Tag Archives: DownBeat

For Master Bassist-Composer Ben Wolfe’s 58th Birthday, a 2001 Downbeat Players Profile, 2 Interviews Conducted for the Profile, and an Uncut 2015 Blindfold Test

Best of birthdays to bassist-composer Ben Wolfe, one of the strongest individualists in jazz 30+ years. In 2001, Downbeat gave me an opportunity to write a “Profile-Players” article about him; he sat with me for a couple of interviews, most of which couldn’t be used. They appear below the article.

 

Ben Wolfe (Downbeat “Players”Article) – 2001:

In the latter 1980’s, Ben Wolfe, recently arrived in New York from his native Portland, Oregon, was squatting in a funky apartment on Utica and Montgomery in the East New York section of Brooklyn. To take a bath he routed the water down a board from the sink; electricity came from a jerryrigged outside line. He was earning $20 a night, six nights a week, as bassist in the house rhythm section for a well-attended 1-4 a.m. jam session at Manhattan’s Blue Note.

“I quickly was on the scene,” Wolfe recalls, “but it seemed like I was the last one to get a real gig or a big gig. It drove me crazy, because I felt like I was ready. But I never was one to give up. A lot of people come to New York and get frustrated and leave. I always stayed.”

Persistence paid off for the moon-faced bassist; now 39, he boasts an enviable c.v. He cites lucrative, high profile ’90s gigs with the likes of Harry Connick and Wynton Marsalis, and is currently in the second year of his second go-round with Diana Krall. Each appreciates his professionalism, definitive harmonic ear, impeccable time, and — not least — the huge, unamplified sound his fingers elicit from gut strings. “I think it’s very ironic,” Wolfe states at his comfortable pad on a block of warehouses near the waterfront in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park. “I never followed the crowd. But it makes sense. I never got a gig through an audition. I’m always hired for what I do, not for somebody who needs a bass player.

“I prefer the sound of every one of my favorite bass players — Paul Chambers, Ray Brown, Oscar Pettiford – without the amp. I want to experience the problems that my heroes experienced — the strings breaking, intonation trouble, a drummer playing too loud. If someone is too loud and it’s out of balance, that’s the sound of the music. It shouldn’t be corrected manually.”

Wolfe most recently elaborated these purist principles on the suite-like Murray’s Steps [Amasoya], which follows a pair of well-received late ’90s disks [13 Sketches and Baghdad Theater (Mons)]. On each he hews to the aesthetic of group interplay and the rhythms of bebop, and displays a well-honed sense of sonic narrative.

“I’m definitely from the bebop well,” Wolfe avers, citing Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Bill Evans — as well as Ellington and Strayhorn — as primary influences. “I feel a connection to Mingus’ ’50s music, the way he combined playing hard and writing beautiful music.

“My music is definitely not bass oriented; most of my tunes are solo piano pieces that I arrange for the band. I like arranging, putting stuff together, finding different harmonic movements and sounds. I think of what I do as chamber music in a jazz context, as ensemble music, versus having somebody blow on top of a rhythm section.”

How does he reconcile quotidian sideman work with creative imperatives? “I think of myself as a composer who plays bass,” he says. “With Diana, I’m there as a bass player, playing tunes, trying to swing and make people feel good every night. We’re not trying to change the world. With Wynton, whose vision is so strong, I was playing original extended compositions; I learned a lot about ensemble writing from him. With both Wynton and Diana, it’s about trying to realize their vision and keeping your ego in check. When I do my music, it’s a completely different head space. I write and arrange all the music, do everything I’m capable of doing. I have much more control because I’m trying to realize my vision and conception.”

Not that Wolfe plans any radical career shifts in the near future. “Playing with Diana enables me to spend all my down time writing,” he concludes. “I like the idea of doing both things at the same time. If I had it my way, I would only play with my band, but that’s not a reality now. I think I have something tangible to offer as a leader. I feel patient. I’m always working on my music, and eventually I’ll get to do it.”

**************

Ben Wolfe (Downbeat Int.):

TP: I just said that you have to avoid cliches, and Ben said, “Well, that fits the modern jazz era,” then he said, “Unh-oh.”

[PAUSE]

TP: After talking about all those cliches, let’s talk about you started learning those cliches when you were young. You’re from Portland.

WOLFE: I was born in Baltimore, Maryland, but I grew up in Portland, Oregon. I moved here in 1985.

TP: Let’s get to some nuts and bolts. Are your parents musical?

WOLFE: My father played violin with the San Antonio Symphony for one season, and then he quit. He felt he was always fighting the instrument. He claimed he wasn’t that great. He actually got in without an audition, which is unusual in a symphony. He’s now a photographer. My mother is a therapist, a gestalt therapist, and she also owns some restaurants — she’s remarried. She loves the arts, but she’s not a musician; but she goes out to hear string quartets and loves jazz…

TP: So you came from a cultured Jewish family.

WOLFE: A cultured family. [ETC.] My great grandparents did not come from here. But my parents divorced when I was young. I grew up with my Dad. But I also came out of that whole Hippie thing, for better or worse, on my Mom’s side. Don’t put it in there, because it implies something… So my family was just me and my Dad, so instead of a traditional Jewish family, it was more like two guys who didn’t really know what they’re doing. Basically, he’d work all day and I’d be in school, and I’d come home and it would just be me watching TV and trying to be I guess an athlete, as all young kids try to be. When I started playing music in 7th grade it was like I found something that I could do, that was easy to do, that I was good at, or thought I… It was easy for me to do. I started playing the tuba in 7th grade, and that just consumed my life immediately.

TP: Was that through a school program?

WOLFE: Yeah. It was pretty good for what it was. Then in high school, they had me doing all kinds of different instruments. I was a tuba player, but they decided I should be a bass player also, so I was playing electric bass and a little acoustic bass. That’s when I discovered that some people in the band weren’t planning on being professional musicians. I wasn’t aware that there was a choice. I just thought that’s what you do. I didn’t think there was a choice. I started playing music, and it was so natural, so comfortable, it never even occurred to me it was something you do on the side. It just seemed like, “Okay, this is what you do.” I was very naive about it. I thought everyone was like that. I remember someone in the high school band said they were going to go to school and be a doctor, whatever it was, and I went, “Huh.” I didn’t understand. Then it finally occurred to me that maybe some people were just in the band for fun or whatever. So I never saw it that way.

I was playing a lot of electric bass. I started really enjoying electric bass, playing like in funk bands and stuff like that, and being…

TP: so you got your reading and so on together in the school band?

WOLFE: Well, I was a Classical tuba player, but I started really enjoying playing in the stage band, playing jazz and playing electric bass, which also was easy for me to do at first. And they also had me play acoustic bass in the orchestra, which I wasn’t into at all. But my father told me I would be. He really said that, and it’s funny; we laugh about it now. In high school, when I’m playing different instruments and stuff, this is ’77…

TP: so this is the height of Fusion and…

WOLFE: Fusion and the Disco era.

TP: Sort of the other end of the plateau of creative fusion and into the disco era.

WOLFE: I got immediately into Return to Forever and Weather Report. Stanley Clarke was my first bass hero when I was a musician and a bass player. And the first time I heard his record, I didn’t recognize the bass line. I thought it was guitar, so I didn’t know what it was. But at the time, everything was so new. My taste wasn’t… I didn’t really have good taste in music. I just enjoyed playing. I wasn’t listening… I was more into just, “wow, check out how so-and-so plays.” I wasn’t even really into the music, looking back. I believe in a musical adolescence, which I think a lot of people never leave, which is a part of the problem today — which is a whole nother subject.

Then through high school I started doing all these different things. I was going to camps in the summer, stage band camps, concert band camps… I wasn’t playing the acoustic bass at all. I wanted to be a funk bass player, a studio player. That’s what I was going to do. I was going to be like tuba in the symphony, I was going to be a studio player during the day and bass trombone with Basie or whatever big band. I started playing bass trombone, and I really got into that.

TP: Those Nelson Riddle charts..

WOLFE: I wasn’t really listening to anything. I was just playing all the time. It’s funny. I was playing music all the time, but I wasn’t like studying it, the way Wynton did in high school — he had a regimented practice thing that he did every day. I wasn’t like that. I was just a regular… I was out smoking weed, doing what everyone else was doing. But I was playing tuba and the bass. And eventually, my junior or senior year, I joined some dance band, so I was playing in bands. I finally formed my own little group, and we had this great singer, so we started playing high school dances. I enjoyed that very much. I was also going to two schools my senior year, a magnet program at another school that had a great music program. Me and this drummer would go over there in the afternoon, and I met more musicians over there. I started making friends who were other musicians around town and we formed little groups.

Let me back up a little bit, back to acoustic bass. In the stage band, I was forced to play the acoustic bass on a Count Basie tune. We didn’t have pickups or amps. So in a stage band contest, I played the acoustic bass with no mike and no amplifier, and the judges were really into it. “Wow, man, that sounds great. That’s cool. That’s like they used to do.” Which is what I do now. It was just an interesting coincidence.

TP: It’s interesting when musicians come up who are studied but are also ear players, in the way they approach music.

WOLFE: I wish I could say I was a total ear player. But that’s one of the biggest things I don’t have together actually, compared to people I see. I wish I was just a complete ear player. It seems like the most honest way of playing . I call myself a schooled street player in between. I was going to school, taking classes and studying, but at the same time all I wanted to do was play at jam sessions.

TP: When did the notion of jazz as such start to enter… When did you start identifying yourself as a jazz musician?

WOLFE: Not til later. My senior year we had a band called Swing Shift playing jazz where I was playing electric bass, and another band playing funk.

TP: Was it always just playing the function, or were you listening to role models?

WOLFE: I was always listening to Paul Chambers. Well I shouldn’t say always. My father would play me a lot of records of all kinds of music. Looking back, it seemed like he had it from me. He had a whole collection of records that were R&B, he had James Brown and whomever. Then he had rock records with the Stones and the Beatles, which I loved — the Who. He had all these jazz records, Charlie Parker and Mingus and Prez and Coleman Hawkins, and he always pointed these guys out to me. “Listen to this; this is Thelonious Monk.” I remember I identified Monk immediately. I remember hearing his left hand and really digging how he was playing. He played me this record, Paul Chambers-John Coltrane, with “Dexterity” on it. That’s the first one; it knocked me out. That became my THANG. I was a Paul Chambers freak. I mean, from then on. He’s my favorite bass player. I’m not saying he was the greatest…

TP: Well, he might be.

WOLFE: He might be. But then I have to put my Oscar Pettiford, some Jimmy Blanton… I had a definite connection with him. You know how the musicians you love, you almost feel like you know them personally, and all you ever hear is a recorded mike on their instrument. It’s amazing to me; you feel like you know them. But every other bass player says the same thing about Paul Chambers; it’s huge, the way he reaches people. At that point I loved it, but I was still into this other thing. I was just playing electric bass. Then I started playing in top-40 bands.

TP: That senior year of high school.

WOLFE: This was the senior year of high school. Then I’m in college, this Mount Hood Community College that has a great music program. I played bass trombone in their stage band and played electric bass in the practice room with people in these little combos during the day, and I’m going on the road with these top-40 bands. So I haven’t really found my home, so to speak. I’m doing all these things. I’m working. I’m playing electric bass. I’m playing trombone, playing tuba. Then I started playing so much jazz on electric bass. I’d go to the school, and all I would do was go in this practice room and set up and play. And I had a great theory teacher who also was an acoustic bass teacher, and I was playing Jazz jazz — and now I’m identifying myself as a jazz musician. I play jazz electric bass. That’s my thing.

TP: So you’re Ben Wolfe, you’re 19-20, it’s ’82…

WOLFE: I’m playing jazz electric bass in Portland.

TP: What’s the scene like in Portland?

WOLFE: Well, I’m still not quite part of the scene. I’m getting calls to sub every now and then. I’m still an electric bass player but people are starting to think I’m talented and wanting me to come hang out, and now I’m meeting people. But now I’m deep into jazz, I think. I’m still playing electric bass, but I’m deep into jazz in my mind, playing non-stop. That’s all I’d do, was play.

TP: Acoustic at all?

WOLFE: Every now and then I’d say, “Hey, I’m gonna check that out,” and I’d play it.

TP: So you had a certain facility.

WOLFE: Well, I was playing electric every day. But I didn’t think in those terms of facility. I just loved music. I picked it up and I could play it. I fooled around on it all the time. Then all of a sudden it occurred to me, “Wait a minute; if I’m going to play jazz, I’ve got to…” I borrowed this guy’s bass for a jam session — Louis Ledbetter. I was like, “This is what I’ve got to do.” It was like BAM, I found my home. So I asked a teacher if I could study with him. I told my father, “Look, I think this is it, acoustic bass. You were right. That’s what I’ve got to do. I want to play with top-40 band; I want to play jazz.” I must have really seemed serious, because he sold his violin and actually put up some money for me to get an acoustic bass — which was heavy. He hadn’t been playing the violin. And this guy, the bass teacher at the school said, “You know, you really shouldn’t do this.” He said, “Who knows if he’s really going to do this or not? He hasn’t even started yet.” And I was really into it.

TP: Put up or shut up.

WOLFE: But I was so into it that all of a sudden it’s like “Oh, this is it.” So I got this bass and I started taking lessons, and I started doing little gigs around town. Every night, my blisters… It was terrible. I was in pain. Then they had this little function in Portland. Some musician who was on the scene before me had passed away, so they had one of these things where everyone in town played, all these different bands played for this guy whom I didn’t know. And at this thing I was supposed to play with this one musician, and none of the bass players could make it, so I ended playing with everybody. Then all of a sudden I started working all the time. I started getting all these gigs in Portland, so now I’m on the scene.

I started playing with this guy Sonny King. He hired me for his band. Do you know who Nancy King is, the singer? He used to be married to her. He’s passed away. He was probably in New York in the ’70s, playing with Jimmy Garrison and these guys, a free jazz sort of alto player. And Lawrence Williams, who plays drums with Marcus Belgrave. Me, him, and this other piano player, Eddie Wheats(?), an older guy in Portland. He formed a band playing some original Coltranesque music. So now I’m in this band with these guys who have been around for a long time, and I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m playing with this great drummer, who to me was just amazing, especially at the time — this Elvin Jones-like drummer who writes ballets and long-form compositions and he called me “Partner.” So I was like, “wow!” I felt like I was playing with Miles or something. It was incredible.

So I’m in this band, and I’m practicing a lot. I’m playing literally non-stop. There are stories in Portland. “Oh, I hear you worked at the Fine Arts Building every night, all night long, practicing.” It wasn’t like that. But I made friends who were serious, and we would get together and play literally all night some nights at different places. It was non-stop. And I started working all the time, and I started making friendships. That’s always been important to me, having friends who also viewed things similar to me. Because most people I don’t agree with on anything. So even to this day, that’s real important to me.

TP: As a jazz musician, do you feel somewhat marginalized? [PAUSE, BATHROOM] first you were talking about cliches, that they permeate…

WOLFE: Just the whole thing. I’ll put it this way. It seems now, whenever I hear a new record or… Let’s see how I can put this…

TP: Jazz is a subculture. As far as being a sideman goes, you’ve got some of the highest profile gigs of anyone out there. Yet even you in the larger scheme of the music business are small potatoes, with 2% of the sales…

WOLFE: Oh, definitely.

TP: So jazz has to do with a point of view, a way of looking at the world.

WOLFE: No question.

TP: So one thing I always ask people is why jazz becomes the thing they feel they have to do.

WOLFE: Versus what? Versus playing with a Pop band?

TP: Or versus being some sort of creative Pop musician.

WOLFE: I think it all comes down to what one’s intentions are and what one’s goals are. A lot of people I see out here, I think they should do that. Because it seems that’s really what they’d rather do. I get the impression a lot of people would rather be in Funk bands and want to be Pop stars. I’m not saying that’s bad…

TP: Well, not everybody can be one.

WOLFE: Not everyone can be one, but a lot of times under the jazz name they can get a little further. But that’s all career. If you look at it from the art perspective, everything seems a lot different. The amount of people diminish greatly. Most of the people I know don’t seem so much coming from that perspective, where I really consider them artists versus instrumentalists. These days, it seems like a lot of jazz seems like an expression of the instrument versus something out of the mind. A lot of people are just demonstrating how well they play their instrument. I see that all the time. “Wow, check out how so-and-so plays! wow. Amazing! He’s all over the instrument. It’s always about the individual’s technical feats, it seems like, which is…

TP: Let’s continue on technique. You’re obviously developing a fairly substantial technique as a young guy.

WOLFE: I suppose.

TP: You’re listening to Paul Chambers, so you have a sense of the real elemental swing and how it’s supposed to sound…

WOLFE: Well, when I hear Paul Chambers, I don’t hear technique. I hear a character, an actual…

TP: But the technique is awesome.

WOLFE: The technique is awesome, but the technique is also completely unimpressive, in a way. Because anybody can learn the technique. The technique is not what makes Paul Chambers great. There are many bass players who have more “technique” who I suppose can play faster. There are guys now who can play much faster or… Well, it depends what you mean by “technique.” If you mean technique as far as producing a gorgeous around a/nd playing from the brain and really listening and all that kind of stuff, that’s fine. But when I hear Paul Chambers, the band always sounds good. And I hear a character in him.

TP: Who taught you how to look for making the band sound good? Is it innate? Did you know it intuitively?

WOLFE: Musical conception was always something that came easily to me. A lot of people have perfect pitch and can hear… Everyone seems to have certain things that come easy for them. That’s something I seem to understand easily. I’ve always thought that way, and I’m also always getting frustrated on the bandstand because of that, because I hear things that are little that drive me crazy. Playing fast doesn’t impress me at all.

TP: So in other words, technique reaches a point where it’s not an issue any more.

WOLFE: It’s never an issue. I don’t think technique is ever an issue.

TP: It is if you can’t play.

WOLFE: Well, it’s obviously necessary. I mean, the carpenter has to know how to hammer a nail.

TP: I can’t write an article if I use passive verbs.

WOLFE: No, you definitely have to have the technique. But the art being an expression of the technique. The technique is something you use to express whatever it is you’re trying to express. I think more and more, it’s become an expression of the technique.

TP: Technique becomes more a function of the craft, and the art is a whole different thing.

WOLFE: Right. The art is what counts. The only thing that really counts is the final product to me. That’s what counts. Of course, the more technique… I mean, obviously, Charlie Parker had amazing technique and facility on his instrument. But that’s not why you get chills… That’s not why when Bill Evans plays a ballad you might have a tear in your eye. It’s not because he understood…. That’s not what it is. It’s because he had a vision, and he needed the technique to produce his vision, and the whole struggle… That’s where it’s at.

TP: So is that part of the experience you had playing with Sonny King?

WOLFE: Well, at that time I wasn’t thinking this way. When you first start playing music, just the joy of playing the instrument is enough. The quality of the music for me wasn’t as important. It’s just I was so happy to be playing an instrument and to be able to do it what I thought was well for that point or whatever. But playing with Sonny King was just… At that time, everything was new. New experiences. Playing with a drummer, learning tunes, playing harmony… Everything was all new. At that time, I played with Woody Shaw for a weekend. He came through town. I was so not-ready to play with him, but at the same time it was incredible. I was so excited. I remember playing with Woody Shaw and I went and bought every Woody Shaw I didn’t have. Didn’t learn any of the tunes, but I bought the records and looked at them. I was just so thrilled and excited, and I went to this gig, and he called “If I Were A Bell,” I didn’t know the tune… I did a pretty good job. But I was so excited and proud. I remember afterwards he said he was going to Europe, and I was thinking, “Man, take me to Europe and get me…” In my mind I’m playing with Woody Shaw now. I said, “Yeah, who’s in the band?” He goes “Red Mitchell…” I’m staying here in Portland! But back then, everything was just about learning.

TP: Was Woody Shaw the first national guy you played with, or are you sitting in by this point?

WOLFE: By that point I might have played one gig with Bud Shank or something. But I think he might have been one of the first people I played with.

TP: You come to New York in ’85, you’re 22-23. You’d reached the point you couldn’t get any more in Portland?

WOLFE: I reached the point where I felt I needed to keep going. I was frustrated. I was playing with the same people in the circle. Not that I wasn’t learning, but it was time for me to move on. A friend of mine, a drummer named Alan Jones, who is actually back there now, had a place and needed a roommate. So I came out here. I got my car, put all my stuff in the car, and drove out here. Slept in the rest stops on the way. I had like $1000. I was so green. I had my travellers checks, and I was so afraid of everything. I was SO green. I came out here, and we lived in this funky apartment that was probably once really nice, and we paid rent for one month and they never charged us again. This guy Alan Jones is a guy who makes his own drums, his own machines, can fix anything, so he had electricity hooked up from outside illegally. Everything started breaking in his apartment. I remember to run a bath we had a take a board from the sink and let the water run down. But at the same time, it didn’t bother me. And I got a steady gig, sort of, because this drummer in Portland, Ron Steen(?), called Ted Curson, who he used to work with, and Ted hired me for the Blue Note. So I was playing six nights a week at this after-hours session, making $20, but meeting all kinds of people.

TP: That’s ’85. It was a very interesting time in New York. People were pouring in here and forming their sound.

WOLFE: Yeah, it was. I remember the guys who would come down there. Dave Kikoski was just in town. Benny Green had been here for a few years. Tyler Mitchell was down here doing the gig also. Art Blakey had the band with Jean Toussaint and those guys. They were down there. He ended up running the session. The Harper Brothers, Philip and Winard, were on the scene. Jeff Watts would come in sometimes. Grossman would come through… It was actually not bad. At the time we thought it was terrible, but of course it wasn’t bad. I did that for a couple of years under different leadership. Manny Duran ran it and Jean Toussaint. At that point I was spending a lot of time… I was living with or near Rudy Petschauer, the drummer, and Renee Rosnes. We were the rhythm section at the late night session.

TP: that was from ’85 to ’87?

WOLFE: Something in that vicinity.

TP: So six nights a week at the Blue Note. You must have learned a ton of tunes.

WOLFE: Learned a million tunes. Ted knew a lot of tunes. I was also forming my friendship with Ned Goold, this tenor player, who’s like a partner, a musical partner. That was important. We were learning a lot of tunes, and to this day we play each other’s tunes all the time. I’m on his CDs, he’s on mine. We were playing each other’s music during the day all the time. That was the most important thing happening back then.

TP: Shortly thereafter you hook up with Harry Connick.

WOLFE: That was in ’88.

TP: You’re in New York, you establish yourself as someone who’s reliable, can do gigs, your learning curve is expanding greatly, and you’re meeting your peer group.

WOLFE: Yeah, but I wouldn’t say I quickly established myself. I mean, I quickly was on the scene. But it seemed like I was the last one to get a real gig or a big gig. Everyone else seemed to have all these gigs. A years ago Ira Coleman told me, “Yeah, I remember it seemed like you were the last one to get the gig.” Everyone else I saw working, and it used to drive me crazy.

TP: Do you think it was politics?

WOLFE: I don’t know what it was. I think it just wasn’t time yet. I always believe everyone gets their chance. But at one point I started to feel like, all right, I’m just going to be this guy who never gets a gig. It was frustrating, because I felt like I was ready. But I never was one to give up. I always stayed. A lot of people come to New York and get frustrated and leave.

TP: Well, not everybody gets to work six nights a week at a place like the Blue Note. It kept you busy.

WOLFE: Well, everybody could come play at the session. I mean, it was just $20. It was a good thing. But I ended up meeting a lot of people. I ended up playing a lot of restaurants with this piano player, Rob Bargad. We played duo gigs all the time together. I started making associations. I met Harry Connick at the Blue Note. He was playing at the Knickerbocker, and I came by there and sat in or something. That started in ’88. That’s when everything changed, right at that point. We started doing duo gigs, the two of us. That’s when I met Wynton, because he came down and heard me play. I used to call him all the time on the phone; he was never home. I still call him all the time. Every now and then you get like a 5-minute conversation. It’s great, though. I love talking to him. [Don’t print that; it sounds…]

So now I’m touring with Harry Connick, making some good money, more than I had before, and doing television, and I started to make records, the When Harry Met Sally thing and all that…

TP: You were there when his star was rising.

WOLFE: That’s right. I was there doing all of that. And it was all new to me, the whole thing. Which I actually got caught up into, the stardom… It’s a very seductive world, and I won’t lie and say I wasn’t sucked into it. At one point, when the big band was happening, I wasn’t really practicing. I was into this world.

TP: You were profiling.

WOLFE: Yeah, the whole thing. all of a sudden I had money. I’d never had money before. That TV [32″ Sony] is part of it. When I bought that, I felt like I had bought a Mercedes. It was like, “wow!” It was all new to me, all those things. So I got really into it. I spent all the money I made. But I’m glad. It’s kind of like if you’re in a bad relationship with a woman, you look back and you’re glad you went through it so you don’t make the mistakes again. I’m not trying to say that experience was like a bad relationship. Because parts of it were great. I learned a lot of music. But I saw in that whole Harry Connick thing… You’ve got to be careful how you print this. But I saw a whole lot about the music business and how everything works. I saw the whole business side. It’s about selling records, filling houses. Which makes sense. The money has to come from somewhere. But I never thought about it that way before.

TP: That relationship has endured for several years.

WOLFE: Well, we didn’t talk for a long period. We would go through different things.

TP: What interests me is how that experience and playing with Wynton inflected your sense of music. Because if you’re playing as much as you were with people like Harry Connick and Wynton, with the visibility it gave you, there has to be an impact. It’s part of who you are, and continues to be.

WOLFE: Oh, no question. That makes sense. Well, playing with Harry Connick is when I was able to be out there playing the way I play, with the gut strings and no amplifier, which certainly isn’t something I started, but at the time there were only a few guys doing it. So now I’m doing this on a national stage, and I’m learning how to record in the studio, I’m learning how to play in different-sized rooms, I’m learning what it’s like to be on the road, I’m experiencing all these new things — which was great. Harry is an extremely talented musician, so now I’m playing with someone who’s scrutinizing everything I play. He hears everything.

TP: He’s a perfectionist.

WOLFE: Yeah. But he hears that way. He hears every note you play at all times. It was good that way. That was a great experience, playing in all different situation. First it was the two of us, then we had a trio, then we had a quartet with Russell Malone for a short time. We did all these records, touring a lot. Seeing the world was interesting. I’m going to movie sets when he’s making his films and meeting all these actors. It was whole nother world for me from squatting in East New York, out at Utica and Montgomery… 88 Montgomery. So it was Utica and Eastern Parkway.

TP: You’re hard core, man.

WOLFE: It wasn’t that. It sounds hard core. It sounds real romantic and hard-core. I had a car, so I could leave. But Harry Connick was a great experience. I learned a lot and I became a professional musician, in the sense that I was in a lot of situations where I had to deliver and learn to deliver.

TP: Yeah, before 15,000 people.

WOLFE: Learn how to play with a singer, and learn how to play with a band, learn how to play with a bandleader who’s a perfectionist, and he’s a star — learn how to be around a star type, whatever that means. Played with Branford for the first time. It’s funny. All of a sudden you’re on a gig now, and people talk to you in a different way, which is absurd — but that’s just how it is. When you’re just one of the many early-twenties bass players in New York, maybe you play okay, maybe you don’t… But there are hundreds of them. You’re fighting to be heard. All of a sudden, now I’m being heard.

TP: What was it about you that appealed to him?

WOLFE: I think the way I approached the bass was unique at the time, the fact that I was playing acoustically. I think the sound I produced was…

TP: Why was that the way you approach the bass? I’ll bet it scared a lot of people off, too. Maybe that’s one reason it was hard to get the gigs. You’re not following the crowd doing that…

WOLFE: I never followed the crowd. But the thing is, it makes sense.

TP: you don’t follow the crowd, but you get these high profile…

WOLFE: I think that’s very ironic. But the thing is, remember, I’m always hired for what I do, not for somebody needs a bass player. If I audition, I probably won’t get the gig. I never got a gig through an audition, ever. Someone hired me to do what I do.

TP: How did that attitude develop? It’s also not the easiest way to get a sound out of the acoustic bass?

WOLFE: Well, that’s the way that every one of my favorite bass players plays. Paul Chambers. Ray Brown at the time. Ron Carter in the ’60s. Oscar Pettiford. You can name any bass player. Not one of them do I like the way they sound with the amp better than without the amp. That’s just not how it happened. Someone will say, “Well, what if you can’t be heard?” — all these different problems. I wanted to experience those problems that my heroes also experienced. I wanted to experience the strings breaking. I wanted to experience the intonation problems; I certainly still experience them. I wanted to experience a drummer playing too loud and not being able to turn up. I wanted to go through all those things that they went through. That’s partly how it started.

TP: You seriously felt that way.

WOLFE: Oh yeah. I was saying at the time, “You know what? I want to go through those problems also.” With the gut string… I played Dennis Irwin’s bass, and I also played it on a guy’s bass in Oregon, and I said, “Yeah, that sounds like jazz bass ought to sound.” It sounded like the same instrument that’s on the record. Before that I was into Buster Williams and trying to get that kind of sound. That to me is a different thing. But when I put the gut strings on and didn’t have an amplifier, it sounded like the jazz from the records. Not the way I played, but the tone. It’s like hearing a fender Rhodes versus hearing an acoustic piano. If you’re into Bud Powell, the acoustic piano is going to make more sense to you than the Rhodes. The Rhodes is easier. You can turn it up, you can play faster and you can sort of control the sound based on electronics. That’s the same thing with the bass with the amplifier. You can turn it up if the drummer is too loud.

But I think that’s bullshit anyway. Dave Holland once said at a clinic… I remember this. This is going to sound weird, but at his clinic that he gave at Bass Shop, it moved me more than anything I heard him play before or since, hearing him play in his bands. Not that he don’t sound good, but hearing him talk about the bass and how he learned to play and his philosophies was amazing to me. It seems simple now, but like with Tony and Ron, if Tony played too loud and you couldn’t hear the bass, that’s the sound of the music. I totally believe in that philosophy. If the drummer is too loud or someone is too loud and it’s out of balance, it should sound of balance. It shouldn’t be corrected manually that way. So another thing with the amplifiers, they’re just not for me. I don’t think it sounds good. I don’t think it makes the band sound good. And that’s how all my heroes have played.

It also seems to me hat a lot of the bass players who didn’t play with the amps and then switched to the amps, sometimes it seems as if they think that the guys who aren’t doing that are making a mistake, when a lot of times they’re just doing the same thing they did. So if the amp if the answer, then I’m going to find out the same way they found out, going through the same pattern. But I don’t think it is.

I used to always have this conversation with people. I no longer talk about it, because it doesn’t matter. The final product is what counts. To me with amps it doesn’t sound as good. It makes the ride cymbal not sound good. But that’s all part of how to get the final sound.

But Harry Connick liked the fact that I did that. I think he liked the sound I got and the approach.

TP: It probably reminded him of the sound he was hearing from his models.

WOLFE: Maybe so. He was using Reginald Veal before me. It’s funny. We always end up in the same place. Our careers are different, but have been somewhat parallel. We always seem to be in the same places at different times.

TP: That brings us to Wynton, then.

WOLFE: Before Harry hired me, he wanted Wynton to hear me play at first. So I met him that way, and I’d talk to him on the phone every now and then. Eventually, Veal had some dental work done or something, so I subbed for him for like a month, and that’s when the Harry Connick thing, let’s say, dissolved.

TP: The first separation.

WOLFE: [LAUGHS] Yeah, there you go. Then I subbed and I prepared myself… They were real surprised I learned the music. “Wow, you played ‘Citi Movement’ without a rehearsal!” Well, that’s just professional. If one didn’t do that, it’s more like, “Why didn’t you do that?” instead of being celebrated for doing what you’re supposed to do. I mean, I always liked that they were impressed by that, but I didn’t think… I just learned the music. I was just excited to play.

TP: I’m sure with Wynton, if you take care of business, that’s the first principle.

WOLFE: That’s the only thing he cared about, the music. That was a great, great experience, playing with those guys. I loved it. I loved learning the music. And that’s when I was subbing, so it was really…

TP: Now, Harry Connick has a specific piano style and I guess he’s an ear piano player to the Nth degree so the stuff can go anywhere, but there’s a certain level with him that’s about presentation and showmanship. But Wynton is someone who has a very sophisticated and evolved compositional aesthetic. So it’s really two very different experiences.

WOLFE: Oh yeah. Harry at that time was a big band and it was a show. And with Wynton it was playing these ballets he’d written. So it was a whole other thing. It was no show, really. It was just the music. That’s what I loved about it. It was really interesting, playing with those guys. Then when Veal left the band, I took his place for basically two years. I should say one year.

TP: It was a very good year, though. Because when you hear this Vanguard record you can hear how his concept honed itself in in ’93, to the last stuff with Veal and the stuff you’re on in ’94.

WOLFE: I didn’t know it would sound that good when I heard it. Really I love it. I thought we sounded okay. I had no idea we sounded as good as we do on that CD. It was a good band.

In that band we did this tour of In This House, On This Morning, which was wild for me. Long-form composition, custom-made for Reginald Veal. I was always trying to play the music correctly and not be Veal at the same time. But looking back, I was still going through trying to find out where I was at musically. I was still going through this struggle with myself at that time with Wynton, and still learning a lot, and wasn’t as formed in what I wanted to do. I was still taking in a lot of information from him. In that band… What was the question?

TP: It seems that band was the first time you were involved in a very sophisticated, high aspiration, compositional entity. And these records are all about composition, really, or at least finding compositions where the personalities of your cohorts, Magnarelli and Gould can be expressed. So I’m curious how the experience with Wynton inflected your compositional attitudes in let’s say 13 Sketches.

WOLFE: Well, all this time we’re talking, I’m writing music. So the whole time, my career is one thing and what I’m trying to do is another thing. That’s been going on the whole time. I’ve always been writing music. Ned Goold and I are always playing together, original music, every day, since I got to New York. That’s always been happening and is still happening. That’s what I do. That’s the reality of who I really am as far as what I’m trying to do, and then the career is something else. That’s like half of it. It’s the half everyone sees.

TP: It’s also part of who you are. It’s all going in there.

WOLFE: Oh, definitely. But with Wynton, I was in a band now… When I was actually in the band, when I wasn’t subbing any more, I thought I was part of something important. It was great. It was like a real family, this band. It still feels that way when I go back and see them. It feels like family. I love that about that group. I always felt that’s what a band should be like. I really felt like I was part of something and I felt welcomed.

TP: Also, you were the first white guy who was ever part of the circle…

WOLFE: That’s not really true. I was the first white guy permanently hired in the Septet. Lincoln Center had white guys, and some piano players… I think Peter Martin played some gigs with Wynton. But that was NEVER an issue! Never an issue except for the issue around it. But the funny thing was, with all this stuff of Wynton being a racist or whatever you read, when I was in his band, no one ever asked me about it. No one in the press, no one in interviews, not one time ever suggested, “Well, he’s got Ben Wolfe in the band; he’s white.” It never came up. It was bizarre. It never came out of the band, except for people making idiotic statements after the gigs. It was never really an issue, other than like private jokes among the band out of love. Both ways. But that was never an issue. That was the most get-along band I’ve ever been with. There were more issues with things in the Harry Connick band. It was great, just like being part of a little family. We got along for the most part. We played music all the time. I never felt like an outsider. I mean, it’s like you see a basketball team. If there’s a white guy, they’re going not to be thought of as different. They’re like a team. It was never a problem, or an issue… It didn’t even really come up, other than… It really was never a thing.

TP: Did being with Wynton affect your compositional sense, your sense of maybe orchestration or…

WOLFE: Wynton had a huge influence on me.

TP: You’re also in LCJO at this point.

WOLFE: Before and after.

TP: It seems to me that one thing that’s really valuable at LCJO for Wynton is that he got to really get into the building blocks of jazz from the inside-out, because he had the scores and had to play the music in an idiomatic manner. So he’s playing Jelly Roll Morton, Ellington, Armstrong, Monk, the whole nine from the inside out in a way that most of your contemporaries, really starting from your generation, didn’t have a chance to do.

WOLFE: True enough. I see that. To me, I always like it best when Wynton plays Wynton Marsalis. I’d rather hear Lincoln Center play his music any time.

TP: But his music is very informed by those…

WOLFE: yeah, but it doesn’t sound like that. I don’t think his music sounds anything like Duke Ellington’s music. That’s the one common thing through all his records that I recognize, and I… Always, if I’m attracted to anything, it’s his composition. People always debate his playing…

TP: I think he has his own language, but… For instance, Blood on the Fields, those soli passages by the trumpets, are his own language, but the building blocks seem very much a 21st Century type of concept.

WOLFE: That’s what people say. I don’t hear it like that. He’s influenced by some Beethoven also. I don’t hear people say “Beethoven!” Obviously, he’s deeply into Duke Ellington, obviously, and it influenced him, clearly, but I… Going back to what we were talking about not being impressed by technique, I’m more interested in hearing the part… I tend to hear what’s him in the music.

TP: What was your attitude to playing that music?

WOLFE: I love playing Wynton’s music. You mean Duke Ellington’s music?

TP: Well, playing Wynton’s music and the J@LC experience of playing… Well, he doesn’t like it to be called repertory, and I don’t really think of it like that, but playing… Look, you’re out there sitting in the shoes of Jimmy Blanton.

WOLFE: It was great to play it at first. But I’m at the point now where I don’t want to play other people’s music.

TP: But put yourself in your shoes back then to how it’s inflected you now.

WOLFE: Okay, that makes sense. I think playing his music affected me more than playing Duke Ellington’s music. Because I’ve always heard Duke Ellington’s music, and I used to listen to Duke Ellington all the time, and I love Duke Ellington. You know, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly it influenced me, especially Wynton’s music. Because the way I write is different. He writes a lot thicker than I do. He writes real thick sometimes, and I don’t do it the same way. The thing I liked that Wynton used to do, which maybe influenced me but is something I’ve probably always been into anyway, is he would assign emotions to music sometimes. He would say things like, “This is about so-and-so.” He would express what’s happening in a non-musical way, what the music represents. That’s something I’m very much into, completely into. A lot of his conceptual things I learned, from being around him so much — the way he would talk to the band, the way he would say like the rests… Little things he would say influenced me a lot. The way he thought of music. The way he approached everything the same. Whether he was soloing or playing the written part, it was all jazz to him. And the whole ensemble concept influenced me, and that’s something I’m very much into also, the way of an ensemble still sounding like jazz, even if it’s not… Even if it’s written, if parts are written. His whole work ethic also. But it’s hard to pinpoint how playing the Ellington music influenced me. I mean, hearing it…

TP: Or Jelly Roll Morton or Monk…

WOLFE: I mean, I’ve always loved Monk. I’ve been into Monk since I’ve played music. That’s something I’ve always connected to, just the rhythm of Monk’s band, the way they play rhythms.

TP: But here you’re actually doing. You’re going on the road with this music and playing it a lot. It has to affect you. Or not.

WOLFE: I’m not sure exactly how playing all the Duke Ellington music affected me. Because at that point, I’ve already been on the road a lot playing a lot of different music. So I’m not sure how that affected me. Playing Wynton’s music affected me because it was a challenge to play it well, and try to find my own way of playing and also play it correctly. I think I gained more from playing Wynton’s music than Duke Ellington’s music. I think if I were in Duke Ellington’s band, I would get more from playing Duke Ellington’s music than playing… Like, if you’re in Duke Ellington’s band, you’re going to gain more playing Duke’s music than playing someone else’s music. You know what I mean? Not that I didn’t gain from it. It was great to play all those parts, all the Jimmy Blanton parts, all the Oscar Pettiford parts you’ve heard on records.

TP: But you’re inside-out with the architecture of the music.

WOLFE: In a way. But I’ve heard it. I’ve heard a lot of the music before. It was just getting a chance to play it. I’m not sure how much… It would be kind of like playing Charlie Parker’s music. I mean, listening to it I might gain more than playing his tunes. Maybe.

TP: More accurately, though, might be Dizzy Gillespie and being inside of the band.

WOLFE: That I wish we would do, play more of those tunes. Well, it’s hard to say. I’m sure it affected me. But I didn’t like break it down and go inside and study the scores. I just played the music.

TP: Is that not the way you approach music, like breaking it down into minutiae?

WOLFE: Not always. Not as much as others, I should say.

TP: When do you leave Wynton?

WOLFE: I finished in Wynton at the end of ’95; the septet breaks up and I do another year with Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. I’m also playing with Benny Green at that time and Eric Reed, and doing other little things in and out at this point. And I went back with Harry before I went back with Wynton. When I subbed for Wynton, and then joined his band, in between I played with Benny Green and Harry Connick — and Marcus Roberts, a little bit. Little pockets of things I was doing.

TP: A few words about Benny Green and Marcus Roberts, who are two of the most visible pianists of the era.

WOLFE: Well, I met Benny… Our high school band did a concert together when we were seniors in high school. We didn’t meet then but we saw each other. Craig Handy was in that band also. But we’ve played together in different situations, and we’re good friends. We played in the trio with Kareem Riggins playing free jazz! He was breaking out of the Oscar Peterson mold. He’s something else. I love Benny Green. I love his musicianship. I think he’s a great musician. We played over here at the house, myself, Ned Goold, Benny Green and Rodney Green, this young drummer. He’s my favorite drummer in New York. I love his drumming! We played over here, and it felt so good that I would loved to just give up all career and just do that. I would have actually done that! I’d have said “just do this.” Everyone was like, “Wow, this really feels good.” [ETC.] Benny and I talked yesterday on the phone. We have long, real conversations actually.

I played with Marcus for a very short time. We went on the road and rehearsed. I think Marcus is a really funny guy. He makes me laugh. I dig Marcus, and I really respect the fact that he’s trying to do something. He’s an artist. He’s not just trying to get over and sell records. Because he could easily associate himself with Wynton completely and just be that. And I don’t know what he did, but it seemed like he consciously removed himself to try to stand on his own two feet or whatever, which I respect and like.

TP: He makes some outlandish claims for himself, but then you get past it.

WOLFE: But he’s trying to do something. All his records, he seems to be trying… Which is more than most people do.

TP: You’ve played a lot with Eric Reed.

WOLFE: He’s one of these super-talented guys. He just can play anything. Yeah, we played a lot together, with different drummers… In fact, me and Eric Reed and Greg Hutchinson, I thought we had a great trio. I really liked that combination.

TP: Were you on that first record he did?

WOLFE: I’m on two records. The first Impulse record I’m on half and Ron Carter is on the other half, and the record before that me and Rodney split.

TP: So you leave Rodney in ’95 and you do your first record in ’96..

WOLFE: Yeah, I’m playing with Eric Reed at that time. I did my first record then. I’m doing a lot of gigs at Smalls with little… And I’m doing little gigs at the Village Gate. All through this time I’m doing little gigs. I’m writing a lot of music.

TP: So no matter how up on the feeding chain you get, you’re not losing your connection to the lifeblood.

WOLFE: I’m doing more. Every gig I’ve been doing feeds into that one way or another, whether it’s financially or learning things. With Wynton I learned a lot about writing. I don’t know what I learned. I can’t tell you what it was. But I learned a lot being around him. But I’m writing a lot of music during all this time. I spent a lot of time at the piano writing a lot of music, writing a lot of ballads.

TP: Was your first record a collection of things you’d been writing over the years or did you write stuff for the project?

WOLFE: Both. I had so much music, I just tried to record as much as I could.

TP: A bit about Magnarelli and about Ned Goold.

WOLFE: Joe Magnarelli was my neighbor when I lived on Thompson Street. He always seemed like he wanted to be there in my group. Like, the first time I hired him… I was at the Village Gate, I hired him for the weekend, and he came in on the Wednesday to sit in and had everything memorized. He’s real diligent, hard-working. I’ve known him for years, and he has improved so much as a trumpet player. Tardo Hammer once said to me, “Man, the first time I heard Joe Magnarelli, he sounded terrible, he was awful, and now he’s my favorite trumpet player.” He made this HUGE…like bang. But he works hard.

TP: Joe has a specific timbre to his sound, and it’s coming out of K.D. and Tommy Turrentine, but it’s his thing. Is that a sound you relate to a lot? Is it imprinted on you from early listening?

WOLFE: I don’t know. When Joe is playing good, there’s something about it… It just sounds good. He plays much different than I play. He seems to think a lot differently. I still don’t think Joe has really become what he’s going to be yet. I still think he’s fighting. Something is in his way. I really believe that. I’m not sure what it is. There’s a certain view he has seen yet into how to make music, and he’s still trying to figure out the instrument even though he can already do that. I think that’s his thing that he struggles with. But you can’t put that in there, but it would sound like I’m putting down my man. But I think that’s something with Joe, that he’s still not…which is somewhat frustrating.

TP: How about for you?

WOLFE: For me?

TP: Yeah, these two records… How do you see this new…

WOLFE: Well, on the first record, the bass playing is terrible. I didn’t play any bass on it. I wasn’t thinking about the bass on it. I wasn’t thinking about the bass. I was thinking about the record and about the music, and I didn’t play the bass well on that record at all. I didn’t like the way it sounded. I mean, except for a couple of tunes. But overall, I forgot to play the bass on the record. And the second record, I practiced a lot and I think I played the bass better. I didn’t solo very well, but I played the bass better. I think if you were to combine both the records, take a few tunes from each record, you’d have one record that I could live with forever. Each record has a few tunes that I’ll never wish were different. I can say that for both records. The second record I think was far superior to the first record. But it’s still not successful all the way, just like the first one.

TP: What would make it successful all the way?

WOLFE: Well, the first tunes of both records are successful. They sound good. I don’t wish something was different. They sound like music. I stay in the music. A lot of tunes didn’t come out conceptually the way I would have liked them to. Which is not… That’s normal, I suppose. Both records were done in one day, very quickly. A lot of tunes. The sound of the second record is better. I got a great sound in the studio on the second one, I felt. I really liked the bass sound for the most part on the second record.

TP: Again, was that first record something you wrote for the date, or had you been collecting tunes over the years?

WOLFE: In the two or three years before that record came out, I was writing differently. I was writing as if I was a composer as much as a bass player, versus being a bass player who wrote music and loved to write music. I was writing as a composer, a lot of music. So that record is kind of a product of a lot of that music, and it’s finding some kind of voice as a writer. The second record is a much more refined version of the first record. Each record I learned something. The first record I had trombone; the second record I had the baritone saxophone. They’re similar actually, but the second record is a little more realized, I guess.

TP: Talk about some of your compositional influences.

WOLFE: Billy Strayhorn is a huge compositional influence on me. Mingus, the way he wrote ballads. Yusef Lateef, from the Paul Chambers record First Bassman. Duke Ellington influenced me as a writer. Charlie Parker influenced me as a writer.

TP: On first blush, they sound like Bebop records, which isn’t like a lot of guys in your generation.

WOLFE: I’m definitely from that well. I don’t want to play Charlie Parker’s music every night, because he did that. I don’t want to play my influences’ music every night. But he’s a huge influence on me. And the rhythm of Bebop, the rhymes of it are definitely a big part of my writing.

TP: You also do some very hip substitutions. One of the tunes on 13 Sketches is “Little Willie Leaps,” very cleverly disguised.

WOLFE: Yeah, “All God’s Children Got Rhythm,” “Blind Seven.” That’s written for Sherman Irby. We used to play some card game, Blind Seven. Another tune on that record is based loosely on “Dewey Square”. Every tune on that 13 Sketches is a description of something, of a person or a situation. M Mostly people. Every single tune. The second record is pretty much descriptions of situations or people. The second record is more like a soundtrack for a movie without a movie, which is something I really want to do — and I just did something actually for this guy’s student film, with a 17-piece band, with strings and clarinets. I love that. That’s what I want to do. I want to write, compose and play the music.

TP: There’s some very specific technique involved with that, making the stuff fit the frames-per-second.

