Tag Archives: DownBeat

For Monty Alexander’s 71st Birthday, a Downbeat Feature From 2010 and a Separate Interview

In acknowledgment of pianist Monty Alexander’s 71st birthday today, here’s a feature I wrote for DownBeat in 2010. I’ve appended below an interview that I conducted with Monty for a Ray Brown tribute that appeared in DownBeat after the bass grandmaster passed away in 2002.

* * *

Monty Alexander Downbeat Article:

The adage “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” coined to convey the kindling effect of separation on romantic ardor, applies with equal measure to pianist Monty Alexander’s ongoing obsession with the music of Jamaica, his homeland, whence he migrated to Miami in 1961, at 17.

As a Kingston youngster, Alexander recalled, “I soaked up everything—the calypso band playing at the swimming pool in the country, local guys at jam sessions who wished they were Dizzy and Miles, a dance band playing Jamaican melodies, songs that Belafonte would have sung. I was fully aware of the rhythm-and-blues, my heroes on piano were Eddie Heywood and Erroll Garner, and, above all, Louis Armstrong was my king. I had one foot in the jazz camp and the other in the old-time folk music—no one more valuable than the other.”

Once in the States, though, Alexander compartmentalized, sublimating roots towards establishing a jazz identity. By 1970, he was a distinguished voice, with a c.v. citing long-haul trio gigs with various New York A-listers, as well as consequential sideman work in Los Angeles with Milt Jackson and Ray Brown. By the late ‘70s, when he closed the books on his 300-days-a-year-on-the-road trio with John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton, he was an upper-echelon stylist, referred to by Oscar Peterson, himself descended from St. Kett’s and St. Croix, as “my little West Indian counterpart.”

“You come to America, you try to blend in and do what they do,” Alexander explained. “At first, I was even trying to speak like American people”—he demonstrated several voices—“so they wouldn’t keep asking, ‘Where do you come from?’ But as the years went by, I started expressing myself by claiming my heritage more. I said, ‘Wait a minute, home is as good as it gets.’”

In Orvieto, Italy, for a five-concert engagement at Umbria Jazz Winter 2010, Alexander spoke in the high-ceilinged sitting room of his hotel, which evoked a ducal mansion. With him for the week was a band comprising an acoustic trio with bassist Hassan Shakur and drummer George Fludas and a plugged-in Jamaican contingent—Wendell Ferraro on guitar, filling both soloistic and comping roles, Glen Browne on bass, and Karl Wright on drums.

Dubbed the Harlem-Kingston Express, this instrumental configuration—documented on the 2011 release, Harlem-Kingston Express (Motéma), comprising live dates at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola and in Europe—is the most recent iteration of a series of Alexander-conceptualized efforts over the past few decades to coalesce “things that reflect my heritage as an English-speaking Caribbean person” with the principles of hardcore swinging jazz. “I was bummed out after it ended with John and Jeff because I’d gotten used to that precision, that projection,” he said. “Although other people were fine and good, no one came close to that, and I’m not one to go scouting.” To recharge, he began spending quality time in Jamaica. “I’d go to the studio with Sly and Robbie, who know me from way back. It’s simple music, two chords—but life is in those two chords.”

Later in the ‘80s, Alexander—whose first Jamaica-centric dates were the still-sampled mid ‘70s MPS groove albums Ras and Demento—started to present units with which he could incorporate Caribbean flavors, including an “Ivory and Steel” ensemble with steel drummer Othello Molyneaux and hand drummer Bobby Thomas “married to whatever bass player and drummer I had at the time.” After signing with Telarc in the mid ‘90s, he embarked on a succession of recordings on which he reunited with musicians he’d known since teen years, among them several dates with guitarist Ernest Ranglin, and one with Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. Four other recordings—Stir It Up and Concrete Jungle reveal Alexander’s take on Bob Marley’s music, while Goin’ Yard and Playin’ Yard address a broader Jamaican spectrum—hearken to mento, Jamaica’s indigenous calypso, descended from the French quadrille music to which English colonists danced in the nineteenth century. Mento evolved into, as Alexander puts it, “a deep country Jamaican thing” with African retentions—a banjo, a rhumba box that is akin to a bass kalimba, hand drums, and often harmonica, fiddle or pennywhistle. It spread throughout the island, and, as the 20th century progressed, cross-pollinated with rhythm-and-blues and jazz, evolving into Ska.

As Alexander delved ever deeper into these rediscovered interests, he found it increasingly difficult to convene a single ensemble in which he could satisfactorily convey them. “I would have a trio of jazz masters, and when I’d want to play something that reflected Jamaica, whether calypso or Bob Marley, I couldn’t get that thing because that’s not what they do,” Alexander said. “Conversely, the Jamaican guys didn’t relate to the jazz experience. I wanted to give myself an opportunity to share my two loves, which is one love, to coin Bob’s phrase.”

This feeling had permeated the previous evening’s concert. Alexander came to the piano, positioned stage center to the left of Shakur and Fludas. He opened with Ellingtonian chords, and launched a chugging train blues, transitioned to the changes of “Blue and Boogie,” then returned to an Ellington medley that resolved into “Caravan.” After brief remarks, a brisk stomp through “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and some nachtmusik chords, the Rasta-dreaded Browne and Wright, who wears white driving gloves when playing, entered stage right, and laid down phat Reggae riddims. Playing percussively, Alexander soon segued into Ernest Gold’s “Exodus,” blew a melodica, quoted “let my people go” within his solo, returned to the piano bench, and ended with a flourish. With the trio, he played a shuffle blues, then a hard-swinging blues—midway through the latter, he stood, pointed to the Jamaicans, and orchestrated a metric modulation, quoting “Manteca” in his solo, before seguing into Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry.” The back-and-forth proceeded for another half-hour, before Alexander concluded with a romping “Come Fly With Me” and a melody-milking rendition of “All The Way.”

“Recently I’ve been doing this with more commitment than before,” Alexander remarked of the real-time genre-switching. “I’m fulfilled, because it’s my own life experience. It’s like Barack Obama music. We are all cut from the same cloth.”

