Culture. So therefore, for us to go and tour in Europe, this is… The Instituto de la Musica as well as the Ministry of Culture, they are the ones that do all the paperwork regarding passport, contracts, and everything.

So if you want to work and make money… I’ll give you another example. If you want to do a national tour, and you’re planning to perform in Camagüey, Santiago de Cuba, all the provinces, in order to make contracts with the institutions and make Cuban pesos, because you’re going on an international tour, you still need to be part of the structure. So plantilla is like being part of that structure. It’s part of the government. It’s like the Cuban music enterprise, you know?

TP: And is there one company for classical music, one for popular dance music, one for folkloric music…

YT: Yes.

TP: Which one were jazz groups placed under?

YT: Yes, there were differences. The one that we were associated with was Agrupacion de Musica de Concierto.

TP: Do they have you on a fixed salary?

YT: Yeah, we were on a fixed salary. That means Concert Music Association. That was the music company that would deal with people doing a lot of creative music. So that is one type.

Then there was another one called the Karl Marx Company. That was based next to the Karl Marx Theater in Havana. There was also a lot of creative music being done within that company. Also there was another one named Beny Moré , named Beny Moré . There was another one named Adolfo Guzmán, named after the Cuban composer Adolfo Guzmán. There was another one…

Those companies are mostly named after important musicians who were in Cuba. Agrupacion de Musica de Concierto, which is the one we were with…the symphony orchestra was through that, a lot of chamber music, all the classical concert soloists, and a lot of jazz musicians also—a small group, like Hernando Posnosa(?), and different things. So we were part of it.

But in order for us to be part of the system like I said before, we formed a band and started playing, and then I said, “Guys, actually, we need to be part of the system if we want to have a salary, and at the same time we need to prepare if we’re planning to tour abroad of Cuba.” So we did a… What was interesting is, like, the director of the Agrupacion de Musica de Concierto was one of the teachers at the school, so he knew already the musicianship of the band. So in our particular case, we didn’t have to do the audition because he knew who we were. They just came to a concert, heard the band, and then of course created the plantilla, created the full-time contract for the band to be in the company.

Then we started actually having a salary. That was the way we would do all the paperwork to travel abroad when we were touring in Spain, and then we came to the United States. All this paperwork has to be done through the company.

TP: Let’s suppose you had a gig with, I don’t know, Isaac Delgado or someone like that, and you wanted to move to another band. Would you easily be able to do that, or would that be very difficult?

YT: Well, that’s the other side of that system. That system makes it a little bit difficult to be a freelance. So let’s say if Isaac Delgado needed…if the saxophone player is sick, and he has a tour and he needed to do a tour with me, then I have to do a temporary contract with his music enterprise in order to have all my paperwork done with them so that I can have a salary to that. So that’s the other part. There’s a lot of bureaucracy involved in that.

TP: So it can be cumbersome.

YT: Exactly.

TP: And it can keep you with the same band. It can make it difficult to develop creatively, it might seem? Or not?

YT: Well, I don’t think it will stop you from being creative. Because it doesn’t have a direct impact on what you do. But what I think is, it’s not natural. It is not natural to the way musicians interact with each other. Imagine if you had that system here, it would be chaos, because everybody is free-lance, everybody works with everybody. So whenever you had to work with a band… Say, I have a concert with Tain at the Jazz Standard in July, but then I am playing with my band, and then I am playing with some other people. So any time that I have to play with everybody, I have to go through a contract and things like that. It would make things really difficult, really crazy.

But that doesn’t stop people from recording with each other. All the records, people go to the studio and just, like, you go with whomever you want.

In Cuba, there is a great culture of bands. So when people form a band…when there is a band, musicians stay for a quite a while with the band. It’s a different concept here, because people here are just playing with each other and we’re playing with everybody. But over there, when you talk about Los Van Van, you’re talking about, like, an institution. So it’s more the concept that used to be here in the ‘40s and ‘50s, where Art Blakey was an institution, Horace Silver was an institution, people who would work with Monk would be with Monk for a long time, with Dizzy Gillespie for a long time, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, you name it. It’s the same concept that still prevails in Cuba. That’s what it is. That’s why when you see the bands that come here, they sound like a band. They rehearse.

At the same time, with the music company, they always try to get them a rehearsal space and things like that. Different companies do different things. Different companies ask for a certain amount of concerts that you have to perform a month in order to make your full salary.

TP: Let me ask one other thing. When you were in school, it coincided with the “special period,” of real shortages and so on?

YT: That was at the very end of my school years.

TP:   What effect do you think going through that had on musicians in your age group? Some musicians left the country.  It seems to have made people determined to do whatever they could to… In a certain way, it seems to have strengthened people who were stronger.

YT: Looking back and thinking what I had in my time when I went to school, and then what I saw looking at the school when the “special period” came and the younger generation, what they were going through that I didn’t… I think it was the beginning of the collapse of a lot of great things I had during my time. Because in my time, when I went to school, the most important thing was just to be a great musician, to be a great student. Now, when the special period came in Havana, and then everything started being shortened and everything was…it was more difficult to do anything, to get reeds, to get anything, because of economics, then you could see how the principles that unified all the students start to be dismantled.

I’ll give you an example. It was not until I graduated that I started thinking what was I going to do after school, what band I was going to be working with. Because up until then, all I thought was just to be the greatest student, you know, and the best thing. Then, when I looked to the younger musicians who were in school during the ‘special period,’ now the whole thinking had changed, because the students from the schools while the ‘special period’ was going on, they were looking how to join a band in order to make money, so that they could have money to support themselves. Because everything was more difficult. Even for the parents to support those students was more difficult, too. So they were just thinking how to start your own band, to travel abroad and make money so that they could have their family and things like that. Which in my time, I never thought about anything like that. I was just about, like, “Ok, I want to be a great musician; I want to learn music.” So I never had to think, like which band I can join that would have a tour so that I can make money and support myself. You see? So I think that’s one of the big impacts.

The other impact that I noticed with the special period is, like… Of course, the students were not the only people involved with that, but the teachers, too, so the teachers now had to make sure they could get on tour and make money for themselves. So a lot of teachers started getting contracts out of the country. A lot of teachers started touring more, because their salary was not enough to cover all their needs. So like I said, right at that point, the whole system started to collapse, because… Well, when you have such an economic crisis, that crisis removes, in effect, the foundation. Therefore, everybody has to then rethink how are they going to support themselves, from the teacher to the student to the system itself.

It was interesting, because the ‘special period’ came, and all of a sudden, I started seeing all my friends from my generation, if they had finished their studies, they all started traveling abroad of Cuba, and they all started staying, and defected to different countries. A lot of my friends started traveling, joining orchestras in Europe, in South America, in Colombia, in Ecuador, El Salvador, and they went to those places where they didn’t have as strong a classical music foundation, and they started making orchestras everywhere. I have friends who live in El Salvador, classical students, who play in all these orchestras—in Spain, in Colombia, in Venezuela, in Chile you have Cubans also who are teaching and playing in the orchestras. So the same thing that happened with the Russians in Europe. Now, you go to Europe, there’s Russian musicians playing all over Europe in all those orchestras. Yeah, the same thing happened with the Cuban musicians.




Yosvany Terry (Downbeat Article — 2006):

“New York is an incredible learning experience,” says saxophonist Yosvany Terry Cabrera. “Every band or session or musical project that you participate in has people from all over the world, bringing new information and knowledge on what they do.”

A native of Cuba’s Camaguay province and a Habañero through the ‘90s, Terry, 35 and a Harlem resident since 1999, is a long-established first-caller in the jazz capital. His c.v. includes consequential stints with such radical conceptualists as Steve Coleman, Dave Douglas, and Brian Lynch; pan-diasporic postboppers like Jeff Watts, Jason Lindner, Avishai Cohen the bassist, Avishai Cohen the trumpeter, and Manuel Valera; Latin music envelope-pushers Eddie Palmieri and Dafnis Prieto; the tradition-centric show band Afro-Cubanismo!; and Norteamericano Afro-Cuba purists like Jane Bunnett and Glenn August. All value Terry’s immaculate musicianship, his rare ability to blend in when executing the idiomatic nuances of the function in question while also stamping his creative, recognizable voice within the flow.

“All the different gigs you play in town put you on the spot, and you always end up growing,” Terry said. “I like to be a sideman as much as playing my music; the different accents and demands put you into corners you wouldn’t get to otherwise.” He cited bassist Cohen’s various Middle Eastern influences, and trumpeter Cohen’s use of West African melodies and rhythms. “Of course,” he adds, “I was exposed to this kind of music in Cuba; my father also traveled in many African countries.”

Terry referred to violinist-chekere player Don Eladio Terry, who has led Maravillas de Florida, a popular charanga unit, since the ‘50s. He trained Yosvany and his brothers—flautist Yoel and bassist Yunior—both in the African codes that inform Cuban folkloric and popular music and in Euro-Classic strains.

“Growing up, music was really exciting,” Terry recalled. “When we were little, he would bring us to the bandstand, fill a big plastic bottle with water, and suddenly we were playing the chekere, or we’d sing and dance. We had a piano, and we were around musicians all the time. All the big orchestra names that came through my town to play in the Carnival would visit the house, because they were friends of my father—Miguelito Cuní, Chappottín, Beny Moré. Everyone knew him—he was a showman, a really good dancer with the hat and cane, and the orchestra drove around the country in this huge limo. My father created respect for the tradition of music, and even now I enjoy playing traditional music because of the feeling. If the dancer doesn’t move, then it’s not good. I think jazz has the same quality. When you hear the good bands, it isn’t just done at the intellectual level, but you feel that it’s moving people, too.”

Terry took up the saxophone at 10, and caught the jazz bug in his early teens. “I heard a jazz recording, it sounded really fresh, and I didn’t know what they were doing,” he said. “I wanted to learn. I studied piano and jazz harmony with a teacher in my school named Alfredo Thompson, who worked in Irakere and is now the musical director for Omara Portuendo. He played saxophone with the one jazz group in my province, led by Gabriel Hernández, a pianist who worked with Roy Hargrove after Chucho Valdés stopped working with Crisol. My father brought him to the Maravillas de Florida, and he’d put Coltrane harmonies in the bridges of the tunes. They were amazing, in-depth musicians, and I heard them play as often as I could.”

After graduating from the prestigious Escuela Nacional de Arte conservatory in Havana, where he moved at 17, Terry linked up with a clique of contemporaries for whom jazz was not a samizdat experience, as it had been for prior-generation Cuban jazzfolk like Paquito D’Rivera, Ignacio Berroa and Arturo Sandoval. He became, as he puts it, “one of Havana’s first freelance musicians, began to travel with such diverse personalities as  Silvio Rodriguez, Diakara, Santiago Felifi, and Chucho Valdés, and joined Prieto, pianist Roberto Carcasses, and bassist Descemer Bueno in Columna B, an over-the-top timba-rhythms-meets-postbop harmonies unit. “I liked the concept that I could play just music, not one style,” he says.

Attending the Stanford Jazz Workshop in 1995, Terry began a relationship with Steve Coleman, which solidified the following year when Coleman spent quality time in Cuba to prepare and document The Sign and the Seal, his epic collaboration with the folkloric group AfroCuba de Matanzas. “Steve knows the tradition so well, and he noticed that we were lacking some of this stuff,” Terry said. “He’d bring us recordings by Bird and Sonny Rollins, and break them down for us so we could really understand them.

“There are are major differences between the vocabularies here and in Cuba. Now, [pianists] Emiliano Salvador and Frank Emilio were playing from a perspective of deep knowledge. But I think my generation was a victim of all this fusion that happened in the ‘80s, Chick Corea and so on. We didn’t have access to recordings by the old players like Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Johnny Hodges, and Don Byas that the older generations were exposed to. I knew a little bit when I got here, but only then did I realize how deep I needed to go in order to integrate. If you want to be part of this community, you need to know this language and vocabulary so you can play with people in different formats.”