WOLFE: Well, this wasn’t that kind of thing. I don’t really care so much about that. I just want to write.

TP: When did you start with Diana Krall?

WOLFE: I played with Diana Krall for two years, and that ended a year ago, and I played with Harry Connick for the summer, and with Ned Goold as the opening act. We did that also, which was tremendous. A live record should be coming out. And I’m back with Diana now, as of a month ago.

TP: Again, it’s one of the highest visibility gigs…

WOLFE: It’s a good band. Right now it’s Dan Fanley, a guitar player from Oregon, and Shannon Powell, who used to play drums with Harry back when I played with him years ago. It’s nice. We just play tunes and try to swing. We’re not trying to change the world. But in a way, I like that it’s not trying to change the world. Because I have my own vision and that’s what I want to pursue. So every time I do a gig with someone, I’m like helping someone pursue their vision, so to speak. This is easier, in a way. I don’t mean this to sound bad. I play with Wynton, as much as I love playing with him, it’s a reminder of so much what I want to do and what I’m not doing. I’m seeing him do it, which is great. And in a way, Harry Connick, too, because he writes a new song every day and has his own band to play it. So it’s like, okay, why am I the guy in the band? I don’t want to be the guy in the band. I don’t feel like I should be, but who does? But I really believe in the music I write, as much as I believe in my bass playing — equally. With Diana, it’s we’re playing standards and just trying to make people feel good every night, so it’s a good gig to have for me, especially as far as keeping my frustrations intact. I get very frustrated on the bandstand sometimes. You should ask Benny Green; he’ll tell you.

TP: With other people’s imperfections?

WOLFE: With everything. I just see things more and more so clearly how I think they should be, or how I’d like them to be, and I’m still learning how as a sideman to realize I’m not either… Play the gig or don’t play the gig, but don’t make it your band, because it’s not my band. But I feel these things so strongly, and sometimes they’re really… To some people they would seem so small. Like the way a drummer holds his stick in his left hand. If he’s playing (?), it drives me crazy. I can’t play with it. It drives me nuts. It’s little things that most people don’t even notice. so I’m still trying to figure it out. That’s why I need to be a bandleader.

TP: One thing about being a sideman, there’s a level where music is also narrative, and if you’re playing with a singer you’re evoking these very palpable stories. you seem to think of it that way in terms of your tunes…

WOLFE: I think of it that way sonically, not so much verbally. But that’s true also. I don’t really know a lot of lyrics to tunes, though I should. When Diana’s playing the song I know them, but I probably couldn’t tell you the lyrics to the tunes afterwards. But when they’re being sung, I hear them go by, and I’m aware of them. But when the song is over, I don’t remember what they are.

TP: Does being around lyrics all the time for two years have anything to do with putting images for…

WOLFE: No. Reading books about Picasso… I read a book called Picasso on Art, talking about his views and people saying things that he had said — and that influenced me greatly. It’s hard for me to describe. I’m certainly not a painter, and I don’t want to sound presumptuous. I don’t know enough about… Well, you can look at his paintings different ways and see different things. I love the whole concept of duality; is it a tree, is it a woman… I love that kind of stuff? And I write that way. There’s a tune on the first record called “Ursula’s Dance” where it has two melodies. The melody could be a melody, it could be a counter-melody — it can be heard either way. It’s not important how one hears it, but it could be viewed differently. But that way of having things have dual meanings. I put a lot of stuff in my tunes just for me, that no one would ever in a million years notice, where I quote myself, or I’ll put a certain melody or chord or rhythm I used in other tunes, almost like as a marker for myself, so I know… I have a lot of things like that. My titles will have other meanings that are never… My mother once said to me, “You know, your titles are great if you know what they mean.” But no one could ever know what they mean. In the book, one thing that struck me was Picasso… Some students were talking about trying to draw the perfect circle, they’d spend hours trying to get a perfect circle. He said, “No, just draw the circle, and your personality will be in that circle every time.” I love that way of thinking, sort of little, witty, clever conceptual ideas.

I think music is of the brain, not of the instrument, and that’s what drives me crazy today, is people don’t play that way. Jazz just isn’t happening any more. It just isn’t, at least… I’m not saying I am either. But it seems to me that a very small percentage of jazz musicians have a jazz sound.

TP: What is a jazz sound?

WOLFE: I knew you were going to ask me that. It’s hard for me to explain. Maybe it’s some sort of consciousness of the sound between the sounds, the space between the notes, a way of hearing… I don’t know how to hear it.

TP: Bennie Wallace was saying that about a Sonny Rollins solo, the space between the beats, the pitches between…

WOLFE: The in between. There’s like air, and it’s relaxed and it’s swinging. I don’t know really how to describe it, but I know that it doesn’t seem to exist as much now. It seems like these days, for the most part, you have people expressing some sort of ability on their instruments, which I think is sometimes very suspect in what they think of as ability, and different versions or imitations of the ’60s, and calling that modern. The ’60s is a lot closer to the ’40s than it is to here. Or you have people picking their eras and imitating them, and ignoring the others, and it’s like all about which era one is… How they’re imitating which era in what way. Which is bullshit, really. I mean, it’s a way to learn, but the people they’re imitating weren’t doing that. Monk certainly wasn’t doing that. You can find his influences, but he sounded very fresh. Bird wasn’t doing that. I mean, he wasn’t trying to imitate Prez’ bag. Prez wasn’t doing that. Duke wasn’t doing that. They all had a vision, they were trying to find… Ornette. All of them. Coltrane’s band in the ’60s… How many bands now, how musicians do you hear trying to sound like Coltrane’s band in the ’60s? I mean, if you look at it… A lot of drummers are trying to sound like Elvin. Right? When I first came to New York, everyone was Tony, Ron and Herbie, and everywhere you’d go, every piano player was Herbie Hancock. It’s like why?

TP: But then a lot of guys got past that. A lot of guys who did that 12 years ago sort of found their own take on it. You don’t think so.

WOLFE: I don’t. I hear so many Herbie Hancocks, man, out there. That’s nothing against Herbie, but that’s not what Herbie was doing. That’s not the lesson with your heros. The lesson isn’t how to sound like Paul Chambers. The lesson is how to sound like yourself. How did Paul Chambers sound like Paul Chambers? He didn’t sound like everyone else. You hear him, “Oh, that’s Paul Chambers,” “Oh, that’s Bud Powell,” “Oh, that’s Sidney Bechet,” “Oh, that’s Bird.” Why are they such beacons?

TP: So you’re saying you can’t listen to that many people and identify them as them.

WOLFE: Well, everyone says the same thing. Everyone says the same thing, everyone plays the same way, everyone talks the same way. Everyone’s trying to be this “jazz musician,” and no one is trying to be an artist. And I hate that. I mean, I could care less about that. I don’t care, man. Being a jazz musician and playing jazz seem to be two different things. We can go out and be cool and talk hip and shake hands and dress nice and talk about so-and-so-‘s killin’ and not really mean it, and say, “Hey, yeah, let’s get together” and not really mean it… All that stuff is all bullshit. It means nothing. It might be fun t go to the Vanguard and be cool and have Lorraine fuck with you, all those things, the whole jazz world… All that is nothing, man! It means nothing. I mean, it’s fun and it’s a lifestyle, but it means nothing — absolutely nothing. What means something is what one is actually producing and I think most people aren’t even trying to produce much. Not really. You certainly can’t compare the records now with the records of the past. They don’t hold up well in any way, in playing, in sound, in creativity. They just don’t. My records included, believe me. I’m much more attracted to people trying to do something.

TP: Who do you like?

WOLFE: I like Ned Goold. That’s who I respect the most. Him and Wynton are the two people I respect the most, by far.

TP: Who else do you like?

WOLFE: Who else do I like? It’s dangerous, because when I say who I like I have to preface each time… I don’t like a lot of people the way I like Monk or the way I like whoever. I like the way Veal plays the bass. If I had to pick one bass player I like, I would pick him, because when I hear him play, he sounds like a character. I hear his personality. I don’t hear him just trying to be somebody or just trying to be professional. I would pick him over all the rest of them, if I had to pick one person. Of all the bass players you could name, I could tell you things I like about them and things I don’t like about them. Everyone one of them I could say what I like and don’t like.

Another thing is, I hear a lot of arrogance in music, that I hate. I can only describe it, it sounds arrogant… The sound of conceit, I hate. If that makes any sense. When I hear Monk, I don’t hear that. I guess Freddie Hubbard or Lee Morgan are very bravado. But when I hear like Bird… To me, what I hear. I’m not saying how they are as people. But I don’t hear it as arrogance in the music. It sounds like it’s a humble artistic gesture to take it, and do what you want — you like it or you don’t or whatever. It is what it is, like a poem or something. A lot of times now everything seems real arrogant, and I find that offensive in music. I probably sound arrogant right now talking this way, and it could be construed like I’m talking down…

TP: Well, it sounds a bit like flailing against the wind. There’s a reality and you’re in this reality…

WOLFE: I don’t feel part of the reality. I feel like it’s my job to do these gigs. But I don’t feel connected with the jazz scene that way. I don’t feel like they’re my peers in certain ways. Not really.

TP: Do you feel you have a peer group?

WOLFE: Ned. No, not really. I don’t look at it that way. I’m just trying to find a way to get to do my thing, and hopefully develop it and hopefully have a chance of being great. I want to have a chance to be great. I’m definitely not anywhere near that. The whole music business… See, now I’m getting dark, man. But I really believe these things. And I don’t dislike people. But I don’t go out and buy a lot of jazz records, because they don’t appeal to me. I put the jazz radio on a lot, and every now and then I hear something I like. It’s funny, when I hear something I like I’m afraid to give it a second listen, because I’m afraid I won’t like it the second time. Like, I heard something a few years ago and I thought, “Wow, this is interesting; I like this.” It was John Zorn live with that Masada group. I’d never heard anything from him other than that one tune, and I was almost afraid to hear anything more because I was so satisfied by it. I haven’t forgotten it since. I like Wynton. I like a lot of what it stands for.

TP: It sounds like some of what you’re looking for is in avant-garde music you haven’t gone to in your career stuff. I hear a lot of individuality there.

WOLFE: Oh, what I’m doing in my career is nothing at all what I would do if I was doing my own thing. It’s just that’s what I do for a living. And I enjoy doing it. You’ve never heard my band probably.

TP: No, just these records.

WOLFE: That’s a small part of it. I write all the time. That’s what I want too do. Whether it’s avant-garde… The music I want to play is based on principles of how one thinks on the bandstand. Like, the intention of the music is as important as music itself. It’s funny. I was talking to somebody, and it was a common argument about opinions. “Well, if someone like it, then it’s good. If it makes someone feel good, then it must be good.” I said, “Yeah, but you can lie and make someone feel good. You can tell someone they’re beautiful, you can tell them you love them, you can tell them they’re this and they’re that — and be lying to them and make them feel good. But the intention was not good.” And I think that’s important. In music I think you can lie and you can impress, and I don’t like that. I kind of have a… When I make my records, for better or worse, I try not to think at all business-like. The first record someone said, “Maybe you should put a couple of standards on there.” I don’t care if it sells one record. I’m not going to put something on there in order to make it sell. I refuse to do that. I do enough of that as a sideman. I’m a hired gun, so to speak. But when I’m doing my own thing, I refuse to do it for that reason. What people hear is going to be honest.

TP: There’s a notion of genre that goes to Hollywood studio directors who made great art within those forms. There’s an element of that in jazz as well. I mean, just playing the function, if you do it with your personality, then that becomes a statement in and of itself.

WOLFE: True enough. That’s true. I agree. But I need more control than just being put in it. For my best work, I need to be more than just a bass player. Mingus was like that. I’m not comparing myself to that. But he wasn’t just a bass player.

TP: It’s an interesting dichotomy, because you’re so successful as a sideman.

WOLFE: Successful in one regard. Paul Chambers, I’m not like him.

TP: I’m not talking about the aesthetics. As far as your career, 99.5% of the bass players out there would kill to have the gigs you have.

WOLFE: No, and I’m glad I have them, because I need to make money and I need to be out there, and I need to pursue what I’m trying to do. Because no one is going to pay for my 17-piece record. Which is fine.

TP: So that’s sort of a Connick attitude, in a certain way, which I believe Connick is telling half the truth when he says that half of what he does is so he can put the band out there so he can write his music.

WOLFE: I think that’s true, but he’s a complicated figure. It’s hard, because you have to learn… By playing these gigs that I’m doing, it makes it easier to not be disgusted by who is chosen to do their own thing. When I see who is getting to write their music, and I see people who are being celebrated for whatever reason they say they’re celebrating them, when I know that’s not really what’s happening… You can become so frustrated that you don’t want to be part of anything, and that’s not the way to get what you want to do. You have to accept that that’s the world, that’s Corporate America. But at the same time, I always got to things from a different route. I can’t do what everyone else does. That way doesn’t work for me. And I don’t want to be part of that anyway.

[PAUSE]

No piano. Well, the music I write is definitely not bass-oriented. It’s all written on the piano. Most all of my tunes are solo piano pieces that I’ve written on the piano, arranged for the band. When I have a piano it’s so… Well, I’ll probably have more piano in the future. But it’s so definitely what I ask from a piano player as far as the voicings, that it’s almost… I’ve decided for a while to have the piano…to try to arrange it for the band. But I do love having piano. But I want a piano player to be a third rhythm section, not run the show… It just hasn’t happened yet. It’s not like I don’t want piano. It just hasn’t happened.

TP: Is that analogy to Mingus’ mid-’50s music accurate? Did you listen to it a lot?

WOLFE: I haven’t studied it, but I’ve heard it and I feel a connection to it, especially “Self Portrait in Three Colors,” the ballad. That influenced me a lot, just that ballad, the use of the trombone in it. In fact, the way Mingus kind of played hard. He played hard, with a lot of ass, for lack of a better word, and wrote music that was really beautiful and pretty. That combination I could kind of relate to in a sense. People think of Mingus as being rough, but his music is really beautiful. I can relate to that in a certain way.

[-30-]Wolfe-Panken (8-8-01):

TP: First, since we last talked, which was about 18 months ago, what’s new? Then you were just leaving Connick and starting to go out with Krall.

WOLFE: I started working with Diana again, and we started touring like crazy, and I started planning this new CD of mine. That’s pretty much been my life since then. That CD originally was going to be doing something real quick, and it turned into the biggest project I’ve ever done. I wrote a lot of music and recorded it in a real unique way, and I’m real happy with it actually. That’s what I’ve been doing, trying to do my work for that. It’s out now, and…

TP: Have been with Krall this whole time?

WOLFE: I’ve been with her a little less than two years. This young drummer, Rodney Green has been playing. We’ve become a real team. It’s nice to play with a drummer like that. He’s unique in the fact that he gets a great sound on the drums. At that age you don’t hear that so often. A real developed tone quality, which personally I love, being a big fan of the drums.

TP: So more or less, it’s been either you’re touring with Krall or putting together this new music on your downtime.

WOLFE: Yes. I want to write for some films. That’s one of the things I want to do. But I spend a lot of time writing… I’m already planning my next record, writing music for it, for whenever that does come around. I’ve been writing actually for full orchestra.

TP: Will the tunes be more filled-out? It seems with each record, you’re treating the tunes more and more minimally and more through-composed. Some of the tunes here seem a bit sketchy, but maybe that’s the imaginary film aspect.

WOLFE: Here’s the way I think of it. I write all my music on the piano. Almost like little solo piano pieces. Then I arrange them for different combinations of instruments based on the instrument and the person playing. I try to arrange them and write them for a different sound. I think of the instruments almost like characters. The way I describe my writing these days is chamber music within a jazz context. Like, I might use cello… I’m writing a piece now, an half-hour five-movement extended work, for a concert in Oregon that I’m producing, and I have the sextet I use, which will be bass-drums-piano-trumpet-tenor saxophone-baritone sax/flute. For this long piece I’m adding three classical musicians, an opera singer soprano, a cello player, and a tubist. So it will be 9 musicians.

TP: You described Murray’s Steps as an imaginary film. Can you describe that film?

WOLFE: Well, it’s not so much that I pick a story. I just put it together as if it was for a film. The way the CD is set up, it starts off with this particular tune, the same tune it ends with, almost I imagine like the credits rolling, or on the way out I imagine people leaving a theater from a play. It’s that whole experience. The first tune is a short little introduction, almost like an overture, coming into the experience. The second tune is a little interlude that introduces the characters, so to speak, and some of the sounds I’m using throughout the record. And then the third tune is almost like the first tune of the record. I’m trying to write it like an experience, like a journey, so to speak. I tried to put it together almost like a suite, in how the tunes go together. I spent a lot time figuring out how much stuff between the tunes.

TP: Who would you say are some of your compositional influences? You’re obviously mixing a lot of information, a lot of perspectives, or interpreting or reformualtion… There’s a lot of information being distilled here.

WOLFE: When I write, I don’t really write in terms of trying to write like anybody, so to speak. The influences I think you hear would be Billy Strayhorn, Duke Elllington, Monk, Bill Evans, Charlie Parker. It’s definitely jazz music. I like arranging. I like putting stuff together and finding different types of harmonic movements and arranging to find different sounds that sound good to me. Basically, when I write, I just find what sounds good to me. I like thinking of it as jazz ensemble music versus somebody who’s blowing on top of a rhythm section. I’ve never been real attracted to that, unless it’s done in its finest sense, the way I like it, when it always sounds like a group — it doesn’t sound like someone getting off on top of a rhythm section.

TP: Well, you had a lot of good experience with ensemble playing in your couple of years with Wynton.

WOLFE: I learned a lot from Wynton, because he was writing a lot of ensemble type music, with solos in it, of course. But it’s more about the whole thing versus the soloists. I like the thought of jazz music being ensemble music, whereas… That’s what it really is to me. Unless it’s that one person playing, to me what makes it beautiful is the connection of the musicians and how they play together, not so much what they’re playing by themselves, but how they play together.

TP: So what you’re describing must be part of the satisfaction of playing with Diana Krall — apart from it being a great gig.

WOLFE: My sideman work is something to me that’s totally separate than what I’m doing on my own — or trying to do. It’s like a whole different thing. It’s a different perspective from the bass, from everything. When I’m hired as a sideman with Diana or whomever… It depends who it is, of course. But to me, when I’m playing with Diana, it’s about her vision, it’s about her conception, and it’s about what she’s trying to do. I’m there to help realize her musical vision, so to speak.

TP: How would you describe her musical vision and how you fit into it?

WOLFE: She doesn’t do much original music, but mostly we do standards, beautiful lsongs she likes to sing. My job is to play good supportive bass, to play good notes and hopefully keep it swinging. Just to pretty much play good rhythm section bass.

TP: If people notice what you’re doing, you’re probably doing something wrong.

WOLFE: Maybe. For me, on a gig like that, the challenge is that you have to put your ego in check. You can’t go on there and just try to get off and play all your stuff. For me, any gig where you’re working for somebody, especially a singer, you’ve got to figure out what your role is and your little area in the music, and find a way to be supportive and give the leader what they want, what they’re looking for, and at the same time keep your integrity intact and try to find ways of being expressive and creative within the context of what the the leader is doing.

TP: You’re referring to your area of music within the ensemble.

WOLFE: Within the ensemble, exactly. If she’s singing, I need to play good notes that will make her comfortable when she’s singing, or make the rhythm feel good so that she’s comfortable. I mean, it would be the same just playing for a soloist, if the soloist was a leader. But whereas I’m playing bass in my group, or my music, I’m kind of driving from the bass. If this is my vision, I hate to say I have more freedom, but I have a little more…

TP: You have a more control.

WOLFE: I have much more control because I’m trying to realize my vision of how I view music and my conception of how I would like it to be.

TP: You’ve cited Paul Chambers, Ray Brown, Oscar Pettiford and Ron Carter as your favorite bassists…

WOLFE: P.C. is my all-time favorite. Also Jimmy Blanton.

TP: Except for Blanton, all of of them at least led records if not groups. Do you think of yourself as a composer who plays bass or as a bassist who’s a composer?

WOLFE: I think of myself… The closest bass player to what I do would probably be Mingus.

TP: In that Mingus wrote this programmatic music.

WOLFE: That’s what I try to. I think of myself as a bass player and as a composer equally. They’re both as important and they’re both needed for each other for my doing what I really want to do. Now when I’m playing with Diana Krall, I’m not there as a composer. I’m there as a bass player. I’m doing my job as her bass player. When I’m doing my own thing, I do everything. It might sound like a control freak kind of thing. But I write all the music, I arrange all the music, I do everything that I can do. As much as is capable for me to do, I will do.

TP: But you’re working all the time, by present-day standards. With Wynton you worked a lot, with Connick you were on the road a lot, with Diana Krall you’re on the road a lot. A lot of your quotidian, a lot of your daily life is involved in playing that music . I’m wondering how much your activity as a sideman impacts your ideas compositionally. Is it a totally separate thing?

WOLFE: I think it all goes together. Obviously, when I was playing with Wynton, I was watching… His vision is so strong and he was doing… I did tours with him playing these long pieces, In This House and Citi Movement. These are long original compositions where he was doing his thing. It wasn’t just playing tunes. It was definite large compositions, which was different than playing with Diana where we’re doing these songs with arrangements. They’re just songs. Great songs. But obviously playing tunes from the Nat Cole songbook in a quartet or a trio is much different than playing a ballet that Wynton wrote.

TP: But all of it becomes part of your experience.

WOLFE: It all becomes part of my experience. But even playing with Wynton, it’s still I’m the bass player playing his…

TP: But all I’m saying is that the information, the actual things that you’re playing, coming from your fingers, the sound of it, the ambiance of it…I’m wondering how that inflects… Does it become part and parcel of your identity as a composer or is that identity something very separate?

WOLFE: I think it’s something very separate. Two completely separate things. But I do think all musical experiences influence each other. But when I’m playing with Diana it’s a whole different head space than when I’m playing with my own band.

TP: That said, how much are you able to play with your own band?

WOLFE: On December 28th I am producing a concert of my music in Portland, Oregon, in a place there called the Old Church, which is literally an old church, 200 or 300 seats. It’s a beautiful place, and they do a lot of chamber music concerts there. I’m premiering this five-movement piece there. Now, this is one night in December, and it’s already a big part of my life now. That’s something I get completely wrapped-up in. I’m completely into it. It’s a whole nother head space for me. Because it’s an opportunity to really do what I do. For me, when I’m playing with my own group or making a record or writing, I feel like that’s really what I do, that that’s my for-real musical personality. When I’m working with someone else, it’s what I do and who I am, but it’s not as complete a thing.

TP: Do you find this frustrating? It seems like if you become a bandleader, it’s going to be a while before you’re able either to afford to do it, put in the time to make that a truth in the marketplace, in the real world economics you live by, or get the recognition to have some demand for it.

WOLFE: I don’t want to stop playing as a sideman right now. I can’t afford to do that right now. But by playing with Diana, it enables me not to have to worry about trying to find little gigs when we’re off. I can spend all my time writing. But I like the idea of doing both at the same time. Of course, if I had it my way, I would only play with my band. That would be what I do. But that’s not a reality right now, at this point in time. I do think I have something tangible to offer, though, as a leader. It’s just a matter of getting the opportunity to do it. But I feel patient, and I really believe in what I’m doing. It’s not like I’m, “Boy, I sure would like to be a bandleader.” I really believe in what I’m trying to do, and it’s the most important thing in the world to me. I’m patient about it because I’m always working on it. I’m always writing. I have three CDs out now. So there’s evidence of the work I’ve been doing. So it’s not frustrating at this point. I think that if I never get to do it,, that would be very frustrating. But I believe I will get to.

TP: Why are you doing so much of this work in Portland. I know it’s where you’re from. But is it a certain rapport you have with those musicians? Is it harder to get musicians in New York to pay attention?

WOLFE: No, it’s not that. What happened was, when I make my records, I’ll usually record them around the holiday time. Because I know that Ned Goold, who I need to have on the record, will be off with Harry usually. People are usually off and more available at that time. The reason I did the last record in Portland was I knew I was going to be there and there was a place to record there. That’s done in a guy’s living room, but he gets an amazing sound there. It’s the best bass sound I’ve got on a record. I do have a relationship with the musicians there, but it’s not so much I prefer recording there. It just kind of worked out that way. It started out as being a little experiment.

I believe in the music sounding the way it sounds. In other words, if somebody is too loud, say the drummer is too loud and you can’t hear the bass, if that’s what’s going on, that’s what you should hear. I’m not a real fan of the modrn style of recording, of fixing missed notes and so forth, and having it be manipulated and going for “perfection.” I’m a real firm believer in the band playing… If the band is swinging, if the band is playing and that’s a good balance, then that’s what you hear. That’s the way I like to play jazz, with an honest sound. I think that the way it’s done a lot today, you have the musicians in separate rooms and trying to get everything perfect, I think you take away a lot of chance for magic by doing that. I’m not saying it’s wrong or you can’t get a good recording that way. But I think there’s something… I prefer a more organic approach.

TP: When did you start with Diana?

WOLFE: This second stint started approximately March 2000. I’m really trying to establish the fact that I’m not just Diana’s bass player.

TP: Well, the sideman work is part of your persona as a musician. From my perspective, the qualities that made that happen have to be mentioned.

WOLFE: To me, when somebody asks me what I do as a musician, I’m a composer and I play bass. To me, that’s what I do. Even though people see the other thing, but to me, when I think of myself as a musician, I think of myself as a composer who plays bass. That’s really what I do. Of course, what people see is the other thing, which is more like what I do for a living. But I write music and I have a vision and a conception that I have to realize.

 

*************

Ben Wolfe Blindfold Test (Raw):

1. John Clayton, “Isfahan” (Parlor Series, with Gerald Clayton, ArtistShare, 2013) (John Clayton, bass; Gerald Clayton, piano)

“Isfahan” by Billy Strayhorn. Beautiful song. I will say this. The minute the pianist started the introduction I thought of Billy Strayhorn, but once they got into the tune, I was thinking about how, for me, they weren’t playing “Isfahan”; they were playing the chord progressions of “Isfahan” and playing a certain way…kind of fast… For me, that song loses something. It tends to sound like a chord progression to solo on it or play on it, which is ok. But “Isfahan” is like a piece of poetry to me. It’s something I’ve spent time with, and I find extremely beautiful, kind of like Mozart—melody-driven music. That’s not necessarily putting them down. It’s just out of a personal connection to his music, and I don’t hear it that way. I’m not sure who it was. The pianist reminded me of Bill Charlap. I don’t think it was Bill Charlap, but it reminded me of him. It reminded me of people I know, but I didn’t think it was any of them. The pianist had obviously an Oscar Peterson influence in his playing. The bass player clearly had checked out Ray Brown. But it wasn’t Christian. It wasn’t someone coming out of Ray Brown who I think it’s recognize immediately. A lot of notes. The bass player to me sounded like someone who usually uses an amplifier, but didn’t for this session, maybe because it’s a duet.

There were things about it I like. I like the fact they were playing duo, which can be really difficult to keep the lean, the groove moving forward. Sometimes it tends is to slow down and get boring. I think they did a good job that way. But I didn’t get a real sense of connection between the musicians on this recording. I felt like they were taking turns playing…which is fine. They sound like very accomplished musicians. I was going back and forth. Is this older musicians who play great on a more modern recording, or is it a young cat? I couldn’t tell. I could go either way. But I would just be guessing who it is, and I don’t want to guess, because I’m not sure. Are they my contemporaries or are they my heroes? I could go either way. But I can say this. I probably wouldn’t want to hear that again. “Isfahan” to me a delicate song that I prefer hearing delicate. I know Joe Henderson played it fast, and people do that. It’s just music, so one should do what they do. 4 stars, because they’re good musicians, and it’s their choice how they play. Since it’s the first thing we’re listening to, I’m erring on giving extra stars. So I’m protecting myself in case it’s a friend. [AFTER] It’s funny you say that. John Clayton was the next name I would have mentioned. Great musician. I love the father-son thing. As a father, I think it’s beautiful. Again, great musicians. I wouldn’t approach the song that way. So I got the Ray Brown influence correct. Gerald is an interesting musician. I like the fact that he doesn’t just play the one might expect John Clayton’s son to play. But I heard those things. I thought, “Ok, comes out of Oscar, but not Oscar; coming out of Monty, but not Monty.” I heard those influences, but I heard it wasn’t those people. I should trust my instincts and just say John Clayton next time.

2. Eberhard Weber, “Seven Movements” (Stages Of a Long Journey, ECM, 2007) (Weber, bass; Jan Garbarek, soprano saxophone)

This is so far from what I do. It reminds me of something Jan Garbarek and Eberhard Weber might play together. I’ll keep listening and see if anything comes to mind. Is that two bass players? [One bass player.] So he’s doing it at the same time, I guess. Or maybe doubled… It sounds like two—the low note, the A-pedaling, and the notes on top. There’s so much effects on this that it’s hard to hear what his actual sound is. The way the bass is recorded, it sounds like electric bass to me; it sounds like an electric bass exercise or something. Which I know it’s not, but that’s what… I’m not even sure how to listen to this, or certainly how to rate it. It certainly had clarity. But it’s so far from where I’m at with music, that it’s hard to… I’m not even sure what to say about it. I really don’t know who that is. Again, accomplished musicians… [You guessed it.] I haven’t listened to those musicians a lot, but the fact that I recognize a sound that I attribute to them immediately is worth noting, I think. It immediately reminded me of two musicians who I know their sound but don’t listen to a lot, and that’s who it turned out to be. There’s something to be said for that. Whereas the previous recording, I know both musicians very well and I wasn’t sure who it was. I’m not sure what that means, but I think there’s something to that. I found the piece uninteresting. But it had a sound. They have a way they play, and it’s got a certain sound to it. But it seemed very… It sounded composed, which is ok, but I wasn’t hearing a lot of melody. It wasn’t pretty to me. It has a feeling to it that I recognize, but it doesn’t necessarily resonate with me. But I’m not a believer in what one likes is any judgment on the quality. I separate quality and like-or-dislike as two separate things. 3 stars. I would like to hear him play the bass acoustically, to hear what it sounds like.

3. Mark Dresser, “Not Withstanding” (Nourishments, Clean Feed, 2013) (Dresser, bass; Rudresh Mahanthappa, alto saxophone; Denman Maroney, hyperpiano; Tom Rainey, drums)

That’s wild. It almost reminds me of something Steve Coleman and Dave Holland might do with Smitty, but it’s got a different quality. The way the pianist is playing. Obviously, musicians who know how to play. They have a way they play together. A little bit hard to hear the bass, a lot of drums. But I like the sound. Trombone kind of reminds me of Ray Anderson; I don’t know if it’s him or not. Prepared piano, sounds like. Eric Revis sometimes on his records does stuff that reminds me of this. For a second, I wondered if it was Revis, but I know it’s not. I love the way he plays stuff like this. I’m not sure who it is. Again, it’s probably someone I know. It’s interesting, but it doesn’t hold me. The lack of melody; it doesn’t hold on to me. It’s kind of sloppy in a good way. I like that. It’s not overly clean. It’s loose. I like the vibe to it. It does sound like like-minded musicians. I get the sense they play together or they know each other. It doesn’t sound like they’re thrown together for a record date. [AFTER] It reminded me of Steve Coleman, but there’s a certain lack of clarity—again, I don’t mean that in a negative sense. I like the looseness of it. They seemed to be playing in a common way; like, they had the same goal. It wasn’t just everyone for themself. But it had that real loose feeling, which I like. I didn’t really notice the bass player except for the solo. The way it was recorded, the bass wasn’t clear. The drums were kind of covering the bass in a way. I like bass player records where it’s not all just about the bass. But I do like to hear the bass. I found the solo interesting. I found the bass player interesting. He seemed like he was part of the group. Everyone seemed part of the group. It didn’t sound like it was his record, though. It sounded like it was the saxophone player’s record or the drummer’s record. Even the pianist’s. It didn’t sound like the bass player’s record, which, in a way, if it is the bass player’s record, that would be a compliment. Just because you’re the leader doesn’t mean the music should… The bass is still the bass. 4 stars. Mark Dresser? That makes sense. I know about Mark, but I don’t know his sound enough to recognize it. But I figured it was one of those guys…that sounds weird… Sort of freeish… It reminded me of Braxton and Dave Holland, but it had a rougher edge to it than that, which I liked. I liked the fact that it wasn’t pristine. The alto player wasn’t Braxton. It wasn’t Steve Coleman. It wasn’t Greg Osby? It wasn’t Tim Berne? I don’t know Rudresh Mahanthappa’s playing. I’m not familiar enough with any of their playing, but I get the sense they play together a lot.

4. Stanley Clarke Trio, “Three Wrong Notes” (Jazz In The Garden, Heads Up, 2009) (Clarke, bass; Hiromi Uemara, piano; Lenny White, drums)

It sounds like they’re not playing together because they’re not playing together. They’re clearly in separate rooms. So it’s musicians playing at the same time. But for me it’s so distracting… The drummer sounds… Something about the drummer I like a lot. He might be the senior member of the band who’s played with somebody or done something. But they record it… Like, the tom-toms sound separate from the rest of the set. The bass player sounds like he’s listened to a lot of Eddie Gomez. Plays in that style when he solos. But the bass solo sounds like he’s more interested in playing than when he was playing the bass lines. For me, I find that distracting. “Oh, the bass player is coming to life now that there’s a bass solo.” He plays the instrument very well, clearly knows the music. I’m assuming it’s his tune—changes to “Confirmation” with the bass melody written over it. It’s something Sam Jones would do, that kind of bass melody, but the way he did it, it had a certain humor to it for some reason. This had more of an exercise thing to it, like, “Let’s take ‘Confirmation’ and write a little bass melody to it.’” It wasn’t Eddie Gomez, but that vibrato, that sort of whining vibrato, it reminds me of Eddie Gomez. Stanley Clarke used to play that way as well, that Eddie Gomez influence. It wasn’t Stanley Clarke, it wasn’t Eddie Gomez, it wasn’t George Mraz… There are a lot of guys who can play that way and do play that way. The most interesting thing I found about that recording is the snare drum. The snare drum had history in it. That was some bad shit, the snare drum. The rest of it sounded like the same old thing. The piano was the same old thing. Great players can play that way, and not so great players play that way. Again, it’s probably people I know, or know of. But the way it was recorded… The only thing that stuck out to me was the groove. The way it was leaning had a sort of uniqueness to it. But it wasn’t a uniqueness I recognized, that I could attribute to anybody. The bass player played the bass well. He played up high a lot when he soloed. It had that big vibrato, that Eddie Gomez vibrato, that sort of singing quality. But I don’t know who it is. It wasn’t John Patitucci. It wasn’t Eddie Gomez. It wasn’t George Mraz. Lynn Seaton? Rufus Reid? I don’t know. Those names all come to my head. None of them seem like the right ones. You’re going to tell me who it is, and I’ll say, “Oh yes.” 4 stars because of the snare drum. It’s cool, but it doesn’t grab me. The way the snare drum was played, the way the drummer didn’t force the beat. That’s what struck me. Without that, I would have been waiting for it to end. [AFTER] It was Stanley Clarke. That makes sense. I love how Lenny White sounded on there. I’d rather hear Stanley play Stanley Clarke stuff. Not that he can’t play jazz. But jazz isn’t a part-time art. That’s not what he does. It’s where he came from and what he can do, obviously. That’s a more recent record. When Stanley was playing jazz more, that’s how he played. I think when musicians take decades off from something, when they resume they’re in the same place. You played Stanley my record on his Blindfold Test. He said he appreciated the string writing; that’s all right. Stanley Clarke was one of my first bass heroes when I was a kid, but to me, that’s not the best Stanley Clarke. That way of recording doesn’t make sense. It comes from pop music, the one-amp separation so they can control it. It’s just the common way. But it doesn’t sound as good, not to me. It leaves less in the hands of the musicians—or the ears of the musicians, I should say.

5. Matt Brewer, “Abiquiú” (Mythology, Criss Cross, 2014) (Brewer, bass; Mark Turner, tenor saxophone; Steve Lehman, alto saxophone; Lage Lund, guitar; David Virelles, piano; Marcus Gilmore, drums)

That was interesting. Compositionally there was some stuff I liked about it. Again, I’m not sure who that was either. It sounded like maybe some young cats. The bass player played well. He or she was pretty in-tune, and seemed to have control of what he or she was playing. Kind of like one of the other tracks. The bass seemed more present when soloing than when playing basslines. It got a little bit lost for me with the drums. It’s a similar thing with the recording, the way the drums were tuned. The snare drum low. Just the sound of it… I lost the bass in the drums, but not in the way that, like, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin were, where Jimmy Garrison became like a tom-tom. It was different than that. It sounded like there was an alto and a tenor, but just an alto solo. The alto player had a sound like a lot of alto players have now, sort of a Kenny Garrett-Steve Wilson kind of sound, but with a Steve Coleman-esque thing to it. I don’t know it was. [THIS PLAYER IS VERY INFLUENCED BY JACKIE MCLEAN] It didn’t sound like Jackie McLean-influenced players are influenced by… I’m not saying this person, but I find this often. A lot of the Jackie McLean-influenced musicians are influenced by him and the way he was and what he believed in, but the Bird part of his playing I don’t hear in a lot of their playing. Which isn’t a bad thing. It’s just something I’ve always noticed. Sometimes I think maybe the person’s philosophies are more important than their musical influences. I liked the piece, but when the soloing started I wasn’t hearing the song any more. 3½ stars. [AFTER] Matt was one of my students at Manhattan School of Music. That’s ironic. If I’d said what I was thinking during the recording, it would have been really accurate, because I was going to mention Larry Grenadier, who I know has not recorded as a leader. The playing was like Larry, and that’s one of Matt’s biggest influence. I knew it wasn’t Larry, but he plays in that way. If Larry had a record out, just from the bass playing along, that’s who I would have thought it was.

6. Dave Holland, “The Empty Chair (For Clare) (Prism, Dare2, 2008) (Holland, bass, composer; Kevin Eubanks, guitar; Craig Taborn, piano; Eric Harland, drums)

We’re getting to kind of the Soul Jazz-Pop area now. Which is ok. I already know a whole lot of who it isn’t. When you grow up in an era of pop music where it’s everywhere, it’s always interesting how it affects jazz musicians and how it comes out in their playing. I would say it’s virtually impossible for it not to come out in your playing, especially if you grew up with it. This is an example of that. I’m going to keep listening. I always notice the drums. The tom-toms are recorded in a way that I find distracting. They’re too loud. But these are musicians who have a good groove, a good pocket for this kind of pocket. It doesn’t always mean they can swing, but maybe they can. It’s a different thing. But they should have tuned the tom-toms different, in my opinion. It’s taking away from the subtlety of the groove, the way the guitar and bass are playing. This is someone who probably likes D’Angelo a lot, like I do. It could be some of these young bass players whose records I haven’t heard, like Ben Williams. It doesn’t remind me, but at the same time it could be, because he likes to record sort of poppish tunes on his recordings. There’s another young guy, Alan Hampton, but I don’t really know his records. There’s a certain way Ben plays on a certain area of the bass that this reminds me of. But I’m not sure. It’s interesting, now that they’re playing louder, it’s mixed softer. The drummer is playing harder now, but the tom-toms are softer, like more compressed. This is very studio-ish. This reminds me of a pop record, and it’s cool. The bass player sounds good. He sounds like he had a lot of ideas behind this, but I’m not really hearing his personality in it. I’m hearing a lot of guitar and drums. The keyboard player playing his part. Even in the solo, I didn’t hear a lot of his personality. That’s why I don’t necessarily think it was Ben, because he plays with a lot of personality that I hear. This bass player, I didn’t hear a lot of personality. I didn’t hear who they were. The only thing it is, it sounds like that D’Angelo influence, but I’m not hearing the kind of beat that usually goes with the cats who play that way. It doesn’t have that behind, Quest-love thing going on, which makes me wonder if it’s a different group of cats playing on here, again coming from more of a pop influence. This is not the Robert Glasper cats, it doesn’t sound like to me. It might be, but something in the way they’re playing… I’d be curious to know who it is. I’m not sure how to rate this. Do I rate it as an R&B tune with a jazz influence? Would I rate this as jazz musicians playing on kind of a funk groove? I’ll give it 3½ stars. [AFTER] That’s always how I feel about Dave Holland. Of course, you played me Dave Holland and I said about the personality. Dave Holland clearly is a great bass player, and anyone who loves his playing, I understand why, but I just don’t… When I hear him… That’s how art should be; you react how you react. But I don’t feel him in his sound. I hear him in his great ability. That’s why I knew it wasn’t Ben Williams, because I didn’t hear an overwhelming personality in their sound, which I don’t hear in Dave. I hear it in his rhythms. But I don’t hear it… That’s me. I know that can sound like an insult to Dave, but it’s not. It’s just an honest reaction. So when I heard this, the rhythm was good, but I just didn’t hear a lot in the sound of the bass. But I heard his Mingus influence hidden in there, in the way the chords were. But that D’Angelo sound… Craig knows those records, I’m sure. Eric Harland does. But Dave Holland is coming from a different point of view. The thing about that group of musicians, they have a way they play, and whether one likes it or not, or to avoid that whole what-is-jazz conversation, I’m a fan of community in music, and they have that, and I didn’t hear that sound in this recording. But Kevin Eubanks…he can do anything on the guitar. But the tom-tom thing threw me off. The last time I heard Dave Holland was a long time ago, in Spain. I remember marveling at how comfortable Steve Nelson was playing on those hard-ass tunes. It was an amazing display of rhythm and great musicianship. Steve Nelson was so soulful over it. It was amazing. Again, Dave Holland is a great bassist. There’s just something I don’t hear in his playing. Who cares if I hear it or not? It doesn’t mean anything. But it’s the truth.

7. The Bad Plus, “You Will Lose All Fear” (Inevitable Western, OKeh, 2014) (Reid Anderson, bass; composer; Ethan Iverson, piano; Dave King, drums)

This is very odd-sounding. You have some tambourine in there. The bass is a little bit buried. Ah, there it is. I’m waiting for the tune to start. I guess it’s kind of rolling, landing on these chords. I think they’re about to land. It sounded like two tunes. You had the beginning part, obviously, that went on; I had no idea where it was going to go. Then we had this ending, this vamp, with some interesting melodic notes. I’m not sure how they’re connected other than the contrast. Perhaps the idea was we’re going through this area to get to this other area. For me, I’m synesthesia, so I see sound, so that was two striking views of sound. One like a lot of scribbling on the page, a lot of information, and then very clear. It was hard to tell who the bass player was, because on the first part it was covered by the piano and the drums; in the second part, he was just playing the part, which I appreciate hearing bass players just playing the bass part. In the second part, it was more a pop sensibility. I figured it’s the bassist’s composition, but the pianist was running the show. I don’t know who it was. I didn’t hear the connection between the two sections. I liked the bass playing at the end when he was just playing the part. I find that interesting, bass players just playing good notes with good rhythm. But it was a composed bass part. 3½ stars. [AFTER] I like the Bad Plus. It’s interesting. A lot of the groups I hear… Well, that’s a good example of a group that it’s pop-influenced acoustic music, in a way. Again, not that it’s a bad thing. But they weren’t playing jazz grooves there, which is ok. For me, I have mixed feelings about that, but that doesn’t change how it sounds, and they play well together, and they have a sound. There’s a certain clarity with how they play… Although at the beginning part there was so much going on, but that was the idea. But yeah, it was interesting. It’s interesting melodies. To me, jazz is dance music, it’s groove music, so when you take that element out of it, it changes so drastically that it’s like another music, so for me it’s like a different criteria for how to listen to it. I remember hearing a group once (it doesn’t matter who) at the Vanguard, and I said, “let me check these cats out; I’ve never really heard them.” I remember in the first half of the set I was like, “Wow, I can’t get with this; I don’t understand it; it’s frustrating me.” Then I listened to the second half of the set from the point of view as if it were just a funk band playing, and I loved it. So I had to adjust my sensibilities. This is kind of in between. It’s like pop-based jazz, but not R&B pop. It’s like the love of Radiohead shows up, which to me is a strange thing. I’m still waiting for Radiohead to play some of our tunes. I grew up in Portland. I moved here in 1985. The bass player in the Decemberists went to high school with my sister. I went to hear them play because I knew the guy, and I didn’t nokw they were rock stars. But good for them!

8. Alexis Cuadrado, “Asesinato (Dos Voces De Madrugada En Riverside Drive)” (A Lorca Soundscape, Sunnyside, 2013) (Cuadrado, bass; cajon, palmas; Claudia Acuna, vocals; Miguel Zenon, alto saxophone; Dan Tepfer, piano; Mark Ferber, drums; Gilmar Gomes, congas)

The thing about steel strings, not that they’re bad, but it makes so many bass players sound the same, whereas with the gut strings you hear so much more the personality, or the differences in the sound of the bass players. I’m hearing this, and it’s the same sound that’s coming out of Stanley Clarke. It’s the same sound that Charnett Moffett might get. It’s the same kind of sound Eberhard Weber might get without the effects. It makes it tricky. Because in solo bass of this style, there’s certain devices that seem to always be used—fifths and tenths. That’s a nice groove there. The alto player sounds like he’s an alto player into Branford; it’s a nice feeling. I thought of Claudia Acuna, but she… It is Claudia. It reminded me immediately of what she and Avishai Cohen played together, but it didn’t sound like Avishai Cohen. His playing changed after he played with Chick Corea. I always thought Claudia had such a beautiful sound. I think I know the saxophone player, but for some reason I’m drawing a blank on his name. Was that Myron Walden? It reminded me of Myron for some reason. I know Avishai played used to play with her a lot. Omer played with her; it doesn’t sound like Omer. I know on piano Jason Lindner played with her; it didn’t sound like Jason either. So it sounds like maybe she got people for this record. [It’s not Claudia’s record; it’s the bass player’s record.] Ah, that would explain that. I’m not sure who the bass player is. That was nice. It had a nice groove. Again, I couldn’t hear the personality in the bass sound. The gut strings, which I play… It doesn’t make one better or worse. But the gut strings tend to make the sound less uniform. It doesn’t even it out so much. You hear the imperfections in the instrument. You hear different qualities. Paul Chambers had certain kind of buzzes in his sound that for me are beautiful. But the steel strings evens everything out, particularly when guys use an amplifier. But even without the amplifier it evens it out. That’s why the John Clayton piece threw me off. I said, “It’s not a guy who uses an amp usually.” He never uses an amp. But the steel strings make it so uniform. So that’s one of the reasons why prefer gut strings. 3½ stars. I don’t know Alexis. I like the groove they’ve got going. I like Miguel Zenon.