[BREAK]

Perhaps twenty years ago, Alexander got angry at someone, intended to hit them, thought better of it, punched the wall instead, and broke his hand. “Ever since that day, I don’t play as fast as I used to,” he said. “But instead of playing twenty notes that may or may not mean that much, I started playing six or seven that hopefully are soulful or meaningful. Sometimes I’m playing and the muscle tightens, and I look like a kid who takes one index finger and goes PLINK-PLINK-PLINK. I think, ‘Shit, that must look terrible to the audience, this so-called ‘good’ piano player playing with his index finger.’”

The chops are abundant on Uplift (JSP), a deeply swinging navigation of the American Songbook with bassist Hassan Shakur and drummer Herlin Riley that follows the 2008 trio dates, The Good Life: Monty Alexander Plays the Songs of Tony Bennett and Calypso Blues: The Music of Nat King Cole [Chesky] as companion pieces to his excellent 1997 Sinatra tribute, Echoes of Jilly’s [Concord]. Rather than abstract the tunes, Alexander hews to the iconic arrangements, illuminating the music from within, deploying effervescent grooves, lovely rubatos, a killing left hand, an innate feel for stating melody, well-calibrated touch, harmonic acumen, and an ability to reference a broad timeline of piano vocabulary stretching to pre-bop. Each interpretation embodies a point of view. Like his “eternal inspiration,” Erroll Garner, Alexander gives the hardcore-jazz-obsessed much to dig into, while also communicating the message to the squarest “civilian.”

“In our home, Nat Cole was the voice of America,” said Alexander, who experienced a transformational moment in 1956 when he saw Cole play on a package concert in Kingston with Louis Armstrong. “I grew up learning his songs, without knowing the titles, even before I knew about Sinatra. My awareness of his piano playing came later; it was just that smooth voice. At first I confused him with Gene Autry. I was always connecting one thing with another—‘Wait a minute, that sounded like that.’ That’s why for me, even now, it’s one world of music. I try to remove all the lines.”

By 1956, Alexander had already spent half his life entertaining people with music. “I’d emulate people my folks knew who played old-time stride,” he said. “I was playing boogie-woogie from the getgo, rockin’ the joint. I just had fun at the piano.” Later, he would extrapolate a conceptual framework from Ahmad Jamal’s 1958 classic, “Poinciana.” “It was a merging of two worlds,” he said. “Sophistication on the piano, harmonic wonderment, and the nastiest jungle rhythm going on in the background. That’s Jamaica. It’s about dancin’, it’s about groovin’—it’s all one thing.”

Such formative experiences gave Alexander a certain ignorance-of-youth confidence when he started playing in “tough guy clubs” in Miami Beach, where hookers congregated and alcohol “flowed like crazy.” Within a year he was working at Le Bistro, a two-room joint where he shared the bill with a Sinatra impersonator named Duke Hazlitt. One night after a concert at the Fontainebleau, Sinatra came through with an entourage, including Sinatra’s consigliere, Jilly Rizzo, and Rizzo’s wife, Honey.

`“I’m playing, minding my own business, trying to behave, not to be too noisy,” Alexander recalled. “But I must have been kicking up a storm, because apparently Honey came in and told Jilly to come hear this kid play. In those days, I’d come in with all guns blazing. She told me, ‘We’ve got this club in New York, Jilly’s, and it would be nice to have you play in there, kid.”

About a year later, midway through 1963, Rizzo finally brought Alexander to his eponymous West 54th Street tough guy bar, which doubled as Sinatra’s late night office. Just 19 and residing a few blocks away in the Hotel Edison, Alexander joined Local 802, situated directly across the street from the club, and assumed his place among New York’s jazz elite. Within a few years, he was also working uptown at Minton’s Playhouse, “before a different crowd of tough guys; drug people and hot goods,” and at the Mad Men era Playboy Club.

“I remember sitting at Jilly’s piano bar, a few feet away from Miles Davis and Frank in deep conversation,” Alexander reminisced. “My crowning point was when Miles came to me and said, ‘Where did you learn to play that shit?’ Next thing, he writes his phone number on a little matchbook, and we’re hanging out at his house or going to the fights. Miles told me, ‘You got the right complexion.’” Alexander noted that his bloodline is an admixture of Lebanese, Spanish and African strains, and that the ambiguity as to his racial identity had a great deal with to do with his ability to comfortably navigate various circles in Jim Crow Miami as well as New York City. “At Minton’s they’d say, ‘What’s this Puerto Rican guy doing who can play jazz like that?’ When I first saw Ray Brown’s picture on an Oscar Peterson record cover, I saw the smile and the teeth and said, ‘Damn, Uncle Jim!’”

More than the familial resemblance, Alexander was drawn to Brown’s consistency, his tone, the truck-coming-down-the-road surge of his beat, and he tried to be around him whenever he could. “One night Ray was in town with Quincy Jones to make the album Walking In Space, and I asked him if he wanted to go out,” he recalled. “I took him to the Half Note to hang out with Coleman Hawkins and Major Holley. After he hung out with Bean, he said, ‘What’s going on uptown?’ ‘There’s a little bar called Docks, and Wynton Kelly and Sam Jones play duo there.’ ‘Ok, let’s go.’

“I got to know Ray better. I went to see him in L.A. at the Gaslight. When I got there, nobody’s listening, nobody cares, it’s the last set, and they had to play one obligatory tune. Frankie Capp walks to the drums, Mundell Lowe picks up the guitar, but the piano player is boozed-out at the bar. I asked Ray, ‘Can I play a tune?’ Within two choruses, he’s screaming, he’s groovin’ and I’m groovin’, and we’re as happy as kids in the candy jar. He said, ‘Where are you going to be this summer? I want you to play with me and Milt Jackson.’

“When you’re in company with people who are at a certain level, it upgrades your musicianship. I’d been smitten with the MJQ since I saw a record with these four dignified black men on the cover—they looked like funeral directors. I learned about the connections—John Lewis and Ray with Dizzy’s big band, Hank Jones telling Dizzy about Ray. I took that personal thing on the bandstand. I felt like I belonged to that crowd of people.”

[BREAK]

In spontaneously orchestrating the Harlem-Kingston Express band in live performance, Alexander seemed to be paralleling the bandstand procedures by which both Ahmad Jamal and Duke Ellington deployed their units to convey their intentions in real time. The pianist concurred.

“It’s a kind of joyful, loving dictatorship,” he said. “That’s why I use musicians who are willing and easy-going, who give me their trust and confidence and won’t question what I’m doing.”