A worthy document of Terry’s hard work and due diligence is the 2004 recording Metamorphosis [Kindred Rhythm & EWE], issued earlier this year. Drawing on a lexicon of strategies deployed by such Terry employers as Coleman, Lynch, Douglas, and Watts (the latter performs on one tune), Terry arranges seven of his own originals and one by his brother Yunior for quintet, sextet and septet configurations. He tells his stories with gorgeous harmonic voicings that frame narrative beats postulated by Prieto and conguero Pedro Martinez and apt tumbaos from Yunior Terry and Hans Glawischnig. Avishai Cohen is a mercurial trumpet foil, and pianist Luis Perdomo and guitarist Mike Moreno comp and solo with elegance and imagination. Playing primarily alto sax, Terry uncorks an array of fresh, uncliched ideas, phrasing them in a singing-through-the-instrument Charlie Parker-through-Steve Coleman manner (check the out-of-the-blue quote of “Ornithology” on “Subversive”) and projecting them with a tenoristic tone that bespeaks immersion in the Gary Bartz-Kenny Garrett school of alto expression.

“I feel very fortunate to have grown up in Cuba,” Terry said. “The rhythmic concept is so sophisticated and elaborate, but it’s the folklore, the popular music, what you would hear in the ceremony or from people sitting down on the corner. But I want to be part of something bigger, of music in general. That’s what you learn from all the great composers, even in classical music, like Bartok and Stravinsky, who came here after living in different countries. Cubans have been doing this for a long time. It keeps the music fresh in content, to take tradition and fabricate something new.”

More and more, Terry accesses Cuban roots through the chekere, to which he returned while on tour with [bassist] Avishai Cohen’s International Vamp Band. “I started to discover myself more,” he said. “In Cuba, the chances to play the instrument were less, because my father is so active. Now I think about the instrument when I’m walking around, imagining how I can apply rhythms that I just learned and develop a solo. It helps me feel more Cuban, closer to the dancing aspect of the music that I like so much.”


Yosvany Terry (May 12, 2006):
TP: I want to start by talking about the different things you do in New York now as a working musician, and then work back to how you got here. How many different bands are you working with now?

YOSVANY: Well, I work with different people, which is one of the things I like about the city, is the different styles of music. I’ve done stuff with the Jason Lindner Big Band, which is a specific kind of music, but it’s original music, and it’s very dependent on the creativity of the moment. People just get freer and freer right there on the spot.

Also with Avishai Cohen, the bass player first. With him I worked on three different projects – his bass project, the Vamp Band, then his quartet. They were three different kinds of bands, and helped me to grow a lot. Also with Dafnis’ band, which is different music, and that has a whole different perspective and demands with the music…

TP: The music you’re playing with him on the Absolute Quintet record is very abstract.

YOSVANY: Yes. Also with Eric Revis, with his band a little bit, although he hasn’t been playing a lot lately. But it’s different music, because it’s associated I’d say with avant-garde type of music where there’s a lot of room for experimenting with other kinds of sounds where you normally wouldn’t go in other groups. With Jeff Tain Watts’ band, which is another kind of music. You learn a different kind of perspective in the music… I think his goes more from a wide palette, respecting tradition, breaking it, and then going out and doing nowadays stuff, too. So that is also very interesting, because it puts you right on the spot. If you have a gap on it, you’d better go back to the room and work it, because you have to play it on the concert the next day.

Also with Avishai Cohen, the trumpet player. That’s more African oriented, where he’s working with a lot of material from the western region of Africa. It’s a different kind of band, with different musicians, like Lionel Loueke, Jason plays in the band sometimes, Eric McPherson has been doing the gig, Omer Avital, and then… In there I use also the chekere… I try to use the chekere in the other bands, too, unless it doesn’t feel right. But all the time I try to bring it, because people like it anyway.

TP: You make it sound like a talking drum almost.

YOSVANY: Yes. To me, it’s an instrument that can be placed in any style. Then I have my band with all the exigencies that I have on my own music. And I’ve been working a lot with Gregg August, a bass player and really good composer. It’s more like a large ensemble with three horns and rhythm section. It’s really good, because it’s another perspective.

TP: How about Steve Coleman?

YOSVANY: With Steve Coleman I used to work also a lot, but lately not, because he has a different personnel. But we’re always close and we’re always talking about music and concepts and things he’s researching, and its application within a musical context. He likes to learn and research all the time, but he’s always looking for the application to his music. He’s not somebody who just wants to accumulate knowledge and leave it outside. So in that regard, it’s really interesting and inspiring, too, because he’s also someone who really respects tradition. It’s always inspiring you to grow out of it.

TP: Are you playing traditional Cuban music gigs also?

YOSVANY: Yes, I missed one. I play with Eddie Palmieri, recording and touring. The first year I came here, I started working with them. I did this concert at Hunter College, and he invited me and Dafnis for that concert, and since then he’s been calling me for concerts and recordings.

TP: If Donald Harrison doesn’t do the gig, you do the gig?

YOSVANY: Exactly. When he can’t do it… It was at a time when Donald was traveling a lot.

TP: But traditional Cuban music, is that still part of your professional activity?

YOSVANY: I used to do it more at the beginning. Now I still do it sometimes, which is something I’m trying not to be disconnected from, because it’s my source, my own music, and it’s something that I’m learning, I keep growing in all the time. I get called to do different gigs, traditional Cuban music, too.

TP: Now, Metamorphosis comes from 2004, so it’s two years old, and presumably you were putting it together for the year before that. Does it reflect where you are now, or have you gone somewhere else in your own music?

YOSVANY: It’s interesting. I think it reflects where I was, and it’s still reflecting where I am now. Of course, the record, like you said, was done maybe two years ago. That doesn’t mean that we stop as a musician just growing up. So of course, I’ve been growing more and more, and trying to compose new music, too. I still play all these compositions, and I’m going within those compositions, too, because even though they were created at that time, it wasn’t like I was touring all over the world with that music. That’s what forces you to really change the repertoire. So mostly, I performed it at the Gallery and different venues here, whatever was available to play. But it’s now that I’m trying to really take the band on the road. Because also, I have all these demands to be a sideman, so it’s not like you can put all the energy into your own band. And I really now want to do that.

TP: Bring your own band on the road. Who would that band be?

YOSVANY: Now I’m going to the West Coast for a tour in mid-August, so we’ll be four days at the Jazz Bakery, then we go to the Outpost, then we go to Yoshi’s, the Jazz Hall in Seattle, and Boulder and Denver. That will be quartet with Yunior Terry on bass, Justin Brown on drums (a young drummer from the Bay Area who lives in New York; he used to go to the New School), and Osmany Paredes on piano, who is a very talented piano player living in Boston (we went to school together). I recently did one week in New Orleans and Lafayette, doing the Banlieu(?) Series at Lake Charles and also at Snug Harbor. It was really successful, and it was also a chance to expose the music down there… To me, it’s a very important city musically, because it has that Caribbean feeling, and the people’s reaction to the music was so natural.

TP: Several bands down there have doing… Cubanismo had roots in New Orleans, and the Irvin Mayfield-Bill Summers Group was doing a pan-Caribbean thing out of there, so it’s a receptive place. Is what you’re doing now what you envisioned you’d be doing when you moved to the States? If not, how is it different that what you thought 7-8 years ago?

YOSVANY: It’s interesting, because the music I was doing in Cuba before moving out here was very much alike, concept-wise. We were trying to do music in the border kind of region, trying to understand our own language and the traditions we represented and everything that we knew. I don’t think that changed. That vision didn’t change. What changed…

TP: For the record, Yosvany is having shrimp croquettes and tostones rellenos, and I’m having an avocado salad and a tamal.

YOSVANY: I don’t think the vision changed, because also it was… I had opportunities to make ..(?).. here, and then we worked together… My point is that the vision didn’t change. But when I moved here, you’re receiving so much information, that then I realized, “Okay, I have to learn all that,” and for a minute, it’s not like you stop your vision, but you go into a different process, just to really learn and digest all the new things that are happening. All that really helped me to grow. It’s helping me still, because now… Every day you discover more stuff that you need to check and there’s more things that’s going to inspire you.

TP: For how long was it your aspiration to come here? Because you don’t just leave. It’s something you had to be dreaming of and thinking about for a while.

YOSVANY: I really started thinking about it seriously in ‘99. Before then, I was coming here back and forth since ‘95, because I was going to Stanford Jazz Workshop and then playing up here with different musicians. But back then I never felt that I wanted to live here. I felt comfortable just coming back and forth. But it was not until late ‘98 and ‘99 when I decided that I really wanted to be part of what was going on here, and also…

TP: What happened? What made it the right time?

YOSVANY: I don’t know what happened really. There were many things that influenced me. I used to travel all the time, even when I was living in Cuba, so maybe the idea was that it was a slow year, for some reason. Then the first travel I did within that year was to the States, to this conference that I was invited to for all the people who had been getting grants through different philanthropic foundations here. So I decided, well, maybe it’s the time. Also, I had done a week with Chucho at Bradley’s and some people asked me for my phone to get a gig, and then when they asked, “So, where do you live?” and I said, “In Cuba,” that’s the beginning of the end, too. So all these things were hitting me.

TP: So living there was holding back your creative development in a certain way, because you’d been exposed to people but you could only take it so far.

YOSVANY: Yeah. Some friends were telling me, “man, you have to move to New York; it would be nice if you do it,” dah-da-dah. So I think at that time, I was decided that I wanted to do it and make a move, so that I could just keep learning.

TP: When you and Dafnis and some of the other Cuban musicians came here, I think because of your conservatory education, you arrived as well prepared as anybody does to meet the requirements of the scene – to play a lot of different music, play complex music, deal with different moods and contexts. What was the biggest challenge you found when you came here that you didn’t expect?

YOSVANY: The big challenge, which I think is still today and is going to be all the time, is all the information of music from here. We had information in Cuba about the music here, jazz in general, but it was not until I moved here that I really heard about Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Don Byas…

TP: The jazz tradition.

YOSVANY: Yeah. So this information, a lot of that I was missing there. Then it was a shock, also, the development of the language of that tradition. Because I remember starting, going into sessions, and then I heard that they were playing something that wasn’t exactly what I was playing, and it was, “Oh, now I need to sit down and figure it out.” So that helped me a lot. Also at the same time, if you don’t work with that language, you can get certain gigs, but there’s a lot of gigs that you’re not going to get into.

TP: Did the language come fairly naturally to you, or was it hard for you to adapt?

YOSVANY: It was both. It was natural in a way, because I was listening to jazz since Cuba. There are points of coincidence. But at the same time, it’s different from the rhythmic accents of Cuban music. So it was relearning it and being conscious of the difference. When you know a language that you learn in the street, and then you go to the country where the language is spoken, then you have to learn all the nuances and the subtleties, and everything is different. “Wait a minute.” This is what I knew. I could get by. But there is a whole deep level of it.

TP: Your English is excellent.

YOSVANY: I’m trying to work on it a little bit.

TP: It’s excellent, which I think speaks to the way you assimilated the musical language, too. What was interesting in 1999, to hear you and Dafnis, is that previously, when Chucho or Gonzalo came here, they were arriving as stylists, with their own idiosyncratic style.  I’m wondering if anything was happening in Cuba within that decade that made it possible for you and Dafnis to be more open to taking in the information rather than coming in as Columna B.

YOSVANY: I think what happened was… Someone who helped also was Steve Coleman. Because we were friends back then, and then he would bring me a lot of recordings. For somebody like him, who is from here and he knows the tradition really well, maybe he noticed that we were lacking some of this stuff. So he would bring a lot of Sonny Rollins, Trane, Bird, all this kind of information. We would talk a lot about music. He would break it down for us so that we could really understand…

TP: What would he break down? The harmonic stuff? The phrasing? The rhythm? The accents?

YOSVANY: It’s interesting, because some of that stuff it’s not like he would say, “This is the way to do it,” but he would say, “Check that, and check the way they do this, or check this out.” We’d discuss about some of the concepts he was working on at the time for his own music that we could share, and also we would tell him what we were working on in Cuba at that time.