9. Christian McBride, “Cherokee” (Out Here, Mack Avenue, 2013) (McBride, bass; Christian Sands, piano; Ulysses Owens, drums)

Wow. A walking bass line. A rarity in jazz today. A very bizarre recording. It’s got that several-room thing where the bass and drums are separated. They’re doing the Ahmad Jamal half-time 3/4 bridge on “Cherokee.” Another Ron Carter influenced bass player. Wow. I like the Ahmad Jamal half-time 3/4 bridge on “Cherokee.” This could be so many people. This is the kind of jazz that frustrates me. I hope this isn’t people I know or are friends. But so far it feels like they’re just playing. They’re not really playing together. They’re playing the same song at the same time, and it’s fast, it can be tricky… The piano player is just playing. There’s no breath. I feel like the bass and drums are just trying to hold on, just trying to stay with the piano player. I don’t feel like they’re moving and turning corners together. They’re going for the excitement. Hard tempo. [BASS SOLO] It sounds like Christian there. The way he plays the bass…it’s amazing; no one can really play like that. But it didn’t sound like him at the beginning, to me, for some reason. I’m not sure what it was. But obviously it’s him. With Christian, obviously he can play fast and with clarity, and he can do all these amazingly impressive things. But I just heard him with his big band last week at Dizzy’s, and that’s some of my favorite Christian I’ve ever heard. It was like he played much less. But he just plays the bass parts…I love the way he does that. For me, that’s a more interesting thing. But he can do anything on the bass. There’s a handful of guys with that type of immense natural gift for music, and it’s always fascinating how they use those tools. I imagine it would be a challenge where, if you could play anything you wanted or like anyone you wanted, it would be very seductive to play like your heroes. I think that’s a unique dilemma that these immensely talented musicians sometimes have to deal with. That wasn’t Carl Allen, was it? I could tell Christian on the solo; it didn’t sound like him on the bassline, for some reason. I remember the first time I heard him, I was amazed by his clarity. The next day, Stanley Crouch called me and said, “Have you heard this kid, Christian McBride? He has a clarity.” I said, “Yeah, it’s amazing.” He’s a special musician with enormous talent on the bass. But I’m impressed by the other side of his playing than the obvious, impressive side. I’m giving it 3 stars, but I’ll give Christian 4 stars. It’s not my favorite I’ve heard from him. I like him on this record called Watts, by Jeff Watts. I wouldn’t have thought it was Ulysses. I play a lot with him, and something about that didn’t work for me. I love them. Sorry, guys.

10. Barry Guy-Agustí Fernández, “Annalisa” (Some Other Place, Maya, 2009) (Guy, bass, composer; Fernández, piano)

That sounds like that pianist, Pilc, and his bass player, the way they play together. But they usually don’t play this out. It reminds me of them, but more free. When they went into that melody together, it was so accurate. It’s interesting to hear cats play this out, and then play that accurate in the middle of it. It makes me think of some younger musicians, recorded in the last ten years or something. The bass player is strangely accurate in his playing. I was trying to think who can play major VII chords on the bass like that. That’s something Oscar Pettiford used to do, though obviously this is a whole nother thing. But it’s interesting that he played that same exact thing on the bass on “Stardust” at one point, but there’s such a different context, and this sounds completely different. It’s amazing how the same combination of notes can sound so different with a different recording and a different context and different rhythm. The concept of playing a three-note chord on the bass can be hard to make sound. You have to be at the right time, the right place. I’m not sure who that was. They’re playing real wild and free. The thing about playing that way is, the principles of art still apply. You still have to listen. You still have to hear what’s going on. You don’t have to play constant. You can leave space. It’s got to breathe. I think they had their moments there. There was something oddly familiar about the bass player to me. But I don’t want to be guessing. I don’t know who they were, this duet. What threw me was the way, when they came together and played the composed section, it was so accurate. That’s what threw me off. It caught my ear. If you’re playing that free that way all the time, you’re not playing a lot of composed sections. [It’s a composition, though.] Even so, just the fact that that section was so accurate. 3½ stars. [AFTER] I don’t know Barry Guy. I can’t tell from that whether they can swing or no.

11. The Cookers, “Dance of the Invisible Nymph” (Time and Time Again, Motéma, 2014) (Cecil McBee, bass, composer; David Weiss, trumpet, arranger; Eddie Henderson, trumpet; Donald Harrison, alto saxophone; Billy Harper, tenor saxophone; George Cables, piano; Billy Hart, drums)

that’s the intro, but when the melody came in, I was not imagining it having that kind of sound at all. The horns come in almost with a Blue Note kind of vibe in that groove. I was not expecting that. Let’s see what reveals itself. Sometimes I think it’s turning into an art how to not play the jazz groove any more. There are so many different ways of not just swinging. Sometimes those ways work and sometimes they don’t. But it’s amazing how often we don’t hear the swing groove any more in jazz music. Interesting sound on the trumpet. In 8 measures I’ve heard influences of Freddie, of Wynton, of Kenny Wheeler. Is that Ambrose Akinmusire? I don’t really know Ambrose’s playing that much, but I know he has the wide influences, so I thought I was hearing that in his playing. That cat clearly is a young cat who has checked out a lot of different styles. Well, I shouldn’t say ‘clearly.’ That’s my thought on that short solo. Maybe it’s David Douglas. When I first met David Douglas, he was into Woody Shaw. It reminded me of that type of musician. But some things are hard to tell, because they’re soloing over a groove, so there’s no conversational element to the solos. They’re just soloing over something. The way they’re playing doesn’t require listening in any kind of conversational way. They can just play over. But I’m all for a good groove. That’s a nice melody on top. But more often than not, the lack of listening is what makes very good individual musicians not have a sound together. You don’t listen, it makes it impossible for the magic to occur as a group. I wish there was more to this than just a string of soloists over a groove. I think there could be more connection between the melody part and the rhythm section. I’m hearing more just they’re playing on top of it. I don’t remember the melody; I’m trying to remember it. Here it comes. I like this melody, but I didn’t hear that sound at all in the solos, which makes me question why have this melody, or why have the solos? Is it just a device to improvise on? I like the melody as always present. You hear that in Monk’s music. The melody is always present, so that there are interactions with each other and with the melody. At the same time, I write a lot of music where the melody just sets up another section for soloing, so I understand it. Sometimes I like on these types of compositions, where you have a melody, then you play on something, not to go back to the melody, to go somewhere else, to move forward. But this is nice. I like the blend of the horn players; I like the balance, the blend they have together. I find the band as an ensemble more interesting during the melody section than I did during the solo sections. There was something that could have been more in there for me. The melody was interesting. The rhythm section, the parts were happening, but then in the solo sections they just went to a groove. Again, I didn’t hear a reason for it, a connection between the two. It’s like they were too separate for me. But well-played. But like I said, the melody was more interesting to me than the solos, not the individual, but the way the ensemble moved I found more interesting on the melody. 3½ stars. [AFTER] Eddie Henderson? That’s funny. That explains when I said the sound they have together… That comes from the music they play…being part of it, that thing. When I said that “young trumpeter” and looked at you, I knew I was wrong. I love Eddie. He’s one of those musicians who it’s very special to play with him. He makes it exciting. Eddie sounded different to me on that, the way he used the upper register.

12. Scott Colley, “Speculation” (Empire, Camjazz, 2010) (Colley, bass, composer; Brian Blade, drums; Craig Taborn, piano)

That reminds me of Dave Holland there. Again, these solo bass things, everyone uses the same devices on the instrument. So it’s hard to tell. It’s almost like the bass is amplified on this, even though it’s just solo bass. He can play fast and clean. It’s a good tone, but it’s the same old tone. It’s like a common sound done well by someone who plays the instrument very well, clearly. It’s like the era of the original sound on the bass… You hear Wilbur Ware, you hear one note, it’s clearly Wilbur Ware. That type of sound, where it’s so different from player to player, has gotten lost, so the sounds blur together now. It’s like different versions of the same tone. It used to be… Not that things need to stay the same. I’m not saying this in the spirit of it should be how it was back in the day or anything like that. I’m all for art moving. But it used to be every bass player in jazz had their own way of playing quarter notes. This is cool, but again, it could be anyone. It could be great players I love. It could be players I’ve never heard of. It could be players I dislike. The way they’re playing… I’m not sure if I like it. I’m going to keep listening. I’m listening for the clarity. All the sounds and notes are for a reason. The drummer is interesting. It sounds like he likes Jack DeJohnette. It’s got a delicate quality that I like. It’s not being forced, and it sounds sincere. I’m not hearing a whole lot of melody, though, again. It just seems it’s in a place. Perhaps it’s a Dave Holland-influenced player. I don’t know. Scott Colley? I’m not sure. It could be a lot of people. All right, it is Scott! I got one. He always struck me as Dave Holland-influenced with Charlie Haden in there. That’s an interesting combination, a guy who is influenced by Charlie and Dave Holland, because they played with a lot of the same people but play completely different, almost like opposites in many ways. Charlie is a master of one note; Dave Holland can play things on the bass that… He doesn’t play like Christian, but he’s like Christian in the sense that he owns what he does. He does things that are amazing and difficult. So the combination of an influence of Dave Holland and Charlie Haden… I’ve known Scott for a long time. He plays with a lot of clarity, and it’s clear, but the kind of sound…it’s like a good version of that sound. I’m not sure how to describe HIS sound. An example of someone who has an extreme sound. I mentioned Wilbur Ware. Charlie Haden is like that. If you think of Charlie Haden, you can think of his sound with one note. To me, that’s something that I love in great musicians. But not everyone cares about that. There are so many different things you can think about or try to achieve. Scott Colley plays the bass really well, and he’s clear in his ideas, so it comes down to what he wants to do. But I prefer a more clear personality in the sound. But that’s me. Again, not negative. He’s had a lot of experience and has played with a lot of players, and clearly knows music—and he’s a really nice dude, too.

13. Gerry Gibbs Thrasher Dream Trio, “A Feeling” (Kenny Barron, Gerry Gibbs, Ron Carter, 2013, Whaling City Sound) (Ron Carter, bass, composer; Kenny Barron, piano; Gibbs, drums)

Another Ron Carter influenced bass player, but he plays something that Ron never would have played. I was hoping you were going to play me Ron so I could talk about Ron, but it’s all right. I’m trying to figure out the drummer. Interesting ride cymbal sound. That sounds like Ron there, but it’s not, because he wouldn’t have played that up-high note…I don’t think. A lot of that stuff is right out of the Ron Carter Handbook, but Ron wouldn’t have a drummer play that much over him and that loud unless it was mixed that way afterwards. There’s something in that ride cymbal I like. Strangely recorded. Again, I don’t feel the tom-toms sounding like that. This is a trick, because this is going to be real obvious when I know who it is afterwards. So much of this reminds me of Ron Carter. Even the harmonic movement on this reminds me of him. But something about it tells me about him. I’m not sure who the piano player is. I liked it. There was so much going on. So much drums, so much tom-toms covering everything up. They could be so many people; I’m not sure who it is. The bass player threw me because he was playing so much of Ron’s stuff, but he played one high notes, went to it in a way that I can’t imagine Ron doing, but it doesn’t mean he wouldn’t. Plus the way it was mixed. But then again… Ah! Aha! Was that Gerry Gibbs? [It was.] It was the Thrasher Trio. That’s what threw me. It was Kenny Barron. It’s Ron’s tune? That makes sense. It sounded like Ron’s tune. But the way it recorded, Ron usually is more present in the mix, especially with this kind of sound. When Ron is playing with his amplified sound, his modern sound… I prefer Ron’s sound when he played acoustic. One of the most beautiful bass sounds in the history of jazz. He created a new sound with the pickup. The new sound is a cushion that the drums would reside under. So the bass moves like an escalator, and the drums are on it, in a sense. This was reversed, so it took away some of the sound. I had more issue with the recording, the mix of it, than the playing. It was Ron Carter walking, so 4 stars.

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Filed under Bass, Ben Wolfe, Blindfold Test, Wynton Marsalis

A Group of Pieces on Robert Glasper: A Jazziz Feature From 2013; a Jazz.Com Interview from 2009; A Downbeat Blindfold Test, circa 2008; A Short Downbeat Piece in 2005; and the Liner Note for His First Record in 2002

 

Robert Glaser Jazziz Feature, Nov. 2013

In late September, Robert Glasper, his appetite restored after coming home from China the week before with stomach flu, tucked into a plate of South African-style wings at Madiba, a restaurant in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Fort Greene.

“I met T-Pain last week at a party,” Glasper remarked offhandedly after making inroads into his plate. He excused himself to look at drawings of angry monsters by his 4-year-old son, Riley, sitting beside him. “You draw so good, Boogie!” Glasper said, punctuating his praise with a kiss and fist bump. Resuming, he pinpointed his encounter with the twice-Grammy-awarded rapper in Shanghai, where — after an eight-day run in Japan that concluded at the Tokyo Blue Note — the Robert Glasper Experiment had performed on a program with singer-emcee Mos Def, for whom, during the past decade, Glasper has frequently served as music director.

“Mos Def told him, ‘I’m about to do an album with my man, Robert; it has a lot of hip-hop and jazz influence,’” Glasper said. “T-Pain was like, ‘I would love to be part of that. Please take me out of this R&B-hip-hop game.’”

Whether that proposed collaboration will happen is unclear. But if it does, T-Pain will join a cohort of high-profile performers looking for a piece of the sui generis sound that the Experiment revealed on Black Radio, which, upon its February 2012 release, debuted at No. 4 on Billboard’s “Hip-Hop and R&B” chart, No. 1 on its “Jazz” chart and No. 10 on its “Overall Albums” chart. The disc went on to earn a 2013 Grammy for Best R&B album, and has sold, to date, 200,000 units. As the flow unfolds over the course of a leisurely hour, ranging from hip-hop to pop to R&B to straight-up soul, the Experiment — pianist and keyboarist Glasper; singer (through a vocoder) and alto saxophonist Casey Benjamin, electric bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Chris Dave — complements hit-makers Erykah Badu, Mint Condition vocalist Stokley Williams, Lupe Fiasco and Musiq Soulchild, along with “underground soul heroes” (Glasper’s phrase) like Mos Def, Ledesi, Lalah Hathaway, Meshell Ndegeocello and Bilal Oliver. RGE’s idiomatic backgrounds and creative interjections impart the feeling of a cohesive body of work rather than a cobbled-together collection of tracks.

“I expected Black Radio to be an underground sensation, without getting much mainstream attention,” Glasper said. “But from the beginning, it did things I wasn’t expecting. We self-promoted big-time, doing Twitter and Facebook while we were making it, and people got excited. I think it’s another cycle for R&B, the epitome of crossing over hip-hop and jazz. Since you can only pick one slot for the Grammy, I put everything in R&B; I felt the R&B community understood it better than a lot of the jazz people.

“Remember when the neo-soul movement got big around ’99 or 2000, when D’Angelo’s Voodoo and Common’s Like Water for Chocolate and Bilal came out, and everybody was like, ‘Whoa, what’s happening?’ This is like a second coming of that wave — maybe a little different. That wave signified an opening to do music that didn’t sound factory-made or cookie-cutterish. In that era, being a real musician was cool and good, and you got a lot of work. The music felt good, and you could talk about more than one or two subjects. Since we won the Grammy, I think it’s opened the doors for many artists.”

Riley’s stomach hurt, and Glasper persuaded him to rest his head on Papa’s shoulder. As he dozed, Glasper discussed the recently released Black Radio 2 (Blue Note), whose participants include Brandy, Anthony Hamilton, Norah Jones, Jill Scott, Faith Evans, Common and Snoop Dogg. “My goal was to not make the same album twice, especially when everyone was wondering how I’d beat the first Black Radio,” he said. “So I decided to do just an R&B-soul album, less jazz-infused, not as loose. On the first record, I didn’t think at all. We just played and did it, and it became what it was. Here I did more thinking and processing and figuring things out.”

Although the feel on Black Radio 2 is less freewheeling, the playing is vivid and alive. Glasper wrote songs for each vocalist, sometimes collaborating with professional songwriters, sometimes eliciting lyrics from the singers. “I wanted either to put them in a place they’ve never been, or bring them back to their early stuff that everyone loves,” he said. The latter imperative was operative on the insouciant “Calls,” on which Glasper created for Jill Scott — whose forthcoming album he produced — “her sound when she first came out.” As examples of the former, the leader offers “Let It Ride,” on which label mate Norah Jones renders the lyric with an intense, growly purr before murmuring wordlessly over Glasper’s whirling piano figures, and “What Are We Doing,” which frames Brandy with stripped-down Rhodes-bass-drums instrumentation that Glasper describes as “a progressive, D’Angelo Voodoo vibe.”

Closer to the informality of Black Radio is “I Stand Alone,” which begins with original verses by Common — a Glasper employer and collaborator since the late ’90s — and ends with a paean to individualism delivered by sociologist Michael Eric Dyson. A few hours before recording that track, a guest-free RGE cut a version of Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day,” vocoder-crooned by Benjamin. A friend of Withers who was present connected the songwriter and Glasper on his cell phone for a brief conversation.

“When Common arrived, we played him ‘I Stand Alone,’” Glasper recalled. “He walked around, rhyming from scratch, but midway through the second verse he got writer’s block. We were chillin’ in the kitchen, and Bill Withers walked in. He talked to us for about three hours. We recorded everything. Common used some of his lines to finish his rhyme.”

At this point, Riley declared he was feeling better. “I’m going to draw,” he said, asking for a piece of paper. “Now we’re talking,” Glasper answered, delivering another kiss and fist bump before offering a back story for “Persevere,” with Snoop Dogg, Lupe Fiasco and Luke James. His friend Terrace Martin, the rapper-producer, “called to say Snoop loved Black Radio and wanted to talk to me,” Glasper said. “When I went to L.A., Terrace took me to a rehearsal, and Snoop and I talked about jazz for an hour. So I hit him up to be on Black Radio 2.

“Terrace got Snoop involved in a record Quincy Jones is doing with Clark Terry. They got in a private jet and went to Clark’s house in Arkansas. They hook up this equipment by Clark’s bedside, and Clark and Snoop Dogg are scatting, trading on the blues. I’ve seen the footage with my own eyes.”

[BREAK]

Toward the end of the Experiment’s set at the Detroit Jazz Festival on Labor Day, Wallace Roney — who had hired Glasper for a 2005 tour, soon after he’d signed with Blue Note — sat in on “All Matter,” a Bilal Oliver song that, says Glasper, “is just F-minor; you don’t have to know to play it.” Propelled by Derrick Hodge’s surging bass lines and Mark Colenburg’s inflamed refractions of Tony Williams, Roney, standing stage right, assumed an implacably take-no-prisoners persona, posing a series of “let’s see what you’ve got” challenges to Benjamin, who rose to the occasion, delivering his responses with a dark, glowering tone that displayed his assimilation of alto saxophone vocabulary from Charlie Parker to Kenny Garrett.

Two months before, at a midnight concert before a full house of cheering, arm-waving 20-somethings at Perugia’s Morlacchi Theater, Glasper drew upon his own considerable command of modern jazz piano language on an extended preface to Benjamin’s vocodered reading of Radiohead’s “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box.” After a Coltrane-ish alto solo, on which Benjamin modified the pitch with foot pedals, Hodge segued to a Spanish-tinged statement on “No Church In the Wild,” the Kanye West-Jay Z hit. While delivering the lyric of Sade’s “Cherish the Day,” Benjamin manipulated his voice with sound effects triggered in real-time on a keyboard synth, then counterstated with an intense saxophone declamation on which he built tension with fresh, electronically modified shapes and swoops. Colenburg embellished and subdivided the pulse like a human robot, coordinating into the grooves slaps and claps generated by his drum pad on covers of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Get Lucky” and “Time After Time.”

Throughout both concerts — and a dozen-plus performances posted on YouTube — the Experiment’s telepathic ability to reach emotional agreement was palpable. One factor influencing their mutual intuition is long acquaintance (Glasper, Benjamin and Colenburg have played together since they attended Manhattan’s New School during the late ’90s, while Hodge joined a year after the Experiment’s formative sessions at the Knitting Factory in 2005). The band has also spent a lot of time on the road together — eight months in 2013 — since Black Radio’s release. Furthermore, everyone has experience performing and conducting in the upper echelons of pop and hardcore jazz. Glasper, Hodge and Colenburg all cut their teeth as church musicians, learning to follow the arc of a sermon, to play for different guests, to illuminate different stages of the service and to address the unpredictable elements that differentiate one Sunday from the next.

“Coming up in church, you learn by ear,” Colenburg says. “There are no boundaries, no formulas telling you something has to be done a certain way. That helps with creativity. But knowing jazz means that you learn your instrument more thoroughly than in any other genre, so you understand how to have a voice in different genres.”

“Jazz is the spine of what we do,” says Benjamin, a native of Jamaica, Queens, whose c.v. includes work with Stefon Harris and Buster Williams. “Even on the biggest pop stage, we try to find some way of sticking in the jazz message.” As vocal influences, Benjamin cites Betty Carter for her “patience” on a ballad, Ron Isley for his phrasing and Withers for “his presentation, where it seems he’s just talking to you with the melody.” He credits Herbie Hancock’s phrasing and timbre on the 1978 LP Sunlight as the primary inspiration for his vocoder concept and Pat Metheny’s guitar-synth-playing on “Are You Going To Go with Me” for kindling the notion to electronically process his saxophone.

“You’d think Casey is the leader, because he’s singing the songs,” Glasper says. “I’ve never felt comfortable playing in the middle, unless it’s late-night TV, when the world has to know who I am pretty fast. Other than the songs we’re playing, everything is literally made up on the spot, but we come together so quickly that it seems things are arranged. There are no real roles. Everyone has the baton and can make something shift.

“Each of these cats can out-chop most people on their instrument, but they don’t let that override what needs to happen at a given time. I respect that so much. It’s harder to express yourself fully but honestly, and not feel you have to do certain things to please. They’re my favorite musicians in the world.”

However collective RGE’s orientation is when performing, the members acknowledge that Glasper sets the tone. “Black Radio was designed to mimic how the Experiment works,” Hodge says. “It’s a testament to Rob for being confident enough not to clench up in the studio. We came in laughing, cracking jokes, and then, ‘Oh, shoot, we’ve got to record something.’ Then we’d record it and before you know it, the album is done.”

“This baby was built because of my 11-12 years in the game,” Glasper says flatly. “Blue Note signed me. Also, I’ve taken my falls. Sometimes your band members make more than you, because you have to make things happen for your career. You have to be seen at a certain festival, no matter what it pays. I used to pay for the hotels and travel, and I wouldn’t make money, but the guys had to be paid. If you don’t have my liability, if you’re not losing what I would lose, then you can’t gain what I gain.

Black Radio 2 is for me to have longevity in this mainstream R&B game,” he continues. “I want to establish myself, like George Duke and Quincy Jones. I’m a jazz cat at heart, but I want an R&B bank account. I have a son. Living in Brooklyn ain’t cheap. I honestly don’t see myself doing the same jazz festival 50 times, and having to do them to make money to keep afloat.”

Financial considerations aside, Glasper has no intention of eliminating hardcore jazz expression from his musical production. “I love playing acoustic jazz, and I think my jazz lovers are missing it, even though I’ve only been gone for one album,” he says, referring to the Blue Note trio albums — Canvas, In My Element and the first half of Double Booked — that established his bona fides. “When I go back to jazz, I’ll do trio for sure, maybe live. I need to do a Village Vanguard album.”

Another possibility is a Black Radio gospel project. “It would bring everything back to the beginning,” Glasper says. “Most of the people I work with grew up in church, so there could also be people from the secular world — R&B or even jazz — as well as gospel.”

He recalls an end-of-April conversation with Herbie Hancock and the late George Duke at the United Nations International Jazz Day festivities in Turkey. “I asked Herbie’s advice, and he said, ‘Don’t stop anything you do. Do them all at the same time.’ I like where I am, because I feel I’m serving a bigger purpose than I could with just straight-up jazz stuff. Jazz trio is my favorite group to play in, but I don’t feel like I’m changing anything — though my version brings in a newer audience. But in the larger scheme, I can only go so far with it. To be able to live in both worlds, to understand both worlds, to be sought after in both worlds — that’s my whole thing. That I love.”

[–30–]

****************

Robert Glasper (Aug. 28, 2009) — http://www.jazz.com:

“I’m dramatic,” Robert Glasper told me in 2005 for a Downbeat story. “I feel like an actor and a painter—all the arts in one. When I play, I won’t sacrifice the vibe for some chops.”

On his 2009 release, Double Booked [Blue Note], Glasper actualizes this aspiration more completely than on any of his previous recordings. He devotes the first half to his soulful, expansive, highly individualized conception of the acoustic piano trio, drawing harmonic references from a timeline spanning Bud Powell to Mulgrew Miller. His lines flow organically through a succession of odd-metered and swing grooves and unfailingly melodic beats. He stretches out, but he’s also not afraid to milk his melodies and develop them slowly, using techniques of tension and release more commonly heard in functional situations than art music contexts. For part two, Glasper transitions to a plugged-in mise en scene, deploying spoken word and rhymes from such luminaries as Mos Def and Bilal. The latter both employ the Houston native on both recorded and performance projects, as have the likes of Q-Tip (The Renaissance), Kanye West (Late Registration), MeShell Ndegeocello (The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams), Erykah Badu, J Dilla, Jay-Z, Talib Kweli, Common, and, most recently, Maxwell, who kept Glasper on the road for consequential chunks of 2009.

Out of Houston, Texas, where he attended Houston’s High School of Performing and Visual Arts, Glasper developed his ability to spin tales in music from emulation of his mother, the late Kim Yvette Glasper, a professional jazz, blues and church singer, and from early experience playing the service in three different churches, one Baptist, one Seventh Day Adventist, and one Catholic.

“The music in the church is built on feeling, period,” he told me. “It’s not ‘Giant Steps.’ People give praise or cry, and you have to control all those things. You put a little something behind the pastor. Depending on the type of song, church music has jazz elements and pop elements, too. Hip-Hop is natural for me, because church music has a lot of the same grooves. I just fall in—take from here, take from there, but don’t take too much from one thing.”

In late August, I caught up with Glasper, now married and a father, at the offices of EMI-Blue Note for a conversation.

Describe your last few months of work. How much has it been divided between the acoustic trio, being on the road with Maxwell and your other sideman things, and to the Experimental Project? To what degree they’re separate and to what degree related would be a good way to launch the conversation.

Actually, this year I haven’t been doing much, because I just had a baby, January 22nd, and I pretty much stayed home until April to be with the baby and my lady. I did a few trio gigs at the end of March, and then I went to Africa and did the Capetown Jazz Festival with the Experiment. So we did one night with the Experiment there, and the very next night we did the Experiment with Mos’ Def. Then right from there, which is funny, I flew home for one day, on my birthday, April 6th. The plane was delayed for six hours. So I got to stay home literally, like, 8 hours, got on the plane, flew to Japan to do the Cotton Club with the Trio for a week. Did the Cotton Club with the Trio for a week. Right from Japan, I flew straight to Oakland to do a week with Mos’ Def with my Experiment band, at both of the Yoshi’s—went back and forth from the San Francisco Yoshi’s to the Oakland Yoshi’s. We did that for a week. Then I came home, and basically started the Maxwell rehearsals. Then I went on tour with Maxwell for two months. Got back maybe a week-and-a-half ago. Now I’m starting back out with Max next week, and we’re going to be gone until the middle of November. Then I go out with my trio when I get back, to do a few dates in Europe. Then I go to Japan with the Experiment in December, with Bilal as my special guest. Now we’re actually booking more dates around that time. I’m going to be home for like two months. So we’re trying to do it like that.

But you’re not double-booked for any of those.

I’m not double-booked for any of those, no-no-no. But day to day, I’m doing one or the other.

So it’s a pretty even split.

It’s a pretty even split. Right now, it’s working out, and I can really say I’m working. That’s a good thing.

Double Booked has some structural similarities to the other records. However, where the other records presented one sound, this one presents two. That said, particularly on your Blue Note records, you use the producer’s strategy of splitting the record in half. In My Element began with originals, and then the flavor changed.

Exactly.

Can you speak to how your thinking about making recordings has evolved since your first one, Mood [Fresh Sound], which I wrote the liner notes for. On that one, you said you were trying to do in with an open attitude, like it was a gig. Three years later, when I spoke with you for a Downbeat when you released Canvas, you said the opposite.

For most of Mood, it was just trio, and it was on a small label, so I wasn’t shaking or scared, really. I was, “Ok, I’ll do a record on Fresh Sounds. No one’s going to hear it.” [LAUGHS] For me, it was “everybody does a record for Fresh Sounds; whatever.” So there was no pressure. So I tried to approach it like a gig. But it didn’t really come off the way I wanted to, because we recorded at 10 in the morning—you don’t do gigs at 10 in the morning! Canvas was my first Blue Note…

But it obviously got some attention.

Yes, it definitely got more attention than I was expecting, so that was great as well. When I did Canvas, though, obviously that’s another level. It’s Blue Note now. It’s going to be a debut thing. So I wasn’t so comfortable. I didn’t really approach this one as a gig. This was more like, “let me think this out, because the world is going to hear this.” I had Mark Turner on that record, had Bilal on that record. It was more a compositional record, I think, for me. It wasn’t so much about the trio. It was more about what my sound is and the vibe of my compositions.

For In My Element, I was way more comfortable. It was just about the trio. We had just got off tour, so we knew the songs. I’m not one of those artists that spring up new songs on the day of the hit. I like to know what we’re going to do as far as the songs we’re going to play. I’m not really about, “Ok, I’m going to take two choruses here, and you do this.” I don’t like to structure it, because I do want it to have the feeling and vibe of a live gig. I’d like to keep that as much as possible.

For this record, I started recording a little bit later, so I could have the vibe of, “ok, I’m playing at night now.” I had a few drinks at the studio. I wanted to keep it loose and have the vibe correct. It’s really cold in the studio, and the walls are white, and you have the headphones on—it can really kill the vibe. So if you don’t feel jazz, it’s hard to play comfortable. So I tried to keep that feeling as much as possible. For In My Element, we’d been on tour with it, so it was comfortable—almost every song except for one or two, were first takes, and we only did one take, of “In My Element.” Same thing with Double Booked. Every song on the trio side were first takes and only takes, except I did one extra take on “59 South,” just to do it, because it was the last song we recorded. Incidentally, we never played that one before. That was really new, and I brought it to the studio, and we did it the first time, and it worked out—then I did a second take.

For the Experiment side of Double Booked, same thing. We recorded them in different places, different times. But my Experiment Band is different, too. I love them because we’ve only had one real rehearsal. Everything else we kind of vibe on stage and come up with. Even when we play songs, we might learn a song, say, at a soundcheck, or say, “Hey, learn this song separately, and let’s come together and see what happens.” I love that surprise aspect of it, the way it sounds organic when we do it like that. That’s what happened in the studio. Every song was a first take. We recorded at night, once again had some drinks there, chilled out and made it really loose. So every song on the Experiment side was a first and only take, except two or three takes of the Bilal song, “All Matter,” because that was our first time ever playing the song.

My main thing is trying to translate to CD the live, organic, comfortable performance you would see if you went to the Village Vanguard or another club. That’s hard to do, but I try to get as close to it as possible.

Is there a different intention with the Experiment than the acoustic trio?

Not really different intentions. What makes my trio different, I think, is that we tap into the hip-hop side, and most piano trios don’t do that, and do it back and forth. But with the Experiment, it’s, “Ok, let’s go all the way in and go for it.” It’s not even like Experiment is a hip-hop band. If you listen to the record, all of the songs aren’t hip-hop. It’s not like that at all. We’re a worldly music thing, I guess you could say, in a way. It’s more a hiphop-fusion-jazz-soul vibe, if you will.

Not everything you do as a sideman is hiphop either. Maxwell isn’t hiphop.

Exactly. It’s a mixture. When people refer to Experiment, they say hiphop, but for the most part it’s a different side of me that I can’t really portray in a trio setting. I get to play as a sideman when I play with the Experiment. I get to comp behind Casey Benjamin, and come from a whole different angle musically. I bring in the Rhodes and electric bass, and sonically it’s a different sound, too. So it’s a band that can take you more places than an acoustic piano trio can take you. You can only go so far with acoustic piano and acoustic bass.

The transitions are delineated by a pair of phone messages. This isn’t the first time you’ve used your answering machine as part of the record—you included a message from Dilla on In My Element. At the beginning of the CD is a message from Terence Blanchard—“Are you double booked? Give me a call.” Halfway through, there’s a different sort of message from Quest Love. In any event, were you double booked?

[LAUGHS] That’s the story of the record. I’ve actually been double-booked before. Not with Terence in that instance. But I wanted to find a way to make this album make sense, because when you’re listening it could well seem very random. “Huh? Where did that come from?” I wanted to make a story line. Most jazz records don’t go that deep into their record to do that. That’s more of a hiphop thing, a pop thing, to have interludes and storylines and messages and things. It’s interesting, and I think jazz needs to be more interesting.

We tend to be snobs at times. The whole genre tends toward musical snobbery, in a way. You go to a jazz concert, it could be like going to a golf tournament or something. SHHH. They have that whole vibe. I’m of this generation, and we do things like that. We make the music fun. I try to make it more than just your average record. So I try to throw in those little musical snacks, interludes, and phone messages from people in my other worlds, and make it somewhat different than the normal jazz record—here it is, here’s the tunes.

Are you thinking about it before, or is it all post-production?

For this record, definitely before. I had to figure out the way I wanted to make the record make sense and make a story out of it. Like I say, I didn’t want it to be random.

There are a number of components to your style, which you’ve spoken of. There’s hiphop and jazz. There’s certainly gospel. There’s a blues feeling, too. You also have a pretty distinctive time feel, as has often been noted. I’d like to talk about these elements discretely, perhaps beginning with gospel—and blues as well. As you described to me, early on you played some drums in church, and your mother, who was a singer, brought you with her to clubs, because she wouldn’t entrust you to baby-sitters.

Right.

You said: “I have a certain feel, a certain way of thinking and imagining and hearing harmony, and it all descends from coming up in and playing music in the church.”

I guess that’s where I developed my sound. Growing up in church gave me my way of hearing harmony; I would take church and gospel harmonies and mix them with the jazz harmonies I know. That’s not too normal in jazz. Pretty much, the jazz realm, especially when you look at standards and so on, is very II-V-I oriented in the chord changes and AABA in the form. The form and the chord changes tend to repeat a lot—though of course, nowadays, people are branching out and doing all kinds of things. I would write gospel tunes all the time, and people would say about my gospel tunes, “They sound a little jazzy.” But then, when I played jazz, they say, “I hear gospel.” I try not to ignore any part of my background or what I hear. I become a vessel for the music that I hear, and just let it come out how it comes out.

Your sound and harmonic imagination come through pretty fully-formed on <i>Mood</i>, the first record. I think the evolution has come in other way—narrative focus, broader frames of reference, more clarity. But there’s a pretty recognizable line from when you were 21-22. Would you agree with that?

Yeah, I would. I’m glad of that. I didn’t think so at the time, I didn’t know at the time, until I did the record and started hearing that. “Wait. Maybe I do have a certain sound.” That’s the greatest compliment anybody can tell someone—“You have your own sound.” It’s different than, “You’re a good jazz musician” or “boy, you can really play.” There’s a million people who can really play, but that don’t have a sound. It’s totally different. I know people who aren’t really great players, but they have a sound, and they can write, and they also have a sound compositionally. I’ll take that over just being a good player, because those come a dime a dozen.

Another component of gospel is not the sound that imprinted itself on your consciousness, but that you started working as a professional musician at a very early age in the church.

Exactly. Especially for African Americans, too. That’s the only place where at 8 years old you can get a paycheck playing music. People don’t come up with money, so if you’re a musician, it’s a way you can help out with the family. I know people literally 7 years old that play drums in church who make a check. There’s no other way you can do that musically at 7 right around the corner from your house.

No more Jackson 5.

No more Jackson 5, that kind of stuff. Church is very accessible for African-American people to come up and play in. Then from church, that’s when you develop being spiritual in music, being able to touch someone with a song. When you play in church, the audience, the congregation, the choir, are all reacting to you as well. Everything you play, the singers are reacting to you, the audience is reacting to that, and it’s all very spiritual. I think that’s another part of music that I take from church as well—not playing for the sake of playing but for the spiritual aspect, the emotion, the realness of it, the organic honesty of the whole thing.

By the age of 16, you were orchestrating 10,000 congregants in a service at the Brentwood Church in Houston, where Joe Samuel Ratliff was the pastor. That’s quite a responsibility. And not just there, but at the Catholic church nearby, and another service, too…

Then I played another service on Saturdays with my mom at a Seventh Day Adventist church. So I was rolling in the dough in high school!

Talk about your learning curve. How quickly did you develop facility at the piano? And what do you think allowed you to have that kind of perspective and detachment at that age?

I don’t know. Honestly, I think I was born with that thing. I just discovered it late. Then I think I always had the talent to play the piano, but kind of refused it—I kind of tapped in and just left it alone. I thought I was going to be a track star, but it didn’t work out for me. I ran the mile. I was pretty fast. Up until four years ago, the record for my elementary school for the mile run was still up. No one had beat it. I don’t even know if it’s been beaten yet. But four years ago, my old coach found me, emailed me, “good to hear what you’ve been doing; by the way, your record for the mile run has still not been beaten.” Oh yeah! Look out. Bolt, look out!

I think Bolt is safe for a while.

He’s amazing. Bolt is a very inspirational cat to me right now. But I think I got the musical gene from my mom. Well, my whole family is pretty musical. My grand-dad’s a singer, my aunt is a singer. So when you go to our family reunion, it’s like a musical. Everybody’s singing and doing things. So just my sensibility to music, and even to my facility on the piano… I can’t explain it, because I never had formal lessons. I’ve just been able to play. That came natural. Along the way, I learned certain things, definitely, but it all pretty much came natural. And then, holding down a church service by yourself on a piano does require some facility as well. Certain things you’ve just got to be able to do. That helped as well.

You couldn’t have been entirely self-taught, though, because you did go to Houston High School of Performing Arts, a magnet school, where there must have been some formal training.

Yes. But there wasn’t piano training there. All the school had there was a jazz combo and a jazz band. Jazz big band and jazz combo. Basically, they’d give you charts, and you’d just learn tunes and stuff like that. We had a harmony class, so you would learn things about harmony, ear training, and so on, that, but never an actual piano teacher who would sit down with you at the piano and show you things. To this day, I’ve still never had a real piano teacher. I just picked up things here and there where I could, off the streets. A lot of comrade church musicians, we would sit down and shed together. I got a lot from Alan Mosley, a piano player in Houston who played with my mom all the time. He’s the reason why I even play jazz. He’d come over to the house and rehearse with my mom, and I’d sit there by the piano the whole rehearsal and watch him play, and afterwards he’d show me things. I think the first jazz tune I learned to play was “Spiderman,” the actual cartoon Spiderman—he taught me a jazz way to do it, like a minor blues. Then he showed me how to play “Cherokee,” how to play “Giant Steps,” things of that nature. So he’d be it as far as a jazz teacher or piano teacher goes.

A very pragmatic education. Put your fingers here, you get this sound.

Yes.

I’d like to talk about pianistic influences. You have a Herbie Hancock tune on every one of your records. I know you’ve said that this is by accident, but it can’t really be one.

The first two albums it was completely, “Dang. Really? I did it again.” Kind of accidental, not really thinking about it, just kind of happened. Then In My Element, I actually further Radioheadalized “Maiden Voyage,” which I’d done on Mood, but hid the Radiohead more, so it wasn’t so obvious. But there I wanted to make it obvious, so I redid it for that purpose. Then on Double Booked, we did “Butterfly.” Now a part of my repertoire is Herbie songs. We feel comfortable playing them, and he’s an amazing composer.

Actually, I thought for the life of me that “Silly Rabbit” was referencing “Jackrabbit” from Inventions and Dimensions.

Not one bit. But it’s certainly in that vibe. Herbie’s impact on me is his ability to go between any genre of music and fit right in. Herbie could easily go from a Bonnie Raitt gig to a Stevie Wonder gig to a Miles Davis gig to a Mos’ Def gig, to any gig he wants to go to, and just slip right in, and sound amazing, and still sound like Herbie—but fit what’s happening. He’s like water. He fits the shape of whatever is needed without losing his self, his consistency, his own thing. Now, he’s one of my favorite acoustic piano players, but he’s also my favorite on Rhodes. No one gets a sound out of the Rhodes like Herbie. It’s amazing. What’s he’s done in terms of branching off from his acoustic jazz career, and doing the Headhunters and the Mwandishi stuff, and getting into the hiphop side, and getting the recognition he’s got from the world. Everyone knows “Rockit.” It’s hard for a jazz person to get that recognition. Most people know “Watermelon Man,” believe it or not. Stuff like that. And he hasn’t lost any respect from anyone by any means. He’s still playing to this day. I respect him on the piano, and also off the piano, just business-wise and his imagination. Then there’s how open he is to this day. He’s not a musical snob. Not one bit. It maybe an “us Aries” thing. He’s very open, and he sounds open. When he’s playing, he sounds like he’s having fun, and I love that, too. Some people take what they do way too seriously, so it comes across. But you can hear he’s having fun, reaching for things. I love his spirit as well.

7-8 years ago, you mentioned Keith Jarrett less as a stylistic influence than as a template for your trio playing. Does that still hold true?

Yes, that totally still holds true. With Keith, it’s so organic, and he translates that very well from live to record. Everybody in the trio has a voice, and it makes the music more interesting. When you go to Keith’s concert, you don’t know where everything is going to come from. You can tell everybody has a place, and also trades places.

Monk. You do “Think of One” on this. I like the version, because you played the tune idiomatically but also sounded like yourself. When did you get involved in Monk’s music? In high school or later?

No, that came after. Even when I first got to college, I wasn’t a big Monk fan. I liked his tunes. That became a thing, especially in college. Everybody tries to learn the most obscure Monk tunes, have a competition who knows the most obscure Monk tunes—but I was never really so into it. Around mid-college, 1999-2000, I became more intrigued by him.

Was it being in New York for a while?

That, but then also, when everywhere you go, everybody’s trying to play a Monk tune. You think, “Let me check this out and see what it is.”

What hadn’t appealed to you, and when then did appeal to you?

Now I’m more into the composition and his comping. And Monk’s attitude. He had a certain attitude when he played, a fun, free attitude like what I hear when I hear Herbie or Chick. Have fun. It so comes across. Monk’s that way. When you watch him, you can tell. But in college, checking out his compositions really did it for me. When I decided to do a Monk tune, I didn’t want to do it the regular way. Everyone does Monk tunes all the time, to the point where, after a while, it gets annoying, because “ok, now you’all just doing it to do it.” You’re not doing it any justice. So when I did do one, I wanted to do it in a way that was fresh and new, and at the same time you never lose the tune. Some people will redo something, and it’s like, “where is the song?” They’ll even change the melody to fit some chord or something. Huh? So I try to respect the song, and at the same time put my own thing on it, and at the same time make it as modern as possible. That’s what I did when I mixed it with Dilla. I came up with that idea.

Speaking of Dilla, let’s talk about your time feel. A few years ago, you told me that Damion Reed, who played drums with you then, called the way you feel time “the circle.” You continued: “We don’t think straight-ahead like 1-2-3-4. We feel where the measures end, do whatever we have to do between 1 and 4 to get back to the 1, and then come in together.” Does that description still obtain for the way you think about time?

Yes, but not so much as then, because I play a little bit different with Chris Dave. Damion was more open and free-flowing, to the point where sometimes the time would get lost—you don’t know where it is. It’s still there, but it’s more mysterious where the time is. Chris is a master at knowing where the time is, and doing so many different things with it, but you still feel where it is. So I still feel the pulse. With Damien, you would lose the pulse sometimes—in a good way. “Oh, shit, where’d it go, where’d it go? Ah, there it is.” BAM. So it made me play a certain way within measures. That still has its place now, too, at times, but not so much as it did.

You obviously use many beats from hiphop, particularly ideas that were in play during the ‘90s, in your formative years and when you first became involved. Can you speak to your perception of how hiphop affected jazz time? Also, once in New York, did you personally incorporate other rhythmic influences? You arrived here at a time when various hybrids were taking shape. Dafnis Prieto came to town in 1999, along with other Cuban and Afro-Caribbean musicians. Brad Mehldau’s ideas were well-established.

A lot of those things are true, but probably I didn’t realize it, just being in it. Sometimes it just seeps in, and you don’t know. Just going from club to club and playing with different people in school and outside of school, a lot of things affect you, and you don’t even know. It’s like catching a cold. You never really know where exactly you got the cold; just you get home and don’t feel too well. You don’t know if you got it on the subway, when you were outside, when you were at McDonald’s. So a lot of the rhythmic things are just being in New York and getting all of it at different times.

But also, playing in a soul and hiphop setting often, as well as playing jazz often, I would intermingle the two without really trying, I think. I’m used to playing this way time-wise. When I play hiphop and soul, especially with the people I was playing with, behind the beat is kind of the thing to do. It has a certain feel. So I took that over to the jazz realm, and it became my style, in a way, to have that kind of vibe with the jazz style. The jazz style tends to be on top of the beat more, versus laid-back. I think I get that from especially hiphop in the area of Dilla, who I got into around 2000-2001. His stuff is about things like sampling pianos, or any instrument, putting it way back behind the drums, and the bass is way behind, but the snare on the drums is a little bit ahead, and there’s nothing landing you anywhere—you’re just wobbling around in the middle, nodding your head, like “Oh my God. I feel the time; I can’t really nail it, but it’s there.” It’s kind of mysterious. I call it “drunk funk. Anyway, I took that, and cats like Pete Rock have the same thing, and some Tribe Called Quest things (which Dilla was part of for the first part of his career) have the same thing. DJ Premier, too.

What’s the appeal of that time feel?

It just feels so good. It doesn’t feel jagged or in a rush. It feels like you’re taking your time, like you’re just chillin’. You’re not taking anything too…almost too seriously. I feel like I’m hanging out for a while! Or something. You feel more in control, too. Because when everything is jagged, and you’re on top and they’re on top, it feels like rush hour. Imagine being in rush hour, but you’re going slow as hell, but you’re still with everybody, so everybody else is looking at you like you’re in slow motion—there’s no traffic for you but it’s rush hour. It’s an interesting feeling.

Would the rush hour feeling have anything to do with a northern way of thinking vis-a-vis a southern way of thinking?

Not really. Honestly, I think it’s a mixture of the two. Culturally, African-American people tend to lay back behind the beat. Other cultures tend to be more on top of the beat. [DEMONSTRATES ON HIS CHEST] That lazy, fucked-up rhythm from Africa. It’s passed down. It’s more natural. We’re more rhythmic people, if you will. I think that’s probably what it is.

In high school, before you came to New York, what hiphop were you listening to?</b>

Mostly just Tribe Called Quest and some Busta Rhymes stuff. I wasn’t as big into hiphop in high school as I became once I moved to New York.

Was this because of the church influence?

Church influence. For the most part, my life was pretty much church and jazz. I was working in church on the weekends, and during the week choir rehearsals and stuff like that, and then, when I’d go to school, it was jazz. Once I moved to New York, which is the home of hiphop, is when I really got knocked in the head with a bunch of hiphop. I started to work with Bilal, then started meeting all these emcees and doing little things, shows with him and shows with different hiphop artists. That’s how I got into it more. I’m still not the biggest hiphop head. But I like what I like.

You described for me a couple of years ago how your jazz career evolved from the New School. You came here from Houston, Dr. Ratliff from Brentwood Church knew the pastor at the Canaan Church in Harlem, so you got a job playing that service early on, which probably kept you in funds.

Yes.

Then you started going to sessions. You mentioned a place in Fort Greene called Pork Knockers, Cleopatra’s and Small’s in Manhattan. Anthony Wonsey linked you to Russell Malone, and things happened. But could you go into some detail on your progress in..well, let’s not call it “hiphop,” because it seems insufficient. Let’s call it Urban music.

The very first day I got to the New School, they had all the new students play. They call your name up and put a little group together on the spot, and you play together. I can’t remember if Bilal and I were on the stage together or if we were separate, but by the end of that day, we were boys, we were friends. We started hanging out. One of the teachers from the New School said, “I have a friend who lives right around the corner who used to drum for the Spin Doctors, Aaron Comess, if you want to do some recording over there.” We were like, “cool.” Bilal wanted to do a demo, and we went over there and did some recording. Soon after that, Bilal got signed, and once he got signed, before his record came out, we started doing gigs around the city, and that’s where I started meeting people in the Soul genre, in the Hiphop genre. Bilal had Common and Mos Def on his record. So at one point, we went on tour with Common, and then Common opened up for Erykah Badu, so the tour was with Erykah, Common, and Bilal. Then I met Mos Def. I was playing with Bilal, but on the tour, you get to know all the cats in their bands, and you get to know the them, too. I’ve done some playing with Common, and done some things with Erykah, not in her band, but situations where we’re together. From that, I met the Roots—Bilal’s from Philly, the Roots are from Philly—and I started playing gigs with the Roots on and off. Throughout the years, that aspect of it has continued to grow. From there, I started playing with Q-Tip. I’ve done some things with Talib Kwali.