Moreso than instant composition a la Jamal and Ellington as an m.o. for following the dictates of the moment, Alexander focuses on serious play. “I don’t read music and I play by ear,” he said. “You can chalk it up to a certain amount of laziness, because if I really wanted to read, there’s no reason I can’t. I took lessons with an older white lady from England who slapped my knuckles to play the scales. I learned to love her, because she meant well and she saw my talent—that taught me respect for the instrument and to get a sound, so the music starts to fly. But when I see paper in front of me, man, I start sweating. That part of my brain doesn’t function well. I don’t know how to play music that’s not coming from my instant, make-it-up stuff.

“I get bored with a planned format. I can’t repeat the same thing twice. I’m always reaching for now, live in the now, present tense, and I look for inspiration from wherever.”

This blank slate attitude inflects the aforementioned trio projects. “I just went in the studio,” Alexander said, referencing the 2008 Nat Cole tribute. “‘Haji Baba’ is from a movie with Nat, and I used to sing walking down the street when I was nine—I listened to the bridge on that and on ‘Again’ to make sure I had it right. But for the most part, when I play music, I smell it and see colors. Every song has its own personality, its own soul, and if I can’t feel it, I can’t play it with feeling.

“I don’t understand what it is that makes me different, but I feel I have very little in common with anybody else. I seem to be my own strange character. If I’m right in my motivations and attitude, amazing things happen.”

 

* * *

Monty Alexander on Ray Brown, 2002:

TP:    When did your association with Ray Brown begin?

MONTY ALEXANDER:  It began around 1966 or 1967.  I saw him on several occasions, and he saw me as a tiny kid who just wanted to get to know him better.  He didn’t hear me play music or anything; I just phoned him and started hanging out with him, and he welcomed me into his social life, and he came to New York, and I remember we met, and I took him to a club with mutual friends of ours, and I was talking about Wynton Kelly and Sam Jones, and I took him to see them play at a little bar.  I saw the camaraderie between them, and we hung out and had a lot of laughs. Then I took him to see Coleman Hawkins down at the Half Note, and he saw his old friends… So he liked it, and I ended up being in his company.

Then I saw him in Los Angeles a few months later, when he was doing the “Joey Bishop Show,” which became later the “Merv Griffin Show.”  I went to say hello, and he invited me to hang out with him again.

But the real association happened one evening when I went to where he was playing.  They were on an intermission, and when the time came to play a tune, just to sign off for the night… Because they weren’t really listening to the music; it was a sort of Hollywood club.  The pianist had one drink too many (I won’t call his name), and I said, “Can I sit in?”  Ray said, “Yeah.”  We started playing.  And in a few bars, I could hear his joyful sound, and mine too.  It was the beginning of knowing Ray Brown in music.  We just played some blues.  Then I got off the bandstand, and he asked me if I could join him in (?) that summer, just like that.  This was 1968.

TP:    When was the last time you played with him?

ALEXANDER:  We made what probably was his last recording.  He and I and Russell Malone have a release coming in October on Telarc.  We were all very happy to be together.  We had toured Europe last year, then we made this album, just the trio, and had all these dates in October and November, and next year we were going to tour Europe.  We were just happy to be together, and everybody loved the band — and we loved the band.

TP:    And you played with him with varying degrees of frequency and consistency between 1969 and early this year, then, on various gigs and recordings.

ALEXANDER:  With varying degrees of consistency is a great way to put it.  Because for a while, there was a lot of activity, and then I just went off doing what I do, and he started touring more and playing with Gene Harris and a trio.  He would have a trio.  Before that, Herb Ellis and I and Ray played in a group that everybody called The Triple Threat.  We made about five CDs for Concord.  We were playing and having a good thing.

TP:    Over the 34 years of knowing him well, did you hear him evolve as a musician?  Did Ray Brown in 1968 sound different than Ray Brown in 2002?  I assume the answer would be yes, but I wonder what the quality of his evolution would be.

ALEXANDER:  Ray Brown was like Art Tatum.  I’ll tell you why.  The first time you hear Art Tatum play, it was so incredible… I mean, his first recordings, whatever he did, to many us that heard it, it was as incredible in his latter days as in the beginning.  So it was already beyond words.  And Ray Brown was that.  Ray Brown was a continuous circle of beyond normal.  There was nothing on the planet… And I’m not just saying it out of emotion and sentiment.  In my opinion, what he stood for, just when he laid that rhythm down, it was like… I used to conjure up terms to try to explain how it was, and it was a Mack Truck with a Rolls-Royce engine.  That’s what it was.  I mean, that’s just my little parlance.

To me, the last times I played with him, every time from the beginning there was that sense of excitement that I would get, that I’m playing with this guy who is like a royal duke.  He’s a king.  He’s not a normal level of bass player.  He had something in him that was brilliant, just brilliant.

TP:    It seems he would play exactly in the right manner for any situation, and always make his personality shine, and yet never make himself outshine the situation.

ALEXANDER:  He was the greatest support player, and yet he was so strong with what he did, and you knew it was him.  He wasn’t about to be just a nameless character in the background, just doing the pedestrian work.  He was definitely so unique, that sound he got just from those fingers on the strings and what he heard.  A musician plays what he hears, and Ray heard this thing.  It was just a fat, beautiful tone.  I think as the years went by, it wasn’t so much an evolution; it was just a matter of, as you age, you don’t want to pull the strings as hard — so maybe he lowered the strings a little on the fingerboard.  Maybe.  But I couldn’t prove it.  I was always astounded.

TP:    Why do you think he went to younger bands in the last 10-12 years of his life?

ALEXANDER:  Well, the old guys were fading away also.  Whether or not he used young guys is not the point.  The point is that there weren’t that many older men that he would lock in with that would have the enthusiasm or spirit or the spirit of swinging that he was all about.

TP:    So it was because of his own exceptional energy that he wanted someone to match that and sustain it.

ALEXANDER:  Exactly.  And you have a better shot when you get a young, growing, fine musician who is also so desirous of matching his strength.  Which, by the way, was still leaps and bounds in terms of endurance.  Because whenever I saw him playing with anybody, it was like they were trying to keep up with him.

TP:    As someone who started off as a student and evolved into a peer, what would you say were the greatest lessons he imparted to you that impacted what you do as a musician?