There were also lesser-known musicians in Cuba who were working more with the traditions here. For instance, Ernesto Simpson, the drummer, I used to know when I was little, maybe 13 or 14 years old, but he used to live next to my building, when I was studying in Havana, so when we would come in town I would wake him up… He was the first one who played me Trane with Elvin Jones and all that. So he was bringing all that kind of information from Havana to Camagüey. He was the person, him and two other saxophone players who I respect a lot, who were working with this kind of information, too.

It’s interesting, because at a certain time, I think my generation was victim of fusion, this Chick Corea…all this fusion happening in the ‘80s.

TP: The way Irakere sounded in the ‘80s.

YOSVANY: Yeah, exactly. But at the same time, there used to be Emiliano Salvador, there used to be Frank Emilio and all this tradition, people trying to play music from a different perspective, with a different depth of knowledge in the music. So it all helped. It wasn’t – like you said – that I came here all of a sudden and I just did anything. I mean, I knew a little thing. But here was where I really saw that I needed to go deep if I really want to… My thing was that I wanted to integrate. I didn’t want to come here and just be an alien. I wanted to be part of the scene.

TP: So when Steve Coleman played you Sonny Rollins and Coltrane, how did that augment your knowledge?

YOSVANY: It’s interesting, because even though I was listening to Sonny Rollins and Coltrane since I was maybe 14 or 15 years old… But here’s the deal. It’s the same if you lived, say, in Ohio, if you lived here and were listening to Cuban music… New York isn’t a good example for that, because there’s a Latino community. But if you were listening to Cuban music, I don’t know, in San Francisco, and you’re here with friends, but for the first it’s different when some Cuban musician comes in town regularly and then you’re getting together with them. Then you can listen to the making of the music. You can really see to what they’re listening to. So even though I was listening to Trane and Wayne Shorter and all these people in Cuba, but it’s different when you get together with people that…

TP: It’s different when you’re in the culture, hearing Cuban music in Cuba and how it relates to…

YOSVANY: Exactly. It’s the same. That’s the example – you start understanding the Cuban system. Maybe you heard Cuban music since you were little, but you never knew really the details.

TP: When you were 14 or 15, how were you hearing Coltrane and Sonny Rollins? Was jazz sort of in the air with musicians? Was it a samizdat, the way Paquito describes it when he was young in Cuba… As he describes it, in the ‘60s it was dangerous to listen to jazz; people would pass around cassettes. I take it that it was different in the ‘80s.

YOSVANY: Yes, it was different. In my generation, we didn’t go through all this trouble that Paquito and his generation had to go through at the time, in terms of not being able to listen to jazz or listen to a lot of music that represented some other political views. There were a lot of bands traveling, a lot of musicians by (?). So to me it was just a whole different new sound. Listening to Sonny Rollins with Clifford Brown and Max Roach, and then Coltrane with his own band. Also, there was a jazz program in Cuba, a jazz show at night to which I used to listen all the time, one at 10 o’clock and one at 11 o’clock…

All I’m trying to say: To me, I think this is… Let’s say, if you’re a musician, you start listening to traditional Cuban music, and you like it but you don’t…let’s say… The way I would describe it is, yeah, I was trying to imitate it, but at the same time, there are so many layers of learning one culture that maybe I considered I was at the outer level at that time, and then, because I was at the imitation stage… It was at the imitation stage because I wasn’t really knowing the tunes, so I couldn’t manipulate the music. It’s not until really you know the tunes that you can manipulate it on your own and you can create your own sound and you can just try to say something different. Because you understand what he’s saying and at the same time you understand what he’s doing, so that inspires you to do your own stuff, knowing the tunes and even challenging the tunes. So that was the difference at that time, and when I was 14 or 15 and listening to that, it was just in the imitation stage. It wasn’t like I could understand, “Oh, they’re doing this hip dominant substitution.” At the same time, I was getting around to knowing my instrument, too. This kind of music really demands a knowledge of your instrument.

TP: You started off how?

YOSVANY: I started off playing violin at the age of 5, and then saxophone when I started in the conservatory when I was 10 or 11, I think.

TP: A conservatory at Camagüey?


TP: I had Dafnis Prieto on the air yesterday, and he said that as a kid in the cultural center in Santa Clara, he was learning bongo and conga, and learning in a very specific way, in a youth band playing traditional music. You come from a musical family. Were you trained in a ritualistic way?

YOSVANY: My way was completely different, because my father being a musician, the whole universe of music was open since I was born. So there was a piano always in my house, there were musicians visiting my house. All the big orchestra names that would stop by in Florida, my town in the province of Camagüey, they would come and visit the house, because they were all friends of my father. Like, let’s say Miguelito Cuní, Chappotín… They would come play in the Carnival, because there was Carnival in all the little towns, and they would all come to the house. Benny Moré also would come with his orquesta. I was very little, but they would stop in the house.

TP: Benny Moré was alive then…

YOSVANY: He died in the late ‘70s. I was born in ‘71. I might have been 1 or 2 years old. Orquesta Aragon. All the bands came because they knew my father, because the Maravillas de Florida was one of the most important charanga in the interior. So I grew up in a real music environment. It’s different than what happened to Dafnis. So then, that’s why, when I decided I wanted to be a musician when I was 5, my father got us a real…you know, a private teacher, and we started learning solfegge on the instrument… Since I was little, I went to the performances that my father played in town. Music was always in the family. Yunior is the same way, and also Yoel, my older brother.

TP: Were you playing with your father at a certain point? Was that part of the deal? Or was it separate?

YOSVANY: It was interesting. Because my father, we always got inspired by him because he was always practicing at home all the time, but he didn’t want to force us into music. He wanted us to decide for ourselves. So when we decided, he said, “Okay, if you really want to be a musician, I’ll get you a teacher.” That was the end of playing on Sundays and Saturdays, because he said, “if you want to be a musician, you have to be serious.” So we had to practice for the teacher when he would come on Sundays. That was the stop of my playing with other kids on the weekend. Which I didn’t understand at the time, but now I appreciate it, because it really made you understand the discipline. If you want to be a musician, you have to take it serious; it’s not like a fun time. I remember when we were little, 3 or 4 years old, he would take us to the bandstand, and then he would take a big plastic bottle, fill with water, and suddenly we were playing the chekere, or we would sing and we’d dance. But we were always on the bandstand. So that was a different… Growing up as a child, it was really exciting. We were around musicians all the time.

TP: When you play chekere, when you play traditional music, it’s in your blood. It’s very natural.

YOSVANY: Yes, it’s natural. Because my father created respect for the tradition of music. That’s why even now, when I’m called for traditional gigs, I like to play it. I really enjoy playing the traditional music. Because you have the dancing feeling. It’s made for the dancer. If the dancer doesn’t move, then it’s not good. I think jazz has the same quality. That’s one of the reasons why I like jazz. Because when you hear the good bands, you have a feeling that it’s moving people. It’s not just done at the intellectual level in which it just can be heard from that narrow point of view. I like that quality a lot, too. But to me, it needs to have both.

TP: Did your father have any connection to jazz?

YOSVANY: He likes a lot Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan. But he knew very little. It wasn’t like he knew much.

TP: Did he know Bebo?

YOSVANY: Yes, of course he knows Bebo. Every Cuban knows Bebo Valdés, Arsenio Rodriguez. Everybody.

TP: He knew Cachao back in the day?

YOSVANY: Yeah-yeah. Because he started… Orquesta Maravilla Florida was founded in the ’50s. He was one of the founders. They started working on that in ’57 or ’55…I forgot. So at that time, he knew everybody. He was somebody who was really distinctive in the charanga orchestra, because he was the leader at that time, and then he was like a showman. He was a really good dancer, and he would dance with the hat and cane. The orchestra also used to have this huge limo that would go all around the country. So everybody knew him.

TP: Was he a little like Bobby Carcasses?

YOSVANY: Yes, a little. But Bobby does that, mixing jazz and Cuban music, and this was with the traditional, with the charanga music, using also the folklore music. It was geared to the popular people, to the regular people, people who go to the ..(?)…

TP: The folkloric music, when it’s applied to the States, is almost an avant-garde concept, in terms of the rhythms. It’s like bringing a story to a particular set of beats or rhythms. I don’t know if there’s a question in this. But it’s interesting how the popular music of one culture can take on a different flavor in another.

YOSVANY: It’s true. In that regard, that’s why I feel very fortunate to have grown up there. Because when you look at that, like you say, from this perspective, it’s one of the most sophisticated rhythm concepts. Really, really sophisticated and elaborate. But that’s the folklore, that’s the popular music there. So this is what you would hear in the ceremony, or what you would hear from people sitting down on the corner to do that. So for me, I’m used to that since I was little. Just like it would be so natural for people here to listen to people at the early stage hearing jazz and blues — and it’s really sophisticated music when you look at it from a different perspective. So there’s a lot of similarities of culture. That’s why I believe that, besides they have the same kind of background… But that’s what made them interchange.

TP: Did politics impinge on you at all as a kid?

YOSVANY: Did they stop me from doing something?

TP: Did they stop you from doing anything? Or was music always an apolitical thing? A lot of people in Cuba don’t have mobility and can’t travel, and to be a musician, there’s a certain status that’s involved. I don’t know exactly what the question is.

YOSVANY: Here’s the thing. My father is a musician playing popular music before the revolution, and then I guess, since I was born in ’71, so I didn’t go to music school until the ’80s… Then in the ’80s, all that was going on with musicians not being allowed to do different things… By the time that I started going to conservatory and studied music, that was calmed down. It seems like maybe like… I don’t know what was the factor that made all this turmoil calm down. But maybe it was just a different time, a different generation; maybe they grew out of it by the experiences they had before of musicians leaving the country because they couldn’t do what they really want to do. So really, I didn’t live those moments. I came out of something different. That’s why it’s so difficult for me… All the musicians of that generation who left, I understand where they’re coming from. But I don’t have anything to understand, because I didn’t live that. All I can know is that I listen to them, because they know the story that I didn’t know. I learn whenever I talk to them.

TP: Let me get back to music. You start playing saxophone at 11 or 12, get yourself together on the instrument and start hearing jazz musicians at 14 or 15. Among jazz saxophonists, was there anyone you started modeling yourself after stylistically?

YOSVANY: Over there? It’s interesting, because there was… When I was there, I liked a lot of Trane and Wayne Shorter. Even though I heard Bird, I didn’t really discover him until later, when more recordings were available to me.

TP: What do you think of Bird?

YOSVANY: I was really transfixed when I started to transcribe him. I heard him many times before, and I didn’t know the level at which he was involved until I started transcribing him and just to realize that he was just beyond anything I could imagine before that, and everything that I heard, it was like wow. It was just like total awe — about everything he did. His melody concept, rhythmic concept, harmonic concept. It’s really impressive that a person can have all these things developed only in one person. Some people are good with rhythm, some are good with harmony and melody — but he had everything. Don Byas, too. That’s why those persons… You could be 50 years from now, and he will be sounding the same.

TP: Did your awareness begin when Steve started pointing that out to you, or before?

YOSVANY: To realize about Bird? I think it was more when I moved here, and also in talking to Steve, and then I started getting together with Antonio Hart, too, to practice. Antonio was really important to make me be aware also of the tradition and the depth of the music that they were working with. Because it sounds hip already when you listening to it, but then when you break it down and go inside, it’s even more profound. So he was really a deep person. And many other people, too.

TP: It seems like musicians here were very open to you.

YOSVANY: Yes. I think one of the…

TP: Well, you’re from a musical family and know how to behave around musicians, so I’m sure your manners and personality has something to do with it.

YOSVANY: Yes. Also, when people see that you want to learn, then they open the door. If they see that you’re going out with an attitude, it’s not the same. I’m just interested to learn. At this point, I want to learn as much as I can. You learn from everybody. Also, it’s true that we used to work with a different kind of information coming from our culture that people are always trying to learn here, so for them….

TP: You have something for them, too.