It seems like the two most consequential relationships now are with Bilal and Mos Def.

Yeah, Bilal, Mos Def, and Tip.

Talk about each of them.

Bilal is my favorite singer, period, of all time. He’s extremely organic. He doesn’t do anything unless he means it. He’s an amazing vocalist, period. People don’t even know, but he was like all-state opera in high school. He has an extremely trained voice without sounding trained. But he can sing any genre. He’s probably the only male jazz vocalist I know that actually sings jazz for real. Most people that sing jazz get on my nerves, because there’s a specific jazz voice people have when they sing jazz that’s annoying. It’s like, “I’m singing JAZZ now.” It sounds like their eyebrow is up. It’s really annoying. But he gets it, and he’s actually a jazz musician at heart. He knows how to interpret songs. He can do that in any genre of music, and he knows how to change his voice to fit certain things. Musically, he’s an amazing cat.

<p>Mos Def is a great person overall. Funny cat. Very down to earth. I don’t think there’s an asshole bone in his body. He doesn’t come off like one of them cats, like, “Oh, I’m a superstar, leave me alone”—that kind of vibe. He’s very open, and musically very honest, and has an eclectic library of music in his head. When we do shows with him, we’ll go from an Eric Dolphy tune to a Neal Young song in a minute, to a Radiohead song, to a James Brown. To whatever. He loves music. He’s a vessel for music. He understands the live band aspect, because he plays a little piano, plays a little drums; he respects it and is always searching for more knowledge. Also what’s great about working with him is he lets me be me. We have a good working thing, because he listens to me, I listen to him, and we work things out. It’s a very give-and-take relationship.

Tip is the same way. Mentally, his musical library is ridiculously huge, and so is his physical library at his house. He has so much music. He’s one of them cats that I would call if I was on Millionaire and there was a question about music. He’s a deejay at heart, too. Records, years of records… And he has perfect pitch. An emcee with perfect pitch? A lot of the songs that we start, songs that he sings, he can start them off the top and be in the right key all the time. He’s another emcee, like most, who knows how to play a little piano. He’ll be rhyming, and then, “Yo, stop real quick. When we get to that A-flat-minor chord, play this.” That’s crazy. For an emcee to be that musical is different than a singer, because most emcees much just rhyme their tracks, so they’re not really doing it with a live band aspect. Again, Tip has a big respect for the live band aspect. He’s one of the people trying to bring it back and move it forward, and look to the future and do some cool things.

That segues well into my next question, which is how hiphop/urban music has evolved during your own maturity, since you arrived in New York in 1997. At the time, there was a confluence of many streams, which have since branched out, until today hiphop itself is in a different place, and the hot performers from then have matured and gone in different directions.

In 1997, when I first got here, the Neo-Soul movement was big, which brought back the live bands and the importance of the live band sound. There was a big blast of, “Let’s bring live bands back.” Hiphop artists were using bands. Then something happened in Neo-Soul, and it got strange. I think once D’Angelo was out of the picture, it started dying down a little bit, then Hiphop in itself got real strange, and now you have all these kind of dumb songs, and they’re not really Hiphop. I call it “Hip-Pop.”

Is Hiphop something else now?

No, Hiphop is still Hiphop. But the stuff that people say is Hiphop isn’t even hiphop to me. That’s like people calling Smooth Jazz, “jazz,” to me. When people say “jazz,” I think what I think, but somebody might call it listening to jazz—which they can, but for me it’s not that. I don’t even get mad. There’s a lot of bullshit out right now getting fed to the public, and they’re eating it, and they’re thinking that’s where real music is. That’s the area we’re in now. We’re trying to fight back and bring back the live band and the good music, and even the stuff that people are talking about is… You’re still talking about money and fat asses? Really? Can we move on? That type of thing.

Now I think there’s more of an uprising of actual cause for good music. For a while there was no cause. A lot of good music is lost. Back in the day, there was great music, because there was a cause behind the music. Something political was happening…

What do you mean by “back in the day”?

‘70s and below. There was always a cause. Your “What’s Going On” era with Marvin Gaye. All that shit. There was always a cause and a passion for real music, a PASSIONfor it, and now it’s just like some dumb shit. But I think it’s coming back. Politically, there are things happening. You have Barrack Obama. Michael Jackson just passed, so now people are revisiting those records and getting influenced again. Sometimes you don’t really think about shit until it’s gone. I think Michael’s passing is really making people reflect and look back and see what’s real now, and it’s changing their aspect on things…

How so? For you, for instance?

My lady and I were talking about this the other day. I think Michael’s influence for most people is different than anybody else’s, because he was such a big influence on the world when he was 7. I don’t know anybody else who can say that—like, on his level. He was a major superstar for 43 years. On top of the world type stuff. That’s unheard-of. So you kind of watched him grow up. You feel like you knew him when he was a child, when you see these videos. He was always an influence for me. I used to get in trouble for moonwalking in second grade. I had the glove and everything. I actually went to a Jackson Five concert, and the whole nine. When you listen back, people forget that he could really, really sing. Michael Jackson was a brand, so you get caught up in his whole thing, with the dancing, and just him being weird, and the Jackson Five and all this stuff. But if you sat Michael down in a chair next to a piano and start playing, just to hear him sing…he was ridiculous! I think people skip over it. You think he can sing, but when you listen back to the music you’re like, “Wow, he can really sing!” He was so ahead of his time! When he was with the Jackson Five, when they were small, doing the Destiny album, with some of those changes on there, and he’s singing all through them changes, eating them up… It’s like, “Yo, you’re 7; why are you sounding like you’re 30 and you’ve been hurt already?” That’s what Smokey Robinson was saying after he recorded “Who’s Loving You,” and Berry had Michael Jackson sing it after he signed Michael Jackson. Berry called Smokey, like, “You sung this song, but listen to this,” and Smokey heard him and it was like, “Oh my God. This boy sounds like he’s been through it all, and he’s like 9.” So Michael Jackson was an angel that God put here specifically for a reason. He did inspire me and most people musically.

Before your digression on Michael Jackson, you spoke of the ways in which the music of the ‘60s and ‘70s reflected the times in which it was created, and said you say you feel similar winds in the air today. Can you reflect on any connections between the way you’re approaching jazz and the way the culture has developed during your maturity?

I’m trying to involve things and people in the music that have something to do with today, and pushing the envelope in music and politics and everything in general. I had a song on the record that I didn’t release because we couldn’t get it cleared. I was playing a one-motif thing, and over it was the news about the Sean Bell hearing, and it had Martin Luther King’s “We Shall Overcome” speech….

Sean Bell was the man who was killed by 50 shots from several policeman after leaving his bachelor party in Jamaica, Queens.

Yeah. More than 50 shots. They all got off. It also had my friend, Jessie, who was a Katrina victim, speaking about his experience with that, and there was a Barrack Obama thing at the end of it. It addresses the time period we’re in. Certain albums you can look back on and you know the time period it was in just by listening to it. I think being able to capture the times musically within a record is kind of a lost art as well. Then, the people I’m using on the record, like Quest and Terence and Mos, are visionary people who I look up to, who are doing things. The time period we’re in is making me be more aware of my surroundings. That kind of thing.

I do want to ask you about one tune on Double Booked, “Festival,” with Casey Benjamin, which in the beginning, the way Casey is playing and the way you’re comping, makes me think of the Wayne Shorter Quartet. Now, whether or not I’m accurate on this, could you discuss some of other bands you’ve been paying attention to over the last 8-9 years?

It’s very possible that what you say is true. I love Wayne. He’s my favorite jazz composer. I love his composing, period. I also love Art Blakey and the Messengers. I love the Miles Davis Quintet. I love Herbie’s stuff on his own. I love the John Coltrane Quartet. I love Brian Blade’s Fellowship Band. I love the Bandwagon—Jason Moran. Terence Blanchard’s band. He’s had a few different bands through the years, and I love what he does.

A few words about the contemporary bands you spoke of—Bandwagon, Fellowship, Blanchard.

First of all, Brian Blade is one of my favorite drummers of all time, because he gives you a feeling like he’s playing keys. He brings so much color to the music that normally a drummer wouldn’t bring. His textures and the passion that he has when he plays, you can feel it and you can hear it. It’s all there. He’s just a very emotional drummer. I’ve cried listening to Blade. Drummers don’t generally make people cry. I also love the compositions that Fellowship plays and the way they portray them. Brian Blade Fellowship put on probably my top favorite concert I’ve ever seen, at the Vanguard a few years ago. You can get a lot of great musicians, put them together, but they don’t sound good as a band. But Fellowship is a great band, in their collective honesty and how they play with each other. Ego can get in the way of allowing honest things to happen, but with Fellowship there’s no ego on that stage.

I think that’s what it is with Jason, and also Terence. It’s Terence’s band, but he doesn’t have an ego about it. He lets everybody write, lets everybody be themselves, and kind of goes where the music goes. He’s not trying to dictate everything because he’s the leader and “this is what it is.” You can feel that from the spirit. What makes me like people is the spirit, the intention, and that really comes across in Terence’s band. Especially Terence’s current band, because Kendrick Scott is on drums. He’s another one of my favorite drummers. He’s like a Blade, too—I think he’s also made me cry. I’ve been playing with Kendrick since high school, and Kendrick was playing with me at Dr. Ratliff’s church. I’ve known him for years. He’s definitely a very egoless drummer. Really about the music and what’s happening, and lets the spirit move him. I love that about him.

You made a remark in 2005 about liking to play with Derrick Hodge, who plays on the Experimental half of Double Booked, because he can go in and out of jazz and hiphop feels seamlessly, as can you. Can you speak to the qualities that are distinctive to rendering jazz and rendering hiphop, and the complexities that pertain to a jazz-oriented musician addressing hiphop and to a hiphop artist addressing jazz?

As far as jazz and then going into hiphop, I think it’s the disconnect between urban music and jazz musicians. Because nowadays, let’s face it, there are less African-Americans playing this music than there were before. I sat down not too long ago and tried to name five pianists that are my age or younger who are known on the scene.

Who are African-American?

Yeah. I couldn’t name five—I was really trying—who are really known, who are my age and younger who are actually on the scene. In other words, is somebody in Chicago going to know this person? Since we live in New York, we have a false reality. If I live in Kansas, am I going to know Eric Lewis? Love him to death. He’s one of my favorite pianists. He’s ridiculous. Amazing. I mean, I can name some people I know who are in New York that are bubbling. But I’m just saying cats that are getting some kind of broader recognition. You do this for a living, so you’re going to know these cats. But I doubt someone who’s going to a college in Houston or in Kansas is going to know who all those cats are. I’m not saying they’re not here, but they’re new, bubbling kind of cats that are not getting the recognition they probably should.

But as a whole, there’s not a large amount of African-Americans playing this music, as was the case before. Let’s flip it around. In the ‘60s, there were more black people playing jazz than white people.

Whether or not that’s true, black musicians formed the preponderance of those crucial to the development of the idiom.

Yes, of course. I did a survey of my own. If you look at the life of jazz, and take out anybody who wasn’t black, would it really change? Probably not so much. I don’t think it would have been a big change if you take out anybody who wasn’t black. Nowadays, if you flip it around, if you remove people who are black, the scene wouldn’t change very much. Look at all the magazines, look at everything—there’s not many black people in there. Most of your vocalists under 30 that you’re hearing about and seeing are white. Now, I’m just speaking about 30 years and younger. This generation. I’m talking about the difference between my generation and another generation. This generation has more European and more Asian than Black. I think it’s at an all-time high now. With black people, what happens is, when they’re young like me, they get sucked into playing in church. It’s easier. They make money. Not everybody has a jazz mentor. Like I say, we live in New York, so we have a false reality. If you’re from wherever, Cincinnati, and you’re an up-and-coming piano player, there’s probably one jazz club, maybe, and there’s probably no jazz station, and if there is a jazz station they’re probably playing Charlie Parker. Let’s be honest. Jazz stations suck nowadays. There aren’t many good jazz stations.

Well, I’d hope they were playing Charlie Parker. But hopefully they’re playing something of today as well.

Right. Music moves on in every other genre. If you turn on Hot-97, they’re playing Usher. When you turn it on, 9 times out of 10 you’re probably going to hear Chris Brown because he’s up to date. Any other genre of music is like that, except jazz. Jazz is very history-oriented, and it pretty much stays there for most people. Versus any other music. It’s very history-oriented, and it’s to the point where, “Do you care about the future?” Hello! Some people aren’t about the future. You’re about the future. But you have the same respect for the past.

You have to balance it.

You have to balance it. But most people, when it comes to jazz, there’s no balance. They won’t talk about Marcus Strickland. Jazz is hidden. Where would you find him? If you don’t live here, how would you know him? 99 times out of 100, the jazz stations aren’t going to be playing him. If you turn on the TV, you’re not going to see him. You have to dig pretty hard. Other genres of music, the new shit that’s out, it’s put in your face. I have to know Chris Brown right now. Without trying, you’re going to know him. You’re going to see him in the magazines, you’re going to see him on TV, you put on the radio and he’s going to be there. That’s how it is. They force-feed new artists down your throat.

I’ve wavered way off the point. But I’m saying that this is the disconnect of it. Because now, this music has changed from being more of a music that I guess black people have been playing to more of a music that other people are playing, so therefore the aspect of the groove, that urban groove, is lost. The Europeans and Asians aren’t driven by urban rhythm. They’re more driven by melody, notes, and other kinds of things. So it’s very hard for a jazz musician nowadays to be able to play a hip-hop groove, because that’s not really where they’re from with it. So it’s changed. Because back in the day, in the ‘60s, if you told somebody a jazz musician was on the gig, it was like, “Oh, great! Yes!” They did a lot of the Motown recordings. It was like a marriage back then. After the jazz clubs, they’d go right to the studio. If you look on many albums, you’ll see Ron Carter on the record, Herbie on the albums…

There was a studio scene.

Exactly. There was more of a mingle, too, between the studio musicians and the jazz cats. Now, to be a studio musician, you live in L.A. and you play real jazz here. It’s really separated.

This began when I asked you the impact of hiphop on jazz. Now let’s talk about the impact that jazz is having on hiphop.

Well, jazz has always had an influence on hiphop. Jazz is one of the reasons why hiphop is what it is. Jazz musicians have been sampled for years now. That’s what made me start listening to hiphop, from when I was listening to Tribe Called Quest in high school. I grew up in the suburbs in Houston, so a lot of the rap I would hear, I wouldn’t be able to identify with it, because a lot of people talked about guns or the ghetto or these girls, and I wasn’t about that, so it would go over my head. Until I heard A Tribe Called Quest, and I was like, “Wait—there’s chords. Wow, there’s melody. Wait, that’s ‘Red Clay.’  I know that tune!” It kind of grasped my ear. It’s like, “yo, they’re melodic.” So then I started listening to them. That’s what grasped me, the chord changes and things of that nature. To this day, I’m catching more and more songs, like songs I used to love, and I’m like, “Oh, I know what that song is; they sampled that tune.” So jazz always had an influence.

I think nowadays, it’s now about having the actual musicians mingle together. That hasn’t happened in a very long time. Granted, hiphop is new, so Trane couldn’t mingle with a hiphop artist now—he’s gone. Bill Evans, the same thing. But those cats have been sampled. Ron Carter’s done it. He’s done it for Tribe. So there certain cats now actually are bridging that gap, and have bridged that gap. I’m trying to bridge that gap, and do it while I’m actually doing my thing as well at the same time.

You remarked to a British paper a few years ago that you play “intelligent hiphop.” Can you elaborate a bit?

I can’t stand the hiphop that’s all about the jewelry and the girls and the money and the guns. I like more conscious hiphop, like talking about the empowerment of black people. Your empowerment of yourself as a person, whatever color you are. Treating women right. Every other song is dissing a woman and calling them a bitch or whatever. I’m more into other hiphop that’s more positive, talking about something else, something that’s not degrading. Moreso than ever, those songs are the ones that I like the music for, because those people are more conscious, and mostly conscious people listen to better music than people who aren’t conscious. Tribe Called Quest is very conscious. Common is very conscious. Mos Def is very conscious. They all have great, great music. So I guess that’s what brings the two together for me.

You were talking about all the obstacles that militate against a young black kid actually playing jazz. You could get trapped in the economics of being a church musician, you won’t get to hear it on the radio, and so on. But quite a number of remarkably mature, well-formed jazz musicians emerged from Houston, like you and Kendrick Scott, Jason Moran, Eric Harland, Chris Dave, Mike Moreno, Walter Smith…

Jamire Williams.

There we go. Was that solely because of the high school? 

Having that high school helped. That’s a big boost. I’m pretty sure that in a lot of other states, there are musicians just as talented, but probably never had the chance to… When colleges come to Houston, they go right to my high school before they go anywhere else. If you’re a music college, you’re going right to my high school. If I went to a regular high school, they would come right there. I probably wouldn’t have been so diligent and worked so hard. When you’re in high school with a bunch of talented people, it makes you work harder. It’s a competition type thing—you want to get better because this person is better. All your friends have the same agenda. They all love what you love. I went to a regular high school my first year, and I couldn’t talk to nobody about jazz! Nobody knew nothing about jazz. If you’re around a lot of people who don’t have the same dream as you and all that kind of stuff, it could wear you down, and you become not so serious about it, and then if you go to a high school that doesn’t have any kind of hoopla about it, you’re probably not going to get the attention from colleges that you want. So for some people, it gets heavier and heavier and heavier on them, and they don’t get that kind of chance. They were talented, but they didn’t hone their craft enough or get the opportunity to do this, and have comrades to do this with. So they just stay in church and do what they do, and it’s that.

But in Houston, I think a lot of it was that from the door the cats are just naturally talented, but then being in a school where there’s other talented cats that have the same interests as you really helps. You’re learning from your friends. I learned a pile of stuff from my comrades that I wouldn’t have known if I didn’t go to that school. Mike Moreno or Walter or Kendrick would bring tapes to school, like, ‘Yo, check out this new stuff.” They were really into what was happening in New York and in the jazz scene, and so on.

You made a remark, “I feel like I’m an actor and a painter. It’s all the arts in one. So when I’m playing the piano, I don’t just think of it as, ‘Oh, I’m playing piano.’ I won’t sacrifice the vibe for some chops.” You said, “it’s a mood thing. On each song I go into a place in my mind, and I’m in my moment right there.” Does that attitude perhaps hearken back to your church background, and orchestrating the function?

Exactly. Everything has its place. I’m not one of the people who play for the sake of playing. Some people say I don’t play enough. “I loved that tune, but you didn’t play enough of that tune.” But at the same time, a person will come to me and say, “the way you played on that song…” Space says just as much for me as playing something, and I think once you realize that space and silence is sound, that it has as much of a place as something you’re playing, it takes cats a long way. You really jeopardize the meaning and the mood and the focus of what’s going on when you just play to play. I think you reach people when it’s just honest. “Shit, I don’t feel like playing on this part.” It doesn’t come to me like that. “I just want to lay on these chords.” Then you’ll hear the inflections, say, that the drums are doing more. Then maybe the drums take over. He’s not even really soloing. It’s just the vibe, and you start thinking. It gives you a chance to think. A lot of times, if you go to a concert, people are doing so much on stage, it doesn’t allow your mind to be free to think of something and go somewhere. I like to be a soundtrack sometimes, so I might just play something, and it repeats. It might be a vamp. I might not be soloing, but I may be sparking some thoughts. It’s almost like giving you a soundtrack to whatever you’re thinking right now. Then you might start, “Oh, man!” It makes you feel a certain way. All that plays a part. So I think I’m just in tune with that.

Were things that happened in the early ‘90s…Was MBASE an influence on you?

No.

Was, say, Buckshot LaFunke, Branford Marsalis’ stuff, an influence on you?

I knew about Branford in high school, but I didn’t know about Buckshot LaFunke until I got to college. None of those things really…

Once you got to New York, did MBASE…

No. It still doesn’t.

That approach to music-making still isn’t so meaningful to you.

No. Not to say it can’t be later. But now, no.

You made a remark to the Boston Globe that you couldn’t bring the Experiment out too soon. “I had to establish myself first as a jazz pianist, and get that respect, otherwise very fast you’ll get pegged as a hiphop pianist.” What do you mean by that?

I still get it to this day—a little bit, not so much. But timing plays a part in everything. You can bring something out too early or bring out something too late. It’s just timing—of that record, of your band. I’m an up-and-coming pianist, I’m new, and I’m black; a black piano player having his own trio out in the world working right now is a whole different thing. I’d like to capitalize on that and keep doing that. I didn’t want to move quickly, for the second album on Blue Note, to “Ok, now I’ll do hiphop” or “now I’m playing Rhodes and I got a vocoder and so on,” because then it’s like, “that’s what you really wanted to do, isn’t it?” No. Playing jazz trio is my true love. So I wanted to do a few records with that first, and establish that, so people will respect me for that and understand it, and then I can turn around and do the Experiment stuff.

Is playing the sideman things and playing the Experiment equally as gratifying to you as the acoustic jazz trio?

Yes, definitely. I have A.D.D., I think, so I have to be doing something different all the time. I have to keep moving, and keep it moving. Which is one of the reasons why I love my trio, because it’s never the same shit all the time. Vicente is not going to play the same thing, Chris is not going to play the same thing. It’s always going to be something different. I don’t feel like I’m going to a job and clocking in. At the same time, I love the fact that I do all these different kinds of gigs. They all call for something different, that demands a certain amount of professionalism and a certain amount of musical maturity. You have to know, “Hey, in this situation I can’t do this; I have to do this. In that situation, I have to do something else.” So it teaches you patience and teaches you to be mature and to respect other kinds of music, while at the same time being able to put yourself into it, which is whole nother type of thing to be able to do. That’s not very easy for a lot of people.

Ted Panken spoke to Robert Glasper on August 28, 2009

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Robert Glasper (Blindfold Test) – 2008 – Raw:

1. Joe Sample, “Shreveport Stomp” (from SOUL SHADOWS, Verve, 2004) (Sample, piano; Jelly Roll Morton, composer)

That’s some ragtime stuff going on here. Some strange moments. This is some Scott Joplin type. He doesn’t sound very comfortable doing it. He sounds cool, okay doing it, but it doesn’t sound like he’s very comfortable with the ragtime thing. But I guess the whole… I guess he’s not trying to push the envelope. The point is to play like within that time period, the Scott Joplin type style. It’s the kind of thing Marcus Roberts would do, but Marcus Roberts is a lot more comfortable with it. He makes you believe like he lived in that time period or something. I’ll give it 2 stars. He still needs to work some things out. Kudos to him, though. I can’t play ragtime!

It sounds like he’s trying to play a transcription; he hasn’t like digested the whole thing yet for real. Marcus does digest it. When he plays it, I believe that he lived then. But this cat, it seems like he’s not too comfortable with this time period yet. Some of the timing is strange, a little bit, and you can hear in the ragtime stuff that his left hand is not as comfortable, and the stuff he’s doing with his right hand is very worked out. You can tell it’s hard. I don’t know the tune, but it was in that whole Jelly Roll-Scott Joplin type joint.

2. Jason Lindner, “Monserrate” (from AB AETERNO, Fresh Sound World Jazz, 2006) (Lindner, piano, composer; Omer Avital, bass; Luisito Quintero, cajon, percussion)

I like the concept of the tune. It’s nice. His touch is a little bit strange, I think. I don’t really feel the compassion that it should have or that I want it to have from his playing. I like the percussion. Yeah, it sounds a little forced. It’s almost like forced passion, ha-ha, or something. I think I’ll give this 2½ stars. More the conception of the band… I’ll give it 2½ stars. No, take that back. 2 stars. I think I really just like the percussion. The percussion is nice. But it doesn’t really sound like a band. There’s an uneasiness to it. It sounds like it should be relaxed and it should be more free-flowing, but it sounds kind of jagged and forced—but the point is to be free-flowing.

It sounds like someone under 30…of a European descent. [Do you mean Caucasian descent, or European?] Perhaps. Either-or. Rhythmically it just wasn’t there. It didn’t sound like a cohesive band. I appreciate the concept, like the percussion and the way they started. But I don’t know. It sounded like it should have been more free-flowing, the kind of tune where it was effortless and free-flowing and beautiful, but it sounded like they were trying to force that idea.

3. Ethan Iverson, “Mint” (from The Bad Plus, PROG, Heads Up, 2007) (Iverson, piano, composer; Reid Anderson, bass; Dave King, drums)

Definitely of a Latin descent. Sounds like some tune Gonzalo would do. Many sections. Get lost in the sections. You probably can’t hum the melody of the tune when it’s over. But good ensemble. Cohesive trio. It definitely has the touch and the sound and the chops and the writing conception of Latin descent. But I’m thinking Gonzalo—or maybe I’m wrong. Good band, though. They’re definitely together…in their randomness, they’re together. Organized randomness. He’s definitely checked out Jason Moran. The right hand gives me Jason Moran, but I don’t know. Because the group also has that sort of together-random but composition vibe that Jason’s group has, that no one else really has. That’s what makes Jason’s group so different. Once he gets to the solo section, I think it’s Moran. No, it’s not Jason! I thought it was. It’s definitely somebody influenced by Jason; Jason’s writing, definitely.

I don’t know this cat’s playing very well, but is it Vijay Iyer? No? I was saying it has a randomess. Like, in the writing it’s a cohesive randomness. There’s really many parts, and it’s kind of random, you don’t know where it’s going to go, but the group is together, so it’s definitely organized randomness, like Moran’s trio will do or kind of like Gonzalo writes, but it’s really tight… It gives you that vibe. At first I figured it was Gonzalo because of the way his attack and stuff was, and how it was at the beginning of the composition, a lot of shit going on but it was together. But then, once they started soloing, they sounded like Jason, right hand. And the composition sounded like Moran would write. I wouldn’t come home and put it on. 3 stars. Bad Plus? Gotcha. They’ve definitely been influenced by Bandwagon.

4. Kálmán Oláh, “Polymodal Blues” (from ALWAYS, Dot, 2004) (Oláh, piano, composer; Ron McClure, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums)

I’ve heard these songs before. It kind of sounds like a high school band. [LAUGHS] I mean, as far as the cohesiveness of the group goes. I’m not really digging the ensemble at all, or the composition, or the cohesiveness of the ensemble. It’s just something that I’ve heard before, and it’s not really a good version of that. The drummer definitely checks out Jack DeJohnette. But it sounds like they all have different agenda or something; I don’t know.

I mentioned that the drummer definitely checked out DeJohnette. I don’t want to say it’s DeJohnette, but DeJohnette on not a good day. It sounds like that whole trio sat down and listened to some Keith Jarrett; it was like “Let’s try to do that.” But obviously, they’re all influenced by that trio. But I don’t dig what happened there. I don’t dig the tune. I don’t like the pianist, really. I mean, he can play the piano. He can play. But I don’t really like what he’s doing. It’s nothing I would get out of bed to go see…if they’re playing next door. 2 stars.

On “Hungarian Sketches”: They sound better doing this vibe. They’re more comfortable with this, it seems like. The swing tune sounded real pretentious, real not-comfortable. Whoever the piano player it, I can tell he’s one of them cats that would write something for a grant or something, like a really through-composed kind of cat. It kind of seems like it. They sound better doing this vibe. That’s a much better representation of the ensemble. So much better. The other one really gave me high school. But this one sounds good. I still don’t know what the melody was, even though I listened to it for three minutes. That’s kind of a new thing, I guess. Some cats just kind of write for the sake of writing, and there’s no real emotional purpose, or it’s just kind of writing to write, see what kind of bad shit I can write. But I like that vibe they had going on. 3 3 stars. The ensemble sounded great. The drummer was cool, and the bass…even the sound sounded better on this. When he was walking, he sounded like cats fighting in the alley. I don’t dig that style personally.

5. James Hurt, “Eleven Dreams” (from DARK GROOVES-MYSTICAL RHYTHMS, Blue Note, 1999) (Hurt, piano, composer; Francois Moutin, bass)

I like the pianist’s touch; the pianist has a really nice touch. I’m not buying the bluesiness of it, though. He sounds more into the composition, like that’s definitely his vibe. But once he starts swinging, trying to get the blues thing, he’s definitely out of his element. Sounds pretentious. But everything else sounds great. I’m not sure of the point of the solo, what’s going on with it. I’m not sure how he’s putting it together. It sounds like he’s warming up. Heh-heh. He should take a few breaths also.

He’s definitely European. Sounds European. Maybe not definitely, but he sounds European. Everything was cool until he started playing bluesy, then it was AGGHH… Strange. When he started soloing, it got strange. But as far as the composition, it sounded beautiful. But once it got to the solo, it was strange. I couldn’t tell you who it is. Because I don’t listen to that… 3 stars.

6. Eric Reed, “I.C.H.N.” (from HERE, MaxJazz, 2006) (Reed, piano, composer; Rodney Whitaker, bass; Willie Jones, drums)

This feels great. They all feel comfortable in what they’re doing. The pianist has a real nice touch, real laid-back with it. Like, he knows he’s swinging. He ain’t gotta try. He sounds like he has a cigarette in his mouth, hanging out the side, and a glass of ‘nac on the top of the piano. The bass and the drums have a really good hookup. Feels really good.

The band felt great. I forgot to critique. I was just listening, feeling it. The bass and drums had a great hookup. It’s great to hear something when it swings doesn’t sound pretentious. Some of it gives me a Jaki Byard vibe. Also, there’s a little jerk in the melody. I like the pianist’s touch. Had a really nice touch. Really laid back. You can tell he listened to a lot of old cats. He really dwells in it, but at the same time he sees the light at the end of the tunnel. Don’t know who it is. 4 stars.

7 Jean-Michel Pilc, “Spiritual” (from LIVE AT IRIDIUM, NEW YORK, Dreyfus, 2005) (Pilc, piano; Thomas Bramerie, bass; Mark Mondesir, drums; John Coltrane, composer)

Nice touch The pianist has a really nice touch. Very warm. Not forcing anything.

I don’t know who it is, but I really like the pianist’s touch. It sounds really warm. It doesn’t really sound like he’s forcing anything. They sound natural and comfortable in what they’re doing as a trio. I kind of know the song. It’s a remake. It almost sounds like… I’ll give it 3½ stars. I used to see him play with Ari Hoenig’s trio. I actually subbed Ari’s gig like twice.

8. Esbjorn Svensson, “Goldwrap” (from e.s.t., TUESDAY WONDERLAND, EmArcy, 2006) (Svensson, piano; Dan Berglund, bass; Magnus Ostrand, drums)

I like the composition. It’s pretty. I can hum the melody, but at the same time it has a lot of things going on, but the amount of things going on don’t really overshadow the melody too much. I like that. Nice group. They sound good together. I’m not crazy about the pianist’s soloing, but…

I liked the composition. It’s pretty. There’s a lot of things going on, but at the same time, it’s not overbearing, and I could hum the melody. There’s a good mixture of complexity and something you can grasp onto. He doesn’t sound like he’s writing for other writers. A lot of people have that whole thing where the average person wouldn’t buy their record. They write for other musicians, to be like, “Wow, they can really write”—or other writers. Then they wonder why there’s like five people at the show—and all musicians. I don’t know who it is. I’ll give it 3 stars.

9. Stanley Cowell, “A Whole New World” (from DANCERS IN LOVE, Venus, 1999) (Cowell, piano; Tarus Mateen bass; Nasheet Waits, drums; Alan Menken, composer)

I feel like I know this song, or maybe just a piece of that melody I can recognize. It reminded me of “Green Rainbow,” a piece of it. “Things to know. Ways to go.” The band sounds cool as a trio. I’m not too crazy about the solo the pianist is taking. Sounds like Nasheet on drums.

It’s definitely Nasheet. But it’s not Jason Moran and it’s not Tarus. It almost sounded like it could be Tarus, but at the same time it could be Charnett Moffett. It was Tarus? Okay. But the pianist, I don’t know… Judging from that, it’s probably…I don’t know… I liked it until he got to the solo section. It was cool. I could take it until they got to the solo section, then they got strange. The pianist’s feel wasn’t…it didn’t feel right to me. He could play. But it didn’t feel right to me, and his timing and… His sound got a little hokey for my taste. I hate to keep saying this; he sounded European. The composition is always cool, but then once you get into the solo section it always gets strange. That’s where you can tell that, okay, obviously there’s no blues clubs in Europe, they don’t have church, they don’t have things that… It just sounds like that to me. But hey, I could be fuckin’ wrong. 3 stars.

10. Antonello Salis, “La Dolce Vita” (from PIANO SOLO, CamJazz, 2006) (Salis, piano; Nino Rota, composer)

Beautiful touch. Nice chops. Very clean. Very sincere. Whoever it is checked out some early Keith Jarrett stuff, and probably some Latin type stuff.

He had a beautiful touch, and chops were off the chart—a lot of chops. At the same time, he’s really sincere. I could hear sincerity in his playing. He’s creative. He made my eyebrows raise once. That was good. Surprise! I mentioned that you could tell that he checked out some early Keith Jarrett type shit. I don’t know who it is, though. At first listening, I wanted to say Gonzalo, but going on, I don’t really know. 4 stars.

11. Matthew Shipp, “Invisible Light” (from HARMONY AND ABYSS, Thirsty Ears, 2004) (Shipp, piano, composer; William Parker, bass; Gerald Cleaver, drums; Chris Flam, programming [drum & synths])

Very interesting. I like it so far. The intro is really cool. The way they’re playing is really cool. They’re like sparse and random kind of free, but together at the same time.
I liked that! I liked that interlude, whatever you want to call it. That tune was cool. They were like playing free, separately, but at the same time it was together, even though there obviously was nothing written. It just sounded like raindrops. They were all acting like raindrops, but everything fit. Like a typewriter typing really fast, where everything fits together. 4 stars. I can appreciate that type of playing. You probably will never catch me checking it out at the crib, listening to it. Do I ever work with an avant-garde type vibe? Not so much avant-garde. Solo piano wise, I’ll do some stuff that’s kind of like that, on a Cecil Taylor type vibe. But even his shit is organized noise. It’s not free at all. People think it is, but no. That’s the tune! I checked the shit out with video. It’s just the tune. That’s fuckin’ crazy.

12. Cedar Walton, “Daydream” (from ONE FLIGHT DOWN, High Note, 2007) (Walton, piano; David Williams, bass; Joe Farnsworth, drums; Billy Strayhorn, composer)

The band sounds like a BAND. It sounds like a band in the sound. The pianist is losing the groove, to me. He’s playing all over in the solo section, kind of just losing the groove. I don’t know. Definitely sounds like an older rhythm section. It definitely has an Ahmad Jamal Trio vibe. But I don’t know. I like the drummer’s hi-hats!

I liked the feeling of it. The feeling felt good. I feel like I’ve heard the drummer before, definitely. The drummer and the bass player had a good thing happened. It sounded like they were older cats. Part of me wanted to say the pianist was Cyrus Chestnut, because some of it gave me some Cyrus vibe. But then half of it was strange. I was like, “I don’t know.” I haven’t heard a Cyrus record in a while, though. 3 stars.

***********

Robert Glasper , Downbeat Players Piece – 2005:

Accustomed to navigating complex, cerebral soundscapes, today’s twenty-something jazzfolk don’t always leave space to tell a story.

Not pianist Robert Glasper, who blends abundant technique with oceanic emotional content on Canvas, his Blue Note debut.

“I’m dramatic,” says Glasper, 26. “I feel like an actor and a painter — all the arts in one. When I play, I won’t sacrifice the vibe for some chops.”

Glasper is a 2001 New School graduate who apprenticed with hardcore jazzfolk like Russell Malone and Christian McBride, and built profile as pianist of choice for prominent hip-hop and R&B singers like Bilal, Q-Tip and Mos Def. Through the first six tracks of Canvas, he articulates an expansive, soulful interpretation of the piano trio. Using all ten fingers liberally, he draws harmonic references from a timeline spanning Bud Powell to Mulgrew Miller, and his lines flow organically through a succession of odd-metered and swing grooves and unfailingly melodic beats. He stretches out, but he’s also not afraid to milk his melodies and develop them slowly, using techniques of tension and release more commonly heard in functional situations than art music contexts.

“I’m not a singer, but I like to play things I can sing,” Glasper says. “If you constantly sing while you’re playing, then you probably won’t play bullshit!”

Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Glasper inherited this aesthetic from his mother, Kim Yvette Glasper, a professional jazz, blues and church singer, who was murdered last spring at the age of 45. Her spirit hovers over the proceedings, and her recorded voice — she’s singing a raunchy blues — opens the elegiac final track, “I Remember.”

“I wanted to make sure she was on my first record,” Glasper says. “I’m the spitting image of my Mom, totally like her in every aspect. My confidence level. Everything. She was a diva. Yes, sir. A diva.”

When Robert was 12, Kim Yvette Glasper taught him to play piano in the small Baptist church at which she sang. By 14, he was playing the service.

“Once I got better, I told myself I needed to make real money doing this,” Glasper relates. “I started playing at Brentwood, the biggest church in Houston, 10,000 people. During 11th and 12th grades, I played there every other Sunday at 11 o’clock, and I played in the Catholic church around the corner at 9. Saturdays I played the Seventh Day Adventist Church. My pastor in Houston knew the pastor at Canaan Baptist Church in Harlem, and I played there for two years once I got to New York.

“The music in the church is built on feeling, period. It’s not Giant Steps. People give praise or cry, and you have to control all those things. You put a little something behind the pastor. Depending on the type of song, church music has jazz elements and pop elements, too. Hip-Hop is natural for me, because church music has a lot of the same grooves. I just fall in—take from here, take from there, but don’t take too much from one thing.”

On the last four tracks of Canvas, Glasper deploys his populist influences. He entextures “Chant,” another elegiac refrain, with Bilal’s moans and his own organ and kalimba, while on Herbie Hancock’s “Riot,” the date’s only cover, he signifies on Mark Turner’s fleet solo with capacious keyboard color on the Fender Rhodes, before uncorking his own fleet, percussive statement.

Glasper plans to support Canvas with trio tours this fall and winter, filling down time on jobs with the singers – he performs on Q-Tip’s Fall release, joining guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and bassist Derrick Hodge – as well as hardcore jazz work.

“You’ve got to have a balance,” he says. “Church can be a bad habit; everything you play can sound like a church chord if you don’t know how to get out of it. It’s part of my thing, so I put it in there, but I play a little Bud Powell so you go ‘Oh.’ I haven’t played in church for seven years. There’s some black churches up the street from my block, so sometimes I’ll check out the choir or musicians. I get more from them than I do from a lot of preachers. Everything is so damn corrupt, you can’t trust anybody. Only thing you can trust is the music.”

**********

Robert Glasper (Liner Notes for Mood – Fresh Sound – 2002):

“You can’t join the throng til you sing your own song,” Lester Young once quipped, his singular argot underscoring an eternal jazz truth that all aspirants, however learned or technically accomplished, must come to grips with.

The Prezidential imperative of individualism and self-expression is one that pianist Robert Glasper, 23, fully understands. Like much of his peer group, Glasper has the vocabulary of piano modernism — Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Kenny Kirkland, and Oscar Peterson are among his reference points — at his fingertips. Unlike much of his peer group, he has no compunctions about using that language as a springboard from which to leap into his song of the moment. Or, as Glasper puts it, “I take small bits of information of from everyone and make up my own paragraphs.

Fortified by impeccable chops and uninhibited imagination, Glasper spins compelling tales throughout his conversational debut release. His core unit comprises young drummer Damion Reid and veteran bassist Robert Hurst, the latter until recently a long-time member of the “Tonight Show” orchestra after a decade playing hardcore jazz next to piano icon Kenny Kirkland in the high-visibility bands of Wynton and Branford Marsalis. Augmenting on various tracks are tenor saxophonists John Ellis and Marcus Strickland (respectively, runner-up and third-place awardees at the 2002 Thelonious Monk Competition), guitarist Mike Moreno, and popular Hip-Hop/Soul artist Bilal Oliver. All but Hurst were Glasper’s fellow students in the Jazz and Contemporary Music program at Manhattan’s New School, where the pianist matriculated in 1997 on full scholarship.

“The quality I like most about Robert is that he’s an improviser in the truest sense,” says Hurst, who in the spring released his own freewheeling earlier recording of the same trio [UNREHURST (Bebob Records)]. “He’s not afraid to fall flat on his face! He realizes something might or might not work, but he’ll try it, because he wants to do it differently than he did it last night. He listens and he doesn’t play licks. I feel that the music can go anywhere, which keeps me thinking on my feet.”

“I have to improvise,” Glasper agrees. “At my classical recital in high school, I was supposed to play three tunes. I played one, and then broke out and started ‘Giant Steps.’ Otherwise, I feel like I’m regurgitating what somebody else wrote.

“For instance, I love Keith Jarrett, but I can’t transcribe anything he plays. He just speaks. He doesn’t play anything he doesn’t mean. I can hear Keith Jarrett over and over again, and always get something different. The way his trio works together is amazing. They’re real musical. They’re patient. They don’t mind vamping. They let the music breathe. Wherever it goes, they go. They don’t put a cap on it. Some cats have told me to make my tunes four minutes long, then take it out. But that’s not where the magic is. That’s not why people love Trane and Miles. They actually stretched out, tried to take the music someplace else, and when it’s over, then it’s over.”

Testifying through music comes naturally to Glasper. From toddler years he witnessed his mother — who was not inclined to entrust the care of her child to any third party — singing jazz, gospel, R&B and the blues at various Houston venues and home rehearsals. At 12, pianist Alan Mosley, newly recruited to his mother’s band, sparked the youngster’s jazz flames. Soon, Glasper enrolled at Houston’s High School of Performing and Visual Arts, where such current luminaries as pianist Jason Moran and drummer Eric Harland had studied. By 14, Glasper was playing the church service; by 16, he was earning steady money playing jazz and pop gigs around the Houston area.

Glasper kept working after he got to New York, attending jam sessions and taking obscure gigs around the city. One such was a weekly hit on “a broken-ass keyboard” at a Brooklyn bar called Pork Knockers not far from the apartment of pianist Anthony Wonsey, who happened by on a night when he was playing. Impressed, Wonsey asked Glasper to sub for him with Russell Malone, who became a frequent employer between 1999-2001. During those years he also worked with Christian McBride, Mark Whitfield, Nicholas Payton, and Kenny Garrett. He’s played steadily with Bilal since the singer signed his record deal midway through their second year of school, and appears on Bilal’s recent record First Born, Second.

Such activity left little room for formal studies; Glasper notes, “I blew through school a little bit, and didn’t really take lessons, but the teachers were cool about it.” Meanwhile, he did develop instant simpatico with classmates Marcus Strickland, E.J. Strickland and Brandon Owens who share his aesthetic of not stopping until the piece is done (they’re documented on Marcus Strickland’s excellent quartet album, AT LAST, [FS-101]) and with drummer Damion Reid, a Los Angeles native who came to the New School after a couple of years at the Thelonious Monk School and the New England Conservatory.

“I play trio a lot different than I play with a group,” says Glasper, whose first instrument was drumset. “Damion and I call the way we feel time the circle. We don’t think straight-ahead, like 1-2-3-4. We feel where the measures end, do whatever we have to do between 1 and 4 to get back to the 1, and come in together. Damion is really free, but in time. If your time isn’t strong within yourself, you can’t even play with a drummer like him, because it’s going to sound horrible.”

Hurst elaborates. “These guys were raised on Hip-Hop, and it influences what they play, even in the jazz tradition. In the same way, my generation grew up on P-Funk and Motown and Prince, and we weren’t afraid to let it affect our music. Some people rejected that, and I think the consequence is that they sound stiff and they sound old. Not that you have to put a funk beat on everything. But in my opinion, you have to embrace everything that’s around you, or it’s going to be stale.”

There is nothing stale or old-school about Bilal Oliver’s treatment of “Maiden Voyage.” Treating Herbie Hancock’s classic melody as a kind of ritual invocation, he puts some multi-tracked throatsong-to-falsetto vocalese on top of an affecting reharmonized vamp and a funk-with-a-limp straight-eighth beat.

The trio embarks on their own voyage with Glasper’s “Lil’ Tipsy,” using compression-expansion techniques to explore in painstaking detail a disjunctive dance of inebriation. Glasper uses the concluding vamp as a spur-of-the-moment opportunity to segue directly into “Alone Together.” There ensues an avid triologue, Hurst holding down the bottom as Glasper and Reid, with nonchalant confidence, weave through an obstacle course of rhythmic signatures.

On “Mood,” a quintet track, Moreno and Ellis offer beautiful contrapuntal section playing and pungent solos, capturing the composer’s intent to resolve from a melancholy opening to an impassioned feelgood vamp. Bilal ratchets the intensity on “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” a bluesy jazz ballad to which Glasper wrote the melody and the lyric. Glasper says: “I have a certain feel, a certain way of thinking and imagining and hearing harmony, and it all descends from coming up in and playing music in the church.”

Glasper returns to ebullience on a creative and virtuosic treatment of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.” “There was a detergent commercial that used it during my first year in school,” he relates, “and I was singing it all the time. Then someone told me it was a jazz tune. I arranged it for a concert at school. A year later, I came up with this arrangement.

“‘Interlude’ happened because we kept playing after I faded out from the drum solo, and when I listened to the tape I thought the hip-hop part was hot. Hip-hop is a part of me, too, and I wanted to have that influence on the album.”

“In Passing” began as an elegy for Glasper’s Houston friend, Scooby, who died in 1999. “I never could finish the tune, but I started working on it again when Aliyah died,” Glasper says. “Not too long after that, 9/11 happened. That made me finish the song. It’s about how your time on earth is passing.”

Glasper ends the program with the incendiary “L N K Blues,” setting up a John Ellis-Marcus Strickland tenor battle that implicitly affirms his connection to and extensions of the idiom that defined the sound of jazz in Houston from the ’40s through the ’60s. “My Mom sang in a lot of blues clubs,” he says. “And the church. Blues and church kind of go hand-in-hand. Instead of ‘I love you, baby,’ it’s ‘I love you, God.'”

Perhaps that foundation bedrocks Glasper’s heady blend of spirited play and formal discipline, and allows him to avoid the strut-all-your-stuff trap that so many ambitious young artists fall prey to on first releases.

“This album is not about ego or soloing on every tune,” he concludes. “A lot of jazz purists might not like it because of the way it starts off, with ‘Maiden Voyage’. But the product I’m giving you is based on my experiences with different music and with life. That’s true in the compositions and how I arrange them. That’s what it is.”

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For Danilo Perez’ 54th Birthday, Downbeat Features From 2010 and 2014

Best of birthdays to maestro Danilo Pérez. who turns 54 today. A few years ago on this date , I uploaded a post containing transcripts of an uncut Downbeat Blindfold Test that we did in 2001 and a WKCR interview in 1993. That post linked to a pair of Downbeat articles that it was my honor to write about Danilo in 2010 and 2014 respectively. Today I’m posting the texts of those articles.

 

Danilo Pérez, See a Little Light – Downbeat 2014

At 2:30 in the morning on the penultimate night of the 2014 Panama Jazz Festival, Danilo Pérez hopped off the bandstand of his new, namesake club in the American Trade Hotel in Panama City’s historic Casco Viejo district. He was exhilarated, and for good reason. Pérez had just concluded the week’s final jam session—a fiery encounter with tenor saxophonist George Garzone, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Adam Cruz—with an exorcistic five-minute piano solo on John Coltrane’s “Mr. P.C.”