ALEXANDER:  Well, I was never a student.  When I got on the bandstand with him, I felt like I was right there shoulder to shoulder.  That was my attitude in music from the beginning.  I was just so stubborn and ignorant!  I would say in many ways his mentoring to me was more about life and attitude than how you play.  Because he sensed in me from the beginning that I understood why and what he was, and I would play… When I played with him…  And I think Benny and Jeff would say the same thing.  We didn’t play with him; we played for him.  It was like we played together.  At least, that’s what I saw and heard.

TP:    So his lessons to you were life lessons.

ALEXANDER:  Yes.

TP:    Comportment and sustaining yourself within this big sharkpit.

ALEXANDER:  You said it well.  It was about fortitude and straight-ahead, and no matter what, don’t stop.  It’s like the way he played.  In other words, if the stuff is falling apart, keep on rockin’!  That’s what he did.  You hear that bass, from the first time you heard it, you knew it was this exceptional thing.  He told me, “Man, I got tired of playing out behind all them horn players at Jazz at the Philharmonic.”  The horn players would take 50 choruses apiece, no matter who they were.  Enough was enough.  And as he got older, he didn’t want to do that any more.

TP:    I’m sure that kind of pretty formulaic for him after a while.  But it would seem like no matter how formulaic the situation, he would never sound…

ALEXANDER:  The point is, no matter what he had to put up with, if he had to put up with it, it would never sound like there was any kind of backing-up.  He never backed up a thing.

To me, whatever note Ray played was like the first and the last note of his life.  He played like his life depended on that note.

I can’t get over the fact that man isn’t alive.  Because he was larger than life.  Most of us couldn’t consider the fact that the day could come he wouldn’t be alive!  This is emotional and personal.  He was almost like an uncle, a father, a big brother.  But he was so larger-than-life that it’s like… He was a survivor, and he… With all the new technology… Ray didn’t have a cell phone.  I mean, he finally got one, but he didn’t use it.  He didn’t do email, he didn’t do all this stuff.  But yet, he was so busy.  Larger than life, man.

Leave a comment

Filed under DownBeat, Monty Alexander, Piano

For Jerry Gonzalez’ 65th Birthday, a “Directors Cut” Jazz Times Article From 2009 and an Uncut Downbeat Blindfold Test From 2003

In acknowledgement of master conguero-trumpeter-conceptualist Jerry Gonzalez’s 65th birthday, here’s a “Director’s Cut” of a feature piece I wrote for Jazz Times in 2012 about Jerry and basssist Andy Gonzalez, his brother, a pioneer in such rising-star young bassists as , among others, Carlos Henriquez and Luques Curtis, and an uncut, animated 2003 Blindfold Test with Jerry. (Here’s a link to my post last year of an uncut Blindfold Test  that I conducted with Andy in 2001.)

 

The Gonzalez Brothers: The Apache Way (Jazz Times) – 2012:

 

In control central of Andy Gonzalez’ compact apartment on 209th Street in the Bronx on the third Friday of October, the 60-year-old bassist and his brother, Jerry, 62, had some catching up to do.

In town from Madrid, his home since 2000, Jerry removed one CDR after another from his bag, presenting each offering with an enthusiastic “check this out.” A Symphony Space-produced DVD of an homage to the brothers by the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra the previous weekend ran on a large monitor, which shared a wall obscured by stacks of electronic gear. A narrow corridor separated these holdings from less accessible piles of vintage audio equipment; boxes filled with 8-track tapes, printed matter, and bric-a-brac; several shaky metal shelving units piled with ancient LPs and ‘78s; and a couple of chairs.

As Andy burned duplicate disks, the brothers assessed the concert. It comprised 13 numbers, programmed by ALJO Artistic Director Arturo O’Farrill to convey the scope of their complementary careers, spanning close to half-a-century. O’Farrill commissioned fresh arrangements from the book of Jerry’s Fort Apache band, whose cusp-of-the ‘90s recordings Rumba Para Monk, Earth Dance, and Moliendo Café, set a paradigm for coalescing the vocabularies of swing-based hardcore jazz and clave-centric Afro-Cuban idioms. Two charts (the Pedro Flores standard “Obsesión” and Larry Willis’ “Nightfall’) and two original compositions illuminating the trumpeter-conguero’s current activity in Spain’s gypsy flamenco scene came from Spaniard Miguel Blanco, the guiding force behind Jerry’s well-wrought 2006 CD, Music for Big Band, who was on site to conduct.

The orchestra played impeccably, and the concluding section—kinetic, 13-horn performances of three staples from the book of Conjunto Libre, the salsa unit co-founded by Andy and the late timbalero Manny Oquendo in 1974, shortly after both left the employ of Eddie Palmieri—had the patrons dancing in the aisles. But Jerry and Andy Gonzalez are tough customers, and neither was entirely satisfied with this representation of their musical production.

“If it had been the Fort Apache band together, with ALJO surrounding us, it would have come out better,” Jerry said, before acknowledging that contractual issues (Fort Apache had an imminent booking at Newark’s NJPAC, which wanted metropolitan area exclusivity) forestalled this circumstance. “The band was like in the air. We touched upon some things, but it didn’t have the ferocity. That bugged me, but I went through it.”

“It was nice to be honored,” Andy said gently. But he noted the omission of the mid-‘70s records Concepts in Unity and Lo Dicen Todo by Grupo Folklorico y Experimental Nuevayorquino, a rumba ensemble that addressed historic Cuban and Puerto Rican repertoire with idiomatic authenticity and a funky South Bronx attitude.

“We’re talking about forty years of playing all kinds of different music in different bands,” Andy said gently. “We’ve done so much, it’s hard to make a representation of everything we got to do.”

“Andy and Jerry changed the face of Latin Jazz—in fact, they defined that hybrid,” said O’Farrill, who recalled 1970s listening sessions “at Andy’s house to Arsenio Rodriguez recordings that nobody had, or Bill Evans recordings that nobody had.” He added: “They’ve investigated, immersed themselves in, and appropriated each style.”

In a separate conversation, Jeff Watts—who met the brothers via pianist Kenny Kirkland at the cusp of the ‘90s, and has subbed several Apache gigs—cosigned that assessment. “Their music is definitely a reflection of their experience,” said the drummer. “There’s always something on Jerry’s hot list, which might tie into his perspective at the moment. He’ll play some old Cuban stuff, and show you how he’s incorporated a portion of that theme into an arrangement he’s working on.”