YOSVANY: Yeah. So it’s… It’s a shame. Everybody would like to go to Cuba right away, but they don’t have the possibility So whenever they see an opportunity from somebody who can talk to them in the same language and they can talk to them on the same music level, it’s great, because they can exchange. I learn from them, they can learn from everything I know from my own culture, and you have the exchange.

TP: In New York, it’s not just Cuba and jazz, but there’s Vijay Iyer and Rudresh, with North Indian music, all the North African and Middle Eastern themes. What do you make of that? Do those cultural ideas enter your concept?

YOSVANY: Well, from before moving out here, I have so many Indian music tapes in my house, all the great Indian musicians. I have all the great Brazilian music, music from all different parts of Africa, all the different countries. That’s what I was doing before that. The music vision hasn’t changed, because I was exposed to all that, and that was my interest before. Here it broadened it more, and then I had the opportunity to have the access to more information to really put in the sack.

TP: But it’s interesting, because on one night you might be playing in Avishai Cohen’s group with Lionel, then you might be playing another night in Jason Lindner’s band, another night Dafnis’ more abstract music, all these different flavors that you have to adjust to.

YOSVANY: Last night I was doing a gig at the Zinc Bar with Samuel Torres, who works a lot with Columbian folklore and music from South America, too. Edmar Castaneda came with the harp, and another guy… They were digging up in the tradition. Then if you play with Tain, it’s a whole different demand. You have to really know about tradition in this culture, like jazz tradition and also the concept that he’s working on.

TP: Not just the jazz tradition, but you have to have it all at your fingertips – you have to be post-Branford and even where someone like Henry Threadgill is.

YOSVANY: That’s the challenge that I like. Even when I was in Havana, I think I was one of the first freelance musicians. Over there, everybody is in a band. I like the freelance concept, so I started being freelance, and that’s why I started moving easily, coming here and then traveling to Europe with Carlos Masa. I liked the concept that I could play… I wanted to play music, just music, not one style.

TP: Why were there not so many other freelance musicians in Havana?

YOSVANY: Everybody who is over there, normally they have to belong to a certain music company through this band, and the way that the system is organized now doesn’t allow you to do a lot of freelancing. But now, more and more, people are trying to do it.

TP: So more people are trying to do this now, which also lends itself to an open attitude towards embracing a lot of music.

YOSVANY: The great thing is, I was playing with singers, Cuban music, Cuban jazz, rock-and-roll singer. I also liked folkloric music, too, because I was working with the people from Folklorica Nacional. Then I would do my own stuff with my own band, and also with some other jazz groups over there. I would get together with singer-songwriters, too. It was all these things that I was doing.

Now, the difference I find from what I was doing there and what I’m doing now is, like, now I am doing, as you say, all different kinds of things in the palette, but… Here I’m not doing funk or hip-hip or folk music or anything like that, which before I used to do a lot. Which is something that I want to start to incorporate more and incorporate a bit more. Because before I also had the pressure that I had to learn so much new information that… I mean, you either concentrate to learn it or you don’t. Because there is only way to do it. There’s no shortcuts. You have to be in your practice room. That’s the way to learn it. Or going out and playing in sessions. Because I’ve been putting in all this time to learn, I haven’t been doing a lot of other different things which I want to do. Also, I played with El Negro and Robby Ameen’s band, in which we were trying to do a whole different approach. We were trying to mix Cuban music with more Funk and Hip-Hop, too, and some other current sounds. So that was really good. It was another kind of exposure.

TP: You were talking about learning Cuban music outside the context. In New York in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, Eddie Palmieri and Barry Rogers, and then Andy and Jerry Gonzalez were reaching their own conclusions on the great Cuban music of the ‘40s and ‘50s. What did you think of what they were doing at that time? Were you listening to Eddie Palmieri or the Fort Apache band?

YOSVANY: I didn’t know much about the Fort Apache band, but I really did know Eddie Palmieri.

TP: What did you think of it in Cuba?

YOSVANY: What was really interesting was that they were keeping the form that was developed in the ‘40s and the ‘50s, so that was a great respect to the tradition, and now the new thing, why it was a real feeling for me, it was all the challenges that Eddie was doing with the harmonies. He’s a great writer. So that sounded really refreshing to me. That’s why people know who he is in Cuba. That’s why they know also that other people playing Cuban music here, like (?) Cedeno, El Canario, Oscar De Leon, who are also challenging a little bit the harmony. That sound a little bit came from the mix of jazz here and the awareness of harmony also on a different level. So that’s why it sounds appealing to a lot of Cubans.

TP: One criticism some of these guys who like the old-school music have of the music in Cuba is that it’s so fast, so intense, so virtuosic, it doesn’t breathe in some ways. I don’t want to cite Jerry Gonzalez as the authority on all matters, but is there anything to that idea that the music in Cuba these days…

YOSVANY: I know what you’re talking about. I can see it in people, especially when I go back sometimes. But let’s say if you are never exposed to, say, Coleman Hawkins playing a ballad, or Ben Webster or Lester Young or Johnny Hodges playing a ballad, then you don’t learn about that side. Because let’s say all the musicians doing jazz before in Cuba, they knew those people – Sarah Vaughan, Nat King Cole.

TP: Those musicians played shows in Cuba.

YOSVANY: Yeah, Roy Haynes played there.

TP: Stan Getz. Bebo described playing shows with Stan Getz.

YOSVANY: Also, Philly Joe Jones was there. So all these people from that generation, they KNEW. But then after ‘59, when there was the gap, no more American music was coming into Cuba to be performed, and it was not until 1978 when they had that Havana Jam… But again, this is only one night. It’s not like you were able to see that every day. Then at the same time, the fusion thing came in. So a lot of people grew up out of the fusion, and they never had the opportunity to learn. So that’s why I understand where Jerry is coming from, because I can see. He’s someone who has so much knowledge about the culture from here… He’s from here, you know. So of course, the younger generation, they don’t have that sound he was looking into. But he’s an incredible guy, because he’s always playing tapes, saying, “You have to check this out,” and so on. He’s hipped me to many really interesting things.

TP:  Within the broader frame of things, do you see yourself as specifically Cuban or as part of a broader Pan-Latin movement? In 1990, say, Gonzalo Rubalcaba was here, Danilo Perez was establishing himself, Ed Simon was here doing different things. Each was distinctively from their own culture, but also part of something broader, at least the way their identity portrayed itself here. Do you see yourself in that way, or is your identity here a more specifically Cuban identity?

YOSVANY: I understand your question, because you could be here and still keep your pure Cuban identity, which I know some people… But no. To me, the feeling here is to integrate, to be part of something which is bigger, which is music in general. Which is the same thing that you learn from all the great composers, even in classical music, like Bartok and Stravinsky. They all came here after living in different countries. They’re from something bigger than solely their own culture is going to be. I know Cuba is one… The three countries with the most important popular cultures are the United States, Brazil and Cuba. But I feel I’m trying to present something a little beyond. It’s music in general.

TP: Someone like Danilo extrapolated Panamanian folkloric music onto Cuban and Brazilian strains. There are people doing tangos who from Argentina and Uruguay. Ed Simon, ironically, learned about tonadas from Paquito. David Sanchez with bomba and plena. So it’s interesting how people integrate their own specific folkloric ideas into the broader fabric.

YOSVANY: But that’s what people have been doing for a long, long time.

TP: Since the Cubans came to New Orleans in the 19th century.

YOSVANY: Yes. That’s what also keeps the music fresh in content, when you can see people taking tradition and reviving it in a different way, but not for the sake of saying, “oh, I play tradition.” No, it’s…” You didn’t say this word, but it’s more like the intent to fabricate something new. It’s like when you put the fabrics together and you come up with something different.

TP: I was asking what you found so special about Bird. I want to ask you that about some other musicians. How did Coltrane strike you when you were in Cuba?

YOSVANY: I don’t know. There was something about his tone and his ideas that make it sound different. Even though I didn’t know much people… But when somebody has a power in their speech, then they can convince you. Maybe you speak to a thousand people within a day, but it’s like one or two that you remember the next day – “Oh, that an interesting conversation I had with this guy because of what he was saying and the way he was putting his piece together.’ I think that was what struck me on him. Like I said, I didn’t know much about what he was dealing with musically; I couldn’t understand that back then. But what he was expressing, even though I didn’t know the terminology, it struck me.

TP: Charlie Parker was part of the tradition of Cuban music in the ‘40s and ‘50s and ‘60s, but I can’t see an analog to Coltrane. I can hear it in Elvin Jones.

YOSVANY: But you can hear Bird in Trane, and that’s the bridge. Also, you can hear Dexter Gordon in Trane, and Dexter was somebody I always liked.

TP: When you heard something like Interstellar Space, was it something you could relate to?

YOSVANY: No, it wasn’t. The first time I heard that was on the jazz radio shows. I remember it was something completely different. At the beginning, I didn’t dig it much, because I didn’t understand what he was dealing with. I remember one of the radio guys was real into free jazz, which was hip, too, because if it hadn’t been for this guy, I would never have heard that. He would play a lot of Trane in his last period, and Albert Ayler, and… The guy passed, but he was into this type of sound. So he would cover the whole history, but always at the end of the month or every two months he would do a show with just that sound. For us, it was like you’d check the dial, because you’d wonder if it was the same station. It was so different. No, there was no way to relate.

TP: But when you came here you could relate to it?

YOSVANY: When I came here I could relate to it a little bit more. It’s not like this kind of sound is walking around the street. But at the same time, you can relate it also with the city. You can relate it with the dynamics of… Now that you’re here, you can see what the dynamic of the city and this whole city rhythm is, and you can arrive easier to that aesthetic.

TP: Another aspect is that a lot of the musical community here, musicians who play downtown at certain venues, that’s the sound they work with. It’s a very large clique of musicians who do it. Then you mentioned Wayne Shorter. Talk about his appeal when you were in Cuba.

YOSVANY: I first discovered Wayne with Weather Report. But he played so different within that sound, because he didn’t sound like any of the featured saxophone players who were playing within the fusion style. He sounded so different that it made me look for some stuff he was doing before, and then some people gave me cassettes of his LPs, and I found out that he was a monster who had all this tradition and knowledge within himself. Even though you couldn’t tell from the Weather Report, but at the same time there’s a certain tune he’s playing that you said, “Wow, this is not a cat who is coming out of the fusion; what he’s playing is something different.”

TP: When did you first hear him with Miles?

YOSVANY: When I was maybe 17-18. But I was in Camagüey still, but I might have been 16-17… There were people from Havana bringing all this information. Then I heard his own record with McCoy and then with Miles.

TP: Was improvising important to you as a teenager? Was there room in Cuban music for you to improvise? Someone as immersed in music as you and so at-one with your instrument, it would seem that the notion of creating your own music would be equally attractive to interpreting other music beautifully. You seem to be a musician who is equally comfortable doing both. There aren’t too many.

YOSVANY: I like to do both. I like being a sideman, being able to interpret music. That I got from the school in Cuba, because as we studied classical music, you have to interpret it like it’s yours, but then at the same time, when I heard a jazz recording, it’s when I was maybe 13 or 14, and I didn’t know what they were doing, because they were doing something really fresh. So then I wanted to learn how to do that. Even though there wasn’t much… I was lucky that there was a teacher around there who knew…he was a jazz player. So I learned with him piano and harmony, and I learned to understand the concept. His name is Alfredo Thompson. He is now maybe the musical director for Omara Portundo. But he knew jazz. He knew harmony and he knew Coltrane and all the jazz players. He also worked in Irakere before, and then he worked in …(?)… There was a jazz group in my province, only one, but they were really incredible players. The piano player was Gabriel Hernandez. He worked with Roy Hargrove in the latest stage of Crisol. After Chucho stopped working with Crisol, Gabriel Hernandez started working with Crisol. They were just amazing musicians, who really knew in-depth, and they were serious.

TP: And you knew them.

YOSVANY: Yeah, yeah, through my father. Coincidentally, my father was the one who brought Gabriel Hernandez to the Maravillas de Florida charanga orchestra after Gabriel had studied in Havana. If I play you those CDs, they’re really amazing, because it will be like a Charanga Orquesta, and then you will hear like Coltrane harmonies in the bridges.