“That was like Bradley’s,” Pérez called out, punctuating the point with an emphatic fist-bump. The reference was to the late-night Greenwich Village piano saloon where Pérez was a rotation regular from 1989, his first of three years with Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nations Orchestra, until Bradley’s closed in 1996. That was the year Pérez released Panamonk, cementing his status as a multilingual storyteller who renders Afro-Caribbean and hardcore jazz dialects without an accent.

Earlier that evening, Pérez had focused on his latest release, Panama 500 (Mack Avenue), at a concert at the City of Knowledge, a 300-acre former U.S. military base along the Panama Canal where the festival transpired. The 12-tune suite evokes Panama’s half-millennium as a global crossroads, incorporating indigenous melodies and local variants of African-descended rhythms. On the recording, Pérez fleshes them out with structural and harmonic logics developed over a 14-year run with the Wayne Shorter Quartet, and animates them by unleashing two intuitive rhythm sections—bassist Ben Street and Cruz from his working trio of the past decade, and Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade, his partners with Shorter—capable of matching the twists and turns of the leader’s open-ended improvisations. He phrases with a singer’s malleability and a drummer’s effervescence. The concert marked only the second public performance of the work, but Pérez and his unit—Patitucci, Cruz, violinist Alex Hargreaves and conguero-batá drummer Ramon Díaz—delivered it with precision and flair, overcoming a balky sound system, dubious acoustics, and several obstreperous attendees.

Throughout the week, Pérez, 48, multitasked efficiently despite minimal sleep. He fulfilled numerous extra-musical obligations, analyzing the big picture and extinguishing logistical brushfires. At an opening-day press conference, he displayed considerable diplomatic skills, communicating the festival’s educational mission and socio-economic impact in concrete language that the politicians and bureaucrats he shared the stage with could understand and support. He never removed his educator’s hat. There were visits to his Danilo Pérez Foundation, which offers top-shelf musical instruction and life lessons to several hundred at-risk children, 19 of whom have received scholarships to the likes of Berklee College of Music and New England Conservatory. Furthermore, Pérez participated in an array of clinics, workshops and master classes conducted by faculty and an elite octet dubbed the Global Jazz Ambassadors [GJA], culled from the Global Jazz Institute, the 30-student enclave that Berklee hired Pérez to conceptualize and develop a curriculum for in 2010.

After a two-hour rehearsal on the morning before the “Panama 500” concert, and another one with Patitucci and GJA for an evening concert in which he would play timbales, congas and cajon, Pérez walked to the City of Knowledge food court for lunch. Over the next hour, he discussed his creative process, staying on point through periodic interruptions—a fan asked for a photo; a violinist and a documentary filmmaker stopped by the table for separate chats, as did Oswaldo Ayala, a popular Panamanian accordionist-vocalist who would debut a new project that evening when the GJA concert was done.

“Records for me are like signposts, and now we have to make a lot of new windows through which to enter and exit,” Pérez said. “They really need to know all the little details; otherwise, there are places where we could get lost in the mud. I’m excited about finding ways to open up and get those notes off the paper.”

The little details and the portals coexist in equal measure on Panama 500. In its formal complexity, Pérez hearkens to the specificity of intention that infused his ’90s recordings—The Journey and Motherland, both heavily composed meditations on Pan-American themes in which the drums power through, and also blowing-oriented dates like Panamonk and Central Avenue, on which he imparted a funky, Mother Earth feel to an array of odd-meter claves. But the mood is more akin to the spontaneous, fluid, experimental sensibility—a quality of instant composition—that palpably infuses 2005’s Live At The Jazz Showcase (ArtistShare) and 2010’s Providencia (Mack Avenue).

Originally, Pérez had intended to follow Providencia with a less speculative program of standards and originals, but experienced a creative breakthrough after the 2013 festival. “When I got back to Boston I knew what the record would be, that I wanted to tell the human path of what happened when the Spanish discovered—or rediscovered—Panama and the Pacific Ocean,” he said. “I started writing new material and improvising at the piano constantly for two weeks. I was writing for each person in the band to represent a certain aspect of the experience. The violin can be the Spanish colonizer, and then transform into the indigenous.”

Once in the studio, Pérez decided to give the two rhythm sections repertoire that they had not previously worked on. “I didn’t want the feeling on the record that people have complete understanding or control,” he explained. “The more familiar they were with a piece, I chose to go the opposite way. Before I joined Wayne, I would have been panicking that someone didn’t know all the details.”

Cruz recounted the milieu. “There was a lot to digest and process, and each section has a certain character,” he said. “So we were struggling—a fun struggle, but hard work. He’s looking for a way not to feel trapped by what he wrote, so performing it always feels fresh and pregnant with possibility.” By deploying this approach, Pérez mirrored what Street described as the “completely chaotic” environment that pervaded the making of Providencia. “I told his wife I thought we should make changes in the control room or ask people to leave,” Street said. “She looked at me almost pityingly and said, ‘Danilo thrives on chaos.’”

Upon hearing her words back, Patricia Zarate laughed long and hard. “It sounds weird for me to say my husband is special, but Danilo has a lot of charisma,” Zarate said. “He has a natural predisposition to turn really bad situations into good ones, whether it’s a band that sounds really bad that he makes sound really good, or being in the home of a student who lives in extreme poverty, transforming it into a great party. That comes from his father. I see chaos in front of me; they see a little light that I don’t see.”

Danilo Pérez Sr., a well-known Panamanian sonero of the Beny Moré school, became an elementary school teacher during the ’60s. He experimented with ways to use music as a learning tool in poor neighborhoods, and passed them on to his son, who was playing bongos by age 3 and began classical piano studies at 8. “My father clearly demonstrated to me that learning and playing a piece is not the beautiful part,” Pérez said, who played both piano and drums in his father’s bands from an early age. “It’s the struggle to get it. If you can connect to the actual lesson that the music teaches you, you have learned something profound in that process, and it will stay with you forever.”

Gillespie and Shorter, both musical father surrogates, reinforced this basis of operations. “Dizzy said that people need to simmer,” Pérez said. “Let it come from friction. Let people struggle until they find their place. Don’t try to accommodate it. Wayne also told us that. Don’t rush. Don’t make quick assumptions. A big attraction to working in Wayne’s context is that he took away everything that I could use to recycle. He said, ‘Function from the primacy of the ear and find your way in.’ Dizzy talked about that, too. ‘Listen, listen, listen, and then let the music guide you.’ That’s the way I’m doing things now. I’m just trying to redefine things that I have thought about or worked on for years.”

Patitucci, who hosted the Panama 500 rehearsals at his Westchester home, described how Pérez manifested this attitude. “Danilo’s process is long,” Patitucci said. “He came in at 9 a.m. with stuff, but it was just the starting point. He’d literally investigate sounds all day, have a short break, and then go to the gig. That makes him perfect for Wayne’s music, which is not about quick answers and cliches. It’s about probing, searching, the struggle of finding new sounds and dealing with them. Danilo is not in a hurry, and he won’t settle for something expedient. He’ll go for something much deeper.”

Pérez described this mindset as “almost obsessive-compulsive, like a dementia.” He said: “It’s almost like the time stops. I feel more joy and function better when I do that, like a kid finding and creating, doing one little thing for a long time. It’s beyond what my father explained to me. It’s the most human I feel.”

Again, he credited his embrace of this perspective to Shorter’s example. “I’ve been encouraged to take these risks,” Pérez said. “I’ve been allowed to think that the creative process is invaluable. I’m starting to get into an open door to come up with a vocabulary that has been with me for years, since The Journey and Panamonk. On each of them, I was falling in love with little things in my life, and I feel like they’re coming back at me. I’m not chasing them. They’re coming back.”

Pérez now finds himself at a crossroads not so dissimilar to the one he faced 14 years ago, when he decided to table his burgeoning career as a solo artist and commit to Shorter’s quartet. This summer, He will join Patitucci and Blade on the club and festival circuit as the Children of the Light trio, while Shorter, who pushed himself hard during 2013 with numerous 80th birthday events, stays home to compose. Pérez’s 2014 itinerary also includes several runs with the Panama 500 unit and a duo event with Miguel Zenón. He hopes to revive his long-standing partnership with tenor saxophonist David Sánchez, and a more recent relationship with altoist Rudresh Mahanthappa and trumpeter Amir ElSaffar that developed during a 2010 project titled “Celebrating Dizzy,” as yet unrecorded, on which Pérez applied principles of nonattachment to Gillespie’s oeuvre. Speaking of recordings, he has several possibilities in mind—perhaps a singers’ project, perhaps documenting orchestral work, perhaps a solo piano recital on the kind of repertoire he played at Bradley’s back in the day, informed by such early mentors as Donald Brown, Jon Hendricks and Gillespie.

Topping Pérez’s aspirational queue is to generate sufficient income from his club to buy the building that houses the Danilo Pérez Foundation. “My dream is to create the best listening room in Latin America,” he said, noting that a 7-foot grand piano would soon be installed, and that Rob Griffin, Shorter’s sound-engineer/road-manager since the mid-’90s, will be overseeing the details. “We want to provide a creative space where the musicians who go from Panama to the United States can play and develop artistically when they return, and also bring international artists to perform at the club in a way that complements the foundation. I want the foundation to be there forever.”

The foundation’s genesis dates to 1984, when Pérez, a few months shy of 18, left Panama on a Fulbright scholarship to study electrical engineering at Indiana College in Pennsylvania, where he stayed a year before transferring to Berklee—also on scholarship—in 1985. “I promised that I would come back and give time every year,” he said. Pérez committed four days each year over a nine-year span to a music-social outreach project called Jamboree, assembled big bands and taught private classes. “Although Danilo saw all these things as part of his mission, they were disconnected and unsustainable because there wasn’t an institution that could take care of this mission,” Zarate said. “So in 2003 he opened a corporation to create a jazz festival that had a social component. ‘I really need to do this,’ he told me, ‘and I am going to put in the project all the money that I have saved to buy our first house in Boston.’”

Two years later, Pérez—who had been appointed Panama’s Cultural Ambassador in 2000—met K.C. Hardin, a controlling partner of the real estate development company Conservatorio, which was then purchasing numerous properties in Casco Viejo One of them was the National Conservatory of Music, a four-story structure constructed in the 1670s—it was Panama’s first Presidential palace—where Pérez had studied in his youth. Another was the American Trade Building, a 1917 mercantile structure across a small plaza from the conservatory, that had fallen into disrepair. Hardin offered Pérez the first floor of the conservatory for a decade, at no rent, to house the foundation; in 2013, he gave Pérez complete creative control of the Danilo Pérez Jazz Club on the hotel’s ground floor.

Luis-Carlos Pérez (no relation), 35, a one-time DPF student who earned master’s degrees in jazz composition and music education from New England Conservatory, is the foundation’s director of education. “We try to teach the children human values and good habits through music,” he said in the foundation’s main practice room, which contains a Kawai grand piano, a Ludwig drum kit and a marimba. In a back room are two Apple computers with keyboards, and six PCs for students—five of them pay $40 per month; the rest are on scholarship—to do homework and access the internet.

Profanity is forbidden, as is fighting, and wearing shoes is mandatory. “We don’t teach music in a conservatory way,” Luis-Carlos Pérez said. “They need to play, to feel music like a game. We teach them to make different sounds with their body, that their body is their first instrument. Some kids may be sexually harassed; this teaches them to respect their bodies. We give them rhythm instruments, or melodicas on which they learn little tunes. We also teach teamwork, how to listen to each other. If a kid has an attitude problem, we know it’s because something is wrong at home, so we make them the leaders. That was Danilo’s idea.”

Danilo Pérez’s core notion of privileging process over product also infuses his vision for the Global Jazz Institute, whose students play in nursing homes, hospitals and prisons to give them an opportunity to feel, as he puts it, “that their talent brings with it great responsibility.” “At the institute, we teach that everything is connected,” said Marco Pignataro, a Bologna-born saxophonist who has been GJI’s managing director since its inception. “The act of giving is going to affect what you do on stage. Danilo’s teaching reflects his experience with Wayne Shorter—his sense of harmony and orchestration, the idea that creativity and humanity exist at the same time. Offstage, you’re still improvising.”

“Danilo sees the world as one huge combination of things, instead of ‘music is here and other things are there,’” said Zarate, a music therapist whose mother is a neurologist in Chile. “He was a totally different person before Wayne, who totally connects to music therapy. But while I was trying to figure out how to restore movement in people with Parkinson’s Disease, Wayne was talking about how we’re going to move humanity with music.”

For all his preoccupation with the big picture, Pérez is a stickler for fundamentals and idiomatic assimilation of traditions. “I still believe that the core of this music’s sound design and architecture comes from listening to Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, who created a vocabulary that is so representative of North America,” he said. “I emphasize that the kids be aware of bebop. I want them to look at Charlie Parker as a superhero. Their backgrounds are very similar. You see this music speak to them; it comes from the barrio.”

Pérez describes his own background as “poor, working-class,” recalling how his mother, also a teacher, “saved a penny to a penny to raise our level.” He emphasizes that “to be poor then didn’t necessarily mean issues with crime and violence, whereas now it’s implied. It was a super-optimistic, honorable culture. My grandfather would say, ‘A monkey dressed in silk is still a monkey; possessions mean nothing if you’re a crook.’ Those values were passed on to us. My mother studied so hard! I promised myself that I want to learn all my life. That’s why I went to New York, and put myself in situations where I was uncomfortable. I think the ultimate heritage you can leave for your family is the desire not to want things to be easy. When I’d see Dizzy in a corner with a little pencil and music, or Wayne writing 100 bars, that is where it’s at for me: commitment and passion.”

These first principles will continue to inform Pérez’s implementation of his social-humanitarian vision. “I understood from early on that the component of education wasn’t only for musicians,” he said. “I see so many things that could be changed in my country, and I asked myself whether I wanted to be a person who produced the change or one who just complained about it. I decided I’d do whatever it takes that I feel is ethical and moral, that doesn’t go against the values my parents taught me. Another thing I learned from Wayne is that every time you feel resistance, it’s a sign to know you’re on the right path. Use resistance as a fertilizer.”

[—30—]

 

Danilo Perez DB Article 2010 (Final):

“I have to take a risk, otherwise I start to freak out,” said Danilo Perez, after downing a second double espresso at Saturday brunch in the restaurant of his Manhattan hotel. “I understood that early on, even when I was playing with great artists. They wouldn’t like it, because I wouldn’t do the same intro, and maybe I screwed it up the second time.”

The 43-year pianist was midway through a first-four-nights-of-April engagement at the Jazz Standard with a new project dubbed Things To Come: 21st Century Dizzy, on which he and his newest band—alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, trumpeter Amir El Saffar, tenor saxophonist David Sanchez, and percussionist Jamey Haddad, along with drummer Adam Cruz and bassist Ben Street from Perez’ working trio—were deconstructing iconic Dizzy Gillespie repertoire like “Salt Peanuts,” “Con Alma,” “Manteca,” and “Woody ‘n You.” It was only their third meeting, and Perez meant to use his ten club sets to coalesce the flow. There were arrangements, but Perez spontaneously reorchestrated from the piano, cuing on-a-dime shifts in tonality and meter, relentlessly recombining the unit into various duo, trio and quartet configurations.

Ultimately, Perez said, he hoped to extrapolate to the larger ensemble the expansive feel he’s evolved over the past eight years with Street and Cruz, one that Street positioned “somewhere between Keith Jarrett’s late ‘60s-early ‘70s trio with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian and Herbie Hancock’s Inventions and Dimensions record.” Street added: “The music has a lot of emotional freedom, but also an unspoken subtext of rhythmic science that doesn’t always need to be directly addressed.”

“It takes time and patience to be able to go anywhere the music takes us,” Perez said. “Our mission is to uncover new territories inside what’s there to create something unique, and then write to that.” Elaborating as the conversation progressed, Perez referred several times to “writing with windows through which people can enter and exit.”

“I don’t want to write in a dictatorial way, that inhibits personality,” he continued. “I want them to put me in a weird spot.” Perez credited Wayne Shorter, his steady employer since 2001, as the source of this imperative. “Wayne writes you this amazing thing, but then says, ‘Forget that, and bring your own idea—I want to hear your opinion of what I wrote.’”

Cruz cosigned Perez’ consistent non-attachment to material. “If there’s even a smattering of routine on the gig, an ‘Oh, this is what we do’ feeling, Danilo immediately wants to throw a wrench—knock all these pieces over and start again,” he said. Mahanthappa added: “More than anyone I play with, Danilo loves loading a set with surprises to keep things fresh.”

Perez also attributed this predisposition to his experience with Shorter. “He’s given my life a dimension that wasn’t there before—to be committed and fearless, and not focus on the result, but let the stuff morph as it wants to,” he explained. “I’m thinking a lot about what in my life is important to portray, and then letting the music mold and take shape as it goes.” He referenced the title of his just-mixed new album, Providencia [Mack Avenue]. “It’s to prepare for the unknown, for the future, almost as though you’re watching something in forward motion. You let ‘providencia’ take place. I’m thinking a lot about movements and movies, even about struggle. And a lot about children—when I play now, images arise of how children make decisions, doing something and suddenly switching to something else, like organized chaos, but keeping the thread.”

Providencia is a tour de force, a kaleidoscopic suite woven from the core themes that mark Perez’ oeuvre since his eponymous 1993 debut and its 1994 followup, The Journey, on which he presented a mature, expansive, take on Pan-American jazz expression. There are dark, inflamed Panamanian love songs; original programmatic works addressing Panamanian subjects on which the woodwinds and voice that augment the ensemble improvise fluidly within the form; and improvcentric combo tunes that incorporate complex, intoxicating Afro-Caribbean meters—Panama’s tamborito on “Panama Galactic,” for example—and highbrow jazz harmony; a pair of cohesive, spontaneously improvised Perez-Mahanthappa duos towards the end. Throughout the proceedings, the pianist plays with exquisitely calibrated touch, extrapolating the beyond-category voice shaped in the crucible of Shorter’s quintet—Mahanthappa describes it as “the history of jazz piano and 20th century classical music, but improvised, virtuosic, reactive, and musical”—onto the ingenious clave permutations and capacious harmonic palette that established his early career reputation.

The precision of the language and clarity of intention on Providencia belies the loose methodology that Perez deployed in making it. Yet, rather than work with a preordained “text,” Perez, in the manner of a film director who convenes his cast several weeks before shooting to work out characters and plot, constructed his narrative after extensive studio rehearsals.

“I approached it more as a life event than a record date, different than what I’ve done before,” Perez said, referencing his earlier, more curated productions. “I’m living by the code of adventure, to play what I wish for, without preconceptions. I’m fascinated by human collaboration expressed through music, how people with different interests, different loves, can come together and create. The project was a response to an imaginary question from my two daughters: ‘What are you doing to prevent the world from disappearing? What is going to be left for us?’ It’s an invitation to get away from our comfort zone.”

Similar impulses influenced Perez’ decision to collaborate with Mahanthappa and El-Saffar, both high-concept leaders who work with raw materials drawn from South India and Iraq, their respective ancestral cultures, as well as Haddad, a Lebanese-American who specializes in articulating timbres and meters drawn from North African sources. At the Jazz Standard, Perez deftly wove their individualistic tonalities into the overall sonic tapestry. “I was curious to hear how I’d react to an unknown space, like traveling with a person that you never have traveled with or don’t know well,” he said. “I’m attracted to the connotation of globality—the global feel, the idea of bridging gaps.”

[BREAK]

“For me, jazz is the only place where globalization really works,” Perez remarked. He embraced that notion during a 1989-1992 tenure with Dizzy Gillespie’s Pan-American oriented United Nations Orchestra, when his name entered the international jazz conversation.

“Dizzy was a global ambassador, and the idea of doing a project around him seemed appropriate now,” he continued. “I believe that this group can become a sort of healing band. Maybe go to Iraq or India and play a concert with musicians there—have the group reflect how the United Nations or the government should be working.

“When I started playing with Dizzy, I was listening a lot to Bud Powell. Once I played a solo over Rhythm changes, people were congratulating me, but Dizzy sort of said, ‘Yeah…but when are you going to deal with where you come from?’ Later, I somehow added something, and he went CLUCK-CLUCK with the baton, meaning, ‘Whatever you did, just keep going.’ I understand now that by not putting up barriers, Dizzy was practicing his Bahai faith. He wanted to create a cultural passport that functions all around the world, for everybody, and he should be credited for that.”

Mentored by mainstem jazz pianist Donald Brown at Berklee, and seasoned in the idiomatic nuances over a consequential year with Jon Hendricks, who “insisted that I know ALL the history,” Perez drew on Gillespie’s first-hand knowledge of the thought process of such seminal figures as Monk and Powell, whose vocabularies he would assimilate sufficiently to make the rotation at Bradley’s, Manhattan’s A-list piano saloon.

“The education system then was not what it is now,” he said. “They channeled information through the great music of the Western world, mixing that with the rhythms they were working with, and developed a new language. I heard Bach’s flowing lines in Bud’s music, and this helped me start to hear bebop. Dizzy would say, ‘Create counterpoint; if I play this note, find another one in the chord; don’t play all the notes. Position your hands, lift some fingers, and then listen to the sound.’ Wayne talks about it, too: ‘Find the tonal magnetism.’

“When I came to the U.S., something drew me to the word ‘jazz.’ I don’t know any more what it means, but I know the feeling. I understand the emotion from being with the cats at Bradley’s or the masters I played with later. There’s a spontaneity, a moment of joy, something that drives your momentum and makes you feel more optimistic and aware. I realized I had to make a cultural decision to immerse myself in the environment, to hear how people talk, to learn. Then I started making connections—finding common tones. ‘That reminds me of the brothers in Panama—they talk kind of like that.’”

Such experiences bedrocked Perez’ quest to find a trans-Caribbean rhythmic context for Monk’s compositions during the ‘90s, documented on Panamonk [Impulse!], from 1996. The idea germinated, he said, on a 1994 tour with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra devoted to Wynton Marsalis’ arrangements of Monk repertoire.

“They approached that music in a sort of Monk-New Orleans-Panama folkloric way that resonated,” he said. “In Herlin Riley’s playing, I heard the connection between the tambores of Panama and second line rhythms, things that reminded me of danzon and contradanse—it all made sense. I had a similar experience playing with Paquito D’Rivera; I wanted to play jazz and swing, but he focused me on Venezuela and Panama.”

Sharpening that focus were occasional gigs with the Panamaniacs, a short-lived group led by Panama-born bassist Santi DiBriano, who introduced Perez to Panama’s contribution to the jazz timeline—saxophonist Carlos Garnett, pianists Luis Russell and Sonny White, drummer Billy Cobham. Perez contends that the demographic diversity stemming from Panama’s position as a global port produces a cultural mix well suited to jazz expression. He referenced Panama City’s Central Avenue, for which Perez titled a well-wrought 1998 release.

“You hear an Indian cat kind of speaking Spanish, but not really,” he began. “Then a Chinese guy semi-speaking Spanish with Chinese. Then an Afro cat. It’s almost what New York feels like, but in one small country. That’s what one has to portray, that kind of mystical mess—but an organized chaos.”

Within the Panamanian melting pot, Perez was ideally positioned to become an improviser. A child prodigy who studied classical music from age eight, he received first-hand instruction in singing and percussion from his namesake father, now 72, a well-known bandleader and sonero of Afro-Colombian and indigenous descent.

“My father was my first school, my fundamental figure,” said Perez, who became a professional musician at 12, dual-tracking during high school as a math and electronics student at the insistence of his Spanish-descended mother who felt, perhaps from first-hand experience, that music was not a dependable profession. “Music was easy for me since I was little, a language I understood quickly, so he used music to teach me to look at things I needed to function in society—“two plus two is four; four plus four is eight.” At 6 I’d pick up the guitar and start singing, ‘Besame, besame mucho,’ and he would say, ‘sing a second voice.’ ‘Papi, that’s too low.’ Later he had me transcribe Cuban records. Imagine being in that environment 24 hours a day. That connected me to music in intuitively, while the electronics and mathematics—my mother’s side—gave me the discipline and ability to learn things on my own.

“My father said he knew that sooner or later I would decide in favor of music. I think now that I didn’t even have to choose, that I was already walking on the music path and wanted to continue growing on that path. From him I understood early on that being mentored was a key, and I surrounded myself with people that know. I always want to keep being a student, to be in situations I can grow in. Otherwise, I lose touch with how music first spoke to me.”

[BREAK]

In 2001, when he first toured with Wayne Shorter, Perez faced a crossroads. Then 34, fresh from three high-visibility years playing trio with Roy Haynes and John Patitucci, boasting a c.v. that already included several influential Grammy-nominated albums, possessing strong communicative skills and multi-generational peer respect, he appeared on the cusp of the upper echelons of jazz leaders. Instead, he subsumed such aspirations, constructing his next decade’s schedule around Shorter’s itinerary and a full-time professorship at New England Conservatory. He started a family with his wife, a Chilean music therapist, established a foundation in Panama to work with gang members, created the Panama Jazz Festival, became active in Panamanian cultural politics, and allowed his music to marinate.

“When I was 16, I promised that if I ever had an opportunity to go out and do something, I would return to my country and give back,” Perez said. “When I started playing with Wayne, his approach reconnected me with values that I learned with my father as a child. I realized that for my music to continue to flow naturally, I need to keep growing as a human being. I need to intensify my promise.”

In their essence, Shorter’s musical lessons were not so dissimilar from Gillespie’s earlier admonitions. “Early on we were playing ‘JuJu,’ and I was playing things I’d assimilated from earlier listening—McCoy—and Wayne looked at me like this.” Perez made his face blank. “All of a sudden, I saw a bunch of horses—I went with it. Wayne immediately turned and said, ‘That’s the shit right there.’ I kept going for that, to the point where it become a state of mind. Every time I thought about music, he looked at me like this”—he deadpanned—“and every time I disconnected myself and thought about an event, a movie, my daughter, my wife, he’d say, ‘That’s the shit right there.’”

Shorter has offered moral lessons, too, delivered as metaphoric koans but always landing precisely on the one. “Wayne made me realize that courage isn’t determined by trying to climb Mount Everest,” Perez said. “Courage is getting in a relationship and going through the struggle. He said, ‘Happiness doesn’t come for free. We have to fight for it every day, and we have to be inspired.’ He talks about no regrets—they leave wounds. He says, ‘Don’t hide behind your instrument—see who you are.’ Develop things. With Wayne you have to have a lot of tools together, but the most important tool is to be driven by your shamanistic side, your role in society as a musician.”

Perez, who left NEC to assume artistic directorship of Berklee’s Global Jazz Institute last September, is walking that walk. He recalled a mid-‘90s fortnight run at Bradley’s playing duo with Jacky Terrason. “It was 42 sets, and by the 42nd I thought I could play anything I heard. It’s endurance, but also a belief developed by doing this so intensely with people around you. Sometimes artists walk this dangerous path of portraying ourselves individualistically, and forgetting that it’s about all of us. People send messages, energy, and ideas; jazz is important because it brings a community together. We must take up the sword. This is a quiet revolution—you dream your passion. That’s what Wayne talks about.”
[—30—]

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For Wadada Leo Smith’s 77th Birthday, A Downbeat Feature From 2017

In recognition of trumpeter-composer Wadada Leo Smith’s 77th birthday, here’s the text of a long feature that I wrote about him for Downbeat last year in conjunction with his multiple “Critics Poll” victories as “Best Trumpet,” “Best Artist” and “Best Album”

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Late last December, just after Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith turned 75, well before Downbeat’s critics anointed him “Best Trumpet,” “Best Artist” and “Best Album” for 2017, John Lindberg spoke about “the rare arc” that has brought his old friend to “arguably the most productive time of his career.”

“That Wadada has elevated so much in notoriety, recognition and output of work speaks to his endurance, determination and sheer grit, his complete dedication and focus on his work for 40 years,” said Lindberg, who first played with Smith in a creative orchestra concert in 1978, has played bass regularly with Smith’s Golden Quartet and Organic ensembles since 2004, as well as in a long-standing duo, documented in 2015 on Celestial Weather: Midwest Duets. “It’s a coronation of the idea that true art can rise up in its purity and be recognized.”

Smith detailed his work ethic at his midtown hotel on the morning of April 22, day five of a six-night, six-event residency at the Stone, John Zorn’s Lower East Side venue. Only two of the concerts overlapped with his CREATE Festival, an eight-set, Smith-curated event that transpired on April 7 and 8 at Firehouse 12 in New Haven, Connecticut, where Smith lived during the 1970s and returned to in 2013, when he retired after two decades on the faculty of the Herb Alpert School of Music at California Institute of the Arts.

“The practice of making art has been my lifestyle,” Smith said. “I work the same way I worked when I taught school. Every day I get up at sunrise. I do my morning prayer. I have food and coffee or tea. I work until 11, 12 or 1 o’clock—another hour or so if I have a deadline. After that, I may visit my granddaughters and daughters. Then I come home. I cook my dinner. I watch a movie. I go to bed. I have no distortions or intrusions.

“I’ve always written a lot of music, on a scale that if I’d stopped writing ten years ago, I could still record for years. I’ve always been able to receive inspiration and transform it into scores, be they musical scores or literary scores. I read scores—opera scores, orchestral scores, string quartets—for my own satisfaction just like you’d read a novel. I’m looking for an intuitive, mystical connection with how those ideas came about—not with what they are. By doing that, you get a feeling for the decision as it was made, like when Shostakovich wrote that line where the strokes of the violin and various instruments in the quartet are only about dynamics.”

At CREATE Festival, Smith celebrated his Connecticut experiences. He presented a new score for saxophonist-flutist Dwight Andrews and vibraphonist Bobby Naughton, both collaborators in New Dalta Akhri, the ensemble that Smith organized during his first New Haven stay, and members of the Creative Musicians Improvisers Forum, which Smith founded there on the model of Chicago’s AACM, which he himself joined in 1967. Pianist-composer Anthony Davis, a Yale freshman in 1970 when he heard Smith, who had just moved there from Chicago, play a duo concert with Marion Brown in 1970 (he first recorded with Smith on the self-released Reflectativity in 1974 with Wes Brown on bass, recontextualized for Tzadik in 2000 with Malachi Favors), joined the RedKoral String Quartet to play Smith’s “String Quartet No. 10.” Drummer Pheeroan akLaff, who recorded with Smith and Davis in 1976 on Song Of Humanity, performed with the Mbira Trio, with extended techniques flute master Robert Dick and pipa virtuoso Min Xiao-Fen.

Smith also applied his 75-year-old chops to a solo recital mirroring his 2017 release Alone: Reflections and Meditations on Monk (TUM), and, both evenings, to repertoire from America’s National Parks (Cuneiform), the aforementioned Downbeat “Best Album,” on which cellist Ashley Waters, Smith’s one-time student at Cal Arts, joins Davis, Lindberg and akLaff, the core members of Smith’s Golden Quartet for the past decade.

DownBeat caught three concerts at the Stone, including an April 20 performance of “Pacifica” by the Crystal Sextet, on which four violists and electronicist Hardedge, prodded by Smith’s real-time instructions and exhortations, interpreted a graphic score depicting vertically stacked bands of color, progressively more opaque, representing how sunlight refracts in water as it penetrates to its depths. On April 22, Smith presented the kinetic, blues-infused suite, Najwa, using two guitarists (Brandon Ross and Lamar Smith, his 21-year-old grandson) rather than the four who perform on a new Bill Laswell-produced release of that name (TUM), along with akLaff, Hardedge and Laswell on electric bass.

On April 23, Smith concluded his run with “Lake Superior,” a 19-page score drawn from the six-part Great Lakes Suite (TUM), with Henry Threadgill, Lindberg and Jack DeJohnette. For this occasion, Smith convened alto saxophonist Jonathan Haffner, bassist Mark Helias and drummer Marcus Gilmore, who conjured a kaleidoscopic performance after a half-hour pre-concert runthrough. Smith played throughout like a man possessed, leaving it “all on the field” on his final declamation, during which he roared through the trumpet with the power and heat of a practitioner half his age. At one particularly intense moment, he stood on one foot. After another, he leaned against the wall behind him. He took periodic pauses to mop his brow.

When they were done, Smith lifted the score for the audience to see. “I changed this—right here, right now—several times,” he said. “I create this magnificent gray zone where no one knows what’s going on except me. I’m exploring the dimensions of creativity. It’s not written. It’s not thought about. Then they solve the equation. My heart feels pretty incredible.”

He moved to the center of the “bandstand.” “I played the hardest I can possibly play,” Smith said.

The comment mirrored Smith’s remarks the previous morning on the phenomenon of playing with such boldness and in-your-face presence at his age. “I play as strong as I’ve ever played—in some contexts, much stronger,” Smith declared, noting a 2½-octave range, “starting from the bottom octave, around the G or the F#, all the way up to the high F or E, and sometimes G.”

He continued: “That’s a physical and emotional artistic gift. It has nothing to do with the way I practice or conceptualize making music. There’s a lot of misconceptions about making art. One is that you have to practice every day, as hard as you can. Another is that you have to warm up for hours before you play. None of those myths exist for me. I’m not bound by the idea that something has to sound a certain way or be done a certain way. What’s important to me is that, when an inspiration comes, I allow myself to receive it and try to read it the best I can, without inhibition or blockage.”

Smith offered a recent example in New Haven. “I got cramps in both rib sides five minutes after I started playing with the Golden Quintet,” he said. “I decided, ‘Ok, we’re going to see who wins.’ I stretched, which relieved the sharpness, and when I started playing I bent a little lower and didn’t think about it until it was over. When I pick up the trumpet and step out to play, I’m oblivious to everything. Therefore, I play as hard as I can every moment. To make live music—to make art live—is one of the most heroic feelings in the world. You have the possibility and actuality of losing yourself inside that for an hour. It’s cleansing. It regenerates your body, your human condition, your mental and spiritual state.”

Apart from spiritual dimensions, Smith added, “the trumpet came natural to my physique and my intelligence” from almost the moment he started playing it at 12 in Leland, Mississippi. “A few weeks later, before I knew all the notes, I wrote my first piece—for three trumpets,” he said. “I started playing live at 13. That got me out of having to go to the cotton field. In high school I played three nights a week, sometimes four. Even if we drove 150 miles from the gig, I still went to school every day. I learned how to do what I had to do. Trumpet is a tubular instrument, and to play it, you have to understand what happens when its physicality doesn’t match yours. When there’s a breakdown, it becomes traumatic for most people, and they try to correct it. But when the trumpet denies me access, I accept whatever it gives me, play what’s possible at that moment, make something out of it. After I do that, I gain the greatest sense of confidence. I don’t ever worry about if my lips are sore. I’ve played probably four or five mouthpieces for as long as I’ve played the trumpet.

“My sound is authentically me, and it comes from here.” Smith touched his diaphragm and his heart. “It doesn’t come from a mouthpiece. It doesn’t even come from an instrument.”

Smith developed his mighty embouchure by playing and practicing outdoors, both in high school and during his 1962-1966 tenure as an Army musician. “Your sound doesn’t bounce off columns or four walls,” Smith said. “The projection level is just after the bell.” He held his hands about 6 inches apart. “Once it gets past the horn that far, you can hear it almost anywhere, a half-mile or a mile away if there’s no trees.”

Roy Hargrove, presented with “Crossing Sirat” from Smith’s 2009 album Spiritual Dimensions on a Blindfold Test last year, described Smith’s sound as “majestic.” In a separate conversation, Jonathan Finlayson called it “regal.” A more granular, metaphysical appreciation came from Laswell, whose second duo recording with Smith, Sacred Ceremonies, comes out this summer on his M.O.D. label, along with a Smith-Laswell-Milford Graves trio titled Ceremonies and Rituals and a Smith-Graves duo titled Baby Dodds in Congo Square. In each instance, Smith weaves in and out of the rhythm, juxtaposing sound and space with fluid rigor, signifying on the cool, simmering Laswell-engineered ambience with a lustrous, blue-flame tone that contrasts to his white-heat declamations the last two evenings at the Stone.

“He doesn’t do much high-register stuff, which you also find in people like Miles Davis, Don Cherry and Olu Dara,” said Laswell, who documented his first encounter with Smith on the 2014 CD Akashic Meditations (M.O.D.). “When he’s playing warmer tones in the mid-range and lower register, he catches this blues quality without the form. There’s some kind of force with a natural element, not just based on the music experience. Wadada’s been here long enough to accumulate these different feelings and elements and experiences about the human condition, and he’s pouring it back on the world. He plays rivers and lakes and mountains and fields. You don’t find that so much in music. That’s why people are responding.”

In akLaff’s view, Smith now plays with more sustained intensity than when he first entered his orbit. “I remember people writing about my playing the austere and spare music of Leo Smith, and it wasn’t necessarily laudatory,” akLaff said. “During his thirties and forties, Wadada had direct experience with the energy people were playing with during that period, which cannot be repeated. He chose not to get in the fray. You could say composition won out over braggadocio. Now, as a septugenarian, Wadada has that in his pocket, and he’s chosen to be uniquely outstanding with it.”

“Wadada always had this inimitable, immediately recognizable, wide sound with this incredible concept of using space and texture and color,” Lindberg said. “But if someone asked me which trumpet player is going to blow the roof off the place every night, he wouldn’t have jumped to mind at the top of the list. But ever since 2004, when I joined the version of the Golden Quartet with Ronald Shannon Jackson and Vijay Iyer, I cannot recall a performance where he hasn’t played really hard. I don’t think he can help himself.”

Smith’s “gray zone” reference after the April 23 concert illuminated his penchant for deploying micronic control of timbre to maneuver and shape the flow within the diverse instrumentations and contexts that he explores. “Wadada’s notation system seamlessly represents composed, fixed elements while allowing for the spontaneous innovation of the player to be embedded within it,” Davis said. “His music was always developed and multifaceted, taking us as performers on a journey through different structures, moods, settings and techniques. You always have to be on your toes, because the structure can change on a dime. You look at the whole score, not just your part—according to what Wadada plays, you might have to go to a different section. That keeps the music fresh; the composition is a living, breathing thing.”

Davis regards America’s National Parks as “a natural progression” from Smith’s epic Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform), recorded in late 2011, with the Golden Quartet and a nine-piece chamber ensemble. Smith took as his subject pivotal events, themes and protagonists in the African-American struggle for civil rights over a 145-year timeline. “Ten Freedom Summers was more turbulent than this album, which emphasizes the more lyrical side of Wadada’s music and playing, and has a beautiful flow,” Davis said.

In 2015, Smith was looking for “another project that would make sense and give me the opportunity to showcase another aspect of my art,” when he received a copy of Ken Burns’ American National Parks documentary. “I wanted to expand the idea of national parks, and also not make them into cathedrals, sacred ground for some kind of religious endeavor, as Burns did,” Smith said. In his vision, New Orleans, which gestated “the first authentic music in America,” is a national cultural park; Dr. Eileen Southern, author of the comprehensive, pathbreaking Black Music in America, is a literary national park. “New Orleans and Dr. Southern are common property for everyone, just like Yellowstone, Sequoia, and Yosemite, that should be held in trust for every generation of Americans coming forward to participate in, appreciate and understand,” Smith said.

Lindberg related that in the process of conceptualizing and rehearsing Ten Freedom Summers, Smith engaged in “literal depictions and discussions about the events that inspired certain pieces.” Conversely, when conceiving America’s National Parks, Smith followed a process of metaphoric refraction. “I’m not trying to achieve musical portraits of a spot or a piece of land or a book,” he said. “Through meditation, reflection, contemplation and research, I profile these entities psychologically and aesthetically to give me deeper insight into what that particular something means.”

Although he didn’t say so explicitly, Smith follows that refractive m.o. in Alone: Reflections and Meditations on Monk, his fourth solo album, comprising four songs by Monk and four by Smith, among them an original titled “Mystery: Monk and Bud Powell at Shea Stadium.” “I won’t resolve that mystery, but I’m fascinated to see how it’s taken,” Smith said of the implied narrative. He located his booklet note remarks on Monk on his iPhone, and read: In this life, I am closer to you than any other artist, not in the way you inform your music practice and ensemble intelligence, but in the way we calculate inspiration.

“I’m challenging the notion that Monk’s music is purely harmonic, saying it can be performed in multiple languages in a way believable to the listener,” Smith said. “I use melodic elements to evolve the solo passages. Some are composed as fragments, some as long extended lines. When I play through it, I spontaneously select from those composed melodic elements the portions that I need; what I select is based off what I played before, and also where I’m going from there.”

Where is Smith going as he progresses through the second half of his eighth decade? Among other things, he anticipates releasing another dozen or so completed albums, including his complete string and viola quartets, and a trio date with Vijay Iyer and Jack DeJohnette. Their release will likely generate further critical acclaim. He won’t turn it down.

“When I was a young, developing artist, my friends and associates in the AACM, and other independent artists whose viewpoints I respect, all thought of DownBeat as the most major component for this music,” Smith said. “DownBeat has covered this music for 80 years, and written about the major artists of our times. I’ve grown, of course, but I do the same thing I’ve done all along. I did it without wondering whether I’d ever get an award. So having Downbeat recognize in 2013 that I’m a composer of value with the Composer of the Year award for Ten Freedom Summers, and now Record of the Year, Artist Of the Year and Trumpeter of the Year—that’s like a grand slam, to use a baseball metaphor.”

Ted Panken

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Filed under AACM, DownBeat, trumpet, Wadada Leo Smith

A 2012 Downbeat article with trumpeter Paolo Fresu, a 2012 Blindfold/Winefold Test with Fresu, and the complete interview for the Downbeat article

Earlier today, I uploaded an omnibus post documenting my encounter with Enrico Rava at the Barcelona Jazz Festival in 2011. The following year, 2012, I returned to Barcelona to do another Downbeat Blindfold/Winefold Test, this one with the magnificent, mystical trumpeter Paolo Fresu, who I also interviewed for an article of reasonable length. The order here is, first, the article; then the Blindfold/Winefold Test; then the complete interview that generated the article. (I’ll be conducting a public interview with Fresu in Milan on Nov. 4th.)

 

Paolo Fresu Article:

On Tuesday, November 13th, his last day in Spain after a string of consecutive concerts—duos with Cuban pianist Omar Sosa in Madrid, Malaga, Seville, and Granada; a duo in Manresa with nuevo flamenco guitarist Niño Josele; a performance in Barcelona two nights previous with the Alborada String Quartet, and, the previous evening, at the wine club Monvinic, a programmatic solo suite of eight compositions that refracted his impressions of eight different Catalan vineyards—Paolo Fresu took a day off from playing the trumpet and flugelhorn. Fresu slept in, then descended to the lobby of the Hotel Gran Havana with his bags and instruments and checked them at the desk. After grabbing an espresso and a few bites of croissant at a café, he proceeded to Monvinic, where he devoted his attention to the nine musical selections—each matched to a separate glass of wine—comprising the DownBeat Blindfold/Winefold Test. Later, after a lunch of couscous salad and a bottle of beer, he returned to the hotel lobby for a conversation.

“I am happy when I can play with different bands every night, because it’s so creative—each time, good questions and a new answer,” Fresu remarked. He described a summer 2011 project, undertaken for his fiftieth birthday, involving 50 concerts in 50 nights at 50 different locales in Sardinia, the Italian island that is his homeland, using solar-powered generators for amplification. “I like to change, to jump into the projects. It’s easy for me to do, because on all of them we have a good level of communication. And the first thing you need for communication is the sound. If you share your sound with the other musicians, it’s very easy to play and learn music with them. If the sound is good and we have good relations, you can find a good place in any music without a problem.”

In a few hours, Fresu would return to actualizing this principle on the road, catching an evening flight to Geneva, where, the following evening, he would apply his big, round sound to a triologue with accordionist Bebo Ferra and soprano saxophonist Gavino Murgia. On next evening, he would perform a solo “action” in Lausanne connected with an art premiere; on the next, another duo with Sosa in Conhillac; on the next, a performance in Toulon with the Corsican choir A Filetta and accordionist Daniele Di Bonaventura in conjunction with the 2011 ECM release Mistico Mediterraneo. From Toulon he’d proceed to Soresina, in northern Italy, for a duo with pianist Dado Moroni, then a second day off before concluding this 14-night tour in Cenon, France, again in duo with Sosa, with whom—and Brazilian cellist Jacques Morelenbaum—he recorded Alma [Otá] in 2011.

“For me, Paolo’s voice is a mix of Chet Baker and Miles Davis with a bit of his own Mediterranean touch,” Sosa said, describing what it feels like to play with his frequent partner. “Sometimes his voice is like a little bird, sometimes an angel drawing me to a special direction—a little voice that you can listen to in your dream.”

Sosa recounted their first meeting, perhaps a dozen years ago at the festival that Fresu has curated since 1988 in his hometown, Berchidda, a farming village of 3200 souls near the northeast coast of Sardinia.

“It was Paolo’s concept to present a band at the main stage, and then a special project the next day in a different part of the island,” Sosa said. “He invited me to play solo by a eucalyptus tree. In the middle of the concert, I heard a trumpet. I looked around. It was Paolo on top of the tree. I thought, ‘Wow, my man is crazy.’ I switched to play some real conceptual Latin thing, and he followed. I said, ‘Hey, my man is in the tree, but he listened to what I do.’ He’s got the freedom to create a moment and a space and be himself, no matter what happens.”

“Why not play over the tree?” Fresu asked rhetorically. “The tree is one of the elements of this concert. For me, place is very important in music.” He mentioned a Berchidda encounter under that eucalyptus tree with Tunisian oudist Dhafer Youssef and Vietnamese guitarist Nguyen Lê; a duo with Bill Frisell “in the middle of nowhere”; and a Dadaesque meta-event with pianist Uri Caine, his frequent duo partner since the middle-aughts (documented on Things (2006) and Think (2009) [EMI/Blue Note]).

“Uri was in the train station in my village,” Fresu recounted. “The train stopped. Uri played ‘I Love You Porgy.’ The train started again. We go by car to the next station. When the train arrived, Uri was there with the same piano and the same song.

“In contemporary society, we think about jazz music in jazz clubs or in theaters. It’s always the same dynamics—you’re in your seat, you wait for the musician, the musician arrives, you clap, he plays, and then you go home. The relationship between the place, the music, and the people is a magical thing. If we are together in a new place, in a mountain or by a lake or the sea, or in a small church in Sardinia, or a hospital or a prison, the energy and feeling is completely different. It’s not comfortable, and this is nice for the music—you know you need to exert more energy, play better than always, because the place is bigger than you. Communication is a political word, I know, but it is very important. Every concert is a kind of tale, but we need to read the same book.”

Fresu didn’t mention it, but according to Caine, “thousands of people” attended the 50 concerts in 50 places marathon. “Paolo wants music to be a way to show something else,” he said. “We play a lot of standards, but also Sardinian and Italian folk music, and classical and baroque music. He’s always thinking about the moods, and he gets into them, which makes it easy to play. As you play over a period of time, you focus on the details, the different things you can do within those moods. That seems to capture the imagination not just of the people who are playing the music, but the audience.” Whatever the context, Caine added, “he sounds very lyric and can also swing.”

[BREAK]

In Fresu’s opinion, his ability to refract diverse musical dialects into a holistic conception stems in great part from the quality of his relationships. “I have played with the same people for many years,” he said. As a first example, Fresu offered his postbop-oriented Italian quintet, in which he’s played with saxophonist Tino Tracanna, pianist Roberto Cipelli, bassist Attilio Zanchi, and drummer Ettore Fioravanti since 1983. He noted his long-standing trio with pianist-accordionist Antonello Salis and bassist Furio DiCastri; the decade’s tenure of the Angel Quartet (Nguyen Lê, guitars; DiCastri, bass; Roberto Gatto, drums); and the still-ongoing eight-year run of the Devil Quartet, with Ferra on guitars, Paolino Della Porta on bass, and Stefano Bagnoli on drums. He cited his seven-year association with Caine; a decade-plus of breaking bread with Yousef and Lê; and five years with Ralph Towner (the latter documented on the 2009 ECM disk Chiaroscuro) and the Mare Nostrum trio with accordionist Richard Galliano and pianist Jan Lundstrom.