Then Watts offered this encomium: “What makes their thing special is that the jazz side is so well-informed. Listening to the Apaches over the years, you can hear the swagger and vibe of the Jazz Messengers at moments, the resonant spiritual side of Coltrane’s music, the heavy drama of Miles’ quintet, and of course what they do with Monk and Wayne. They have an intimate knowledge of how to achieve the moods associated with jazz. They’ve been successful with their hybrid without being blatant about it, just from trying to render the song with a certain dance feel. The Apache way is a template that you can use for combining a lot of different musics, by paying respect to all the music you’re trying to mix. They could get more credit for that. I think a lot of musicians refer to them as an example, whether they know it or not. But I don’t see a lot of people saying it.”

[BREAK]

“It’s Nuyorican,” Jerry said, pinpointing the sensibility that Watts described. “I listen to Trane, and I hear Muñequitos de Matanzas simultaneously in my head. It interfaces naturally. I heard how Monk would sound on the record before we did it.” He elaborated. “Our version of ‘Evidence’ is a combination of Frank Emilio and Muñequitos and Monk, together.”

This “bilingual” aesthetic stance gestated when the Gonzalez brothers were kids in the Edenwald Projects on 225th Street, home base until their teens. Their father was a gigging sonero and hi-fi buff, who passed down his old equipment to the boys when he upgraded, enabling them to listen closely to Tito Rodríguez, Arsenio Rodríguez, Tito Puente, Machito, Cortijo with Ismael Rivera and with his own combo. On Symphony Sid’s Latin-focused radio show, they heard Cal Tjader and Mongo Santamaría. In elementary school, Andy learned bass and Jerry learned trumpet; in eighth grade, home-bound with a broken leg, Jerry taught himself the beats by practicing to those recordings on a borrowed conga. Soon, the listening got up-close-and-personal—downtown at the Village Vanguard, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra; crosstown at Slugs, Sun Ra, Freddie Hubbard, Tony Williams, Chick Corea, and Lee Morgan (Jerry was playing in a teen band with Rene McLean, whose father, Jackie, helped him get past the gatekeeper). Uptown and downtown, they checked out Mongo and Carlos ‘Patato’ Valdéz, and heard Machito at a low-ceilinged boite on Westchester Avenue in the Bronx called Eva’s Intimate Lounge. By high school—Manhattan’s High School of Music and Art—they were entering the fray, first in Latin Jazz, later in típico contexts.

“If you look at the back page of Music and Art’s 1967 yearbook, there’s a photograph of a school desk on which somebody carved the words ‘Latin Jazz’,” Andy said.

“That was me,” Jerry interjected with a raspy, protracted laugh. “I graffitied ‘Latin Jazz’ every place I sat.”

“But that represents what we thought about the music,” Andy continued. “I didn’t start playing more dance-hall music until I got with Ray Barretto.” This transition occurred when Andy was about 17, not long after the brothers met ethnomusicologist and collector René López, who gave them access to his treasure trove of mid-century Afro-Cuban recordings, initiating them to the codes of rumba and helping them, as Andy puts it, “filter into that circuit little by little.”

“We refined our technique for that circuit,” Jerry said. “Before you even can sit down, there’s a certain way to do things. You need to know what the tumbao is, and what the quinto does, and how it matches in with the clave, where to phrase and where not to phrase. Now, the rumba shit wasn’t open publicly. Religion was one thing that separated it, but also family—if you didn’t know someone close to that circle, you couldn’t get pulled in. We got enough from the outside, listening to records. But playing in the real deal present, you find out how what you do is wrong or right. Do something wrong, they’ll tell you right there, man. They’ll give you a little bop on the head.”

As Andy “understood more about the role of the bass in the dance band form,” he coalesced an approach grounded in the earthy sound and fluid tumbaos of bassist Bobby Rodríguez with Tito Puente—and, subsequently, Cuban maestro Israel “Cachao” López—that blends, as Watts puts it, “bass player logic with heavy hand drum knowledge—he’s kind of the Ron Carter of this music.”

Jerry’s development of parallel tonal personalities on trumpet (“more intellectual”) and congas (“more physical and intuitive”) was a somewhat more complex process. “It was a shared experience,” Jerry said. “Congas is what I first played professionally, but I soon caught up to that level on trumpet, because I knew what I had to practice to get it together. On congas, my goal was to try to play like Los Muñequitos by myself—which isn’t easy. I was trying to figure the shit out—it was constant practice, constant focus, constant listening. And enjoying—it made me feel good all the time. I listened to a broad taste of drummers—Philly Joe, Roy, Elvin, Bu, Tony Williams, Jimmy Cobb. But I couldn’t play jazz congas. I like to superimpose my stuff on top of the swing. If it’s real, it just fits right in. If it’s corny, it don’t make it.”

The brothers made further refinements during a year with Dizzy Gillespie, who recruited Jerry in 1970, and hired Andy soon thereafter. The no-trapset quintet’s single recording, Perception, on which Gillespie plays at a peak of melodic inspiration over a melange of understated diasporic beats, does not hint at the “burning rhythms” the unit attained in live performance. “We were laying down our open Latin Jazz kind of playing,” Andy recalls of their 18-month run. “Dizzy came over to me a few times and whispered, ‘Where’s one?’ Maybe the rhythms were a little too intricate.”

Three years with Eddie Palmieri sealed the postgraduate education. “We played for the best dancers,” Andy said. “They need a good beat, and those who hold the best beat get the most respect. Your beat communicates to the dancers, they dance better, and that’s communicated to you. We were both coming from the Cuban school, so it was a perfect fit. Eddie was still wearing three-piece suits, but we were stretching, and he started hippieing out, doing long piano interludes between tunes.”

“I was playing a lot with Rashied Ali then, breaking all the clave rules on conga,” Jerry relates. “So one night with Eddie after a típico, I decided to do some crazy shit when it was time to solo. He started shaking his head, going ‘No. No! No!!’ ‘What the fuck—it’s my solo; I can do whatever I want.’ At the end of the night, when they were paying everybody, he wouldn’t talk to me. He told someone, ‘I never want that motherfucker to play in my band again.’ I was hurt real bad. It made me go home and study my tumbador playing so I could try to come up to the level he wanted. When I got the gig again, he made me use just one drum for a whole year. I just played tumbao and wouldn’t riff at all. That discipline illuminated how powerful it is to just play time when it grooves.”