TP: That’s what Emilano Salvador did.

YOSVANY: Yeah-yeah. But you never heard that in a Charanga orquesta. They did that because Gabriel was hip to all this music. So I used to go every Saturday when they played, just to listen to them, because he was an amazing musician.

TP: We’ve covered a lot. I’m trying to think how to tie this up. Was alto saxophone your first instrument?

YOSVANY: I’ve played alto since I started, through all my studies in Cuba. But when I finished school, since my alto was cool, my parents gave a tenor as a present. So for the next three years, tenor was all I played. Tenor and also I bought a soprano because I started working with Silvio Rodriguez, and he wanted to travel to Argentina. But I had to become a tenor player because I didn’t have any alto. Then I ended up liking it. It gave me a whole different register in sound. I like to play an alto more with a tenor sound instead of playing with more of a kind of alto sound.

TP: Like a lot of modern alto players.


TP: Were you into Jackie McLean and Kenny Garrett and Gary Bartz?

YOSVANY: Yeah-yeah.

TP: I know with Antonio you got a good dose of Gary.


TP: Those guys all appeal to you.

YOSVANY: Yeah, definitely. Even Steve. He played with a different approach, not an alto type of sound. He was influenced a lot by Von Freeman, so he’s got so much of that depth. When he plays, it’s not like he’s taking the altissimo register. He’s got a deep bottom. But he’s very much raised on Bird. Bird is so strong in his style but at the same time he’s singing so much that mainly he’s just playing the instrument. That’s a whole different approach. Most of the people that imitate him don’t get his singing sensibility through the instrument, like the horn becomes an instrument, so they make the cliches or whatever…

TP: The licks.

YOSVANY: The licks. But by recreating the licks, you’re not really understanding. His real ability was to sing through the instrument. It was a different perspective.

TP: Not different than the sensibility of the older Cuban music.

YOSVANY: Yes, it’s something that used to be there a lot. What happened now is that the chances for a soloist to take solos in the popular Cuban music are all the time less and less. Before it was common. Everybody would take solos. Now I went to Havana, and it’s like you don’t listen to a soloist.

TP: Are people listening to MTV or hip-hop?

YOSVANY: No, they don’t have MTV there. There’s only 2 channels; it’s really controlled. But for some reason, reggae is there, and hip-hop has been there, too. They have a TV show… They don’t have something like MTV that would be playing mainstream. They have a show once or twice a week in which they pick whatever the emcee likes, and they will put it on. But I’ve never seen them… You know how MTV is sort of hip-hop. I haven’t seen it that much. It might have gotten there in some way, because of course people know. But they don’t have MTV bombarding them.

TP: So you play the three saxophones and the chekere. Has the chekere stayed there all through, or was there a period when you weren’t playing it and you’re bringing it back?

YOSVANY: It’s interesting, because in New York… I was playing with my band in Cuba, and then at some point I did a tour with my father playing in the band, on which I didn’t play chekere at all because it was right there. But then I would take it with me on the road with my other band. But I think it was here where I started playing it more and more, and then I grew up more playing the instrument. And with Avishai Cohen, because at the beginning I started playing with him in the International Vamp Band as a tenor player, and then chekere – but I think I was playing even more chekere sometimes than tenor (and also soprano). Even though I didn’t understand the concept of using it, I just wanted to blow my horn. But then, by playing the chekere every time and having to do solos and play it the whole concert thing on a tour, I grew up, and then I started developing more and more.

TP: Developing a personality on the chekere.

YOSVANY: Yes. Then I started to discover myself more. In a way, I was… It’s not like it was harder in Cuba, but the chances to play the instrument were less, because it was only my band, or maybe through… Well, very few other bands, because my father is really active there. So it was here that I had the opportunities.

TP: Here it becomes an art instrument instead of functional. People are sitting down watching you play it instead of responding.

YOSVANY: Yes. My father also played in places like that. But for some reason, people also haven’t seen the instrument. They don’t know it.

TP: Does playing chekere in some way, the longer you’re away from Cuba, help you stay Cuban?

YOSVANY: Not only that, but also stay closer to my Afro-Cuban roots. Even though I listen to that at home, too, the same way that I check out Brazilian music, classical music, music from the different parts of India and Africa… But I think about the instrument also when I’m walking around, imagining the way I can develop a solo, how I can apply certain rhythms that I just learned on the instrument. So again, it helps not only to feel more Cuban, but feel more close to the dancing aspect of the music that I like so much.

TP: Other musicians – Omer and Avishai – described that in Israel they didn’t really think of playing Ladino or Yemenite music, they just focused on hardcore jazz, but when they got here, they found themselves gravitating towards bringing those things into their sound as a way to do something individual, but also in some mystical way, so that being here brought them more in touch with their own national identity through art. That’s one reason why I’m asking this question.

YOSVANY: Ah! Now that you say that, it’s interesting for me to know that. When I look at musicians coming from Israel, they are the ones with the strongest sense of rhythm, in which they can understand Latin rhythms… They can pick it up really quick. That doesn’t happen in many other cultures. But of course, that helped me not to lose the tradition and not to forget about my roots, where I’m coming from, and then to adapt it and put it in whatever I’m doing.

TP: Your record Metamorphosis I suppose is your calling card for 2006. Do you have plans to do another record?

YOSVANY: Yes, I want to see if I can do another recording, maybe towards the end of this year. I’m already working with different material that I’ve been composing, and I want to compose more. But I would like to record something that’s here…

TP: This record has a formal quality, very composed, not something you’d be able to bring in every week, let’s say. Do you want to do something that’s more live-oriented. It’s your first record as a New York musician, and first records can be grand statements.
YOSVANY: When I do live shows, I go back and forth and new stuff that I’m playing now… If you want to pick up the word “formal,” they’re not as formal. They have to be more like what is happening, the way that you’re feeling that day and the way that it’s happening that day. That’s some of the quality that I like on the music. This music happened this way because I know that I composed it and I was working a lot on it. So even though it sounds more through-composed, I guess, it changes all the time in the live performance. It changes, because then I would put a whole different intro, like solo instrument intro here, and then we’d just switch the sections to here. I will do it differently, completely differently.

TP: And next year, you’re going to try to move your activity more towards leading your own group, but you’ll keep a lot of your sideman things.

YOSVANY: No. I love to be a sideman because it’s the way that I grew up. I like to be a sideman as well as I like to play my music. When you get to play other people’s music, with the different accents and demands, then you’re into corners that you wouldn’t get there unless you were working with some other people.


Leave a comment

Filed under Cuba, DownBeat, Interview, Jazz Times, Jazziz, Yosvany Terry

For Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s 54th Birthday, a Downbeat Feature From 2015

The singular pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba turns 54 today. I’ve been fortunate to have several opportunities to write about Gonzalo, most recently in 2015, when I spent some time with him and the members of his amazing group, Volcán, in Barcelona. I’ve pasted below that most recent piece (written for Downbeat), which also discusses the circumstances behind his epic CD Suite Caminos.


On November 24th the quartet Volcán—pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, drummer Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez and percussionist Giovanni Hidalgo, all 52, and electric bassist Jose Armando Gola, 37—convened at Barcelona Conservatory’s L’Auditori for the opening installment of a fortnight of consecutive concerts across Europe. To conclude their 90-minute soundcheck-rehearsal, the drummers launched the dark, elemental rumba beats that bedrock Rubalcaba’s “Sin Punto,” documented on Volcán’s eponymous 2013 CD [5Passion]. Hernandez flowed through endless clave permutations; Hidalgo, unable to hand-strike his six-conga set because of an infected finger, deployed sticks in a way that made them sound like a new instrument; Rubalcaba goosed the dance with darting lines, stacking and signifying upon the rhythms.

“We travel through time,” Hidalgo said shortly thereafter in the dressing room. “Every night, we jump from 1910 to the present, differently every night. It’s one of the most avant-garde groups ever.” This was a spot-on description of the ensuing concert, in which the ensemble synchronously navigated seven Rubalcaba charts with kinetic grace and freewheeling discipline, switching on a dime between ideas suggested by the codes of danzon, son, mambo, guaguanco, rumba, songo and timba. Rubalcaba himself improvised with an orchestral conception, executing harmonically erudite, percolating lines and phantasmagoric shapes on piano and Korg, sometimes at levels of propulsion and metric complexity that transformed him into the ensemble’s third drummer, sometimes at levels of dynamic nuance that evoked conductor Simon Rattle’s encomium that he is “the world’s most gifted pianist.”

“Gonzalo makes even something very complicated very easy,” Hernandez had remarked the previous evening. “He writes transparently, logically, super-precise, putting on paper exactly what he hears in his head.” He observed that, whereas three decades ago in the pathbreaking, Havana-based ensemble Grupo Proyecto that they co-founded in 1984, Rubalcaba “sometimes experimented with a chord or a rhythm at a certain point, now there’s nothing to change. Then, Gonzalo was the centerpiece of everything—the arrangement, the improvisation. Now he shares more. He lets the others help.”

In 1992, Rubalcaba moved from Cuba to the Dominican Republic; in 1996 he moved to Miami. Concurrently, Hernandez migrated to Italy, then settled in New York. They next made music together in 2012, when guitarist Stefan Glass called Rubalcaba, Hernandez, Hidalgo and Gola—Rubalcaba’s frequent partner since 2001—for a Miami recording session.

On the second day, Hidalgo approached Rubalcaba—they first met in 1980, when the conguero came to Havana with the Puerto Rican group Batacumbele—with a proposition: “We need to do a quartet, and its name is going to be The Fourth Volcano.”

“That was it,” Hernandez confirmed. “We didn’t have to say it twice.”

“My response was, ‘Of course we should do that,’” Rubalcaba said. He immediately began to coalesce repertoire. “The idea is to propose a new music—to play original pieces but also versions of important compositions in the history of Latin music, whether Cuban, Brazilian, North American or Mexican, that contain both the past and the way we see it now. Everyone has a strong relationship with jazz vocabulary and a deep connection to Cuban and Afro-Cuban roots, not only musically but spiritually and as a religion. Everyone has space to expose what they can do individually, but at the same time the band works as a band. Our purpose is musical creation, not a commercial thing.”

Volcán was Rubalcaba’s third recording for 5Passion, which he co-founded in 2010 with Gary Galimidi, the CEO of Gables Engineering, a South Florida-based manufacturer of avionic controls. They met that March, after Rubalcaba played a concert in Homestead, Florida, supporting the 2008 CD Avatar, which featured a New York-based quintet comprising Yosvany Terry on alto saxophone, Michael Rodriguez on trumpet, Matt Brewer on bass, and Marcus Gilmore on drums. It was his 14th album for Blue Note, concluding a relationship that began in 1990 with Discovery: Live in Montreux, a trio date with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian that introduced Rubalcaba’s pianistic and recompositional brilliance and abiding soulfulness to the international jazz community.

Circa 2008, Rubalcaba was looking for “people who provoke me to react differently. It’s better they use their own speech, even if they phrase differently than a Cuban musician. I become a reference, an example in some way that seduces them to trust what I am doing. I was thinking that New York is home to a new generation of players, many of them friends, even roommates, with a new voice that results from a new technology, a new way to listen to music, to get information, to dress, to live.”

For Terry, Rubalcaba’s musical production has consequentially influenced the contemporary New York sound. “I hear Gonzalo’s influence in many people, not just Cuban musicians or pianists,” he said. “Musicians I work with have Gonzalo’s CDs in their iPhones or iPads or iPods. Pianists are looking at the sound he produces, his choice of notes and rhythms, the musical decisions for his compositions. Drummers are fascinated because of the challenge he poses. He played the instrument, and all the parts make sense—he writes specifically for the exact register, color and timbre he’s looking for.”