“It is fantastic,” said Fresu of such long-haul partnerships, “because finally we have one sound. You hear a concert live, and the first thing you remember is the sound of the concert. It’s like the first idea of the menu, and then you go inside and think of the saxophone player or the pianist. If the cover isn’t so good, then maybe the rest isn’t important. When I started my quintet and quartet, the first thing was to create a good cover for the music, which wasn’t easy. After three or four years, you can go everywhere, and it’s all like your music. It’s important when you play a standard that your version is different than the 2,000 versions before.”

A self-taught player, Fresu refined his ears and developed the notion of music as conversation during a long apprenticeship in Berchidda’s marching band, “My brother had played trumpet for them, and gave it up,” he recalled. “When I was 11, I asked the maestro to let me be part of the group, which I had been following in the street, and when he gave me the first score, I knew it very well. From 1972 until 1979, when I was 18, I played for them, and also weddings with small combos and dances in the square.” He discovered jazz soon after matriculating at the Conservatory of Cagliari, at Sardinia’s southern tip, when he heard on the radio an unidentified bebop trumpeter. “I was completely shocked at this fast playing, and was impressed by the gymnastics. Then I heard Miles—‘Round Midnight,’ 1956, Columbia, with Coltrane and Miles on the Harmon mute. I thought, ‘OK, this is my idea of music’ because there was a lot of silence, and it’s like the voice of Miles is there. I spent many months trying to play exactly like this. The attrazzione of the music was not how many notes we can play, but one note and the silence after this.”

Not long thereafter, he heard a cassette of Miles playing “Autumn Leaves” from the In Europe album of 1963. “I knew it as ‘Le Foglie Miele,’” Fresu says. “Although I listened every day for a week, I couldn’t hear the theme, which was distorted and complex. That was my first lesson that jazz was freedom. It is possible to play very simple things in a very complicated way.

“When I think about Miles, I think about the architettura, the system of constructing the music in my quintet. I also liked Chet and Clifford Brown and Freddie Hubbard. Dizzy, too, but Dizzy was really difficult. When I think about the jazz standard, maybe Chet is the first idea. Very lyrical, always an even, quarter-note swing, and also creative in that you play one melody and then try to move the melody in another way. I like to be very close to the tradition, not to play it exactly, but in this way, and then I like to go very far with other things. Today’s musicians have a big responsibility to connect the past with the music’s future. Every one of the nine trumpet players we heard today tried to find it.”

This imperative to connect ancient and modern, to find common ground between Sardinian vernaculars and musical dialects of other cultures, deeply informs Fresu’s intense partnerships with Sosa, Youssef and Lê. Towards this end, he interpolates into the flow real-time electronics, both to lengthen the notes from his trumpet and flugelhorn, whether Harmon-ized or open, and to augment his acoustic tone with a lexicon of celestial shrieks and rumbly whispers. During the two Barcelona concerts, he also showcased an extraordinary circular breathing technique, which he learned on performances with Luigi Lai, “a big maestro” of the launeddas, an indigenous polyphonic Sardinian instrument.

“I developed this, but nobody showed me,” he said. “It’s just that I am very fond of Sardinian traditional music, and jazz and classical started to mix with it. Maybe that relationship was the door to my playing projects with people from Brittany or Vietnam or North Africa or Cuba. One day I was flying from Paris to Tunis. When the captain said, ‘We’re arriving in twenty minutes,’ I looked out the window, and there was Cagliari. It’s just across the water from Africa. Also, the Spanish people were in Sardinia for 300 years; the people from Alghero, where my wife is from, speak fluent Catalan. So there’s a relationship between Morocco and Spain and Sardinia, which is why Cuban culture is not far.”

Sosa himself perceives a close connection between Cuban and Sardinian folk traditions. “You can hear the counterpoint of the guajira in the canto a tenore,” he said. “They have something called mamuthones, a mask the country people use to put away the spirit. We have the same thing in the abakua tradition in Cuba.”

To explore and illuminate these ritualistic connections, to evoke palpably such spirits of the past is Fresu’s primary goal in deploying electronics, which he considers a separate instrument. “It’s primitive, archetypal, mystical music,” he said. “I started using electronic stuff just to preserve the sound quality when I’d change to Harmon mute on stage, because the sound engineers knew nothing and fucked it up. As I played with it, and listened to people like Mark Isham and Jon Hassell, who is the master for everyone in Europe who uses electronics, I discovered different possibilities of harmonizers and delays.

“I like very much to stay in many rooms, and sometimes also to try to open the new rooms. Sometimes you go inside the new one, and it’s completely empty. There’s no window. There’s nothing. It’s dark. But sometimes you enter a new room with another window or another door. So my philosophy is to try every day new things, but also always in relationship with the tradition and with the past. It’s not music from any particular countries. It’s emotional music, like a table with a lot of plates. Everybody can take something for food.”

[—30—]

************

Paolo Fresu Blindfold Test (Raw):

[WINE DESCRIPTIONS ARE IN ITALICS]

1. Brian Lynch, “Wetu” (from Unsung Heroes, Hollistic Musicworks, 2009) (Lynch, trumpet; Vincent Herring, alto saxophone; Alex Hoffman, tenor saxophone; Rob Schneiderman, piano; David Wong, bass; Pete Van Nostrand, drums; Louis Smith, composer)

López de Heredia Rioja Viña Tondonia blanco

This work of Brian Lynch is a tribute to musicians that has some influence, the “heroes” of the past, in this case the fast tempo reminds us the bebop.

To keep the legacy of our grandfathers and make of each bottle a tribute of them, is the goal of the family López de Heredia. They kwon that all what they do and what they are, is thanks to the received legacy. Their wines have the unique taste of the traditional old fashioned style of white Rioja.

I’ll try to speak in English, and sometimes in a kind of Esperanto language—Italian, Sardinian, Spanish, and Castiliano. [WHILE MUSIC IS PLAYING] It feels like “Donna Lee,” but it’s not “Donna Lee.” I don’t know who is the trumpet, but this is fantastic. He’s a young one. More or less? [Middle-aged.] It is mainstream jazz, but it is very interesting language with trumpet. It’s between Miles sometimes… It’s like Miles, some phrases, and sometimes it’s a bop player. I don’t know which name is the tune. Some phrases, it’s like “Donna Lee” from the endings. [MUSIC FADES] I don’t know who is the trumpet player, but this is a good one. I like very much! I don’t know which is the theme. I think it’s an original theme. But the idea is… It’s like “Donna Lee,” the Charlie Parker tune that starts for the ending. Perhaps we can put on the ending just for the theme, because it’s very interesting. [SINGS OPENING REFRAIN OF “DONNA LEE”] Yeah, it’s nice. I like it. I liked also the short solo of the alto player, that this was the ending… The starting of the solo was like Paul Desmond and this kind of area. I don’t know who is the trumpet player. Maybe it would be Roy Hargrove or one of those, but maybe not.

[“As a young trumpet player, after you discovered jazz, was bebop… Everyone knows you love Miles Davis and Chet Baker, but was bebop also important to you?”] The first trumpet player I heard in my life was on the radio, because there was not a sound system at home—like this, but also the basic one. It was on the radio, and there was a bebop player. I don’t know which one. It was the first time for me with jazz. It was completely new music. Maybe it was Clifford Brown or Lee Morgan or Donald Byrd or one of those. I was completely shocked about this. But not for… I was completely shocked for this kind of faster playing. It’s not possible for human people to play the trumpet like this! This was my first approach with jazz.

And then, after this, I heard Miles. The first one was “Round Midnight,” 1956, Columbia, with Coltrane and Miles with the Harmon mute also. And I think, “Ok, this is my idea of the music,” because there was a lot of silence. The Miles sound was amazing, incredible, because the sound of “Round Midnight,” when Miles started with the theme, it’s like the voice of Miles is there. I spent many, many months to try to play exactly like this. [LAUGHS] I remember finally I buy one sound system (it’s not like this one) and one microphone that I put in the sound system, and with the headphone I try to play one note, and the same elsewhere with the Miles sound.

So the first approach with jazz was the radio, and I was very impressed about the gymnastics of the music. The second one was Miles, and it was completely different. So the attrazzione for the music was not how many notes we can play, but one note and the silence after this. The strange thing is that I was in Sassari. Sassari is the town near my small village, just 70 kilometers, and every day I take bus to go there—round trip. People that were a jazz fan were playing in the cave in one cantina there, and they invite me to play with them. I played before with dancing groups for the square in Sardinia, the (?—12:31) or mazurka and polka and valse, and the Stevie Wonder covers, and Lucio Dala, the Italian pop star.

I played also the “Autumn Leaves” theme. The name in Italian “Les Foglie Morte.” [SINGS REFRAIN] One day the piano player gave to me one cassette with the theme of “Autumn Leaves.” I say, “Ok, but I know this theme.” But he gave me the cassette, and said, “Ok, go home and try to listen to this one.” I was at home, and for one week, every day, I heard the cassette, but the theme was not there; “Autumn Leaves” was not in this cassette. After one week I come back to Sassari and say, “Sorry, it was wrong information; the cassette is not this one, because I know the theme of ‘Autumn Leaves.’” But the version was Miles in 1963 in Joan Les Pins. The theme was completely different. The distortion of the theme was complicated. This one was my first lesson about jazz, that jazz was the freedom. It was possible to play very simple things in a very complicated way.

Then, after Miles, Chet was the other one that I liked. I heard also older trumpet players. But not Louis Armstrong. I know about Louis Armstrong many years after, and I know that this way is the same for me as Enrico Rava and Kenny Wheeler, a lot of European players, who think that Louis Armstrong is a very, very old age, you know… But finally, probably, he’s the main one or the best one, very modern for this period. The swing of Louis Armstrong, the sound, the idea, the relationship between melody and idea was incredible. So maybe Louis is the best one finally

[“Back to the piece we played… I don’t know how many times you’ve seen the Blindfold Test, which is optional, but strongly urged, from 1 to 5 stars.”]

The trumpet player maybe is 4 stars, but I stay at 3½ because I don’t know what happened after. [AFTER] “It’s from an album dedicated to his influences, trumpet heroes, but lesser-known trumpet influences.”

2. Wadada Leo Smith, “Spiritual Wayfarers” (from Heart’s Reflections, Cuneiform, 2011) (Smith, trumpet, composer; Michael Gregory, Brandon Ross, electric guitars; Angelica Sanchez, piano; John Lindberg, acoustic bass; Skuli Sverrisson, electric bass; Pheeroan akLaff, drums)

Goyo Garcia Viadero Ribera del Duero Valdeolmos

Free Jazz.

Goyo García Viadero represents the freedom, the return to the origins, to the “natural wine” without any intervention. The spontaneous fermentation of the indigenous yeast makes a wine that expresses itself in a free way, far from the uniform style and rigid forms characteristic in the modern wines of Ribera del Duero.

Some phrases… I like the idea of the mix with electric guitar and the feeling of the tempo. It’s not easy, because he played just a few notes. The piece is under construction. I like the music, the mix between sounds and electric guitar. It’s like Miles’ idea in the ‘70s. I like this kind of thing, intervenzione of the trumpet that is… It’s no theme. Or it’s a little theme that is a little bit “Jean Pierre” in some moments. The trumpet player…I know it is not him, but the sound of him in some moments is like Don Ellis. But it’s not him, and it’s very far from Don Ellis, but the idea of the sound, especially in the highest register, is like him. But I don’t know who is the player. 3 stars. [AFTER] I know this record. I have this record. [LAUGHS]

3. Wallace Roney, “Pacific Express” (from Home, High Note, 2011) (Roney, trumpet; Antoine Roney, soprano saxophone; Aruan Ortiz, keyboards; Rahsaan Carter, bass; Kush Abadey, drums; John McLaughlin, composer)

Jerome Prevost Champagne La Closerie Fac-Simile Rosé

Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie are some of the greatest trumpeters in the history of Jazz that influenced the career of Wallace Roney.

Jerome Prevost has a characteristic style with wines aged in barrels, with a deliberate oxidation, that adds complexity. Disciple of Anselme Selosse, (who is one of the most influential producers and with a best reputation in the last times in Champagne) you can recognize the keys of the style of the master in his wines.

I don’t have any idea who the trumpeter is. Is it an American trumpet player? A black trumpet player? A young one? [No. Your age.] Is this one of those like Roy Hargrove or… [MUSIC ENDS] I don’t know who is the trumpet player. The sound is like Miles in the ‘80s, and the trumpet player plays like Miles—not exactly like Miles, but the idea of the construction of the phrases is like Miles. I like very much the soprano saxophone solo, the sound and the architecture of the solo, but I don’t know who the trumpet player is. I like him, but in this case I prefer… I like the trumpet player, but I was not convinto about the idea of the solo, the construction of the solo. It was always without the dynamics, and I prefer the second one, for example—the saxophone solo. The sound is nice, but something that is not in a good way—for me, of course. 2½ stars. [AFTER] Ah, I understand now the kind of tune that they’re playing and the idea of the music.

4. Ron Miles, “Guest of Honor” (from Quiver, Enja, 2012) (Miles, trumpet, composer; Bill Frisell, guitar; Brian Blade, drums)

Valdespino Sherry Fino Inocente

“Miles plays brilliantly, singing the melodies with a tone bright and vocalized, tinged with melancholy…” –Down Beat

This wine has one of the most pure and precise aromatic and stylistic definitions. It is made with grapes that come from a unique single vineyard. Probably the Macharnudo vineyard, where grow the grapes of this particular wine, will deserve to be among the greatest names of the world of wine. Tinged with the melancholy of a glorious past.

This is like a kind of European idea for the composition. [MUSIC ENDS] I liked the tune. I liked the idea of the tune. It would be very close to the Fellini mood, like Nino Rota. The theme is very nice, with a lot of sense of humor. The sound of the guitar player is like Frisell, but it’s not him. But I don’t know who is the trumpet player. Because he played just the theme, and there’s no solos, nothing, and it’s not easy to find it. [“what did you mean that it’s a European idea of composition?”] That it’s the idea where the melody is very long, and it’s not solos inside, and… Well, the idea of the song would be like Enrico, for example. Sometimes Enrico writes a composition where the theme is the most important thing in the record. This one is without solos, and the melody is very long, and all the information about the song is inside in the melody. Then also, of course, the interplay between the guitar player, the bass player, and the drummer. But the idea of the composition for me is very European. So for these reasons. It’s difficult to rate this. I liked very much the song. Maybe 3½, because finally I like very much the idea of the music. I have no questions, because if I like it, I like it. [AFTER] Wow. [Vittorio: He loves your music.] Ah, that was Bill! It’s strange, Bill. Because the sound of Bill is more ambient, reverb… Here it was very dry. The reason why I thought it was not him—but it was very close to him, of course.

5. Etienne Charles, “J’ouvert Barrio” (from Kaiso, Culture Shock, 2011) (Charles, trumpet; Brian Hogans, alto saxophone; Jacques Schwartz-Bart, tenor saxophone; Sullivan Fortner, piano; Ben Williams, bass; Obed Calvaire, drums)

Springfield Robertson Sauvignon blanc

Fusion Jazz with Caribbean rhythms

This wine represents the perfect fusion of a French grape planted in South Africa, where develop its own personality. The grape Sauvignon blanc comes from the Loire Valley, and the wine there is austere, fresh and with restrained aromas. But in other parts of the world, like in this case South Africa, the wine becomes lush, with exotic perfumes of tropical fruits, without the loose of its essence of a dry fresh wine.

This is the school of Freddie [Hubbard], the idea of his… But the record is different, because Freddie was more… He played with a lot of dynamics and different ideas at the same time. Is it a black player or a white trumpet player? American? [Not from the United States.] [MUSIC ENDS] The music is a kind of mix with Latin jazz. But the language is not in this way. It’s modern jazz. I liked the mix between both languages. I liked the song. I liked the interplay between the musicians. The piano player is fantastic. I like also this idea, the mix of the Latin rhythmic parts with the theme. I don’t know who the trumpet player is, but I like him. The sound sometimes is very close to Freddie for me, in some moments. But the difference is that Freddie was always very…started the solo here, and finish with incredible projection…projezzione, the solo… So he played sometimes like Freddie Hubbard, but then he left this idea and go into new ones and new… He had a lot of ideas and he started with one, and then it’s finished, and then he goes to another one. But I don’t know who the player is. 3 stars. [AFTER] Where is the trumpet player from? [He’s from Trinidad.] He’s a young guy? [About 30.]

6. Tom Harrell, “Journey To The Stars” (from Number Five, High Note, 2012) (Harrell, solo flugelhorn and overdubbed trumpet chorus, composer; Danny Grissett, piano)

Bruno Lorenzon Mercurey Cuvée Carline

In the last years the greatest wines for some critics and some amateurs, has been those that use to have a lot of color, body and concentration. The grape Pinot Noir, fight against the difficulties, the lack of color and power, with its intense perfume and its delicate character.

And into a glass of wine becomes the favorite for the aficionados.

The wines of Brune Lorenzon have a soft velvet texture, with a fresh and persistent taste. And the aromas are delicate and penetrating, pure aromatic lyricism.

This is an American guy? Yes? He’s young. No? I like the sound and the idea of the two trumpets, the harmon mute. But the sound is like a European trumpet player. For example, the Italian trumpeter, Flavio Boltro, plays with this idea. I don’t know if he’s on flugelhorn or on trumpet. [Ralph Alessi: “flugelhorn”] I like also the sound of the Harmon mute. Sometimes a lot of trumpet players, when they play with the Harmon mute, the sound is not… For me, the sound of the Harmon mute is the Miles one! When the Harmon mute is so small… I like, for example, for the European ones, the sound of Palle Mikkelborg—that is one of the best about this idea. This is the first one that plays also a little like myself. It’s different, of course, But the idea of the phrases and the sound, the Harmon sound and the flugelhorn sound, is more or less the same. In this song, the construction of the phrases is like the short ideas, so one here, the other one here, but every one is in relationship with each other. Finally, it’s akind of small colors, a lot of different colors, but with just one line. There’s a kind of impressionistic music. The piano plays the same thing. It’s like minimal music, or ambient music. Then, over this, so that the flugelhorn is floating over it…and the color of the Harmon mute is the last stroke. Of course, it’s just piano and trumpet. So the difference between this one and the pieces we heard before is that here you have no interplay, but the piano is just the carpet for the ideas. The sound is very nice. So everything is in the perfect place. I don’t know who it was. I had ideas about the European ones who play…not exactly, but like him. But I don’t know who it is. In everyone I ask you if this is a young guy or not, and you say, “no, it’s not very young,” but the problem is we don’t know… I am 51, and for me, I am very young, and my perspective about the age is completely different from before. Because for me, the young player are the people who are 25 years or 30—maximum—years old. Maybe not for you. [I’m 57.] You’re 57. [So you’re young.] Because for me, the young trumpet player is all the guys who were growing up with me. For example, Roy Hargrove or Dave Douglas or people like that, are young people, and Ralph Alessi is a young person, but maybe not for the other. It is very sad! 5 stars. No, 4. [Why did you say 5 and then correct?] No, it was a mistake. It was a lapse. A Freud lapse. [AFTER] Of course ! [POUNDS TABLE] So now everything is clear. [“He’s very popular in Italy.”] Yeah, I’m played with him also. He’s one of my favorite trumpet players. Because the sound is fantastic, and he plays with a lot of emotion, so every note is the good one. This is the reason why, when I heard it, my idea was transferred to Europe, because we have a lot of trumpet players who can play like him—not with the same quality, but… And he’s also very close to me because the idea about the music is the same.

7. Dave Douglas, “Frontier Justice” (from Orange Afternoons, Greenleaf, 2011) (Douglas, trumpet, composer; Ravi Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Vijay Iyer, piano; Linda Oh, bass; Marcus Gilmore, drums)

Navazos-Niepoort Andalucia 2010

“The recordings focus on short, informal sessions featuring Douglas with different groups in an effort to bring music quickly from the studio to the fans. Reminiscent of Miles Davis’ Workin,’ Steamin,’ Relaxin,’ and Cookin’ albums on Prestige Records which, according to jazz lore, were recorded in just two days and mostly in single takes. Many albums of the 1950s and 60s were recorded this way, and Greenleaf looks to this style of recording as a model.”

This wine represents the recover of what was supposed to be the Sherry wines in the XVIII century. An effort to recover an style of wine and lost techniques. The layer of yeast that covers the wine for a few months appears in a spontaneous way and adds the peculiar taste to this wine. The wine comes from a single vintage, without the traditional blending of different vintages, and the long ageing in barrels,

I know that horn player from the three notes, just like this, and also for the construction of the music. It’s a lot of information at the same moment, and I like this. The saxophone player sometimes is like Lovano. I don’t know who is the piano player. I’m thinking about Uri [Caine], but it’s not Uri. Is the drummer Clarence Penn? Also, the sound is Dave, but it was easy for me when he had the three notes, the chops that I know. The exact moment that he played those notes, I know. [AFTER MUSIC] Dave Douglas. Finally, one! After six… [APPLAUSE] It’s very interesting, because I think about him because the construction of the music was very complicated, so it’s much information at the same time. But then, the moment that I know that it was Dave was when he played three notes in the highest register with one special inflection of the tuning that I know. It’s nice. I like the song. The feeling of the song is like Wayne Shorter compositions from the Miles period. I like also the saxophone player, who played a little bit like Joe Lovano, but it’s not him, of course. I have no idea about the piano; I was thinking about Uri, but it’s not him. I thought the drummer was Clarence Penn, but it’s not. 4 stars. [AFTER] I think about Linda, but I was not sure, because we were playing together last year in Sardinia, with a new project, with me, Avishai Cohen, Enrico Rava, Dave, with Uri, Clarence and Linda Oh—one concert there.

8. Fabrizio Bosso-Antonello Salis, “Domenica a sempre domenica” (from Stunt, Parco Della Musica, 2008) (Bosso, trumpet; Salis, accordion [fisarmonica])

Vajra Langhe Nebbiolo

Some describes this joint of Antonello Salis and Fabrizio Bosso as the joint of the refinement and the fury.

The piedmonts’ grape Nebbiolo, always represents a contrast between its refined perfume, pungent, intense and enchanting, and the fury of the texture and the acidity in he palate. A rough and harsh texture due to the tannins of the grape, that sticks in the palate, in a pleasant way; and a fresh and tasty acidity that increases the delicious bitterness of the wine.

[LAUGHS] That’s Antonello. And maybe…I wait for… The trumpet player is Fabrizio. I know the sound of Fabrizio; I know it very well. Here, for example. It’s a good mix between the mainstream… [‘Tiger Rag’ section] Yeah, the accordion, the fisarmonica (because it’s different) is Antonello Salis, an Italian player. The crazy one, who is also a piano player. But I know, because the sound of the accordion is Antontello, and then he sings… He’s a good friend of mine, and we started together in 1985, I think, and then we play a lot as a trio with Furio di Castri. We’ve done many, many projects together. The duo project. He was inside my Kind of Porgy and Bess for BMG. I remember the first time that I met you in the office of Daniel (?—53:33) in Paris a long time ago. The trumpet player is Fabrizio Bosso, one of the best European players. Fabrizio is amazing. He’s a little crazy. For me, he’s one of the best trumpet players in the world. He needs just to be a little bit maturo… [RALPH: Mature.] Yes. He’s a young player… Trento… For me, it’s young, but it’s not young. 2 stars for this, because I think it is not… I am sorry for this. These are both good friends. But I give 2 stars because it is not communication. So everyone plays in one room. [LAUGHS] Each one played fantastic, but not together. It’s not a good example for jazz. Because Fabrizio played a lot of information. So the difference between the duo and the Dave Douglas tunes is that in Dave’s music there’s a lot of information at the same time, but everything is in a good place. Here it’s a duo that play and speak together a different language. And when we play a duo, we need to play together, because otherwise it’s nothing. No? I like very much Antonello… Antonello is my love, because Antonello is Antonello. It’s not possible to compare Antonello with a piano player, with an accordion player. Antonello is Antonello, for his life, for his human approach with life. He is a genius. He is an immense musician. When I speak about Antonello, it is not possible to compare him with other musicians. Fabrizio is a very good player, incredible technique, sounds fantastic. He needs just to be a leader in the groups. He’s a fantastic soloist. The best performance from him is when he played 8 bars in the solos for the pop stars or something. He played 8 bars, and I heard this and said, “Wow. Incredible.” Then, when he plays music… He loves sometimes, you know, the goal. But he has time to grow up. He’s a very nice friend of mine, and I write the liner notes for his record with a symphonic orchestra—not the last one with Nino Rota, but the one before.

9. Christian Scott, “Spy Boy/Flag Boy” (from Christian aTunde Adjuah, Concord, 2012) (Scott, trumpet, composer; Matthew Stevens, guitar; Lawrence Fields, keyboards; Kristopher Keith Funn, bass; Jamire Williams, drums)

Fritz Haag Mosel-Saar-Ruwer Juffer Sonnenhur

The whisper technique of Christian Scott imitates the human voice playing trumpet.

Andreas Larsson, Best Sommelier of the World 2007, described a wine in the shortest and, probably, most wonderful way that I ever eared. He described this particular Mosel Riesling like this: “This wine is like: Ummmm, a blow of fresh air”. Onomatopoeia, the human voice in its most primitive estate, to express in a brief and clear way the scented perfume, deep and pungent of this wine, that is at he same time delicate and fine.

Is the trumpet player American? [“American.”] I know him. I know the idea of the sound, the quality of… I know who is this trumpet player, but I don’t know the name. It’s the most close to Freddie for me. The trumpet has a very heavy sound, and the idea of the intonzaione (intonation) and vibrato is like Freddie—but it’s not him, of course. The record is not very old. [Yes, it’s a new recording. And a younger player. Even if you were younger, it would be a younger player.] It’s one of those new…what’s the name of…the black guy… I was thinking about Ambrose Akinmusire, but it’s someone else. 3½ stars. [AFTER] Christian Scott. I don’t know him? Is he young? [He’s 29. He’s done three or four recordings. He has a contract with Concord. He’s Donald Harrison’s nephew.] He’s a nice player.

***************

Paolo Fresu (Nov. 13, 2012):

TP: …blog-site. They might have taken it off the radio.

PF: Because we’re playing together, two eyes. The first one was two years ago, because I invited Dave for the master class in the Stage… I am also Director to the Jazz State in Sardinia in the summertime, for 24 years now. Every year we have a short master class for three days for all the students. There are 120 students. Steve Lacy was there, Sheila Jordan, Ralph Towner, Enrico, Miroslav Vitous, Dave Liebman…

TP: There’s a record I downloaded on which you play a couple of tracks with Dave Liebman.

PF: Yes, but this is a very old one. This is my second one… In 1985. My first record under my name was 1984. The title is Ostinato, with my Italian quintet. The second one was with my Italian quintet plus Dave.

TP: I can get these details later. But it sounds like your educational activity is one way you formed performing associations with other musicians.

PF: Yes.

TP: It’s a very good one.

PF: Well, I was born in Sardinia. Sardinia is an island, and my small village is an island inside of the island. So nothing happens there. Except now, because the festival is 25 years; it’s one of the bigger festivals in Italy now. You can imagine that the village is 3,000 people, and during the festival we have more than 35,000 people there. It’s amazing. It’s in August, between the 9th and 16th.

TP: Is there enough room for everyone?

PF: Well, it’s not 35,000 people in one day. But we have two hotels, and camping, and bed-and-breakfast. It’s incredible, because it’s a lot of energy.

TP: What is the economy of the village? A fishing village?

PF: It’s a rural economy. But it’s 20 kilometers from the sea. It’s nothing to do with the sea. So the economy there is a rural economy. So the land and cow and a lot of farms. My father was a farmer, so he was not an artist, no bourgeois…

TP: You don’t come from a bourgeois family.

PF: He was… Well, we are, because my father and my mother are still alive. My father is 88 and my mother 86. It was a very poor family, so it was nothing to do with art. So a lot of energy…he spent a lot of money for my studies. Because I did electronic studies before.

TP: I noticed that. Which puts your sampling, the electronics in your music…

PF: Well, I don’t know if there is a relationship with this. When I started with the electronic stuff, it was because… I think that in jazz, the most important thing is the sound. We have a lot of parameters in the music—sound, and then the melody, and then the harmony, and the construction, and the dynamics, and a lot of different things that finally we put together. For me, the sound is on the top. It’s the first one. If the sound is not good, the rest is nothing. It’s like when you build a very big house, if you don’t put the first stone in a good position, so after…

TP: Is your brother a good trumpet player?

PF: No-no-no, my brother was in the marching band, and then he…

TP: He gave it up.

PF: Yes. I see this trumpet—I was very young—at home, and my dream was to touch this 0instrument and play. When I was 11 years old, I asked the maestro from the band to be a part of the group, and he said, “Ok, you can play the clarinet or the tuba.” I said, “No-no, please, I need to play the trumpet, because we have one trumpet at home, and this is the reason why I play trumpet.”

TP: Did your brother teach you? Did you have a teacher?

PF: Nobody teach me. When I started in the band, I know everything, because when the band was in the street I followed them. This was my dream. Finally, when the maestro gave me the first score, I said, “I know this one very well.” “Why?” “I know, because I…” This one was my first school, and then I played for weddings many years with small combos, and in the square for dancing music, until… From ‘72 until ‘79, more or less.

TP: From when you were 11 until you were 18.

PF: Well, yes. In the last part of this experience with dancing bands, I tried to play a little bit the “Nucleus” composition from Ian Carr. But it was very funny, because when we were playing this music, all the people in the square, the old people stopped completely, saying, “What’s happened?”

TP: Did you develop a sound pretty quickly on the trumpet?

PF: No. When you play with the marching band, you are very lucky, because we started to play very quickly with 50 people together. It is fantastic. When you get to the conservatory, for example, the piano player don’t play with nobody for 8 years. This is terrible. This is completely stupid. You stay home, play scales and everything for 8 years, and then finally you can share the music with each other. For me, it was fantastic.

TP: It’s always collective.

PF: Because I was very young. It was like the Dixieland bands. You play with other people. The guy that plays just in the back of you plays the same thing, but it’s different. Plays different. You say, “Wow, fantastic.” We play the same notes, but he played a kind of abellimente(?)… For me, this was really incredible and fantastic. But it’s not good for the sound. The maestro is the one maestro for all the instruments—trumpet and trombone and tuba and clarinet and saxophones. The techniques were very bad. When you share the music at 11 years old with other people, the most important things is the communication, but not the quality of your sound. Because your sound is one small part of a very big picture.

TP: A lot of people can develop a good sound on an instrument, but not a lot of people can develop an approach to music where it’s like a conversation. Which you seem to have had from the beginning, and seems to be characteristic of what you do. I’d think it’s why you take on so many projects.

PF: yeah. I think that I was very lucky also, because my first group was my Italian quintet. My Italian quintet is a really Italian group, because the drummer is from Rome. It was 1982. The drummer, Ettore Fioraventi, is from Rome. The piano player is from Cremona, the bass player is from Milano, and the saxophone player from Bergamo. And I am from Sardinia. I was in Sardinia, I lived there, and the other people was Rome, Cremona, Milan, and Bergamo.

TP: Do you consider yourself as part of Italy or as Sardinian?

PF: Sardinia is Italy, but it’s an island. We speak another language. So we have a lot of different things to Italian. So when we travel to Italy, we go to Italy from Sardinia. Politically it’s Italy, but it’s an island—it’s completely different.

When I started with this group, it’s the group that exists now, so it’s 29 years with the same people. We recorded between 16 and 20 records together. The human relation with those guys was fantastic, and it was my first school to play and to speak with. I was very lucky, because in this group the communication in life and in music was really easy. After this, the rest of the groups… When I think about music, I think about the good relationship with the musicians first, and then it’s easy when you find the good ones to play together. Because otherwise, no…

TP: For instance, this coming week, you’re going to be working… You’ve worked with a string quartet that includes your wife. Then you did the solo yesterday. You’re going to play a trio tomorrow with Bebo Ferra and…

PF: Gavino Murgia.

TP: A few days after that you’ll play a duo with Richard Galliano…

PF: …and I was here with Omer, and then I play with Uri…

TP: And this is your life, going around to play with different people.

PF: I like this. Listen. If I tour with the same people for one week, it’s too much! [LAUGHS} Sometimes in the summertime, for example, I play 50 days, 60 days without a day off, everywhere in the world, and I am very happy when I can play a lot with the different bands every night, because it’s more creative. So every night, you have a night with good questions and a new answer. Of course, I like to play also for one week with my musicians, because the level of the music every night is better. But finally, I like very much to change, to jump in the projects. Depending, because if you are all the same, it’s very easy. If you need to change yourself and to change everything in the music, to find the door… You have a lot of doors here, but if you need to find a good one every night, maybe it is a mistake. So for me, it’s easy to play with different projects, probably because in all the projects we have a good level of communication. And the first word for the communication is the sound. If the sound is a good one, you have nothing to explain and nothing to speak with people.

TP: Where I’m going, and maybe you’ll think this is a silly question, is: do you relate your ability to do that… That’s not something that everybody likes to do. Do you relate your ability to do that to these early experiences as an ear musician in the marching band, being surrounded by other voices, other sounds? It seems as though you were initially an ear musician, a street musician, and then you evolved into a refined art musician who mastered the technique of the trumpet, and arranging, and different languages and dialects, absorbed a lot of different canons of music.

PF: Yes. Well, I started with the marching band, and I think the marching band and the small combos after was an incredible school for music, the music that was inside. Then I was in Siena, the Siena Jazz Stage, in 1980 and 1982, two years, like a student. Then in 1985, I started to be like a professor in the same stage. Me and Enrico were the professors. So in 1980, was not the class of the trumpet, and in 1982 Enrico was the professor. I was with him for five days. So it was not my master…

TP: In one of your biographies, it says you ‘discovered’ jazz in 1980.

PF: Yes.

TP: That’s pretty late.

PF: Incredible, yeah. Because 1980 was the first time, and then in 1985 I was professor in Siena with the big master, like Enrico Pieranunzi and Enrico and Gianluca Trovesi and Franco D’Andrea, and everybody that was my idols before.

TP: So your ears must have developed tremendously during the years with the marching band, though I’m sure you were doing other things as time went on.

PF: Yes. I stopped with the marching band… I play with the marching band also now. So when I am in Sardinia… For example, for Easter or for Christmas-time, when I am there, I go and I play, because this is my life. Anyway, we have now with the marching band a new combo. The maestro was my student, and we start now with a kind of funky orchestra with very young people like a legacy of soul thing. It’s nice, because this is the (?—16:05) for the village.

But between ‘80 and ‘84, I heard a lot of jazz at home. The school for me was this. Because I was in Berchidda; Berchidda is far from the big cities. Cagliari, the capital, is 250 kilometers, and it’s 6 hours by train. The unique way for me was to learn jazz with the records. I put the records of Miles and Chet and I tried to play exactly like them, and the solos transcription. This one was my school. No professor, no that… Then, of course, I tried to play with people.

TP: Is that also how you developed your sound, or did you have a maestro for trumpet?

PF: No, the maestro for trumpet was in the conservatory after.

TP: So that’s where you refined your sound. Or had you developed it before? In other words, did you have bad habits that someone had to break you…

PF: No, nothing. So the unique professor was the guy that was in the conservatory just for classical music, of course. For example, the system of circular breathing that I developed was just myself. Because in Sardinia we have one special instrument that’s named the launeddas, which is the oldest polyphonic instrument in the Mediterranean area.

TP: Evan Parker has mentioned that instrument as inspirational.

PF: Yes, of course. I played with the big maestro. The name is Luigi Lai; he is a big name. We play this instrument with his collaboration. The technique that I used with the trumpet yesterday night came from this area. But nobody showed me. It was just that finally the jazz and classic started to mix with the traditional music, because I am very fond of the Sardinian traditional music. So my idea was to go to the university to get the laureate with the very big ethnomusicologist in Italy whose name was Roberto Milleddu. He was like Alan Lomax—the big name. I started with the university in ‘82, but then I stopped immediately because it was not time for the university.

But my big love in music was jazz and traditional music. Maybe this relationship between jazz and traditional music was the door to go into the music. For this reason, I play a lot with people from Brittany, people from Vietnam, and African projects, and Sardinian projects, of course. So I like very much this kind of connection with the… Because I love really the classical jazz. I like very much Miles. I have 2 or 3 records that I tried to play exactly like this.

TP: One of them is the record with Rava, where you play the…

PF: The Montreal. We have another record where we play Chet, Shades of Chet. For example, I have the two records, the Philology ones, where I play Porgy and Bess, the Miles and Gil Evans version with the transcription of Gunther Schuller. Another record also where we play Birth of the Cool. I like very much to be very close to the tradition, and to play not exactly, but in this way, and then, I like also to go very far with other things that (?—20:40) finally. So the contemporary musicians today have a big responsibility to put in connection the past with the future of the music. It’s not easy, because when we heard the 9 trumpet players today, every one is completely different. I think that every one tried to find it, so that they have a good relationship between the original music of today with the big and heavy tradition from the past.

TP: But you have a very fresh approach when you play the tradition. Your lines seem fresh and you always seem to be thinking about melodies. You’ve played one melody after another over the past two days I’ve heard you, and listening to the recordings, whether if it’s complex changes, or playing along with the sample and doing a celestial shriek from the heavens thing…whatever you’re doing, melody seems very important, and something you’re able to access.

PF: Absolutely. In these parameters in jazz, the first one is the sound and the second one is the melody. When I heard Miles and Chet Baker… The idea in this moment were three different ways, Miles and Chet, Clifford with all this kind of bebop players, and the third one maybe was Freddie Hubbard. Another one was Dizzy, but Dizzy was really difficult. When I travel a lot with Enrico, we speak about the trumpet players, and Enrico says, “when I heard Dizzy, I don’t know nothing about this music; I like this music, but I don’t know in my mind, I don’t know in my head. When I heard Miles and Chet, I know everything, and if I KNOW everything, I can play everything.” Because the melodies are different… It’s a kind of diatonic approach with the music. One note, and the second one is just there, and the third one is just there. It’s not like this, you know… I am in this line. For example, for this reason I like very much Tom Harrell and all these kinds of players who try to construct one melody…a very simple melody, sometimes with a very complicated course. We can choose just one note and not the other one, and this note, because the note before was different and the note after was different…

TP: One thing I’ve noticed also is that a lot of Italian players don’t feel alienated from American swing tradition as something they can embrace, whereas in other countries there’s a more prevalent feeling that their own cultural traditions don’t necessarily jibe with playing in the American tradition. It seems that you, Rava, other Italian players I know like Dado Moroni or Petrella, feel very comfortable with African-American jazz tradition, and it doesn’t seem to inhibit them from expressing their individuality…

PF: Italy is like this. It’s very long. It’s not a big country but it’s very long. We have the north, we have the center, we have the south, we have the two islands, and we are exactly between Africa and Europe—especially Sardinia. Finally, Italy politically the relationship between the South and the North is very complicated. If you travel from the south to the north, you meet people, and the taste of wine and cooking and faces and the dialects are different. If I speak with people from Naples, sometimes I don’t understand nothing. So if I speak Sardinian language with people from Rome or from Milano, it’s nothing to do with Italians. It’s more far…

TP: Well, Italy wasn’t a nation until the 1860s.

PF: Yes. In politics this is a big problem, but in music it’s fantastic, because we have a lot of jazz players in Italy who try to mix jazz with opera, with music from Naples, with the mitteleuropa for the heart of Europe, the jazz with music from the Mediterranean, Africa… We have a lot of people who play incredible bebop, who play exactly the language of the bebop, people who play like Enrico with fabulous melodies. So finally, Italy is a kind of country that is in the middle of the world, and this is the reason why the jazz today is the music that is a photography about the Italian of today. We play jazz, but we have a lot of kind of jazz in Italy, because the country is very long. We have a lot of cultures and musics and foods and idioms and everything. I don’t compare the Italian jazz with the jazz, for example, from France or from Germany. I don’t know if the Italian one is better or is the first one, the second one, or the third one. But it’s true that Italian jazz is different than the other countries.

TP: I think in France, the African influence is more pronounced, just because so many West Africans live there…

PF: I agree. When I started to live in Paris, where I lived for more than ten days, Paris to me was the door to the world. Because in this moment, in the last part of the ‘80s, Paris was the most international big town in Europe, for me more than Berlin and more than London. Why? Because Paris was in relationship with Caribbean people and then to people from the (?—28:40) island and the …(?)…, and people from Africa. Italy was a little bit more closed to this world. But the relationship between Italy and the world in jazz was Italy and America direct in the ‘80s. It was the reason why we started to play exactly like the American musicians in this moment. So the jazz standard for us was “Stella by Starlight” and “My Funny Valentine,” and all the American jazz standards. But we have also…

TP: Might that also connect to operatic traditions?

PF: Yes.

TP: Some American songbook material is linked to light opera and so on…

PF: Absolutely. Now we have incredible Italian songs that are like the jazz standards. For example, “Estate” is one of those that, when Chet started playing, Bruno Martino said, “Wow, this is a nice idea.” So you have a lot of standards everywhere, but at this moment, in the last part of the ‘80s, the reference for us was the American jazz, of course. This is our school, our milk.

Now it’s a little bit different. Because the reference was in American music. It was important to know this music, to learn the language. But now, after this, we can go everywhere today. And the background of Italian music is very rich. Then we can look forward and try to mix a lot of elements from the Mediterranean, from the opera, from also all the Italian music in jazz… This is the reason why you have a musician who plays jazz with Mediterranean music, that plays bebop, other musicians who play jazz with other kind of music… Italian music is very rich.

TP: Many flavors. For you, speaking about the grounding, you could make a metaphorical case that you’re in dialogue with North Africa when you make recordings with Dhaffer Youssef, that you’re in dialogue with Asia when you play with Nguyen Le, or in dialogue with Cuba and the west African diaspora when you play with Omar Sosa, or with the American Tin Pan Alley tradition when you play with Uri (who is kind of a doppelganger for you; you’re similar personalities); or with Ralph Towner a different stream.

PF: Yes.

TP: It seems that these dialogues aren’t just notes and tones, but that there’s some broader philosophical inquiry going on. I don’t want to make too much of it, but I’m wondering how you regard the broader implications of the projects over and above just listening and reacting, what’s embedded in what you do.

PF: First, Africa is more close… One day I fly from Paris to Tunis. At the moment the captain says, “We are ready, we’re arriving in 20 minutes,” and I look from the windows, and Cagliari was there. Cagliari is just in front to Africa. Finally I think we have an incredible relation with the North African musicians.

But the rest is that I think it’s really that if the sound is… If you share your sound with the other musicians, for example, with Uri or with Ralph Towner or with people from Africa, it’s very easy to play and it’s very easy to learn music with them. I think that this is very important. It’s important if you know which is your way music, after it is also important to change the duration to the music, to learn something for you first. Sometimes I make the experiments with people from different countries of the world, and I don’t know if the final result is good or not, of course—we need to ask the audience. But it’s important to try to do something with them.

Anyway, Uri is very easy. We speak the same language. Also with Ralph… With Ralph Towner it was a little bit more difficult, because the sound mix between acoustic guitar and trumpet was not so easy. It’s two different dynamics. And Ralph’s compositions sometimes is not really jazz; it’s another music. For example, with Uri it was pretty fast. With Ralph it was a little bit more difficult. With people like Dhaffer Youssef or Nguyen Le, it’s very easy. So depending about the music and which kind of music…

But then, if we have a good relation with each other, you can find a good place for you in any music without a problem. Also with the strings or the other projects.

TP: There are two other things I want to ask you about. One is the way you think about electronics in relation to your sound. The impression I got (and I’m sure you have hundreds of people telling you what they feel when they hear you play) when I heard you last night on the last piece, which is obvious because it’s Bach, is that the trumpet has this celestial quality, the voice of Gabriel, but then also you use the electronics to impart the celestial shriek. I’m wondering how these ideas filter into your concept of sound? Are you thinking about the heavens? Are you thinking about the properties of the trumpet in an empirical way?

PF: I started with the electronic stuff just for the quality of the sound. I spent a lot of time to play exactly like Miles in 1966, in 1956, and finally, when I was on stage, the found was completely fucked up. It was completely different. It was a shit sound. The sound engineers don’t know nothing. I’d change the trumpet with the Harmon Mute, and the sound of the Harmon Mute was not there. It was really, really difficult always. For me, the sound was the most important thing, and if the sound is not good, the rest of the music is nothing. For this reason, I decided to buy the electronic machine just to be myself on stage. It was my responsibility now to put a little reverb and the equalization added.

When I started to play with electronic stuff, I covered a lot of different possibilities, harmonizers and delays, and I said, “Wow, it’s amazing, an incredible instrument. So I can use this inside my music to be more rich and creative.” But the first idea was to use the machine just for the quality of the sound and the pure sound. The rest was after.

Then I heard people like Mark Isham, for example, and the best master for me, who is the best one in this, is Jon Hassell. I played with him. We have a record together. He’s the master for everybody, for people who use the electronics in Europe, like Nils Petter Molvaer or Arve Ericsson. All those guys think about Jon Hassell first.

Finally, the electronic stuff is another instrument. When I play, I use four different instruments. The first one is the trumpet. The second one is the flugelhorn. The third one is the trumpet with Harmon Mute. For me, it is another instrument when I play with the Harmon mute. I think differently in my head. The fourth one is the electronic stuff. So it’s important that when you start to use the electronic stuff, you think the music different. Because otherwise, the machine, the electronic machine, the risks that can cover you, and you are more like this, and the electronic stuff is like very (?—39:28). The idea is to use the electronics just for molto descriptzione… I am the boss in any case.

TP: I think one of the dangers with that might be doing something just because you can, or exercising taste, or making it suit your own purposes instead of suiting its purposes.

PF: I know, I know. For example, I don’t use the MIDI system with the electronic stuff. I don’t play the trumpet like saxophone, because it’s completely stupid. I don’t play the trumpet like a guitar or like a keyboard. So all the sound of the trumpet goes into the machine, and finally the sound of the machine is more or less natural. So it’s the same sound of the trumpet, but a little bit different. This is my philosophy.

Also, when I think about the electronic stuff, I think to the past of the music… It’s not the future of the music.

TP: It’s like the Corsican voices, which are representing something very ancient.

PF: Yes. For me, the electronic stuff is like the primitive music, the archetypal music. For me, the electronic stuff is like Africa. It’s like mystical music. This is very strange, because when you think about electronics today, it means we think about the future, the technology. But for me, this technology is the best way to go back in the past. And this is very interesting, because it is another idea about it. Electronic suggestions is also emotion…it’s not cold, but it’s important that it will be warm…

No, it is a big risk, because sometimes… For example, with the string quartet it was a big risk because it was alone with the trumpet there, and because the string quartet is incredible, is the perfect architettura in music. It’s four voices, perfect, and it… If you play inside in the string quartet, the risk is to destroy this perfect architettura with the trumpet. If you use trumpet and electronic stuff, the risk will be very big. Also for the dynamics, because you use a sound system, the sound of the quartet is more or less acoustic…

I know. I know that it is a big risk to play electronics. Sometimes you don’t need it, because finally the acoustic sound in music is the more puro, and when you use the electronics it is important to think about the nature of sound of the instrument, otherwise it’s very… Maybe it’s nonsense, because…

TP: Can you describe the arc of the concert with the string quartet? Was it a program you were doing for the first time, or…

PF: No, it is a program that we know. With the string quartet, we change the repertory every night because the music is right over the place when we play. For example, the idea to start with a musician in the audience, this can change every night. Because if the sound of the theater is a good one, it’s perfect. Otherwise, it’s not possible. The first one was a traditional song for Sardinia, for the choir. The last one that we played the encore was also a very famous Sardinian song, the name is “Ave Maria,” but with a new idea, that the arrangement was in 3/4, and changed every chorus the key. Other music was from myself, the music for movies…

TP: Music you’ve composed for movies.