By now, the Gildersleeve Avenue house to which the Gonzalez family had moved-on-up midway through the ‘60s was a destination for a Pan-American cohort of the famous—Gillespie, Machito, Dorham, McLean, Patato, Ali, Larry Young, and Rubén Blades—and obscure, attracted by the brothers’ global perspective. Devoid of ethnic chauvinism, they treated the idioms not as separate entities but as extensions of each other. “Even people who never went there, say they were,” Andy jokes. “We’ve always been able to surround ourselves with people who played well and wanted to involve themselves in the things that we were doing.”

These informal sessions begat Grupo Folklórico, which followed a process analogous to the Kansas City era Basie band’s practice of spontaneously generating riffs for dancers out of shared experience with vernacular materials.“We created a lot of music without a sheet of paper,” Andy said. “We weren’t just playing folklore. We were experimenting with it.”

Further workshopping ensued at New Rican Village, a multidisciplinary venue at 7th Street and Avenue A, which named Andy musical director in 1977. Proximity to the vibrant East Village culture mix—the space was within striking distance of contemporaneous “loft jazz” presenters like the Tin Palace and Studio Rivbea, as well as The Kitchen in Soho— brought wider visibility and caché from outsiders.“Nobody was playing this kind of shit downtown,” Jerry says. “When jazz people would come up to play, they didn’t know how to deal with it.”

On these sessions, as well as shows at Soundscape, a loft at 10th Avenue and 52nd Street, Jerry worked out the repertoire documented that year on Ya Yo Me Curé, on which the first, 12-piece edition of Fort Apache—trumpet (Jerry), saxophone (Mario Rivera), two trombones (Papo Vazquez and Steve Turre), electric guitar (Edgardo Miranda), piano (Hilton Ruiz), bass (Andy), a lead vocalist (Frankie Rodriguez), and four percussionists— navigated Monk, Ellington, Shorter, and three rumbas of various flavors. Although he continued to gig and tour with this configuration throughout the ‘80s, as documented on The River Is Wide and Obatalá [Enja], Jerry—whose gigging circle was expanding to include such varied jazz voices as McCoy Tyner, Kirk Lightsey, Jaco Pastorius, Kirkland, and Charles Fambrough, and was beginning to make his presence felt at mainstream jazz rooms like Bradley’s and Sweet Basil—gradually developed a smaller, more jazz-centric, booking-friendly iteration. Joining the brothers on Rumba Para Monk, from 1988, were tenor saxophonist Carter Jefferson (formerly with Woody Shaw), pianist Larry Willis (who was sharing Jerry’s large Walton Avenue apartment), and trapsetter Steve Berrios, who could articulate a jazz-to-clave rhythmic lexicon as encyclopedic as Jerry’s—their turn-on-a-dime breaks from clave to swing feels, executed with grace and slickness, remain a key signature of the Fort Apache sound.

[BREAK]

Since Jerry’s relocation to Madrid, the Apaches have convened only sporadically. Still, at an August one-off at the Blue Note, and October concerts in Hartford and Philadelphia (a freak snowstorm wiped out the Newark show), with MacArthur Grant awardee Dafnis Prieto at the drum chair, the forceful precision and head-spinning rhythmic flow were intact. Nor did the leaders’ intensity seem at all diminished by the travails of aging—the toes on Andy’s left foot were amputated in 2004 due to complications from undiagnosed diabetes, his health is intermittent, and he is often in a wheelchair; Jerry, who walks with a pronounced stoop, has recently had surgeries for a hernia and fused vertebrae, and his fingers are gnarled and swollen from years of striking the drums.

“Congas is like running a marathon,” Jerry said. “You’ve got to have endurance, and there’s a certain way you have to hit the drums to get the sound crispy, the way you want it. Then after I’ve been beating the drums, I’ve got to come in with the hand and grab the horn real quick, and get my oxygen back, and be in there, automatic, instantly.”

“Sometimes the adrenaline takes over and you forget you’re sick, and just play,” said Andy, who had been in the E.R. with a fever on the morning of the Symphony Space concert.

The brothers’ abiding bilingual stance and mono-focused perfectionism are two reasons why the Apache personnel has remained relatively stable over its quarter century. Another is an ornery, take-no-prisoners attitude to music-making reflecting the wild west ambiance of the South Bronx barrio during formative years.

“The Bronx had a gritty edge in the ‘70s, and Fort Apache was a band of pirates and swashbuckling raconteurs,” O’Farrill says. “If you played in it, it means you understood the clubhouse gang atmosphere. If you could PLAY, Jerry would say, ‘Yeah, you’re an Apache.’”

Some Apaches were on the fence about whether to welcome Prieto to the club. “Everything changes when one person isn’t there,” said Jerry, noting that Prieto, while one of the truly innovative drummers of this period, does not share Berrios’ deep assimilation of the codes of swing as articulated by the likes of Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, and Arthur Taylor. “Dafnis is coming from somewhere else, and it’s a big difference. Not everybody in the band agrees with it.”

“It will evolve into another flavor of Fort Apache,” said Andy.

A new recording on Sunnyside, Jerry Gonzalez y El Comando de la Clave, documents several parallel flavors that Jerry has developed over his Spanish decade. The “Comandantes of Clave” are a quartet of Madrid-based Cubans—Javier “Caramelo” Masso on piano; Alaín Pérez on electric bass; and Kiki Ferrer on drums. All get ample room to stretch. The group feels looser, more contemporary than its American counterpart, discoursing in a manner that sounds like a more refined edition of Grupo Folklórico cojoined with a less hardbop-oriented Fort Apache, playfully transitioning from guaguanco voice-and-drums passages to balls-out blowing and elegant, soulful balladry. Behind Jerry’s on-point solos, Ferrer plays homegrown Afro-Cuban grooves and textures with exemplary force and finesse, while Pérez, a quality sonero who also possesses prodigious bass chops, uncorks a formidable string of solos, which Jerry propels on congas as he did on not-infrequent but undocumented interactions with Jaco Pastorius during the ‘80s.