“I did piano for a career, but the truth is that I have a percussionist inside,” Rubalcaba clarified. His father, pianist Guillermo Rubalcaba, ran rehearsals at home that included master percussionists Tata Güines and Changuito, from whom Gonzalo learned the Afro-diasporic codes by example. He “showed aptitude” for timbal, claves and bongos, and received a drum for his sixth birthday. “I saw the drum, sat down, took the stick, and played.” Soon thereafter, Hernandez recalls, his parents called him to the television to see Rubalcaba, in short pants, drumming in Guillermo Rubalcaba’s family band.

“I had many different simultaneous references,” Rubalcaba said. He soaked up folkloric chants, dances and rituals in his Centro Havana neighborhood, and heard his father’s LPs of jazz, Cuban music and the Euro-canon. His older brother, Jesus, practiced Liszt, Chopin and Beethoven on a daily basis. “But percussion had a special space. It wasn’t just for colors and flourishes. It was a first plane, a first voice. When I write music, I see myself playing the drum part and the percussion part. The percussion is essential in the musical speech I am trying to put together, so the percussionists in my band will be pushed to do a lot.”

Rubalcaba pushed hard to bring Avatar to fruition. Although Blue Note head Bruce Lundvall was a life-long friend, the label, itself circumscribed by sagging music industry economics, had long ceased to provide adequate infrastructural support for tours or album marketing, and was reluctant to provide Rubalcaba a budget sufficient to actualize the project to his exacting standards. Still, Rubalcaba decided, as the saying goes, to turn lemons into lemonade. “In Cuba we had nothing, not even instruments in good shape or places to rehearse, and were able to execute the music at a high level,” he said. “I realized I could spend my own money, or find an investor. The important thing was to connect with new musicians.”

When he met Galimidi, with Avatar concluded, Rubalcaba figured he had fulfilled his contractual obligations to Blue Note and was looking for a change. So was Galimidi, who “had been saving my money and was thinking about getting into some other business.” A long-standing fan of Rubalcaba and a self-described “frustrated musician” who “plays badly,” he’d purchased 20 tickets to the Homestead concert for his employees. One, who had known Rubalcaba in Cuba, asked the pianist to receive his boss backstage. Galimidi recalls that he shook Rubalcaba’s hand and received an autographed piano key; in Rubalcaba’s version, they didn’t meet. Whatever the case, the employee called Rubalcaba on the following day to extend Galimidi’s invitation for lunch. Himself an habitue of flight simulators and one-time owner of a high-octane Porsche, Rubalcaba accepted.

Their connection was immediate. Galimidi recalls Rubalcaba’s comment “that the money had dried up, which I understand—you put in a tremendous amount of money and don’t get much out.” He continued: “You need to be doing this for some reason other than return on investment. When I woke up the next day, I realized that I could fund his records, I’d learn about music and recording, and my wife, who is a graphic designer, could be involved. To me, it was a no-brainer, because Gonzalo can produce the shit out of anything. You just give him money, a studio, and help him call the people.

“I want people to know who he is, that what he does is divine. He plays, and he grabs your soul. You have no choice but to listen.”

Upon hearing Galimidi’s proposal to partner on a label that would allow him “to make music without restriction” and eventually to own his masters,” Rubalcaba recalled, “I thought I was dreaming.” After an offer of “very significant money” for Rubalcaba’s entire Blue Note catalog fell through, they spent $5,000 to release him from a provision that gave Blue Note a three-album option over a 56½-month span.

Then they discussed names. “Gonzalo suggested taking number-5, cinco, and putting the word ‘passion’ (which in Spanish has one ‘s’) behind it,” Galimidi said. “If you say it in Spanish, it’s ‘syncopation.’ Gonzalo was raised in santeria, and the number of his saint, Oshún, is 5. My wife developed the butterfly-like figure in the logo, which we trademarked, so that you can read it as either one ‘s’ or two.”

“It has been an amazing experience,” Rubalcaba said. “It’s so difficult to find someone who believes in the human being as a person, not in the numbers. I believe in Gary totally, and I know he believes in everything I do. We win together and we lose together.”

As if to signify on these sentiments, Rubalcaba launched 5Passion with (Faith), a solo meditation on the classical and folkloric canons of Cuba and the points at which they intersect with jazz. He plays with restraint and refined intention, honing in on lyric essences. He followed it with XXI Century, a double CD with Brewer and Gilmore, joined on various selections by guitarist Lionel Loueke, conguero Pedrito Rodriguez and drummer Ignacio Berroa, who played on all of Rubalcaba’s trio and quartet albums between 1998 (Inner Voyage) and 2006 (Paseo). Fortified by several days of immersive rehearsal and studio time, they stretch out on pieces by Rubalcaba, Loueke and Brewer, and find fresh paths into works by Bley, Bill Evans and Lennie Tristano.

On last year’s Suite Caminos, Rubalcaba unleashes the full measure of his powers on an eight-section recitative scored for alto saxophone (Will Vinson), tenor saxophone (Seamus Blake), trumpet (Alex Sipiagin), guitar (Adam Rogers), bass (Brewer) and drums (Ernesto Simpson), a coro of high-level Miami-based Yoruba practitioners, and himself on piano, synths, and church organ. He refracts the rhythms and melodies of specific Yoruba deities/orishas that, as author Ned Sublette writes in the program notes, “embody complex natural forces,” each “with its own gender and personality” and “its own set of multiple selves.” “The music was fearsomely difficult,” Vinson said, implying how Rubalcaba’s narrative represents the multi-dimensionality of his subjects. “We learned the parts over four or five days in the studio, but trying to feel your part, and fit it in with the rhythms, and navigate the sound and articulation in unison with Seamus and Alex made it 10 times more difficult.”

Suite Caminos gestated in 1995, after Rubalcaba completed Antigua, his first systematic exploration of Yoruban roots. During the ensuing 18 years, he worked not only with his own diverse bands, but performed Baroque, Impressionist and Spanish piano music and collaborated on tango projects with Richard Galliano and Al DiMiola, pan-Brazilian concerts with João Bosco and Ivan Lins, and on two albums of boleros—both instant classics—with Charlie Haden.

“I took risks to develop myself both as a piano player and a composer,” Rubalcaba said. “I put myself in contact with different spaces and musical visions, with people who wanted me to do things their way. Even when you are not totally comfortable with their ideas, you can always learn. Life is a palette with many tastes and flavors and colors and moments. If one moment is not sweet or illuminated, you try to be part of the darkness and force yourself to turn it into something bright. Even early in my career, when I had media exposure and Blue Note spent a lot to give me the privilege to play before large audiences at big venues around the world, I never was drunk with the applause. When I got home, I’d try to reset everything. I saw reviews or heard people say, perhaps with reason, ‘Well, he just played like that guy, he played fast,’ and so on. I considered every reaction, even when people didn’t express it in the best way. When you decide to live like that, the process is really long. You can feel really alone.

“So this work didn’t come to me like a revelation: ‘Ok, now I am in position to do this.’ It emerged from accumulating tools and reference and knowledge from a half-century of love, memory, and experience, so that I felt strong enough to do it as I did. In each tune, the chant talks about a specific issue of life for a human being.”

In Terry’s view, Suite Caminos “could only come from someone who immersed himself in the religious traditions that still exist in Cuba and prevail in the countryside. It contains a depth of spiritual understanding that speaks to a larger community than just musicians. I believe it’s the same spiritual feeling that was behind Mozart or Bach with the St. Matthew’s Passion or with the Requiem, and all of the great composers of sacred music.”

Rubalcaba explicates the opening selection, “Sendero De Aliento”—scored for vocals, Afro-Cuban percussion with batas, and church organ—as “talking about the very fine line between life and death,” he said. “The organ for me spiritually represents a lot of Christian and Catholic sound. When I visit cities like New York or Barcelona or Madrid, I try to visit churches, and often I’ve had the opportunity to see someone playing.” As an instance, he recalled being the only corporeal attendee at a female organist’s performance of a contemporary piece in St. Thomas Episcopal Church in midtown Manhattan. “I believe that the saints were also there, and the spirits that I know as part of my family tradition—exactly what we are not commonly able to see,” he said. “I try to connect with that.”

In the wake of his father’s death in September, Rubalcaba is the last surviving member of his immediate family, no longer in a position to glean counsel and friendship from Lundvall, who died in May, or Haden, who died in July 2014. “I felt alone, but it’s not true,” he said. This notion is the animating imperative driving Charlie, on which Rubalcaba joins Vinson, Rodgers, Brewer and Gilmore through melodic, inflamed-soul treatments of his reharmonized charts of eight Haden originals and his own “Transparence.” The latter piece appears on the concurrently issued Tokyo Adagio (Impulse!), documenting an inspired 2005 Rubalcaba-Haden duo performance at Tokyo’s Blue Note.

“We created an environment for Charlie’s spirit to be there, rather than duplicating anything Charlie did on some day,” Rubalcaba said. “When we were recording, I was touring, talking, laughing with Charlie. We have to learn to continue life without the people we love, at least without seeing them every day. You have to find strong convictions about other ideas. This is what keeps you working, dreaming, living, playing.”

Leave a comment

Filed under DownBeat, Gonzalo Rubalcaba

For Herbie Hancock’s 77th Birthday, A “Director’s Cut” DownBeat Feature from 2003 and an interview with the Barnes & Noble Review From 2014

Readers of this blog need no introduction to Herbie Hancock, who turns 77 today. For the occasion, I’m posting the “director’s cut” of a DownBeat cover piece I had the opportunity to write about HH in 2003, and the proceedings of an interview he did with me on the occasion of the publication of Breaking The Rules for the Barnes & Noble Review ‘zine, in which he states: “Jazz is really a foundational music. Jazz musicians have the flexibility to be able to move around freely in other genres. It doesn’t work the other way around. I would say that’s a badge of honor for jazz.”


Herbie Hancock DB Cover Story, 2003

The opening sequence of Herbie Hancock’s new DVD, Future-2-Future, Live, follows Hancock, elegantly casual in a custom-tailored black suit, as he enters stage left at the Los Angeles Knitting Factory. Hancock bows, addresses a Korg Karma Roland MK-80 keyboard plugged into an Apple PowerBook computer, and triggers a series of ascending and descending swoops of varying duration. Against a backdrop of swirling rave images, bassist Matthew Garrison bows complementary tones, D.J. Disk interpolates whispery swatches of color, keyboardist Darrell Diaz plucks soft chords, drummer Teri Lyne Carrington elicits rubato, bell-like beats from her cymbals.

Then Hancock takes the microphone in his right hand. “Simply put, knowledge is the past,” he says in a calm, deliberate voice. “It is…” — he smiles, and sweeps his left hand across the keyboard — “…technology.” He pauses, cues an oscillating wash of sound, and continues, stretching out the words: “Wisdom is the future. It is philosophy. It is people’s hearts that move the age. While knowledge may provide a useful point of reference, it cannot become a force to guide the future. By contrast, wisdom captivates people’s hearts and has the power to open a new age. Wisdom is the key to understanding the age, creating the time.”

Concluding the invocation, from a text by his spiritual guide, Daiseku Ikeda, Hancock sustains the tone poem, setting up a Carrington chant, which is sampled polyphonically and to which she creates a complementary drumbeat on her electronic pads. Hancock shifts, sits at the acoustic piano, states the melody of “Kebero,” and launches a pithy, majestic solo, constantly developing the theme and sustaining a complex rhythmic dialogue with his drummer, deploying a precisely calibrated array of attacks to treat the piano simultaneously as both an orchestral harmonic instrument and a drum. Carrington’s sampled chant is a break chorus that paves the way for trumpeter Wallace Roney, who bobs and weaves through the rhythm with long combinations that sum up the harmonic material, not stopping until Hancock returns to the Korg with a declarative chord that winds up the piece.