PF: Yes. I like it very much. And some music was for the European minimalist composers, like Karl Jenkins. Sometimes we play something from Michael Nyman. In the past from Arvo Part. Also, we play a lot of different music in repertory. Baroque music, because I like very much the baroque music, like Monteverdi or Handel for example.

TP: There’s a great trumpet lexicon in that music, too.

PF: Yeah, of course. Vivaldi and Bach, and Handel, too. Finally, the music that we play…the range of the music is very different sometimes. But the sound of the project is always the same. This is the key… This is a kind of passport, too, to go in different rooms. So we use the same key to go in the different rooms. The key is the sound, and if we have a good sound we can go in the different rooms, completely different. This is my idea. I don’t know if this is a good idea or not.

TP: You have many, many rooms.

PF: I have many, many rooms, because I think that…

TP: You really do. More than most.

PF: I like very much to stay in many, many rooms, and sometimes also to try to open the new rooms. Because you try to open the new one, and sometimes you go inside and nothing…it’s completely empty. There’s no window. There’s nothing. It’s dark. But sometimes we open the new one, and you have a new room with another window or another door, and you go, you go, and you try to recover this scopelita(?—46:44) always in your things. So my philosophy is to try every day new things, but also always in relationship with the tradition and with the past.

TP: Please describe to me also in some detail what you did yesterday at Monvinic.

PF: Yesterday, the first tune was from Alma, the record with Omar. It was just the theme of Alma. I decided before which music, more or less, for the wines.

TP: Well, you told me it was sort of a joke.

PF: Yeah, I think that is a joke. The strange thing is that after the performance every winemaker say to me, “Ah, fantastic. The pieces that you played for my wine was perfect for this.” I am not sure, of course. This is the joke, because we try to put together the different philosophies. I think that the unique thing that we can share in jazz and wine is the gusto…the flavor of the life. Then my suggestion is just one part of the…the…the…suggestion.

But finally… For the last wine, for example, the idea to put Bach, the Goldberg Variation, for the last wine and the Hilliard Ensemble with Arvo Part was because this wine was a meditation wine. So when I heard Bach, for me it’s a kind of meditation. Also, the piece, when I’m playing with the deejay music was because the producer of this wine is a deejay player. Also, the piece when I play with the voice of Chet Baker was because with this wine, my idea was to put a relationship, the flowers of this wine with the voice of Chet, that is a little bit feminine. It’s a joke, because I don’t know after if everything was… Also, the long notes…

TP: When you walked around.

PF: And do you know what say the wine producer after this? He said, “The long notes was perfect because we have a lot of tramontana, which is the wind… The tramontana is the wind from the north that is very cold. Because for us, this wine is incredible because we might with the tramontana every day, and the long notes was like the wind, blah-blah, blah-blah-blah. This is fantastic, because it’s like when you play in concert every night, you don’t know. So you know what you think about the music, but you don’t know if, for the audience, your sound goes here, goes here, goes here, and everybody can come see… The music can arrive in different parts of your…

TP: And for a different person, it can come in a different…

PF: For each one, it can be completely different. This is the mystery of the music, and it is fantastic, of course.

TP: I think the piece that engaged me the most might have been the fourth one. You played a long, dark theme that made me think about Mingus…

PF: Ah, ok. This one was a South American song, a famous one. The name is “Que Sera, Que Sera,” from… Chico Buarque. This idea… I changed the song there, because the idea was this wine for me…the flavor of this wine was like South America. There I played just the theme of the song that was really clean and like the taste of this wine.

TP: but I still would like to know (and perhaps I’m asking the same question in different ways and will get the same answer) whether you have explicitly metaphysical intentions with your music? Are you trying to make the trumpet sound like something other than a trumpet, like that celestial voice that I hear in a story of your own devising, or when you do Sonos e Memoria or Ethnografie, those projects, are you trying to evoke some broader story apart from just abstract sounds?

PF: Nice question. Honestly, I don’t know why. I know just that, especially with electronic sound, I can go there in music, and I know that when I open the door and I go in the room that I know, in this room we have a lot of doors, and we’ve put the music in one place where the music is not from Sardinia, it’s not from any countries in the world, but it is music for everybody. So I start from here, and I go there, and when I arrive there…

TP: From in back of you to far ahead of you. [DESCRIBING HIS GESTURE]

PF: Yeah. When I put the music there, this music is not from any countries. It’s just music from… It’s emotional music, and everybody can keep something to… It’s like a table with a lot of plates. Everybody can take something for food. In this case the emotional part of the music is the most important. There’s a physical thing in music. I play this strange position, because I need to find the good relationship between myself and the music and sound. For example, I play sit down sometimes, especially with a small project, like with Uri… I play sit down with Ralph Towner, with the strings. Because if I play sit down with a good chair, I can find the good emotional relationship with the music. In this case, I hope I play well. Otherwise, if I don’t find the good relationship with myself, the music is nothing. It is like a train that goes pretty fast, and you say “Where is the train?” “Ok, it is there.”

There is a rationale. I think that I have two different approaches with the music. Rationale, Cartesian. The second one is completely, completely…

TP: Are there two, or are they intermixed?

PF: Yeah, finally I need to put together those different phases of the music. If just one is there and the second one is far, the music is not good. If just emotional part, the music is there, and the rationale is not there, it is the same. For me, the good concert is when I put together the two parts of my music, and then these two parts of the music I can try to share with the musicians, with the play and communication, and then with the audience. But if we don’t find it, and then you don’t find that good relationship between the musicians, the audience is there… I say, “Ok, but it’s nothing happening.”

TP: Omar was telling me a story last night that I think he’s repeated a number of times about your first meeting…

PF: Yeah, I was on the tree.

TP: You were on the tree. I can’t quite get that out of my… Not only were you in the tree playing, but he said you were following his line of thought and… So two things strike me as something that not necessarily every improvising musician would do. One, the idea of being in a tree and playing a trumpet, and the other, playing the trumpet without telling him that you were going to play the trumpet.

PF: I think that the first question is the same question. To be on the tree or to be on stage to tell the musicians which is the ….(?—57:31)…. is the same question, because we speak about the place and the space of the music. In the last 20 years, for me it is very nice when I can play, for example, open air in a very strange place, like in the mountain, close to the lakes, or under the tree. Last year, in the 50 concerts in Sardinia, we were playing under two eucalyptus with Dhaffer Youssef and Nguyen Le. The concert was there and the audience was the ground.

TP: And you were in the tree.

PF: Yes, also. For example, with Uri, I asked him one time in my festival to play a crazy project that was called From Station To Station. Uri was in the train station in my village. The train stopped there. The audience go. Uri playing “I Love You Porgy.” And then the train starts again. We go by car to the next station. When the train arrives, Uri is there with the same piano and the same song. This is the strange joke with the places.

I think that in music the place is very important. Because if you play in the good place, you play well; if you play in the wrong place, you play wrong music. It’s also important because in the contemporary society we think about music just in the jazz clubs for jazz, and in the theater. So the theater, it’s always the same dynamics. You are with your seat, we wait for the musician on stage, the musician arrives, then claps, and then plays, and then finishes, and then you go home. The difference is if we are together in a new place, for example inside Nature, or in a small church in Sardinia… Because the energy and the feeling is completely different. Because you need to put more energy in your music because the place is not the same. It’s not comfortable like always. This is very nice sometimes for the music, because you know that you need to play better than always, because the place is more bigger than you. This is not bad. Because Toscanini, he say, “A la perto si jocobocci(?—1:00:30)…” Toscanini’s personality was very strong. That means in English, “Open air you play just with balls.” Of course, for the classical music and for the big orchestra. But sometimes, I play in the open air places where the feeling was really-really-really fantastic. No stage. Is nothing. You put your feet on the ground. The audience are without seats. Was incredible, because everyone was there just for the music, and the place is really big, and finally you need that the music is bigger than the lace. And the music growing up, and finally la maggia of the music… In the 50 last year it was always like this. It was 50 concerts in 50 places, incredible places, the nourad(?—1:01:41), the strange building for Sardinia, and we were in the prisons, we were in the hospitals—we were everywhere. In those places, the magic thing was the relationship between place, music, and people. Because this is very, very important.

After fifty years, my question is what I like to do for the next fifty, or the next thirty, or the next two years. I think that the idea is, in this part of my life, the most important thing is to put the music in the middle, like to get the people, and play good music, but also to use the music for communication. Communication is a political word, I know. But it is very important. Because if I play jazz for myself, it is ok for me. I can go forward. But it is important that you can share the story with people, with your musicians, with the audience, with the places, and to looking for new ways for music.

TP: Maybe that’s one reason you use polyphony so much.

PF: Maybe.

TP: I think I understand why you were in the tree with Omar Sosa, but what I still don’t get is why… When you started playing, he wasn’t expecting to hear the sound. Right? You surprised him? I know you were booking the concert, so it was the right of the…

PF: It was the same surprise like two days ago when I started a concert in the auditorio with the strings around the people. Because when you start with this, we put the people into the perfect atmosphere for the concert. I think this is very important. Because the place is very important.

TP: So stagecraft is part of it.

PF: Yes. But sometimes the place is very dangerous for you. Because if the place is very big, the music will be a little bit fragile. If you start with something, the audience will say, “What’s happening?” They’ll finally understand which is the way and which is the tale for his concert. Because every concert is a kind of tale. But we need to read the same book. Which is the language of the book in Italian, in English, in Spanish, or in German language, I don’t know, but the same book. Then everybody can understand. Sometimes this is… The performance in music is interesting because you put the music and the audience in the place, in the middle of something that you know, but you know which is your duration, but maybe not the audience.

TP: I know I’m harping on the story, but Omar related it with such delight… But I want to know why you decided at that moment…

PF: To play there.

TP: This was a solo concert of his, right?

PF: Yes.

TP: It wasn’t scheduled to be you and he. It was schedule to be he. And he didn’t know you were going to play.

PF: Well, because it was open air. There were a lot of trees there. The music was fantastic. And finally I decided to play with him. Now, he asked me before, “Maybe…” This is the reason why my instrument was with me. But finally, I think, “Ok, I play something with him now—but where? It is stupid that I play just close to him. There was no stage. Nothing. One tree was there. The place was a lot of trees. So the nature of things is that I go over the tree and play there. To be a part of the… Because in the festival in Sardinia, it’s a really special festival, because we have a big stage in the square, blah-blah-blah, and then all the other concerts are the free ones, the morning and afternoon, is inside the nature. This is fantastic, really fantastic for everybody. Last year, for example, Bill Frisell was a duo in the middle of nowhere. So now, people arrive, walking for 25 minutes. The music is really a part of the nature, and it is fantastic. And why not to play over the tree? Because the tree is one of the elements of this concert.
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TP: Sosa also said, as he’s been playing with you and spending time in Sardinia, he’s noticing correspondences between the structures of the music in Sardinia and abakua music, Afro-Diasporic music that aren’t necessarily explainable.

PF: No.

TP: Do you see this as well? Is carrying on a career in which you play duos with people who embody so many other cultures a way for you to do musicological or ethnomusicological investigations? Perhaps I’m being abstract here, and you don’t think this way at all, but you have to be fluent in all these languages.

PF: Of course.

TP: You cant just be dialoguing with Omar, and not know anything about Afro-Cuban music, I don’t think.

PF: No-no. But I think the Cuban music, for example, is more close for me than the American music. Because the Latin part of this world and this music is Cuba, it’s very close to Sardinia finally. Because in Sardinia… I speak with a bit Castiliano, fluent, because the language for Sardinia is very close to the Spanish language, because the Spanish people were in Sardinia for 300 years…

TP: Barcelona held it.

PF: Barcelona. My wife is from Alghero. Alghero is the place in Sardinia… Spain is here. Sardinia is here. Here is Barcelona; here is Alghero…

TP: This was how long ago?

PF: This was 400 years ago. The people from Algheros play fluently Catalan language. So finally, the Aragona and the Catalan people…that this music came from Morocco, so the Africans. So the three people is like Morocco and then Spain and then Sardinnia. It’s the reason why Cuban culture is not far.

TP: Not when you put it that way. When you play American music with Uri, those standards like “Darn That Dream”… The first one has more American standards…

PF: “Everything Happens To Me.”

TP: A couple are a little brighter tempo than that. You sound like someone who had grown up playing that music, and someone who knows the lyrics, and it was perfectly natural but very erudite, and soulful at the same time.

PF: Yeah. Because I know Chet. In this case, Chet more than Miles. When I think about Miles… I hope now that I have my personality and the sound is myself, of course, but we need to drink milk when we are small. You know?

TP: Wine later, milk first.

PF: Wine later. Yeah, maybe. When I think about Miles, I think about the idea of the architettura of the music, for example. The system of construction of the music in the group for my quintet. But when I think about the jazz standard, maybe Chet is the first idea. Very lyrical, and the tempo always [TAPS QUARTER NOTES} in tempo, swing, and… I like this music, because finally it is very melodic and also creative in that you play one melody and then we try to move the melody in another way. It was very easy to play with Uri.

TP: You and he have a lot in common, I think.

PF: Yes, because we have the same idea also about it. For example, we like the classical music and the baroque music, and then we can play pop songs, and Handel-like pop songs… Handel was a pop star anyway, in the past. With Uri, it’s really, really easy to play. We don’t speak about music ever in those 8 years that we’ve played together. Sometimes we make the soundcheck on stage, and we start with something, with one standard, and say, ‘Ok, you know this one? Ok, go. Tonight we play this.’ Because with Uri, the most important thing is, it’s not the material that we play, but the attitudes with music. We can play…

I play with the same people for many years. My Italian quintet is 29. I think it is probably now the oldest jazz group in Europe, or one of them. In 1984, the first record together. The same people. Exactly the same people. We have a concert now the 7th of December. We are the same five people—more older than before, of course. The Angel Quartet was ten years, more or less. The new Devil Quartet, we released a record in February—now it’s 8 years. The trio with Antonello Salis and Furio diCastri, for many, many years. Now the project with the string quartet is maybe 8-9 years. With Uri, 7 years. With Ralph, 5 years. So when you play with the same people for many, many years, it is fantastic, because finally we have one sound. The sound is like Miles with his quintet with Wayne Shorter, with Coltrane, with George Coleman, or the trios of Bill Evans. So when I think about the history of jazz, I think first about the project, and then I go inside the music, the musician. Because for me, the SOUND of Miles is here. It’s like an identity, kind of. It’s very heavy. Or the sound of the quartet of John Coltrane. Wow.

So the sound of this music is the history of this music first, and then… So when you heard a concert live and you go home after, the first things that you remember is the sound of the concert, and then you say, “Ok, the saxophone player was fantastic, and the piano player, too, but the first idea of the menu is this—then you go inside…”

TP: The opening page, and then open the book.

PF: Yes. But if the cover is not good, then maybe you…ok, maybe the rest is not important. So the sound of the jazz in the past was the history of this music, and then, of course, Miles and then Chet and then Charles Mingus. But the architettura of the music for me was very fascinating. Because when I started with my quintet and my quartet, especially the real groups, the first thing was to create a good cover of the music, and for the cover, it’s not easy. You need to work a lot with the different covers, and then you can decide that this one is the good one. But after three-four years. And when the project is there, you can go everywhere. You can play jazz, you can play mainstream jazz, you can play standards, you can play pop, you can play world music.

All of this music is your music. It’s like when you play one standard for many-many-many times, many years. If you start to play “Round Midnight” or “My Funny Valentine” for ten years, after ten years you don’t know who was the composer—because YOU are the composer, the new one. I think that this is fantastic for jazz. I don’t know why you choose this standard or another one, but finally, it is important that this standard is YOUR standard. Because you play “Round Midnight”… Because 2,000 incredible players played “Round Midnight,” but it is important that when you play this version, your version is different than the 2,000 versions of before. This is very difficult.

TP: Two more questions, then I think I can let you go. You’re a prolific composer as well as an improviser, more for programmatic music, it sounds like—for dance, for film, for soundtracks, there’s a long list in your bio. I’m wondering where composition fits into your sense of yourself as an improvising performer.

PF: Well, I am a prolific composer because I have a lot of projects. I don’t write music if I am not one destination from them. I write music for film, for movies… When the people ask me, I write music during my flight or in the train, and then I need to sit at a piano to finish the material, of course.

I have two different lines in my composition. The first one is that I can write something for the musician, and I ask the people to change totally my music. This is the first one. The second one is the music that I write, for example, for movies or… One of them, my favorite composition, is “Fellini.” “Fellini” is a piece that I wrote the day that Fellini died. In this case, I asked the musicians to play exactly this song like classical music. This is the two different lines. So the first one is when I think of the composition like a classical composition, and I need that the people play exactly like this, and the second one is when I put the music on the table and this music can go everywhere, and it changes completely.

Then, I have a record under my name where I have none of my compositions inside. For example, the record with Mistico Mediterraneo, I have no one piece that was signed by myself. Because finally, the most important thing is the music. The music is not a composition, but the music is the FINAL result. If I play with Michael (?—1:20:25) and his composition is a good one, I don’t need to suggest my material, because like to play his material. So I think that for jazz, one of the durations is to use the material that we have. It’s not important if this one is mine, the other one is yours, this one is… It’s important the way that we can put together all this. Sometimes also the composition is very important, because it’s a good suggestion for the musicians. But finally, I play sometimes concerts with my groups where I decide the music on stage. Normally, we start on stage with nothing. We have no list, no track list, no idea about solos—nothing. So we go on stage, and I start with something, and then everybody follows me.

TP: Who is this that you do this with?

PF: With my quintet. With Omar, for example. Sometimes I play one concert without my music. Because it’s not important. It’s important that in this moment you know that you need something, and it’s like you are blind and you take something from the bag. You don’t know which is the material, but you know that in this bag you have something that you need in this moment. Is this for yourself, or is this a standard for other musicians from your band?

TP: Last question. When you were talking about your relationship with Omar, and the connections between Cuba and Sardinia, that’s one way, obviously, in which your background as a son of Sardinia has an impact on your musical production. Can you talk about other ways this manifests, how your Sardinian roots impact your musical identity?

PF: At first, I told you that I am a very big fan of the traditional music for the world. All the traditional music is for me… When I am home, I heard at home jazz, of course, but baroque music and classical music and music for the world. Because it is very close to jazz, in any case. I think that… So jazz today is nonsense word. Because which is the jazz today? Is it the music of Louis Armstrong? Yes, of course. Is it the music of Miles? Yes, of course. Is it the music of Ornette? Yes, of course. Is it the music of Keith Jarret? Yes. All the trumpet players that we heard today is jazz. But Louis Armstrong and Ornette is two very far worlds… It is jazz. All is jazz. But jazz is a very big, big world. Now, til the ‘80s to jazz, the reference was the music for the States, but now jazz is the music for every country in the world.

TP: One thing that’s interesting, though, is that there now don’t appear to be so many degrees of separation between Louis Armstrong and Ornette Coleman? It seemed that way in 1960, but now continuities are evident, even between players who played with both of them, like, say, Garvin Bushell, the reed player, who played in the ‘20s and on John Lewis’ Jazz Abstractions project.

PF: Yeah, absolutely.

TP: So those big gaps don’t seem quite so big in 2012.

PF: Absolutely. The memory and the history is there. So all this, we can go so far. But finally, this is rare… This is rare that ….(?—1:25:27)…. is another color. But finally, the history of jazz is an amazing metaphor for the reality of today. It’s incredible. It’s fantastic, in a way, because everything that was there is a kind of mathematical world that you can move a little bit always, but it’s there. It’s elastic. It’s fantastic.

The idea is that…the example is the music of Cuba and the music of Spain, the salsa music and flamenco music. All these countries speak the Spanish language. All of these countries use the same words. But the Spanish language that we speak in Spain is…the melody, the swing of this language is completely different than the Castilian that people speak in Cuba. This is the reason why the Cuban people play Salsa and the Spanish people play flamenco, because two different histories. The melody of the idiom is different, and the music is exactly close to the idiom. So if I am from Sardinia, and to play jazz in Sardinia, my swing is different than the people that live in Rome or Milano, because the idiom that I play in Sardinia is different. Idiom, language, and music is the same thing. If I play another language, probably inside, the melody of the music will be different, because the melody of the other language is different.

This is very interesting, because this is the reason why the orchestra that played the Strauss valse in Vienna plays different than the Strauss valse in Rome. It is another culture. It is another culture. It is another history. It is another language. I think that the language and music is perfectly inside… This is probably also why black people in America play—not always but sometimes—different than the white people. Well, yes, now I know. The correct word is the “slang.”

TP: Slang.

PF: The slang of the language of the language is the photography of your background, and if your slang is different, you play different, because the slang is in the music and the slang is in the language. And the slang is your biography. The slang is your family, is your society, your history, your background. For me, Sardinian people that are growing up with the cow and the land in Sardinia, with a very poor family, it was ridiculous to play jazz exactly like Charlie Parker. You need to learn this language, and then you put this language in your world and you look forward to know if you have something to mix with this. I think it is very simple.

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A 2011 DownBeat Article, Blindfold/Winefold Test, and Full Interview With Enrico Rava

I’m flying to Milan tomorrow night for a ten-day stay at the Milan Jazz Festival, at which I’ll be conducting public interviews with Enrico Rava (Nov. 1) and Paolo Fresu (Nov. 4), and a public Downbeat blindfold test with Stefano Bollani (Nov. 10). I last spoke with Rava in November 2011, during my first visit to the Barcelona Jazz Festival, where he submitted to a Downbeat Blindfold Winefold Test at Monvinic, “the cathedral of wine,” where the wizardly sommelier matched a different vintage to each tune. I also interviewed him for an article of decent length. This post begins with the article, moves on to the Blindfold/Winefold Test, and concludes with the complete interview.

 

Enrico Rava Downbeat Article, 2011

In a few hours, the 400 concertgoers would be gone, the chairs removed from the floor, and Barcelona’s beautiful people would descend on Luz Da Gas, a fin de siècle cabaret, to dance and party until dawn. But now, toward the end of Enrico Rava’s set, the 72-year-old Italian trumpeter was cuing his quintet to segue from “I’m A Fool To Want You” into a tune that felt not unlike the imaginary soundtrack to a scene of disequilibrium in a Fellini movie.
After projecting the melody with dark tone and soulful articulation, Rava, with a gesture evoking Marcello Mastroianni, cupped his trumpet to his side, closed his eyes, leaned back and began to sway as trombonist Gianluca Petrella, 36, filled the room with resonant melody. His eyes remained shut as the band dropped out for Giovanni Guidi, 25, to launch an adagio, Keith Jarrett-like variation, transition into a quasi-tango and morph into a boogie-woogie on steroids. Rava opened his eyes and blew, spitting out fragmented, epigrammatic phrases from the Cecil Taylor playbook that coalesced into louche, strutting lines before resolving into the spiky lyric theme.
Rava wove together much of his cogent, 80-minute suite from the nine originals—ballads contemplative and noirish, songs informed by Italian and Brazilan folk music, groove tunes propelled by New Orleans and bebop beats—that constitute Tribe, his seventh studio outing for ECM since 2001, and the first featuring this personnel. A highlight is the leader’s simpatico with Petrella—their intuitive polyphony, breathe-as-one unisons and idea-trading solos. Another is the rhythm section’s control of dynamics and tempo—they’re kinetic without bashing and move seamlessly between soft rubato and high-energy feels. Six tunes hearken to various spots on Rava’s timeline; the session sounds summational, old master Rava and his acolytes taking stock of the raw materials that define his oeuvre.
The title track, he noted, leads off the 1977 album The Plot, a product of Rava’s first go-round with ECM, with his working quartet of guitarist John Abercrombie, bassist Palle Danielsson and drummer Jon Christensen. “Giovanni liked it and said we should play it,” Rava said earlier that day, referencing his pianist. “I was surprised he’d want to play a tune I recorded so long ago, but it sounded like I wrote it yesterday.”
Speaking softly, in excellent English, Rava offered an exegesis. “I feel all my bands are like a tribe,” he said. “Once I read that the Cherokees had a social organization where nobody owned anything, everything was for everybody, and everybody used what they needed. It’s a perfect idea of democracy. In a jazz group, when it works, that’s what it really is. No one renounces their ego, but you don’t impose your ego on everyone else. It’s a perfect harmonic situation, like the cosmic balance, where everything is right. Maybe I bring a line, some chords, a little point where we meet and play what I want, but I leave everyone freedom within that frame to find what to add or take out. That way, I think the musicians who play with me give their best, better with me than when they play their own thing.”
Rava acknowledged Miles Davis’ impact on his predisposition for convening “not only good players, but musicians who are open to this music’s entire history” as a way to conjure consistently fresh contexts for creative flow. “Whenever my band starts becoming routine, even a very good routine, I change,” he said, noting that no quintet member except Petrella was with him 10 years ago. “Every tune we play, even if we play it every day, will never be the same. The day I get bored, fuck it, I’ll do something else.”
His affinity for full-bodied trombonists—he’s shared front lines with Roswell Rudd, Ray Anderson and Albert Mangelsdorff—dates to childhood in Turin, when he absorbed his older brother’s Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong recordings. “Listening to the trombone made the mechanism of their music so clear,” he said. “Already I loved the trumpet players, but I whistled all the trombone lines.” He got one at 14, from the trombone player in a local Dixieland band. A few months later, he joined the band, “but my father didn’t want me to come back late at night, so it was a tragedy. I was so bad at school that the trombone was locked in a closet, and that was the end.”
A self-described “black sheep” and academic under-performer, Rava dropped out of school and started working “from the bottom” in the family business. Towards the end of 1956, Davis, Lester Young, Bud Powell and the Modern Jazz Quartet came to town. “I’d been listening to Miles’ records like ‘Blue Haze,’ and he was already my favorite,” Rava said. “But I didn’t imagine it could be so incredibly strong in person. The sound was filling the room. I kept the adrenalin; I couldn’t sleep for a couple of days. Then I bought an old trumpet and started learning by myself, playing with the records by Miles and the Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Chet Baker. I wasn’t planning to be a musician. But after a few months, they started calling me at jam sessions with amateurs, and eventually I found myself playing with very good people.”
One of those people was tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri, who suggested Rava make music his profession. “One day, I woke up and told my father, ‘That’s it.’ It was a family drama that lasted forever, because my father was mad at me for the rest of his life. One morning, I left for Rome in my little car to play with Gato. We played ‘Half Nelson,’ ‘Bye Bye Blackbird,’ everything by the Miles Davis Quintet with Coltrane. From then on, it was all natural and easy.”
Barbieri joined a group led by trumpeter Don Cherry in 1965, while Rava—now deep into Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler’s Spirits—joined soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy’s ensemble, playing Thelonious Monk and Carla Bley tunes in a quartet with Johnny Dyani and Louis Moholo. Rava recalled, “Since our improvisations had no relation to the tunes, we decided not to play the heads anymore, just to improvise from zero. That so-called ‘free music’ became the song of the young people’s revolution in Europe—it had a heavy political connotation. But at a certain moment, this amazing freedom became a routine, a cliche finally less interesting than the bebop cliche. I started feeling that if a music is free, you should be free also to play a melody if you want. But when I played a melody, I immediately heard, ‘No, this is not free-jazz.’ It became almost like religion.
“In fact, by the late ’70s in Italy things got ridiculous, like Dadaism 40 years too late. We’d play a concert that was a Happening, where one guy played on top of a roof while another was on a horse. From the Fluxus point of view, maybe it was interesting, but from the musical point of view, no. I wanted to play again melodies, harmonies, rhythm. But I kept an idea of freedom also.”
By this time, Rava had spent much of the previous decade in New York. “My idea was to go where whatever you like to do happens,” he said. “You could be the best musician in the world, but if you live in a small town in Italy, it will never happen for you. New York is where my idols were, all the people I wanted to meet.” Given entree to the “new thing” crowd by Lacy and access to clubs by drummer Charles Moffett, who befriended him, Rava gigged with trombonist Roswell Rudd; sat in with Archie Shepp and Hank Mobley; heard Ayler and Jackie McLean at Slugs, and Davis and Monk at the Gate; partied at Taylor’s loft; delivered “political movies” by radical Argentine filmmaker friends to the Black Panther headquarters in Harlem.
“One thing I got from American musicians is when you play, you play like it’s the last time of your life,” Rava said. “We didn’t have this in Italy. The country was still very formal, we all looked like bureaucrats. So it was very impressive to be in New York. All these colors. Vietnam veterans marching in the streets. Kenny Dorham, one of my idols, came to watch me rehearse with Roswell. For a while I was looking at myself from outside, like a movie about an Italian guy in a town where everything was happening, and the main character was me. My first review in DownBeat was for a concert that I did with Roswell in ’67. It was almost incredible, something that until a year before had been a dream, a fantasy I never expected to happen. When I started doing this in Italy, to be a jazz musician only—like a poet, an artist, not just a professional musician—was like wanting to be the chief of the Sioux tribe.”
These days, Rava is generally acknowledged as the informal chief of a thriving tribe of Italian jazz folk. But he shoots down the notion of a generalized “Italian” style. “From hearing my mother play classical piano and what I heard on the radio, I naturally tend towards the lyrical,” he said. “But whereas the music in Argentina or Venezuela, even Spain, has a clear cultural background, it’s different in Italy, which exists only 150 years as a nation and is made by completely different regions. People in Sardinia have a very strong music that Alan Lomax described as prehistoric. So do people in Sicily. But I am from Turin, where the music is from the mountains, and it’s horrible. I might like Sicilian or Sardinian music, but it has nothing to do with me. I don’t know the codes. If I speak my dialect in Sicily or Calabria, they don’t understand me. It’s really much further away than New Orleans. The only folklore we have that is for the whole country is opera.”
In fact, Rava paid little attention to opera until marrying his second wife, Lidia Panizzut, “an opera freak” who inspired his intriguing cusp-of-the-’90s projects L’Opera Va and Carmen, which he performed earlier in 2011 with a French string quartet. “She brought me for the first time to La Scala to see Traviata and Tosca, and suddenly I found out that this thing is fantastic,” he said. “It’s incredible to see them make all that stuff work together. Then I felt like Puccini was the real father of the American musical. When I did ‘E lucevan le stelle,’ it was like I was playing in one of those incredible Broadway shows of the ’50s or ’40s—so beautiful, no?—or in a Gil Evans situation, which I did in Europe thirty years ago. But two records were enough. The context is too strict. With classical people you cannot say, ‘OK, I play one chorus more.’”
This will not be an issue with Rava’s next ECM project, a suite of Michael Jackson songs to be recorded after a performance three weeks hence with the Parco della Musica Jazz Lab, a 10-piece band that he artistic-directs, at the Rome Jazz Festival.
“[My wife] laughs at me, because every morning, when I wake up, still with the eyes closed, I take my trumpet, which I have very close to my bed, and check whether the lips vibrate on the mouthpiece,” he said, describing a ritual he started after reconstructive dental surgery two years ago. “I used to consider myself more like a guy who organizes sounds”—he blew into a phantom trumpet—“and then sings, but I never fell in love with the instrument itself, as an abstract thing, apart from the music. But in my sixties I started practicing much more. I gained an octave. I found the right mouthpiece, the one Miles used to play, a Heim #1. Everything was going good until these implants. Of course, I lost that octave!
“Over the last two–three months it’s coming back. If I vibrate the trumpet, my wife knows I’ll be in a good mood all day. Just one note. ‘Oggi vibra,’ ‘Today it vibrates.’” DB

*****

Enrico Rava Blindfold/Winefold Test (2011)

1. Roy Hargrove, “My Funny Valentine” (from EMERGENCE, EmArcy, 2008) (Hargrove, flugelhorn; Frank Greene, Greg Gisbert, Darren Barrett, Ambrose Akinmisure, trumpets; Jason Jackson, Vincent Chandler, Saunders Sermons, trombones; Max Seigel, bass trombone, arranger;
Bruce Williams, Justin Robinson, Norbert Stachel, Keith Loftis, Jason Marshall, saxophones; Gerald Clayton, piano; Danton Boller, bass; Montez Coleman, drums.

Wine: Emilio Lustau, Jerez-Sherry, Solera East India (Palomino): “A slow, deliberate, almost melancholy number, but with a full, opulent big band backing. We have chosen a fortified wine with intensity and persistence. Its sweetness offers volume and density. A wine which needs time and deliberation. Its toasty aromas of nuts transport us to an autumn setting, melancholy decadence, beauty and serenity.”

Rava: This is tricky. [AFTER 2 MINUTES] I have no idea who it could be, although… It’s very let’s say traditional playing, but it’s somebody that plays very well, has a big sound. I don’t hear that big personality. It could be somebody like Chris Botti or somebody like that. [REPEATS REMARKS] I was saying that I have no idea who it can be, because it’s a very traditional way of playing. He plays very well. He has a really good sound. I thought it was a flugelhorn, by the way. He reminds me, in a way, of a trumpet player who I just saw a video of—a DVD of this cat, called Chris Botti, who was playing exactly “My Funny Valentine.” I know it’s not him, but it reminds me of him. Who is it? [Roy Hargrove] No. [Italians mutter remarks] No! It’s incredible. I must say, I don’t know that well Roy Hargrove, but the little I know, I like him a lot. But I would never recognize him. I’m used to hearing more…how can I say… But I was very surprised when you said Roy Hargrove, because to me it didn’t sound like him. I’ve heard him playing a little bit like that in one record, the one with Shirley Horn, which was the homage to Miles Davis. But this was pretty different. But this was pretty different. Here it really sounded much… I’m used to hearing Roy Hargrove more wild, in a way. I could give it 3 stars. But only 3, because, although the arrangement was very good, the trumpet was played very delightful, but it didn’t really go anywhere, in a way. But it was very nice. It was nice to be out with a nice girl to dinner and have this record playing.

2. Avishai Cohen, “Art Deco” (from INTRODUCING TRIVENI, Anzic, 2011) (Cohen, trumpet; Omer Avital, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums)

Wine: Vina Von Siebenthal, Valle del Aconcagua Carmenere 2007 (Chile): “A contemporary, modern, energetic and intense trumpeter. Chile is one of the so-called new world countries and a paradism in the elaboration of modern wines, with a strong presence of mature fruit edged with hints of aging in new oak. Dense, full and substantial wines. Ripening the Camembert grape can pose problems. It needs to be taken to the limit of maturity to avoid aggressive textures and vegetal notes.”

Rava: The tune is a Don Cherry tune. It’s called “Art Deco.” By the way, I am going to play this tune tomorrow. Donald Cherry. The trumpet player should be… Because I just played with him. It should be Avishai Cohen. Personally, I love the way he plays. Besides, I love the person, too. He’s one of the greatest today. [What is it about the tune that appeals to you?] The tune is fantastic because it had the roots in the real tradition of jazz. It could almost be a Dixieland tune, in a way—a New Orleans tune. But at the same time, it allows you to open up… It’s one of those tunes that have no limits. It is not limited to a certain period. It could be played by a New Orleans player, or by a free player. It’s very open and very easy to remember, too. I love melodies. It has a very catchy melody. It’s very smart, but is very poetic at the same time. One of the best tunes Don Cherry brought—although he brought so many beautiful tunes. But this one stands out. I love the way Avishai played it. On the little intro, he did something really… There you kind of got me, because I didn’t know who it could be, but then I recognized the attack. He has a very special way of playing. 5 stars for the tune, for the beautiful trumpet, and for the beautiful cat.

3. Jerry Gonzalez, “In A Sentimental Mood” (from Y El Comando de la Clave, Sunnyside, 2011) (Gonzalez, flugelhorn, congas; Diego “El Cigala”, voice; Israel Suarez “Piana”, cajon; Alain Perez, guitar)

Wine: André and Mireille Tissot, Arbois, Savagnin, 2007 (France): “This number conveys the lament, the pain, the sentiment of flamenco (which we also find in the blues) expressed through the language of Cuban music and the improvisation of jazz. The wines from the alpine region of Jura have and always have had a lot in common with Andalusian wines, due to very similar winemaking techniques. Fusion? French spirit with an Andalusian accent.”

Rava: I have no idea. No idea. I think the idea is very good. I don’t think there is too much happening so far. The idea is nice, trumpet and voice. But then I’m not so sure they really interact… Maybe that was the intention, to keep something so quiet. [RAVA IS ASKED TO SPEAK UP] I was saying that I have no idea who he is. I think the idea was very good, to have this voice and trumpet interacting, but it is not really happening too much. It’s ok. I would give 2½ stars. Anyway, it is my taste. Maybe it is fantastic. But the way they did it, it didn’t get to me. [AFTER] Now I know why I didn’t know who it was, because I really don’t know at all Jerry Gonzalez’ music. Maybe I never heard him play. So there was no way to know him. He’s a good player anyway, of course. But today, everybody is good. [What do you think about this hybrid idea, of playing an iconic song like that in a very context than it’s normally done, with Cuban rhythms, as they did?] As I said, I think the idea is really good. Anyway, I think that every idea is good as soon as there is an idea. The problem is when there is no idea, but when there is an idea, it’s good. The only thing, I’m not crazy about the way they materialized this idea. But the idea was good. I was taken by the music. I was listening to it. Except I was waiting for maybe the two of them to have some more… I didn’t feel they interacted very much. But maybe it’s just me.

4. Tomasz Stanko, “Kattorna” (from LONTANO, ECM, 2006) (Stanko, trumpet; Marcin Wasilewski, piano; Slawomir Kurekiewicz, bass; Michal Miskiewicz, drums; Krzysztof Komeda, composer)

Wine: Prager, Wachau Riesling Federspiel Steinriegel, 2010 (Austria): “Modern and contemporary European jazz which transports us to a cold and mysterious place, yet also has a rich lyricism. The Riesling grape has an acidic, deep, hard, almost aggressive structure, yet is also refreshing and smooth, with beautiful aromas that flow from the glass and hang suspended, offering us subtlety and tonality.”

Rava: Here again, I don’t really know who it could be. It’s one of these new cats that play the hell out of the trumpet. It could be one of them. I’ll just say one name. It could be Ambrose. But it’s not. [Peter from Bremen Festival: The trumpeter is your age. Or almost.] Is my age. Impossible. Nobody is my age. Except dead people. Dead people are my age. He’s my age? [He’s a contemporary of yours.] A contemporary of mine. American? [No, not American.] I don’t know who could play like that in Europe, in this style. [Explain.] The people I know, that I like, that I know them, that I know the way they play. One is the Danish guy, for instance, but it’s not him… What’s his name, the Danish guy that I admire… Allan Botschinsky, but it’s not. [Peter from Bremen: It’s your record company.] [TP: You’re giving too much information now!] I don’t think I can get him. It was very nice. The guy was playing beautiful. I was not crazy about the tune. In fact, there was no tune. It was really a rhythmic phrase, but it was very good trumpet playing, and I’m very amazed that you say he’s a contemporary of mine and he’s European. Because Europeans of my age, the only is Tomasz Stanko—it’s not him. [It’s not?] No. [It is.] It is? Well, let me tell you that I know Tomasz so well, I’ve played with him so many times, and I would never recognize Tomasz. I never heard him play so straight and to phrase in such an orthodox way. I didn’t even know he could. I knew he was very good playing a certain thing. But I didn’t expect him to play like that—to play THIS. For me, it is a big surprise. I almost don’t believe it. I should see the picture! But being Tomasz Stanko, the only thing I can say is I hope he reads this in DownBeat and he listens to what I am going to tell him. Tomasz, you are playing really unbelievably. Congratulations. I always liked you, but I didn’t know you could play so well, like in this record. 5 stars for Tomasz. Not for the tune. The tune I didn’t really care for. But 5 stars.

5. Eddie Henderson, “Popo” (from FOR ALL WE KNOW, Furthermore, 2009) (Henderson, trumpet, composer; John Scofield, guitar; Doug Weiss, bass; Billy Drummond, drums)

Wine: Bodega Mas Alta, Priorat, Artigas, 2008 (Garnatxa, Carinyena): “A classical education, experimentation, and then back to the classical roots of hard bop, this is the journey of Eddie Henderson. And so we consider Priorat to be the alter-ego of Eddie Henderson. An historic wine region that was reborn in the 1980s through experimentation and reinvention, and has since returned to its roots byi giving more and more importance to its traditional varieties, the Garnatxa and Carinyena, and trying to concentrate more on expressing balance anxd freshness without losing any of the strength and body of the terroir.”

Rava: The problem is that when they play with the Harmon mute, they all sound alike. They all sound like Miles. That’s why I never play with the Harmon mute. It could be many people. For instance, Paolo Fresu sounds like that a lot—but it’s not him. It was nice. A nice feeling, a nice… It wasn’t particularly exciting for me. I’ll give it 3½ stars, whoever it is. It was a very good trumpet player, of course. But everybody today plays this instrument very well. I always say that we should have killed them when they were kids! It’s nobody I know, or maybe somebody I heard once or twice. [AFTER] He’s a trumpet player I don’t know too well. I used to hear him when he was playing with Herbie Hancock in the ‘70s, and sometimes I happened to meet him in some festival, but I don’t really know what he’s doing, so there was no way I could recognize him. Anyway, he sounded very good, of course. But the tune itself didn’t kill me.

6. Kenny Wheeler, “The Lover Mourns” (from WHAT NOW? CamJazz, 2004) (Wheeler, flugelhorn, composer; Chris Potter, tenor saxophone; John Taylor, piano; Dave Holland, bass)

Wine: Tamar Ridge, Tasmania, Pinot Noir, Devil’s Corner, 2008 (Australia). Wine: “The Pinot Noir grape well reflects many of the ideas that we find in the music of Kenny Wheeler, like delicacy, lyricism and poetry. Intense delicately suspended bouquet, smooth textures, and a restrained freshness and tension in this wine from the coolest region of Australia.”

Rava: This is an enjoyable piece, like 4 stars. The whole tune has a nice atmosphere. The trumpet player is excellent. There’s many people who can play like that. I must say that as much as I knew very well all the trumpet players of the ‘50s and ‘60s, now I have a certain problem with today trumpet players, because they all play to a very-very high level, but at the same time it’s very difficult to recognize… When you’re talking about trumpet players of the past, you hear one note of Chet and say, “Oh, this is Chet”; one note of Miles, “this is Miles; one of note of Clifford Brown… Everyone had a different technique, a different tone, a different… Today, I don’t hear that. Now, maybe it’s my ears that are not as good as they used to be! That is another possibility. This one had something I knew. Maybe once you tell me who it is I’ll say, “How could I not?” [AFTER] Oh, Kenny. Okay. This is another thing. As much as the Harmon mute, the flugelhorn tends to unify the sounds. Everyone, even my aunt, with the flugelhorn gets this beautiful warm and dark sound, but it takes away a little bit the personality of the trumpet player. Of course, Kenny is someone who I know very well. We even toured together with… I’m sorry. I should have recognized him. But I didn’t. It was a nice tune. Very enjoyable. Who was the piano player? John Taylor? Ah, that’s why it was so good.

7. Ambrose Akinmusire, “What’s New” (from WHEN THE HEART EMERGES GLISTENING, Blue Note, 2010) (Akinmusire, trumpet; Gerald Clayton, piano; Bob Haggart, composer)

Wine: Bodegas Marañones, Vinos de Madrid, 30,000 Maradevies, 2009 (Garnacha). Wine: “We find many parallels between the two young talents of Ambrose Akinmusire, the new prodigy on the renowned Blue Note label, and Fernando Garcia, the young self-taught winemaker, who is working to recuperate Garnachas from the old vines of the Sierra de Gredos. With a very contemporary approach to winemaking, he aims for a fresh wine style, with little intervention, in an attempt to provide the maximum expression of the vineyard.”

Rava: Is that Uri Caine on piano? No? It sounds a little bit like him when he does this. [AFTER PIECE IS COMPLETED] Dave Douglas? No. I thought so from the sound of a certain phrase at the beginning. Then I thought no, but he’s the only one who came to my mind. I really liked what the trumpeter did. It was very natural, flowing, and also harmonically it was very interesting. The way the tune started, that they didn’t play the head, they started improvising—it was a very nice. It was a good idea. Nothing special, but anyway a good idea to play “What’s New” like that. It was a very nice duo. I have no idea… [Older players? Younger?] Well, at this point… Every time I say it’s a young one, it turns out to be 80 years. But this one sounds to me like a guy in his forties, 45 or 50 or something like that. Or maybe not. It’s a 12-year-old! You cannot say. I don’t know who it can be. Who is it? 4½ stars. [AFTER] Oh!! I swear I was going to say that. No-no, really. It’s true. I was thinking Ambrose. I only heard one record of Ambrose, but he plays much more…how can I say… I wouldn’t say… It’s not a negative thing; it’s a positive thing. There shows up most of the time more of his amazing technique. He’s one of the trumpet players who has really impressed me enormously lately, so much that I wanted to have him next year in the festival of which I am the director. That tells you how much I like this guy. What I heard of him on only one record really impressed me. He really goes up and down this instrument. Now, here it was much… I liked this thing very much. In fact, although I said 4½ stars, I could even say 5. The thing is, it didn’t last long enough. It was a bit short. 4½ for the tune; 5 for Ambrose.

8. Wynton Marsalis, “La Lamada De La Sangre [Blood Cry]” (from VITORIA SUITE, EmArcy, 2010) (Marsalis, trumpet, composer; Sean Jones, Ryan Kisor, Marcus Printup, trumpets; Vincent Gardner, Chris Crenshaw, Elliot Mason, trombones; Sherman Irby, Ted Nash, Walter Blanding, Jr., Joe Temperley, saxophones & woodwinds; Dan Nimmer piano; Carlos Henriquez, bass; Ali Jackson, drums.

Wine: Bodegas López de heredia, Rioja Viña Bosconia Reserva, 2002 (Tempranillo, Garnacho, Mazuelo, Graciano). “Wynton Marsalis was the arch revivalist of classicism in the 1980s. Impassive to criticism, he sought to rediscover classical jazz. The López de Heredia bodega is an excellent example of classicism, tradition and resistance. Almost all of the bodegas in Rioja, whether large or small, succumbed to the siren song of modernity. At López de Heredia, the third generation chose to maintain the legacy and character of their forebears despite the changes all around them and the pressures to alter their style. Now, faithful to this tradition, they are still the landmark winery they have always been.”

Rava: That’s a Miles phrase from Sketches of Spain. Is that trumpet or cornet? [I don’t know.] It sounded like an homage to Miles, some citation from Sketches of Spain, and then at the last minute it sounded like a kind of thing for Duke Ellington, with this kind of “Django”… It could be Dave Douglas. [Not Dave.] But it could. It could! It’s not forbidden. But it’s not. And it is… [Talk about the piece a little.] The piece got me. I like it. In fact, I’m glad I did this Blindfold Test where I didn’t get nobody except Avishai, because it gave me the will now to go out tomorrow here in Barcelona, where there is a very good store, to buy some records. Really, I heard something that is very interesting. I realize that… Maybe in my playing it doesn’t sound like it, in my groups and my music, but I’m still listening always to the same thing that I’ve listening to for fifty years. I still listen to Bix, to Satchmo, to Miles. So there’s a lot of things I don’t know, I don’t listen, and it’s probably a big mistake. So this Blindold Test gives me… Now I feel like going out to buy stuff. And also to retire, because people play so good.