For the set-closer, Tito Rodríguez’s “Avísale a Mi Contrario,” Jerry brings in vocalist Diego “El Cigala” and Ismael Suárez “Piraña” on cajón, continuing an ongoing dialog with the best-and-brightest of Spain’s gypsy nuevo flamenco community that was first documented on the 2004 date Y Los Piratas del Flamenco [Lola], which also included guitarist Niño Josele. “Jerry gets inside the flamenco rhythms,” says pianist and flamenco-meets-jazz pioneer Chano Domínguez, who did a series of concerts with Gonzalez in 2003. “People in Spain love his music, and love him, and he wants to play with everyone he can. He can play any standard in any style. When I heard Moliendo Café in the early ‘90s, it suggested a way to put together flamenco and jazz, and made me feel that I was on the right path.”

“A lot of people in Spain tell me, ‘Thank God you came and stayed here, because you put a chip on everybody’s ass and made them strive for more,’” Jerry said, evincing no false modesty.

Asked to sum up their achievements, both brothers cited the “strive for more” trope as much as their extraordinary music. “Generations of people have learned from the things that I’ve done, and became better musicians through my mentoring,” Andy said. “You can’t ask for better than that.”

“I’m a nice guy, a sharing person, a serious musician—and I can get evil if you fuck with me,” Jerry concluded. “At Symphony Space, I was brought to tears at moments. I never expected something like that to happen. We’re still alive. We’re lucky they caught us in time.”

* * *

Jerry Gonzalez Blindfold Test:
1. Art Blakey, “Drums In The Rain” (from DRUMS AROUND THE CORNER, Blue Note, 1958/1999) (Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones: drums, tympani; Roy Haynes: drums; Ray Barretto: congas; Lee Morgan: trumpet; Bobby Timmons: piano; Jymie Merritt: bass) – (3-1/2 stars)

Unh-oh. UNH-oh!! That’s Candido, that’s for sure. I’d recognize Candido anywhere. The man of a thousand fingers! Ha-ha! That’s Candido, that’s for sure. For as old as he is, he still burns. I remember, we played Lincoln Center, man, with Chico O’Farrill, and he walked his drums over from his house to Lincoln Center. He walked them over! Rolled them! He had them on stands. I said, “Lincoln Center, you should ashamed of yourselves for doing that shit. You should have had a limo for his ass, and a roadie to pick his shit up.” [It’s not Candido.] It’s not Candido? That’s Ray Barretto, then. [I’d know Ray Barretto anywhere.] I do, too!! Yeah, I was gonna say that. But he was imitating Candido. That was Ray Barretto. This the Drum Orgy shit. This is Art Blakey. Yeah. With Donald Byrd? [It has a way to go.] Okay, we’ll find out. Now it’s starting to sound like Elvin. That is Elvin, huh? Not A.T. But that one is Bu. There is more than one drummer. Or was it Art Blakey all the time? Yeah, Bu, go ahead! [There are two other drummers, and you know them both well.] Is it the one that played with Dizzy’s Big Band? [It isn’t Charlie Persip.] No? Max? [Max isn’t on this date.] Is it Roy Haynes? I hear some of Roy Haynes. Ha-ha! I hear Art Blakey and Roy Haynes. They’ve just got their language that I know. Now, that sounds like Max, but it ain’t. Who the fuck is that other drummer? I know that’s Bu’s hi-hat! Bu, Roy Haynes… Come on, give that Cozy Cole shit…that “Topsy” shit. That’s the one I don’t know. The third one got me stumped. I can’t figure that. Well, at least I got two out of three. [AFTER] I liked it. I’ll give it 3-1/2 stars. Because this is when they were first starting to do that drum shit, they were first starting to record that stuff. I think the first percussion stuff that was recorded was TP. Tito Puente did the “Top Percussion” record, and I think that was the first time that any Afro-Cuban percussion was recorded on record just solely for the sake of the rhythms. It wasn’t an orchestra or nothin’ like that. I think they were recorded on RCA. And I think it’s the first time that America got a little taste of some drum stuff from the Afro-Caribbean in a real high quality performance and organization. After that, Sabu Martinez hooked up with Art Blakey and was trying to push him to do the drums orgy stuff. So around that time, this was like late ‘50s-early ‘60s, those things were starting to come out. People were starting to do rhythm records, just rhythm… [Art did a ton of them.] Yeah. [“What did you think of the way they organized it?] I think it was cool. It was organized well. There was some good dialogue going on. I’m still stumped on the third drummer, man. [It was Philly Joe Jones.] Oh, goddamn!!! ‘Scuse me. All right. Well, I could have guessed that one, but I just lost the words. DRUMS AROUND THE CORNER? I haven’t heard it.

2. Conrad Herwig, “Impressions” (from THE LATIN SIDE OF JOHN COLTRANE, Astor Place, 1996) (Eddie Palmieri: piano, arranger; Conrad Herwig: trombone, arranger; Ronnie Cuber: baritone saxophone; Brian Lynch, Ray Vega, Mike Ponella: trumpet; John Benitez: bass; Adam Cruz: drums; Jose Clausell: timbales, percussion; Milton Cardona: congas) – (2 stars)