Through the ebb and flow of the remaining 90 minutes of Future-2-Future Live, Hancock improvises through his entire timeline, bouncing off the ensemble to navigate seamlessly through electronic and acoustic environments with a holistic sensibility that he has not displayed on previous recordings. On “This Is D.J. Disk,” a call-and-response with the turntablist, Hancock uncorks a solo that evokes Inventions and Dimensions, his 1963 encounter with bassist Paul Chambers and two Afro-Latin percussionists. He creates a completely reconfigured 20-minute suite of “Dolphin Dance,” originally recorded in 1965 on Maiden Voyage, and one of several dozen Hancock compositions that stand among the sublime achievements of late 20th century jazz. He presents 21st century versions of “Hornets,” a Techno epic originally recorded in 1973 by the groove-based experimental coop Mwandishi on the aforementioned Sextant, and “Butterfly,” a soulful melody from Hancock’s late ’70s fusion period. On the encore, a balls-out “Chameleon,” he comps wickedly under an inspired Kurzweil solo by Darrell Diaz, then takes a thematic counterstatement on the Korg and an orchestral variation on acoustic piano.

Much of the repertoire comprises Hancock’s arrangements of material from his self-released studio CD, Future-2-Future [Transparent], refined over the band’s 50 or so dates during 2001-02. “We committed ourselves to Future-2-Future from an artist development point of view, going on the road and playing smaller clubs to younger audiences, almost as if Herbie was a new artist,” explains his manager, David Passick. On the CD, producer Bill Laswell situated Hancock in the Electro-Hiphop-Ambient-Techno dancefloor environment that he foreshadowed thirty years ago on such albums as Sextant — specifically the piece “Nobu,” built on scratch-like beats — and Dedication, and that he helped to launch in the ‘80s on Future Shock and Perfect Machine. Laswell collects beats from Detroit Techno producer Carl Craig, Afro-Brit drum-bass avatar Gerald Simpson, DJ Rob Swift, Grandmixer DXT, and tabla-percussionist Karsh Kale, deploys the resonant voices of Chaka Khan, Gigi, and Imani Uzuri, and calls on old master instrumentalists Wayne Shorter and Jack deJohnette – and a sampled drum track laid down by Tony Williams not long before his death – to impart gravitas and depth.

“Bill thought it would be interesting if I worked with people who are creating this kind of music who were influenced by records I did when I was their age,” Hancock says. “What would be the future-to-future end product? Bill likes to prepare fragments — some harmonic material or drums or drum-and-bass — before he meets me. Stimulating things. On our past albums, I would evaluate what he prepared, decide what to do, and then go back in the studio and shape it into my record by adding and changing things. The technology has evolved, and when I heard his material I was in the studio in front of a keyboard with a ‘Record’ light on. Bill wanted my immediate first reaction, my my gut-level, right-brain response. I’m listening to something; I don’t know where it’s going or where it starts, or anything.”

“When we talk about Electronica, we’re speaking about programming, not playing as a jazz musician would,” says Laswell, reinforcing the point. ” But Herbie thinks in terms of playing and programming simultaneously. He can imagine a sequence as a repetition, not something that’s reproduced electronically, but a spontaneously played musical part. He hears patterns, and he thinks in terms of structures — very advanced harmonic structures.”

“I’ve played with a lot of great musicians,” says Roney. “Sometimes with them, we’re playing, it’s great, we’re having a good time. But with Herbie, from the first chord, the first run, my jaw would drop. You never knew what you were going to hear next and it always took your breath away. Every time.”

“In a way, improvising is like composing,” Hancock says. “I am interested in making it more spontaneous and less intellectual, getting the thinking brain out of the way and letting the music flow through. The structure or balance will inherently reveal itself as a natural consequence. Now, the Mwandishi band played very spontaneous music, and the Future-2-Future band comes from a perspective very similar to when I did Crossings and Sextant. But in the early ’70s it was more raw, whereas now it’s reached some kind of maturity. The music was unrefined, like laying your guts out, letting it all hang out, which a young person may do. Today I’m letting it all hang out, but there’s a sense of the importance of responsibility and other things you learn as you get older.

“Except on rare occasions, I haven’t practiced scales and exercises, the way we normally think of practicing, in many years. What I want to draw from is not technique. I’m no longer interested in being a piano virtuoso in any way, shape or form. That’s not what I’m about. I’m interested in allowing the innermost person to express itself, to respond to whatever the musical environment may be, moment to moment, and to encourage others to have the courage to not be afraid to walk into that kind of darkness.”

Although Hancock has numerous plans for the remainder of 2003, none involve touring the Future-2-Future band. Hancock’s next project will piggyback on his eighth Grammy-winning album, Gershwin’s World [Verve], a critically acclaimed response to the Gershwin Centennial. Joining forces with arranger-conductor Robert Sadin, who conceptualized the album, he will play his own music as well as compositions by Gil Evans, Wayne Shorter, Duke Ellington and Gershwin with philharmonic orchestras in America and Europe. Nor is he neglecting his distinguished legacy in hardcore jazz, with engagements booked for his quartet (Carrington, saxophonist Gary Thomas, and bassist Scott Colley) and with Verve labelmates Michael Brecker and Roy Hargrove in the New Directions Band, which last year released a 2001 location date from Toronto’s Massey Hall, devoted primarily to the music of John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Massey Hall was the venue where, in 1953, bebop icons Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach convened to document the legendary “Greatest Jazz Concert Ever,” and Hancock will go there in May to commemorate its fiftieth anniversary with Roy Haynes, Dave Holland, Kenny Garrett and Nicholas Payton.

It will also be roughly fifty years from the time when the 13-year-old Hancock – a classical prodigy who at 11 had played Mozart’s D-Minor Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — heard a classmate play jazz trio at a variety show at Hyde Park High School. “I didn’t know anything about improvising then,” Hancock recalls. “I played Classical music and Rhythm-and-Blues. If it wasn’t on the page, I didn’t play it. I had no idea what this guy was doing, but it was organized and rhythmically it was cool. I became curious and decided to learn how to do it, and the more I investigated, the more I liked it. He was playing things that George Shearing had recorded, like ‘I’ll Remember April’ and ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,’ which we had at home. I found phrases I liked, and tried to find the notes on the piano or by singing the part. Then I’d write them down, continue until I got the whole phrase, and try to play the phrase by looking at the notes on the page. I noticed it sounded different from when George Shearing played it, and I looked more closely at what was happening. I noticed that some notes were louder than others, that he used accents, held some parts of the phrase longer — little nuances that made the difference. So when I was 14 and in high school, I was getting experience in ear training and sight-singing.”

Progressing rapidly, Hancock began to participate in the bustling Chicago scene towards the end of high school, going to jam sessions and picking up ideas from such reharmonization-oriented local pianists as Billy Wallace, Jodie Christian, Willie Pickens and Muhal Richard Abrams, young progressives like Eddie Harris, Ira Sullivan, and Wilbur Ware, and future bandmates like George Coleman, Julian Priester and James Spaulding, the latter two members of Sun Ra’s ’50s Arkestra. He matriculated at Grinnell College in Iowa, where he initially majored in electrical engineering. During summer vacations he took club gigs, including one for which he recalls hiring Jack DeJohnette to play bass. With increasing regularity he attended the jam sessions, including one produced by Joe Segal at the Gate of Horn on the North Side. There he heard the blind pianist Chris Anderson.

“Right after I heard him, and wiped the tears from my eyes, because what he played was so beautiful, I studied with him for a week,” Hancock recalls. “His harmonic thinking and the heart that went into his playing stunned me. When I looked at him – blind, bones brittle, using a crutch — I said, ‘Who is this mother?’ Then he got up and played, and he was playing some harmonic things that Bill Evans was not dealing with at the time. I said, ‘I want to learn what this stuff is!’ For anybody at that time, to have studied with Chris would be a great advantage.

“I also heard Sun Ra a couple of times. Once he was rehearsing in the basement of the Sutherland, I somehow found out about it and checked him out a bit. I didn’t really dig it, but it was interesting. It was a bit much for me at the time.”

In a sense, Hancock is a prototype Chicago musician of his era, sharing philosophical affinities with fellow South Side products like Eddie Harris, Muhal Richard Abrams, Jack DeJohnette, Andrew Hill, Charles Stepney and Maurice White. In his preoccupation with process, technology, collectivity and self-determination, in the risk-taking imperatives that drive him, in his iconoclastic temperament, in his desire to express himself in populist and highbrow forums, to crack the codes of multiple musical languages towards humanistic narrative ends, he embodies the ancient-to-the-future perspective postulated by the Art Ensemble of Chicago during the decade after he departed for New York and began his storied career.

“I describe the whole Chicago experience as school,” he says. “You learned all the basics and got exposure to elements coming from a wide variety of sources, from the total avant garde, which Sun Ra could be, to things from Gene Ammons, the blues, and the way different cats played bebop. The musicians and audiences always encouraged some form of experimentation. You didn’t have to have things perfect; Chicago’s jazz fans supported whatever you were into. Chicago was the best foundation I could think of for going to New York.”

Like his former employer Miles Davis, Hancock is a musician who actually has guided the future and changed the time. Personal modesty aside, he remains a virtuoso on his instrument, and his music has a novelistic scope. Pianists acknowledge his unsurpassed sensitivity of touch and nuance, and since his days with Miles Davis — think of “81” or “Stuff” — he’s known how to switch on a dime from the highest highbrow abstractions to the most soulful soul brother funk. He defined the modern Fender Rhodes electric piano sound on Filles de Kilmanjaro and Fat Albert Rotunda, and was a pioneer in establishing a vocabulary from early synthesizers. He led the curve in groove-based experimental music with Mwandishi, in rhythm-and-blues with Headhunters, and in blending hip-hop and Euro-Techno aesthetics, without ceding innovative status in the hardcore jazz pantheon.

“I think Herbie’s a genius to the point that when he chooses to go Pop, without sacrificing everything he is, he becomes authentic Pop,” says Roney. “When Headhunters came out, he changed the way pianists and keyboard players play R&B; now they all do that little tremolo and those comping riffs he does. Herbie listened to Sly Stone, and he and Stevie were friends, but he comes into the arena without offending it, and ups the ante. The jazz purists hate it, and the pure R&B people get mad. But you turn around, and everybody’s trying to play keyboards like Herbie Hancock.”

“Tell the members of a symphony orchestra, or a jazz musician, or a rapper or R&B guy, ‘You’re going to work with Herbie Hancock,’ and they’re thrilled,” Sadin says. “This is a person who goes into a room and is equally comfortable with the executives and the people who prepare the food. And it’s reflected in the scope of his music. He absorbs messages from a wide range of peoples and cultures, and then transforms and develops them into his own language. But not solely in a technical-analytical way, like being able to transcribe the beats and say they’re playing on the three or some such thing. He responds deeply to the emotional climate that brought those accents into being. He plays with a conviction and naturalness which is different from someone who studies a musical style and recreates it.”

As in the Mwandishi days, Hancock, who authored some of the most sensuous and evocative songs in all of jazz history before his thirtieth birthday, has turned primarily to collaboration and recomposition in constructing the sonic environments in which he operates. In most cases, like his old friends Wayne Shorter and Chick Corea, he works with younger musicians whose sensibilities coalesced in a climate that involved absorbing his music and forming their own conclusions from it, refreshing Hancock through their ability to interact with him on many levels.

“Writing was always a painful process for me,” he says. “It’s a lot of hard work; I have to practically beat myself into it. When I was much younger, my perspective was narrower. I had a lot of time on my hands, everything was kind of new, and I wrote a lot of things. The more material you put out and the deeper you dig in for that material, especially if you’re a guy like me who doesn’t like to do something he’s already done, it gets harder. Also, I’m getting older, which I think makes it harder to do. Collaborating is a great way to extend yourself.”

Now collecting Social Security, Hancock is thinking about a project on which he’ll respond to some of the brightest lights in progressive Hip-Hop/Urban. “The Future-2-Future record represented a more international and European look at music,” says Passick, who cites discussions with Amir from the Roots, and also the producers Rashad Smith and J.K. “I see a great correlation between the Roots and Herbie’s Electric Funk period. He had a major influence. When I talk to prominent people in Hip-Hop, the amount of Herbie’s music that is prominent in their life is astounding.”

For Hancock, it’s all part of a lifelong process of discovery. “To want to put something out there, I need new stuff,” he sums up. “Whether the new stuff is old stuff with a new hat, or old stuff treated in a whole new way, or whether it’s actually new material, that’s what I want. I need to feel I’m making a new perspective.”