As far as this piece, the composition was very interesting. It was a very nice arrangement, and the sound was… There was some Gil Evans stuff in it. In fact, in a way, it reminded me of some of Gil Evans’ things fifty years ago with Johnny Coles—even the way the trumpet player sounded. Because there was some Miles in it, but of course it was not Miles. It’s a nice record. I would like to buy it, in fact. But I have no idea who it is. I couldn’t even tell you now if I think this thing had been done today or forty years ago. In fact, this is another thing that confirms what I have been saying all the time, that the last big change in the language was done by Ornette in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, and from then on, we still metabolize whatever we’d been doing before. Sometimes I listen to Maria Schneider doing some fantastic thing, but it could be something recorded thirty years ago. But I don’t say that in a derogatory way. In fact, I love it. Or some trumpet player 22 years old playing stuff that he could have been doing in the ‘60s or the ‘50s. I will give it 4½ stars. I could give more, but 4½ is a lot of stars. I wish I’d get 4½ often. [AFTER] You see, for instance, I have many records by Wynton Marsalis. I would never recognize him in this tune. He sounds different. It’s the same thing you did last time when it was Wynton playing some old stuff, and there was no way somebody could…unless you know that he did it or you heard the record before. Just the day before… Usually at home, to have fun, I play with records, and one of the records I play very often is Wynton Marsalis’ record Live at the House of Tribes, where he plays only standards. If you compare what he played on that record with what he plays on this record, there’s no way you could say it’s the same person. Also if you hear him play From Slavery to the Penitentiary, it sounds like another, third one. So what can I say? Anyway, ok, I didn’t recognize him; the tune was beautiful. It’s very interesting, because that makes my judgment much more real, because I was not influenced by… Of course, if I knew that this guy was Ambrose, or someone else… That’s why I say I love it. It makes me want to go to buy the record.

9. Amir ElSaffar, “Al-Badia” (from INANA, Pi, 2011) (ElSaffar, trumpet, composer; Ole Mathisen, tenor saxophone; Zafer Tawil, oud, percussion; Tareq Anboushi, buzuq; Carlo DeRosa, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums)

Wine: Ferrer Bobet, Must. “Amir ElSaffar is an important contemporary trumpeter who fuses jazz and traditional Iraqi music, being a master of the traditional maqam style. Grape must symbolizes, surely better than wine, a cultural closeness. Sweetness and density which fuse with the exotic rhythms of the Middle East.”

Rava: Is the player American? [Yes, American with a hyphen preceding it. He’s a first-generation American.] I don’t know him. I’ve heard a lot of things like that in Europe, like a trumpet player from Lebanon, Ibrahim Malouf. It wasn’t him. I’d imagine that later on they develop. But then they were just playing the head. It’s not the kind of thing that drives me to… It’s one of the things that you can do. Who is it? [AFTER] I’ve never heard of him. The only one I know is Nasheet Waits. I’m happy I heard a lot of good trumpet players. That’s for sure. It makes me feel like going out to get some more records, and stop listening to Bix and wasting my time!

 

***********

Enrico Rava (Barcelona, Nov. 11, 2011):

TP: You have a mute called the Peace-Maker mute, so nobody can see you…

ER: Yes, so nobody gets angry at me. My wife doesn’t…heh-heh… Peace is made, you know, thanks to the Peace-Maker.

TP: Did you develop it?

ER: No, I didn’t invent it. It’s something I bought years ago. It doesn’t exist any more. I tried to buy one again because this one is kind of dying, because it fell too many times—now it’s breaking up. But I didn’t do it any more, unfortunately.

TP: Let’s structure this conversation. Let’s talk about your group, your association with these musicians, the recording Tribe. You’ve done three recordings with Petrella on the front line. Talk about the process of making a record with Manfred Eicher. Do you go into the studio with a notion of how the record is going to sound when you get out? Or do you go in with the material you’re working with over that period, and then Manfred Eicher assembles it, as he often does? That’s a long-standing relationship.

ER: It’s not always the same. For instance, when I came back to ECM in 2004, with the record Easy Living, I had a band that played a lot. We played a lot, and we had a big repertoire. We didn’t record for a long time. So I went to the studio with everything… I could choose within my repertoire, and the material was ready—no problem. Then with the trio with Paul Motian and Stefano Bollani, and also with the duo with Bollani, it was really invented during the recording session. On both records, I brought some new tunes, and we played probably for the first time in the studio. Manfred, of course, was giving his opinion and kind of giving some input to us. But particularly with the duo, because on the duo, Bollani and me, we played a lot. We already made some records…

TP: On Label Bleu?

ER: On Label Bleu, but also on Philology. So I wanted to have completely new material. And since with the duo we play also some standards, and I wanted to play only original material, so I brought a bunch of new tunes that I wrote for the occasion, and Bollani brought a couple of tunes. It was a record invented in the studio. In fact, the record doesn’t really sound like the duo usually sounds. Even now, when we play, we’re still playing the standards thing. I think it was very interesting how it changed the music in a studio, making a record with new material for ECM… It changed so much. [WAVES TO GUYS IN BAND]

TP: Let’s talk about the band. I can find this out for myself tonight, but for you how does sound of the band on the recording differ from a live performance?

ER: It really sounds very different when we play live. You’ll see tonight. First of all, I think that studio music is a different music than live music. For instance, when you play live, there is also the visual aspect of it, and the excitement of the people, blah-blah. Something that if you hear it on a record, it might sound too long or annoying or whatever, when you hear it on a concert, looking at the musicians with the people around you, it works. But it doesn’t necessarily work in the studio. In fact, for me it’s very rare to hear a jazz live recording that I really like. Some of them are fantastic… When it happens, it’s fantastic. Sometimes, for instance… I bought them because I am a collector. I bought the complete live recordings of Jazz at the Philharmonic. Besides the fact that there are some amazing, extraordinary moments, like there is a Charlie Parker solo… But altogether, it’s almost impossible to listen to, because you’re just listening to long solos, you don’t really remember what was the tune at the beginning. But it worked. You can feel that people were very excited. But when you hear it at home, sitting down, you don’t enjoy it that much.

So in this, I agree very much with Manfred Eicher, because the record is a different thing. You think also how the music is going to be listened to; under what conditions people are going to listen to it. For instance, on this last record, he has a lot of very contemplative tunes. When I play live, I wouldn’t do that. I would have maybe a couple of moments like that, but I wouldn’t do like in the record, one after the other.

TP: Like those three towards the end.

ER: Yes. But I think in the record, it works. I wouldn’t do that live, because live you need something else. Also, live you get some energy from the people, you give it back to them, they give it back to you, so you get into a different… In fact, Manfred Eicher, last time he heard the group live, in Munich, he thought that we should make a record live, just to have another view of this band. But of course, if at some time we do that, it would be a live performance, and it would be different than the usual performance because you are conscious of the fact that you are recording it. So trying to be …(?—8:27)…

TP: There’s a title, Tribe, and a number of the tunes have titles with a tribal connotation. One is called “Choctaw,” for example. Is there some kind of implied narrative or extra-musical story to the recording that you’re thinking about while making it, or is it pure accident?

ER: Well, sometimes it’s pure accident. Sometimes… Tribe comes from the idea that I have that… Besides, it was the title of a tune that I wrote in 1977, and recorded for ECM with John Abercrombie. Giovanni Guidi, my piano player, who is 25, I think, liked it so much, he said, “Why don’t we play that tune?” I didn’t even remember. I was surprised that a young guy wanted to play a tune I recorded 30 years ago. But we played it, and it really worked; it sounded like I wrote that yesterday. But besides that, I really feel with the band, with all my bands… I always feel like a tribe. We are like a tribe. Once I read that the Cherokees had a social organization that there was no sense of… Nobody owned anything. Everything was for everybody, and everybody used what he needed, and it was a perfect kind of idea of democracy. I don’t know if it’s true. But in music, in jazz, in a jazz group, that’s what it really is. When it works, it’s a perfect democracy that would probably never exist in reality, where everybody gives what is needed, everybody receives what is needed. Nobody renounces to his own ego, but…he doesn’t impose his ego to everybody. That’s when it works. When it doesn’t work, it is totally… But when it works, for me, this is the great experience of playing this music. For me, beside musical reasons, there is the reason of being in a perfect harmonic situation, where…so being in contact with a real balance, like the cosmic balance, which is the same balance of the body balance inside, where everything is right. When something is wrong, you get sick. So for me, this is the great experience of this music, and it’s something that, as far as we know, in jazz… Well, in all music, that way. But in jazz, it is particularly evident.

TP: Let’s explore that a bit. Because it’s still your vision, your sound, your band.

ER: Yes.

TP: You don’t seem to use much written material in arrangements. You set up situations where your bandmates have a lot of initiative.

ER: Yes.

TP: Then you bounce off it.

ER: That’s what it is.

TP: So you’re trying to create this situation.

ER: Yes.

TP: There is some agency involved. The situation doesn’t happen by accident.

ER: No.

TP: It happens because you want to create a situation like that.

ER: Yes. I must say I got that from Miles. Because I know that was the way Miles was organizing his music, especially with the quintet with Coltrane and with Miles. But the first thing is the choice of the musicians. I need musicians that… Besides they have to be good players. That of course. But also, they have to have the same vision that I have, and also to be open to the whole history of this music. They must be able to…you know… And then, I bring maybe a line, some chords of a tune, maybe a little point at which we have to meet and play what I want to be played. But for the rest, the example, the metaphor of that is if we are five people who have to paint, to make a painting on a white wall all together, and each one puts what is needed and doesn’t put… Finally, we are a painting that is made by a group of people because it’s logic… I might say what kind of feeling I would like to have, or I must make maybe an example. Not musical. I will say no. I am talking about maybe… I might talk about a book, or about the situation, the weather, whatever it is. In this, I also have the lines I write, the chords I give, but then I leave everyone to find what to add or what to take out. That way, I think that the musicians who play with me give really their best. In fact, talking also about the groups I had in the past, many of those musicians playing with me, they played better than ever—and they admit that, too.

TP: They played their best with you, you mean.

ER: Yes. Even better than when they play with their own thing. This is not me. I am not me telling that, but they are them, themselves, telling me that. Because I leave them really total freedom within the frame, which is the idea I have of the music and of that particular tune. But it works.

TP: But it’s not entirely altruistic. Another reason why Miles Davis did that, and I presume why you do as well, is to stay fresh and not repeat yourself…

ER: Absolutely.

TP: …and get feedback from fresh young minds.

ER: Absolutely. No-no, the altruism has nothing to do with that. It has to do with the fact that I like to have a music that reflects what I think, but at the same time that it is fresh and it is surprising. I need to be surprised by the people I play with. In fact, whenever a band I have starts becoming into a very good routine…but routine, even if it’s a very good routine, I change. I change musicians. I change someone. The only one that is still the same in this last maybe ten years is Petrella. But with Petrella, besides that he’s an extraordinary musician, we also almost a telepathic thing when we play together. In fact, Petrella has his own projects, very interesting, very good, he played a lot…they have this group with David(?—17:12) (?)> He plays with a lot of people. But he always is free when he has to play with me. He always tries to be able to play whenever I call him. Because we have this thing together that works. It could work forever. Maybe it will not. But it could.

TP: You played trombone before you played trumpet, right?

ER: Yeah, but not really. I tried.

TP: For purposes of an interview, I want to ask you… You’ve played a lot with trombonists. The Roswell Rudd connection…

ER: Yes. Ray Anderson. Albert Mangelsdorff.

TP: I see a connection between Petrella and Ray and Roswell in the tonality, and the way they get around the whole trombone…

ER: Still, I like the instrument, and I love the musicians, of course. They were great. But I love the instrument. In fact, when I was a kid… I started listening to jazz when I was really very young. I was maybe 8 or 9 years old. My first big myth was, and still is, Bix Beiderbecke—and Louis Armstrong.

TP: You told me you have Bix in your car.

ER: I do. I have Bix and Louis in my car. Now I’m going to have all the new guys! Because next Blindfold Test I will get all of them! But so far, in my car… I will tell you what I have right now in my car. I have a lot of Lester Young. I have almost all Bix with Frankie Trumbauer. I have Hot Five and Hot Seven, Louis Armstrong. I have a couple of Miles. I have a Monk record. And I have a bunch of Michael Jackson records. That’s what I’m talking about in this last year. I am listening to those records all the time, all the same. Then maybe I will change, but… I don’t have an iPod. I like to have a CD. I have the thing in the car.

TP: I don’t have an iPod either.

ER: You neither. I don’t know how it works. I have no idea.

TP: I’m too lazy to download the stuff. Who needs that?

ER: Me, too. I like everything to be ready for me.

TP: But back to trombone. There’s a sort of expansive tonal thing. It’s funny.

ER: When I was a kid… Because listening to Bix and his gang, you know, “Jazz Me Blues” or the “Jazzman Ball,” or Armstrong Hot 7… Listening to the trombone, I understood the mechanism of this music, how it works. Because many people never understand. Sometimes they ask me, even now, “but why do you improvise? What do you do? How…” Listening to them, it was so clear, and the trombone made it so clear, that I remember more the trombone line when I was 8-9 years old than everybody else’s line—although I loved the trumpet players already. But still, I remembered all the lines the trombone was playing. So I was whistling all those lines. So eventually, when I was maybe 14, there was a Dixieland band that… [(?)Alma Turba(?)—21:38], they played pretty good… They had a trombone player who was a very good technician, but it was totally arhythmic. He had no sense of rhythm. And they knew, because I was always hanging around in the record store…they knew that I was whistling all those trombone parts. So they bought me a trombone and they said, “Ok, you have to learn the trombone as fast as you can.” So I drove… I was maybe 14. I drove my neighbors and my family crazy. But after a couple of months, I was able to play almost decently certain parts of these tunes. So I got into that band immediately, except that my father (I was very young; I was 15 at this point) didn’t want me to come back late at night, so it was a tragedy. Then I was so bad at school that eventually the trombone was locked in a closet. I never came back.

TP: They locked the trombone up so you’d do better in school.

ER: That’s it with the trombone. So that was the end of my career as a trombone player.

TP: Just a digression. What sort of family do you come from? Intellectuals?

ER: I come from a bourgeois family, middle-high class, let’s say…

TP: They had a business?

ER: My father had a business. It was a family business. On top of it, he was also an economist, so he had an office. I was supposed to become a lawyer or something like that. My older brother, who is the one who had all the records that I listened to when I was a kid, of course he was very successful at school, had a very brilliant career as an economist—still is very respected in that field. Me, I was a dropout. I dropped out of school when I was 16.

TP: A ne’er do well, as they say.

ER: I was really the black sheep of the family. They were very worried about me. So then I started working in the family business.

TP: What was the business, if I may ask?

ER: It was an international transport business. I had to go to…how do you call it… Well, it doesn’t matter. It was a horrible gig. On top of it, my father thought that since I was supposed to become, with my cousin, the owner of the business, I had to start from the bottom, so I did the most horrible work, and I would wake up early in the morning, and on top of it I was working on Saturdays, sometimes even on Sunday morning. I could see really my life like in a tunnel. I said I will never…

But then, when I bought a trumpet, I did that because… In the meantime, I was listening to a lot of records. I had a lot of records, and I was crazy about Miles. I’m talking about Miles of the ‘50s. 1952, “Blue Haze,” that groove, all these records. When Miles came through Turino, it was ‘56, with…

TP: Lester Young and the Modern Jazz Quartet…

ER: Yeah, and the French people, with Rene Urtregger… There is a record of that.

TP: “How High The Moon.”

ER: Exactly. And “What’s New.” And so, when I saw that concert… Already he was my favorite—he and Chet. But when I saw that concert, really I… Because although I loved what I was listening to, I couldn’t imagine that in person it could be so incredibly strong. And yet, such an amazing charisma that even… Because in the concert there was also Bud Powell to play alone. Even with Bud Powell and Lester Young, still everybody was looking at Miles, even when he wasn’t playing, when he was just standing in a corner. The sound… At the time, they didn’t have that incredible system or sound engineering, so it was almost acoustic, and the sound was filling the fucking room. I was totally shocked. I couldn’t sleep for a couple of days because I was still… I couldn’t turn myself down. I kept the adrenalin. And then, after a week or something like that, I bought an old trumpet and started learning by myself.

TP: Oh, you’re self-taught.

ER: Absolutely. 100%.

TP: How about theory? Also self-taught?

ER: Absolutely. But I must say, my mother was a classical piano player, so I was listening to music, in fact, even before I was born. [PATS STOMACH] So I know a lot of things that I don’t know theoretically. But I wasn’t planning to be a musician. I was just trying to play with the record, particularly the easier tunes like “Solar,” “When Lights Are Low”… I was trying to learn those tunes, and I did. After a few months, they started calling me at the jam sessions with amateurs, and eventually I found myself playing with very good people. I met Gato Barbieri that way. He told me why don’t you do that seriously?

TP: But by then you were in your early twenties.

ER: Yes.

TP: So until your early twenties you were working in the family business and playing trumpet on the side.

ER: Yes.

TP: You said that Chet Baker also moved to your town.

ER: Yes. Because my best friend, who was a bit older than me, was his drummer when he came out from jail. You know that he was in jail in… Anyway, he was in jail in 1961 in Italy, one year, where he… By the way, he learned Italian very well. He spoke beautiful Italian. So when he came out, he was very popular, because the trial was a lot of scandal and everything…

TP: Like the Amanda Knox trial fifty years before.

ER: That kind of thing. Exactly. So he became very popular in Italy, and he had a band with my best friend on drums, and so when they had a day off he would be at my best friend’s house, sleeping there for two days. Whenever I knew… Whenever my friend, Franco, called me and said, “Chet is here,” I would just stop whatever I was doing, and go to Chet and stay with him. I couldn’t even talk because I was so paralyzed by this, just looking at him, that I couldn’t even put two words together. I was listening to him, bringing his trumpet and things.

In the meantime, my life was getting better because I was playing with better and better people. And then Gato told me, “Why don’t you just…you know, fuck that work?” and I said, “That’s right,” you know. One day I said to my father… I woke up and I said, “Listen, that’s it,” to my father. So it was a family drama that lasted forever, because my father was really mad at me for the rest of his life. One morning, I left for Rome to go to play with Gato, with my little car, and it was fantastic. From then on, it was all natural and easy.

TP: One thing led to another?

ER: Yes. Because from playing with Gato, that led me to play with Steve Lacy. Steve Lacy brought me to New York, and I started playing, I don’t know, with everybody, and eventually I met Cecil Taylor, all these people, and I was in Escalator Over the Hill, and then I played with the Roswell Rudd band. Then I started touring Europe with my own group, with John Abercrombie—that was ‘72. Then Manfred Eicher contacted me in New York, and I did my first record for him. Everything was, say… After a difficult beginning, everything was, I must say, very easy. I was very lucky, too, to be at the right moment.

TP: I played you the track by Stanko yesterday, and there are certain parallels in the way your musical aesthetic evolved. You both started off… I’m not sure how self-taught Stanko was. But you started off loving Miles and so on, then you started off playing very open music and speculative improvising, and were part of that whole aesthetic of the ‘60s, and you’ve gradually come back to playing harmonic music, within structures, and a very lyrical quality, where melody and lyricism is very important. That’s not to compare you to Stanko, but just a measuring point. Can you discuss the aesthetics of the early ‘60s and mid ‘60s when you were starting to establish your name and your sound?

ER: Yes. But let me say about Stanko, it’s funny that you say that… He studied. I think he went to the conservatory. I think he played in a symphonic orchestra for a while. It’s funny, because I met Stanko in ‘63, one year before I decided to be a musician, in a festival in Bled, in Yugoslavia, and immediately we had a very good rapport, because we liked the same music, we liked… Just to stay that I’ve been knowing him for such a long time. Anyway, I started listening to, and even playing with a trombone, Bix and all, but then of course, the one that opened the door to me for modern jazz really was the Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Chet, which is still for me one of the most imaginative groups I ever heard. Chet was amazing. From then on, I got into that. So when I started playing, I was trying to play in between Miles and Chet, and I played that music. With Gato, we had a band…we played all the Miles Davis Quintet with Coltrane in ‘64. We played “Half Nelson,” “Bye, Bye Blackbird.”

But then I was listening to Ornette and this kind of turned me on very much. And then Gato went with Don Cherry and I went with Steve Lacy, and all of a sudden, this music that was just coming to Europe on records, like Albert Ayler’s Spirits and all that… All of a sudden, playing with Steve, we decided to open completely, not to play the heads any more, just to improvise from zero.

TP: It’s interesting, because Lacy was so into structure, even when he broke structure…

ER: I know. But in fact, even when we’d play completely free, it was kind of radical. As far as I know, we were the first band that played like that, without even a small head, without talking before. Our rule was that we don’t have to talk… In fact, in the beginning, the first two weeks that I played with his quartet, which was ‘65, we were playing Monk tunes and Carla Bley tunes. But then the improvisation was free. So this is exactly how it went. After a couple of weeks, I said to Steve, “Listen. It seems we improvise something that has no relation with it; why don’t we just start improvising…” So we tried one night, and it became our… For two years we played only like that. This was related to a lot of things. It was related also to what historically was happening. That music, the so-called “free music,” became the song of the young people’s revolution… Like, in Paris in ‘68, they would be playing that for the young people who were marching. It became… It had a very heavy political connotation. So we felt part of a musical movement that was also social and political.

The thing is that, at a certain moment, I felt that this amazing freedom that we had, it was freedom at the beginning, but then it became a routine. It became a routine with a cliche finally less interesting than the bebop cliche. That’s the way I started feeling. I started feeling that if a music is free, you should be free also to play a melody if you want. But no. Because if I play a melody, immediately, “No, this is not free jazz.”

There is a story that is true (I don’t know who told me that; I think it was Eberhard Weber) that they were playing at the Free Meeting in Baden-Baden by Joachim Berendt. I was there many times, too. He was playing with Wolfgang Daumer, I think, and they were playing completely free. Then at a certain moment, I don’t know why, Wolfgang started playing kind of on a tempo and in time, and immediately Berendt stopped. “Stop. Remember, this is a FREE jazz meeting.” So that tells you how un-free it could be, this thing…

TP: It sounds very Germanic.

ER: It is, in fact. [LAUGHS] But that happened for real. In fact, sometimes maybe… I remember when I was in Buenos Aires with Steve Lacy and Moholo and Johnny Dyani, sometimes the three of us, me, Johnny and Louis, we would go to play with Argentinean musicians to play some standards. We felt we had to get out… It became almost like a religion.

TP: There’s a parallel to the development of some aspects of the European Left.

ER: Yeah. But in fact, in Italy in the late ‘70s, things got really ridiculous, the freedom of the music. It was like Dadaism forty years too late. We would play a concert where one guy would play on top of a roof, the other one was on a horse… This was a Happening. In fact…

TP: From Fluxus.

ER: Yes. From the Happening point of view it was maybe interesting, but from the musical point of view, no. In fact, I remember many of the musicians in Italy involved in that situation sometimes would say, “Wow, I can’t wait until we start again to play in theaters instead of playing on a boat or in a bus…” So I felt that I wanted to play again melodies, harmonies, rhythm. But I kept an idea of freedom also.

TP: Also, though, you go to New York, and unlike a lot of Europeans… You and Karl Berger seem to be the two European musicians of that time who made the biggest impact in New York, or got around the music. Well, Mike Mantler came, but his was a different sort of impact. There must be others. But anyway, you spent ten years in New York, and then I guess New York was your base, but you kept an Italian passport and you traveled around.

ER: I had a green card. I lived in New York. But once or twice a year I would do a tour in Europe, or sometimes they would call… For instance, they called me with Globe Unity, which is this German band…

TP: Totally free.

ER: Totally free, but there were compositions, too. But I was living in New York. I had a green card. I could have got the American passport after five years, but at that time, to have the American nationality, you had the renounce to the Italian. I didn’t want to renounce the Italian for many reasons, but one of those is that with the Italian passport I could work freely all over Europe, whereas an American, for certain countries, needed a visa. Particularly with France there were a lot of problems. At the time we could not have… Now it would be possible, but at that time you could not have the two passports.

TP: But for a couple of reasons for this article… One is the memoir. I’m under the impression that in the memoir you write a lot about your experiences in New York. But also, your early influences are American musicians, but it’s primarily a New York influence… It’s the opposite of the artists of the 18th or 19th century coming to Rome or Venice, or writers going to Paris in the early 20th century…

ER: Yes, of course.

TP: You’re a jazz musician, and you come to New York in the ‘70s. Talk about the dynamics of that scene. You came back 34 years ago, and I’m sure you thought about this when writing the book. How did your ten years in New York shape you as a musician and help you to evolve?

ER: That’s for sure. One thing that I got from American musicians, is: When you play, you play, you know, like it was the last time of your life. This is something that we didn’t have.

TP: Did Lacy impart that to you?

ER: No. I got that from coming to New York, and going around, listening to people. But anyway, there was very… When I came to New York… Besides, I must say that when I checked all the great musicians living in New York in the ‘40s and the ‘50s and the ‘60s, almost nobody was from New York. They were coming from all over the States to New York. I always felt that you go where whatever you like to do happens. So in those years, if you wanted to play jazz, I really thought you have to be in New York if you make any sense… You could be the best musician in the world, but if you live in a small town in the south of Italy, it will never happen for you. New York is where my idols were, where all the people I wanted to meet, the people…

It was very interesting, because when I came to New York, first of all, many of the greatest jazz musicians who invented jazz were still alive and playing. So you could see Monk. I saw Miles play at the Village Gate. I saw Jackie McLean. Then the new people—Albert Ayler playing at Slugs, Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp. I was friends with Charles Moffett. He would bring me to every club to sit in with Shepp and we hung out…

TP: So Moffett brought you around the New Thing and introduced you to the militant guys.

ER: Well, I did that through Steve. But then Moffett, since he was the only person I knew who had a car, would pick me up and make a tour of all the clubs, introduce me always to the owners so I didn’t have to pay maybe next time, and helped me sit in. So I sat in with Hank Mobley, with Shepp when he had the band with two trombones… In those years, there was still the Vietnam War, so every day you had veterans marching the streets, some of them blind, some without arms, some only with a piece of body with the head… It was very, very strong. Andy Warhol was happening at the time.

It was the time of the Black Panthers. I would go to the Black Panther… They had their headquarters in Harlem, and they had their house, it was about a 3-story house, more or less, it was blue, electric blue, with a big flag with the Black Panthers. I had two friends from Argentina who were making political movies, so they sent me movies that I was supposed to bring to the Black Panthers. I brought this…we called it ‘pizza,’ the documentary thing…to the Black Panther headquarters. It was a trip. The first time I couldn’t believe it… I thought it would be something a little bit more clandestine, but instead, BOOM, you could see it from a satellite. It was blue electric, with the flag, with the cats with the leather jackets and shit, with guns and shit, you know—big people. I was giving them…

There was the Weathermen. My best friend, an Italian friend who was in New York working for a diplomatic thing, but he was a bass player, too… I brought him to Bill Dixon in Bennington. Anyway, he lived in an apartment on 10th Street… In that apartment, the one that Dustin Hoffman was in, that when the Weathermen…

TP: Next door.

ER: Next door. When they blew up the building next door, that apartment was destroyed, and Dustin Hoffman left. Then they rebuilt the wall and the flat, and he got THAT apartment, Dustin Hoffman’s apartment. The top floor was Angela Lansbury. And his daughter, with a dog, every day… I was going to my friend’s almost every day, so I would say, “Hello, Miss Angela.” A little bit more, two or three more doors towards 6th Avenue, there was a thing that said Charles Ives lived in this house from blah-blah-blah… So it was very impressive. The whole thing was very strong from a…

TP: I think Hendrix was living on 10th Street or 12th Street at that time.

ER: Jimi Hendrix? I didn’t know that. Edward Hopper lived most of his life near Washington Square. The thing is that… It’s difficult to understand. For me, coming from an Italian middle-class family, from a country that in the ‘60s was still very formal, everybody was dressed in a tie, all looked like bureaucrats… Being in New York, all those colors, all those things happening, and playing… I was playing with Roswell. We were rehearsing at St. Peter’s Church with Garcia-Gensel, and maybe Kenny Dorham would come to listen to us because he was a very good friend of Roswell. So I had one of my idols there, listening to our rehearsal, and I was talking to him. Then I was going to parties at Cecil Taylor’s house. For a while, I was looking at myself like from outside. It was like a movie, and in this movie there was a main character that was me. It was an Italian guy in a town where everything was happening.

For instance, the first time I had a review in DownBeat, which was in ‘67, for a concert that I did with Roswell, for me it was almost incredible. Because for us, in Italy, DownBeat was something so far away… Since you are American, you grew up with that, you cannot imagine how big the impact was to be all of a sudden part of something that until a year before, it was like a dream. A dream that was something I would never expect to happen for me.

TP: It seems like a fantasy almost.

ER: Absolutely. Because when I started doing this thing in Italy, being a jazz musician…leaving… Being a jazz musician only…I’m not saying a musician; no, a JAZZ musician…was really like willing to be the chief of the Sioux tribe in Italy. Because it didn’t exist as a reality. There were only three people with me who were playing this music in Italy. One was a trumpet player, but he had a gig in the radio, but was playing only jazz. A very good trumpet player. He was called Nunzio Rotondo. The other one was a piano player my age, Franco D’Andrea, because he was playing with Nunzio and me. Everybody else… We had very good jazz musicians, but they either played in the orchestra or the radio; the other one played with a singer in a nightclub; or a studio musician. But people being a jazz musician as I intended to, like an artist, like a poet, not like a professional musician. Like an artist. Nobody… Now there are hundreds of them in Italy. But then there was only three.

So it was really like you said before, like a dream, like a fantasy.

TP: One thing I’ve noticed talking with musicians from other countries who settle in the States is that once they get there, away from home, they start to look at their own native traditions. The first one who’s coming to mind is pianist Edward Simon, from Venezuela, who grew up playing in a family band, and all he’s thinking about is playing jazz, but he gets here, and Paquito D’Rivera says, “You need to play Venezuelan music, you need to play your music,” and all of a sudden he starts examining his culture and bringing it into his own music. I look at you, and you’ve done recordings on arias and operas, ballads that are kind of like arias, you do South American things, things that have flavors of different areas of Italy. I’m wondering if being in America for ten years helped you to access those components of your culture, or if it’s not applicable to what you’ve done.

ER: I know that dynamic very well, but it didn’t really happen that way. It happened another way. Like, I have naturally, because of how I grew up, my mother, the music I heard on the radio… I have naturally a tendency toward very lyrical… But at the same time, you have to consider that Italy… In Venezuela or Argentina, even Spain, they have a very clear cultural background musically. In Italy, it’s very different, because Italy as a nation exists only since 150 years ago, and it’s made by regions that are totally different. For instance, somebody like Paolo Fresu is coming from Sardinia. In Sardinia, they do have a very-very-very strong music of their own that Alan Lomax described as prehistorical, because of the way they use the voice, etc. People from Naples have very strong… But where I come from, Turino, we don’t have…
TP: You were part of the Austro-Hungarian empire…

ER: No. No-no, no-no. There was Milano… We fought against the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and we won, and we conquered the rest of Italy from Turino. You see? In fact, they don’t like us. But our music is the music from the mountains. It’s really horrible. I would never… The only music that somehow everybody in Italy… The only folklore we have that is for the whole country is the opera. It is not folklore, but let’s say it was an ironic way… So it was the only thing… See, if I listen to Sicilian music or Sardinian music, I might like it, but it has nothing to do with me. I don’t know it. I have no idea. I don’t know the codes. It’s much further away than New Orleans really. So it’s different.

I understand a guy… There’s a famous story of Astor Piazzolla, he wanted to be a contemporary composer, so he went to Paris when he was young to study with Nadia Boulanger, and he was very good. But anyway, one day Nadia Boulanger said, “Listen, but you are from Argentina; you have a beautiful music which is tango.” He confessed that he played bandoneon, but he would hide it… She said, “Ok, you are good, but take your bandoneon, and go back to Argentina and work on your music.” This is very understandable, because there is a music that touches everybody in Argentina, and it’s so strong, the tango. But we don’t have that. I mean, we DO. But not we as Italians. Now, in Naples, they do. But Neapolitan culture is so far away and different, even the language. If I go to Sicily, I speak my dialect. Nobody understands me. They don’t even know vaguely what I am talking about—and vice versa. Or I go to Calabria. No way. When I went to Little Italy sometimes when I was in New York, to those Italian stores…

TP: They’re mostly Neapolitan and Calabrian.

ER: …they’d start talking to me in a language that I didn’t understand, because it was the Calabrese that maybe their grandfather talked, and I understand. “Ah, you are not Italian,” they would tell me. So it’s very different. It depends. Of course, if you come from Brazil to be a jazz musician in New York, after a while the Brazilian thing… But the Brazilian thing is something that every Brazilian knows, every Brazilian relates to. It doesn’t happen that way for us. So whatever you can feel that is coming from me that might sound Italian is only because, in fact, I am Italian. So there is something I absorb that comes out naturally. But not from, let’s say, a process of recuperating my culture. No.

TP: It’s hard to say, when I listen to you and something sounds Italian, if it’s because there’s something Italian or because I know you’re Italian. It’s similar to the process of taking the Blindfold, of why do you perceive a sound a certain way, and what a sound actually contains. But it does seem that in your recordings of the last 10-15-20 years, you work with several different genres and weave them together. Those sort of lyric, aria type things, this sort of trans-Mediterranean materials that include a lot of flavors, a little contemporary composition, and jazz standards, and so on… Did this happen naturally, or did you make some decision… There’s some funky stuff, like things you did with Abercrombie in the ‘70s. How deliberate is all of this?

ER: It’s very natural, very organic. Of course, I am a very… I am a listener. I’ve listened to a lot of music in my life. Really a lot. A lot of music, I love. Jazz more than everything, but also many other things—Brazilian, classical, contemporary. Somehow I metabolize these things, and eventually it comes out someday. But deliberately, very little. The only deliberate thing I did was the work I did on the opera, which were two records for Label Blue, Opera Va and Carmen. It was deliberate in the sense that when I got married again, my actual wife, she was a big opera freak…

TP: This is your current wife.

ER: Yes. She brought me for the first time to La Scala to see Traviata, Tosca, and all of a sudden I found out that this thing is fantastic. One thing is to listen to it. The other one is go and see the old stuff, because it’s so incredible, especially when you’re talking about a very high level, like La Scala. It’s so incredible how they can put all that stuff, make it work together. It’s amazing. It’s fantastic. And then also particularly with Puccini, I really felt all of a sudden that he is really the father of the American musical. When I did, like, La Tosca, when I did “E lucevan le stelle” I almost felt like I was playing in one of those incredible Broadway shows of the ‘50s, the ‘40s—so beautiful, no? Because in fact, Puccini, when he was in America, he got very interested in jazz when he wrote the Fanciulla del West. He wanted to get more into it, but then he died, so he couldn’t get into… [1924]

So I felt almost like… In the moment I was playing that stuff, I felt I was playing in a Gil Evans situation. Which I did. I played with Gil in ‘82 or ‘83, I don’t remember.

TP: In Europe?

ER: In Europe, si. I really felt I was in something like that. Also, Carmen was an idea of my wife, but also for me it was… Maybe nobody understood that, but it was a kind of homage to Sketches of Spain, to Miles. I wanted to play with that, to play with that Miles thing. I had a lot of fun doing it. In fact, I did it twice and that’s it. It’s not something I wanted to go on, Rambo 3, Rambo 4. I did two records. That’s enough. I did it again this year, L’Opera, with a fantastic French string quartet. But in fact, the problem with those things for me is that they are too strict. You cannot move around. Especially when you play with classical people, you cannot say, “ok, I play one chorus more,” because no, you have to write down all the number of bars.

For me, it’s so important to be able to change the music every night. In fact, every tune that we play with this band, even if we play it every day, will never be the same. Either we change the tempo, or we change the… I need to… Because if not, I get really bo… I cannot get bored. If I get bored, I stop playing. The day I get bored, ok, fuck it, I’ll do something else. Because it’s such a big pleasure to play, but it has to be a pleasure. If it becomes a gig…no.

TP: you were saying that if there’s anything Italian that I discern in your playing, it’s because you’re Italian. Is there anything in the culture of Italy that connects to jazz in a way that would… Let me ask it this way. What do you think it was in the world you were growing up in when you were a young guy…

ER: That connected me.

TP: …that made you connect to jazz the way that you did?

ER: I’ve got to tell you, this is the best question somebody ever made to me. I am ready for that. Because jazz… I have to tell you some information. At the beginning of the century, or at the end of the 19th century-the beginning of the 20th century, there was a direct line from Palermo to New Orleans with the boat. That’s why in New Orleans there were plenty of Italians and Sicilians, and that’s why the first jazz album ever recorded was recorded by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, whose leader was a Sicilian.

TP: Nick La Rocca.

ER: This is history. Now, they were the first people recording a jazz record probably because they were white. Still, they were the first people that recorded…

TP: Didn’t Freddie Keppard also turn down an opportunity to record because he didn’t want anybody to steal his shit?

ER: I know. Yes, and also he went to play on the street with a handkerchief around his hands. In fact, I have one record of Freddie Keppard.

TP: They say it didn’t capture him at his best.

ER: No. It doesn’t sound that… But they say he played like Buddy Bolden…they say. Another one they say played a little like Freddie Keppard…it was also Natty Dominique, the one who was playing like Johnny Dodds.

Anyway, there were plenty of Sicilians. For instance, Louis Armstrong always said that he was very influenced by the opera. Anyway, there’s plenty of Italian musicians in the early jazz, like Leon Rappolo…

TP: Well, Eddie Lang, Joe Venuti…

ER: Yeah, Salvatore Massaro, the first one that phrased with a guitar. Also, as much as there were a lot of Germans, Bix, Frankie Trumbauer, all these people; as much as there were a lot of French people, because all these Creoles, Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton, or Ferdinand Giuseppe Lamenthe… All these people… This is one of the reasons why jazz immediately, at the time when the communication was really very, very little, was at the very beginning… There was no TV, there was no… Jazz expanded immediately in Europe. It immediately became so popular. Why? Because everyone found something that relate to him…I think. It’s not only because of the power of America. Because we are talking about the very beginning of the century, so America didn’t have yet this impact. But still, their music spread so quickly, and it was accepted so much immediately. Because in this music… In fact, it didn’t come from Africa. It came from America, from blacks that had their rhythm…which wasn’t the African rhythm, because African rhythm was cancelled from their mind. They couldn’t play their own music. They couldn’t have their own gods. They couldn’t speak their own language. Like, the Spaniard and Portuguese is different, because they could keep their stuff. In fact, today still in Cuba, people that are maybe the fifth generation in Cuba still have a rhythm original from Congo. But in America this didn’t happen. So that rhythm that became the jazz rhythm is only a memory, you know, of something. That confused… But it came out this amazing rhythm that became the rhythm of jazz. Maybe it was coming also from the marching bands. I have no idea. But in that there was some English sacred music, French music, opera—all together, it made this fantastic… It’s the music of that century.

And immediately in Europe, people related to that, because there was something that… Somehow the roots… There were some common roots for sure. When I got into that thing, I was really young. I was eight years old. There was no cultural…you know… I just listened to my mother…

TP: Just what you heard your mother play.

ER: Yeah. Because I heard a lot of music. But still, I listened to that. Immediately I could relate to that. I understood how it works, as I was saying—the improvisation, the structure… But the melodies. Because the melodies are incredible. No? When you hear something like “Singin’ The Blues,” “I’m Coming, Virginia,” “Potato Head Blues”… It’s something that’s very, very singable… There is so much singing in it, and drama…

Anyway, yes, I think that there is a strong relation. There are some common roots for sure.

TP: that might bridge us into a wrap-up question. You said you’re listening to a lot of Michael Jackson, and your next project is a suite of Michael Jackson arrangements, also inspired by your wife.

ER: Yes.

TP: Very singable, very melodic, very rhythmic, very different than the music of the early 20th century, but assumes a similar role in American and international culture at the end of the 20th century.

ER: Absolutely. Yes.

TP: Talk about this project, and the next year, as you can see it.

ER: I will say that when I came to New York after about ‘67, one year later or two years later, I don’t remember exactly, there exploded the Jackson Five. But at the time I was so monomaniacal about jazz, everything else for me didn’t exist. Still, there were a lot of songs that I heard in jukeboxes and radio that I really liked. But I was little interested that I thought that beautiful voice was a girl. Only lately I discovered that it was Michael Jackson; it was a guy…a kid. But then, it was something that went parallel to my life for… Sometimes I heard some nice song, also in this last year, but I said, ‘Ok.’ I didn’t really care. By the way, I did that also with the Beatles. I got to the Beatles…I understood the greatness of the Beatles only about 15 years ago—I started really listening to them.

In all this, there is also very strong the presence of my wife. She is much younger than me, so beside the opera, she loves the Beatles, she loves Michael Jackson… Anyway, when Michael Jackson… It was an incredible, beautiful night in Rome. Ornette Coleman played before us, this group. It was a great concert. And we played after. There was some magic that night. We played a beautiful concert. People were happy. Then while I was walking to the dressing room, somebody told me that Michael Jackson died a few days before.

TP: Did he die that day?

ER: He died that day. I was very impressed… But then, when I came back home, my wife… She wasn’t with me in Rome. She was not in Rome. I went home, where we live now, and when I entered the house she was looking at the DVD she’d just bought that was Michael Jackson in Bucharest, live in Bucharest. So I just, you know, released my suitcase and …(?—1:18:16)…, and then all of a sudden I started being attracted by that, and even without taking my shit off, I just sit down and I looked until the end of the concert, completely fascinated, and said, “How can it be that all these years I didn’t try to look at it, to…” So from that day, I bought all the CDs there are, DVDs, everything, and for a year in my car there was all day Michael Jackson. Every day I would find something else, particularly the last records that are the less popular, but to me they stay to Michael Jackson’s stuff as The White Album is to the Beatles. In Invincible and HIStory, there are a couple of tunes that are really amazing, from musical…from something different…

Then, since I have a band that is the band of the Auditorium of Rome… I am the artistic director of this band with ten people, and I have to make four projects a year. I did it one year, and I did another year… I had to do the fourth project, and I wanted to do a project called “Old And New Pops,” going from the pop music from the ‘30s coming to Michael Jackson. All of a sudden, I said, “Why not just Michael Jackson?” So that’s what we did. We started working with the trombone player of the band, who is another very good trombone player, and he wrote the arrangement. I gave him some instruction; he wrote an arrangement. I choose the tunes, particularly among the newer…the last two or three records, except “Smooth Criminal”—that riff is too infectious, and I have to have that. And “Thriller,” too. Also because I remember a beautiful version of Lester Bowie of…you know the one? In fact, “Thriller” is the only tune that somehow we’ve redone the Lester Bowie arrangement. It was just for fun. But then, when we rehearsed, we started really getting excited playing the music. Then the concert was an amazing success.

So from then on, now they are asking for that concert, and we are going to record it in about 20 days. We will do a concert at the Auditorium in Rome, and it is going to be recorded by ECM. It is very exciting music, I must say. Rhythmically, it is just impossible to stand. The first time when we played this concert, at the end people… There were 2,000 people, and they were all dancing in this incredible auditorium in Rome. We had fun. It had nothing to do with commercial point of view. No-no. It was fun. I have a lot of space. I play in it exactly like I play. I don’t change a bit of my playing.

TP: Let me ask you this. Tina Pelikan from ECM sent me the different bios, and in one, maybe for Tati so five or six years ago, you said you’d pushed your technique, and you’d gained a half-octave… Let’s do a little trumpet talk and discuss your evolution as an instrumentalist.

ER: Well, I…

TP: You were talking about your teeth at breakfast, but we don’t have to…

ER: Anyway, I can tell you that being self-taught and lazy is another important part of my personality. I never really studied. Whatever I learned, I learned playing, you know. Including writing music and everything. I had to, so I tried. I always considered myself more like a guy who organizes sounds and then sings.

TP: You made a gesture like playing trumpet when you said “sings.”

ER: Yes, sings with the trumpet. But I never got really into the instrument. Then in this last year, for the last year…when we did Tati, so we are talking about years ago… I finally really fell in love with the instrument itself, as an abstract thing, apart from the music—just the instrument itself. So I start practicing much more than I ever did before. In fact, I gained an octave… Besides, I found the right mouthpiece for me, which was the mouthpiece Miles used to play, which is a Heim #1. So everything was really going very good until about two years ago, I had to do this big work with my teeth, so now I have implants. My teeth are not there any more. I have new teeth. Of course, all that octave that I gained, I lost it again!

Only in these last two-three months, I feel that it is very slowly coming back, thanks also to a couple of things that Dave Douglas gave me when we played this summer on this tour with Avishai Cohen—three trumpets. It was Dave’s project, and he told me a lot about this beautiful teacher Laurie Frink. In fact, when I come to New York next February, I’ll go to see her. Anyway, the few things that he gave me, they are helping me really to get back what I’ve been losing, putting in new teeth. It’s a big event in your mouth when you’ve changed everything. The material of which false teeth are made is so different, it’s so harder, and it’s really a different feeling in the mouth. For a while, I was really worried. I remember we were in Korea, playing in the festival in Seoul, and I got on the stage, and for the first tune, the notes didn’t come out. No notes, no sound coming out. Then somehow I was able to. But it was a moment of real panic.

Now it’s coming back. I think there are a couple of things that I am doing every day that Dave gave me, that I really feel them daily that they are working. But of course, David at that is very good, because as far as I know, he had a lot of problems many years ago, so he had to solve the problem with the right exercises.

TP: there’s a lot of problem-solving and physical adjustment attendant to trumpet playing.

ER: There is.

TP: I guess saxophone players go through their own embouchure things, but it’s a different animal.

ER: Yes. In fact, Ira Sullivan, when I played with him many years ago, he told me that he could not play maybe a couple of weeks the saxophone, then if he had to go to play a concert he wouldn’t play at his best, but he could. But with a trumpet, after 2 or 3 days, that’s it. For me, if I don’t touch the instrument let’s say the maximum three days… After three days, it is impossible… If I go to play, I feel that that the sound…I have no harmonics, I have no resistance. To play trumpet is to be like a runner who goes to the Olympic Games for the 100 meters. If he doesn’t train every day, he will be the last one. He’ll never get to the… This is a kind of punishment. Except there are people who have it natural. For instance, Franco Ambrosetti, the Swiss trumpet player, who is my age, more or less—he is naturally talented for this instrument. Now he only plays, but for years, all his life, he had been a big industrialist, so he’d had to go to work and talking at a very high level of business, but then maybe he would come to play when he hadn’t touched the trumpet for three days, and he’d play like Miles. He has a natural thing for the trumpet, which I don’t have. I have a very natural thing for music. Not for this instrument. So my rapport with this instrument has been very conflictual [sic] all my life. Maybe that’s why I like it so much, because it keeps me fighting, and that’s helped me to keep young, let’s say. I don’t get bored at all. Besides my wife is laughing at me, because now, every morning, when I wake up, the first thing… I have the trumpet very close to my bed. I wake up, I take the mouthpiece, and first thing, I still just… Still with the eyes closed, I take the trumpet and I check if the lips vibrate. If nothing comes out, I say “shit, today…” If I vibrate it, I say, “ok, today it vibrates,” so my wife knows that I’ll be in a good mood all day. Just one note. Sometimes I do that, and nothing happens. BFFFPPP…ok, it vibrates.

TP: I like that image.

ER: It vibrates. Vibra, I think in Italian. “Oggi vibra,” “today it vibrates.”

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Enrico Rava

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.

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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.”

[BREAK]

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.”

[BREAK]

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.”

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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.”

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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
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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.
[END OF CONVERSATION]

*_*_*_*_*_

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?

TYSHAWN:   No.

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…

TYSHAWN:   Yes.

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?”

TYSHAWN:   [LOUD LAUGH]

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. 

TYSHAWN:   [LAUGHS] Right.

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.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

*_*_*_*_

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.

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