Interview for Barnes & Noble Review, 2014:

No living musician hews more closely to the notion of “Renaissance Man” than Herbie Hancock, whose artistic production over the past half century continues to stamp the twenty-first-century soundtrack.

Consider the range and depth of Hancock’s career markers. Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, he performed Mozart’s D Major Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at eleven. When he left the Miles Davis Quintet at twenty-eight to explore his own vision, Hancock was already a key figure in the jazz piano pantheon, had defined the modern Fender Rhodes electric piano sound, and had composed some of the most sensuous and evocative songs in jazz history, some of them for the soundtrack of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up. Two decades he would win an Oscar in that genre for Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight.

By the early ’70s, Hancock was pioneering in ways to incorporate synthesizers into real-time musical flow with Mwandishi, his first working band, which led the curve in groove-based experimental, improvised music, and would influence numerous practitioners of electronica and other turn-of-the-century beat musics. Mid-decade, he led the curve again with Headhunters, his enormously popular band, and yet again in 1984 with the hip-hop/techno hybrid put forth on the album Future Shock, his first of fourteen Grammy winners. He earned a twelfth Grammy, in 2008, for River: The Joni Letters—only the second jazz album ever to earn an Album of the Year designation—on which he framed reinterpretations of the Joni Mitchell songbook by Tina Turner, Leonard Cohen, and the composer herself. His fourteenth Grammy, in 2011, acknowledged The Imagine Project, a one world–oriented extravaganza on which Hancock traveled to various locations around the world to record pop repertoire with an international cast of characters.

What makes Hancock tick? Some answers appear in his memoir, Possibilities, released six months after the seventy-four-year-old UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, Professor of Music at UCLA, and Chairman of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz fulfilled his obligations to Harvard as the 2014 Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry with a half-dozen lectures on “The Ethics of Jazz.” It’s the latest step in an iconoclastic career driven by risk-taking imperatives; a preoccupation with process, technology and collective expression; an equal comfort zone in populist and highbrow forums; and a desire to crack the codes of multiple musical languages and refract them into his own argot. Hancock’s narrative—he collaborated with ghost-writer Lisa Dickey—vividly portrays these qualities. It’s as no-holds-barred as his jazz playing—intuitive and logical, refined and raw, pragmatic and utopian, real-world and spiritual. —Ted Panken

The Barnes & Noble Review: You were initially an engineering major at Grinnell College, and your relationship to technology is one of several through-lines that thread through the text. Another is your creative process.

Herbie Hancock: I’ve always been a very curious person. It’s in my DNA.  It’s in the book that I’d take apart watches and clocks and other things before I showed an interest in music. That curiosity led to my interest in jazz. When I was thirteen, I thought that to play jazz, you had to be older than I was, and I never paid attention to it because it didn’t make sense to me and didn’t move me.  Then I saw a kid my age playing jazz on piano, and got the sense that he knew what he was doing, that it wasn’t just a bunch of notes.  Rhythmically it was cool; there was a beat to it. I was a pretty good piano player at the time, and I decided then that I wanted to learn how to do it.  So that curiosity opened the door. Later, that curiosity led me to work musically in many different genres, to put things together that maybe hadn’t been put together before.

BNR: You describe how each of your encounters with various new technologies in beta phases—tablets, synthesizers, MIDI, musical software, the vocoder, drum machines, the mini-disc—stimulated an entirely new project, a new world of sound.

HH: That’s true. My curiosity enabled me to integrate the technology with music. Once I changed my major in college to music, I still would have been a geek and a gadget guy, but I didn’t think there would be a way to combine music and technology until synthesizers came along. That opened up new doors.

BNR: In actualizing your technological vision during the ’70s and ’80s you worked closely with Bryan Bell, who taught himself programming language and, in one vignette, from 1979, predicts, “We’ll be able to sell music on the computer.” Two years earlier, well before MIDI, he engineered a working synthesizer that powered and fully controlled all your keyboards.

HH: When I bought my Apple II+ computers in 1979, there were scarce examples of interfacing computers and music, but I was convinced computers would become a strong element in the music field. I could never have predicted how true that would be with iTunes and so forth today. Bryan always jokes that when something new arrived at my studio, the first thing I’d say was, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could do this?” This would be something it couldn’t do, but Bryan would try to make it happen. That led to a lot of explorations that preceded commercial products made by someone else. We were just trying to make stuff that I could use.

BNR: How has your M.O. for research and development evolved? A different process than during the ’70s and ’80s?

HH: A new development in the way I look at my creative output, which is primarily due to my practice of Buddhism, is that I think about purpose when I make a record. In other words, what is it that you want to encourage in other people, not just share musically, but perhaps stimulate or point out or champion?

BNR: A passage in the second chapter portrays a moment in high school, when your parents punished you by not allowing you to attend a party. You assuaged disappointment and anger by thinking through the situation rationally. That theme of using logic to control your emotions—of detachment—is consistent.

HH: When I was young, I did that to avoid pain or punishment or whatever. Later on, I realized that in doing that I’m cutting off part of my own humanity. I didn’t realize how damaging it could be if carried to extremes. I also didn’t understand the concept of “no pain, no gain.” We know that applies to physical exercise. But suffering and challenges are part of life. Without them, you’d be bored to tears; if you let them control you, you are losing the battle. You can’t necessarily grow from nice things happening. So I don’t look at suffering as something I need to get away from, but can actually use to move forward.

Revealing my experience with crack was a difficult decision. My daughter and my wife felt that the book was the vehicle for talking about this. I had been trying to suppress this experience, as though it had never happened. But I should have known better. I thought I could accomplish a couple of things by discussing it. Most important is that someone struggling with addiction or whatever other challenge might benefit from seeing my path in winning this battle. Also, I wanted to acknowledge that my life hasn’t been all goody-two-shoes. So I freely pulled back the stuff I was trying to throw out of my life, to reconsider the reality of those things. In Buddhism, we talk about the phrase of “turning poison into medicine.” This is the way for me to do that.

BNR: You certainly do not paint yourself as a saint, particularly during the ’60s and early ’70s. Your depictions of several acid trips speak to your powers of description.

HH: That’s the way it was.

BNR: From beginning to end, Miles Davis is a constant presence. He was a mentor to you, a kind of father figure. Sometimes sons rebel against fathers, and I’m wondering if you expressed resistance to him in ways that inflected the course of your career.

HH: I was twenty-three when I joined Miles’s band. Tony Williams was seventeen. Now, Tony did have that kind of rebellion you’re talking about with Miles. But Miles wasn’t that kind of father figure for me, and I didn’t feel a need to be rebellious against him. I admired his music, and I admired many things about his ethics in music. He had so many aspects to his character that were valuable to the musicians who played with him. When people who played with Miles’s different bands have an opportunity to converse, we all have similar stories we can tell.

BNR: How do you denote a successful performance? What’s your metric for critique?

HH: That’s hard to describe. I’ve had the experience where I’ve thought something didn’t work so well when I was playing, but on the tour bus we’d listen to a recording from the mixing console, and, in fact, the stuff was killing!

BNR: You describe that dynamic in talking about the Plugged Nickel recordings by the Miles Davis Quintet in 1965.

HH: Yes, that was a surprise. I guess when I play, I experience a certain freedom from spontaneous connection. When the music is flowing, and the joy of discovery is happening, and there’s a very open space for a wide variety of approaches to transpire moment to moment, and all of us feel that joy—to me, that’s a successful performance. Not the applause that comes from the audience. Of course, it’s nice. I love it. Who doesn’t love that? I’ve had eggs thrown at me, too, in Germany. But I knew that we were hot and the music was smokin’, so it didn’t bother me. It was maybe the first time I experienced that. But it gave me the opportunity to feel courage and conviction about what I was doing.

BNR: Throughout the book, whenever you refer to jazz, which you don’t try to define, you are eloquent and passionate about your relationship to it, as, for example, in your acceptance speeches for receiving an Oscar and a Grammy. You’re one of the very few who has both attained eminence in jazz as a stylist, an improviser, and a composer, and been a highly successful practitioner in popular music. Do you see the idioms as related or separate? Do different components of your personality come into play when you address one or the other?

HH: I don’t think I could do what I did if I drew a fine line between the two. But jazz is really a foundational music. Jazz musicians have the flexibility to be able to move around freely in other genres. It doesn’t work the other way around. I would say that’s a badge of honor for jazz. I’m fortunate that jazz is my foundation. Yes, I started with classical music, and classical music is also foundational for me. It’s through classical music that I learned to read music, to sit and hold my hands and fingers properly at the instrument. That’s a big reason why I’ve never had any physical problems. Granted, I don’t curve my fingers exactly like I did when I first started off, but that’s the nature of the process. You find your own space. From what you’re taught, from what other people have done, you find what’s best for you. We’re all different, and you have to personalize these things.

BNR: The notion of individualism is a component of jazz culture, too, particularly in the period when you were coming up.

HH: Absolutely. The cool thing is, in the ’60s, at the time I joined Miles’s band, rock ‘n’ roll was hot. Ornette Coleman’s Shape of Jazz to Come had become a landmark recording, and avant-garde, even though it was still kind of underground, was influencing the post-bebop musicians who were more visible. Of course, there was John Coltrane and the group we had with Miles. It was a very fertile time for creativity on all levels. Look what the Beatles did. Sgt. Pepper. Whoever thought rock ‘n’ roll artists would do stuff like that? Joni Mitchell! A lot of stuff was going on.

BNR: You developed very sensitive antennae, to pick up and assimilate these diverse sounds. I guess you were also absorbing James Brown and Sly Stone during those years.

HH: Right. When I did Head Hunters, I was thinking about Sly Stone. That’s why I named one of the songs “Sly,” as an homage to his influence, even though the music had nothing to do with him.

In the book, I describe that Miles’s attitude made me decide it must be cool to be open. Even though I didn’t admit it then, I liked James Brown’s music. I liked the beat. When I was a kid, I didn’t just listen to classical music and jazz. I was listening to R&B, and I played R&B. Things like Head Hunters and “Rockit” connect to my background, as offshoots of R&B, in a sense. I was born in 1940, so I’m a little older than the rock ‘n’ roll generation. I didn’t really like rock ‘n’ roll, but I did like R&B. It’s funny that Jimi Hendrix was associated with rock ‘n’ roll, but he was basically a blues player. Of course, that’s what rock ‘n’ roll grew out of. What he played was perhaps . . . I was going to say more authentic, but that’s not what I mean. Maybe more connected with those roots.

BNR: Well, he had a direct and lineal connection to the real blues, the blues that was going on not far from your house on the South Side, not once-removed and studying records.

HH: Exactly. But the thing is, I wouldn’t even listen to Jimi Hendrix, because to me, his name was associated with rock ‘n’ roll. I didn’t start checking him out until later, when the rumor was getting around that Miles and Jimi might do something together, which would involve me and Tony Williams and Ron Carter. That aroused my curiosity, but then he died.

BNR: Although it happened too late to be discussed in Possibilities, you served as the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard earlier this year, and presented six lectures on “The Ethics of Jazz.”

HH: I got a call from a representative of the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard who told me that they wanted to bestow upon me the Norton Professorship of Poetry, which I hadn’t heard of. I had no idea how heavy that was until I saw names like Igor Stravinsky and T. S. Eliot and Leonard Bernstein. Then I was told that I’d have to do lectures. To make things fit with my career, I gave three in February and three in March. I ordered Bernstein’s lectures from Barnes & Noble, but the tone was too pedantic for me to emulate. He could pull that off, but I wouldn’t want to. It wouldn’t be me.

One of the lectures is called “Breaking the Rules.” I wanted to share an important concept—that the people we study broke the rules, and created new ones. Whoever heard of the people that followed the rules? Of course, it’s important to learn the rules. I’m constantly in the process of doing that. But don’t confine me to those rules. It’s important to think outside the box, and not be stuck inside the comfort zone.

Leave a comment

Filed under DownBeat, Herbie Hancock, Piano