That’s a Conrad Herwig record, Coltrane… Yeah. He’s got Palmieri on this, right? Go ahead, Eddie. Palmieri. I was telling him to do this shit when I was in his band. And this motherfucker said, “No, I don’t want to play that.” I was saying, “You’ve got to do some stuff for the horns, give them some meat to play on. That little montuno vamp…” I was telling him to do “Giant Steps’ back when I was in his band, and he wouldn’t pay no mind to me, man. I was just a little young kid, man, who was coming to play drums. I didn’t know nothin’, supposedly. He didn’t know my head. But after YA, YO ME CURE came out, he found out where my head was at! It surprised him. But I was trying to talk to him, and he was just like, “Get away, young kid, you’re bothering me” kind of shit. I said I had some ideas that could hook this band up in this groove way before this happened. But he wouldn’t listen, so I just had to do it myself. It’s cool, but I don’t hear the rhythm section. Where is the conga on this record? No conga in that mix. You dig? You hear Palmieri, you hear the timbales a little bit, the trap drums you hear a lot, but the conga is gone. Where is he? And who is he? Because if I can’t hear the conga, I can’t hear who it is. The trumpeter is cool. That’s Brian. At least Eddie respected Brian enough to listen to Brian, because Brian was talking to him about that. But I had about ten years on Brian. I told that shit to Eddie ten years before Brian started. Maybe even more, 15 or 20 years before. Because I was 18 when I was playing with fuckin’ Eddie. He was a turkey, though. He burned everybody, man, for their money and shit. He still owes me money, that motherfucker! [LAUGHS] I want Eddie to read this shit so he’ll know that I had some shit for his ass, but he wasn’t ready for it. Too little, too late with your shit. It’s all right for “Impressions,” but I would have taken it and put the drums up front. 2 stars. The piano solo is probably going to get 4 stars. But sorry, he ain’t got no rhythm section in here, man. I’ll give it 2 stars. He left the congas out of it. You got to know how to mix this shit. [Who do you think is playing congas?] I would think Richito is playing it. But I don’t hear it, so I can’t tell. [Milton Cardona.] Okay. Bad rhythm section. I mean, bad like bad, not too good. Adam Cruz is cool. He’s gotten a lot better; he’s kicking ass now. But Clausell and Milton…not a good mix. He’s lucky he got Eddie playing on this record. That’s an old Eddie lick from Azucar Patie(?). That tag is Azucar Patie(?). That’s Eddie’s shit. Conrad, I love you, but I got to tell you to put it down where it’s at! Ha-ha, ha-ha-ha. You jumped on the bandwagon late, Jack! But it was a nice track. It was a good idea. He just didn’t pull it off. Yeah, I got some rumbas for everybody’s ass. Because I do want to do a couple of more Monks, a rumba for Duke, a rumba for Wayne Shorter, a rumba for Coltrane. I got rumbas for everybody’s ass!

3. Ron Miles, “Still Small Voice” (from LAUGHING BARREL, Sterling Circle, 2003) (Ron Miles: trumpet; Brandon Ross: guitar; Anthony Cox: bass; Rudy Royston: drums) – (4 stars)

I like the trumpet. Nice sound. I can’t recognize this right now. It’s probably because I don’t know him. Because I’ve never heard this; I don’t know who it is. I haven’t bought too many new releases of anything. But I like it. So far, I like it. He’s did a little tweety thing in there, man, that sounds just like Wynton does it. I got a little confused. But then the rest of the sound is not like that. He’s got a little Chet Baker kind of sound. He sounds like a little Chet with Wynton and shit! Nice sound. I like it. Just guitar-bass-drums-trumpet. [AFTER] Stumped me with that one, Ted! I liked the sound, I liked the tune, I liked the concept. I like the man on trumpet. I don’t know who he is. Who is he? I’ll give him 4. [AFTER] Never heard him. The tune had that kind of Colorado feeling. Ron Miles. Uh-huh! Anthony! Great bass player. Too bad he left town. New York is hard for some people, you know.

4. Diego Urcola, “Blues For Astor” (from SOUNDANCES, Sunnyside, 2003) (Diego Urcola: trumpet; Juan Dargenton: bandoneon; Guillermo Romero: piano; Hernan Merlo: bass; Oscar Giunta: drums) – (3 stars)

Unh-oh, some TANGO shit!! Ha-ha! The only thing I could think of right now is that this is the cat that plays with Paquito; the trumpet player that plays with Paquito’s band – an Argentinean cat. Diego Urcola. That’s the only cat I know that could be playing tango shit. He’s a good player. So I nailed this. This is Diego Urcola, a tango record. But I couldn’t tell you who the other players are. Oh, not that shit! Everybody’s trying to get that Wynton sound. Go ahead, Diego! [Sings tango lick.] That’s a tango thing. For me, it would work just being straight tango. Playing jazz on top, but the rhythm, instead of trying to do the rhythm a little jazzy – that back and forth. To be committed more to a typical Argentinean folklore tango, and then play the way they play on top of it, I would have dug it better. The drummer is like too crossover, you know. It’s cool if it was combined – for me. [Do you think they’re Argentine or American musicians?] There might be a few Argentine and a few American. They’re all Argentine? Well, they’ve been listening. They’ve got a groove. At this point, most of the musicians in the world are tuned in, and they’ve caught up, or trying real fast to catch up. Now they don’t hire Americans any more! At the international jazz festivals, they’ve got their own people now. They don’t call Americans to play jazz any more. Everybody else is tuned in. I guess once the world found out that the Japanese had it first, they had to catch up! I’ll give them 3 stars. [AFTER] Diego’s cool. Pablo Ziegler. Federico Lechner. A lot of those cats split Germany and went to Argentina, and became Pablos! I liked Ron Miles better. His sound. I liked his sound.

5. Caribbean Jazz Project, “Against The Law” (from BIRDS OF A FEATHER, Concord Picante, 2003) (Ray Vega: trumpet; Dave Samuels: marimba; Dario Eskenazi: piano; Ruben Rodriguez: bass; Dafnis Prieto: drums, timbales, composer; Robert Quintero: congas, percussion) (4-1/2 stars)

The only thing I can think of is the Caribbean Jazz Project. Only because of the marimba. [Which version of the Caribbean Jazz Project?] I don’t know yet. I don’t know the versions. I don’t know which versions they are. I’ve actually never heard them. [DRUM BREAK] Oh. Ha-ha! I’ve never heard any of their records. I just know that they exist. Is Dafnis playing on this? I can tell it’s Dafnis. I know his sound. I like Dafnis. I love him a lot, man. He can swing his ass off, too. I’m trying to figure who the piano player is. The piece is interesting. It sounds like something Dafnis wrote. [Very good.] Ha-ha!! Yeah, Dafnis is a talented young man. I don’t know who the trumpet is. It almost sounds like Diego. I like him. That’s Ray Vega?! Go, Ray! He was a student of mine a long time ago, when I was teaching at the Johnny Colon School of Music. He was in my class. Go ahead, Ray, you got some shit! That’s the best I’ve heard Ray play, man. He sounds good, man. Keep it up, bro. This is Dave Samuels, right? He had something way back before he got into the Latin thing. The Latin thing seems to be the place where, if vibraphonists are going to someplace, they’re going to go there. Because there’s not too much vibraphone happening anywhere else. But it has a natural place in this Latin thing – vibes and rhythm. Who’s the conga player? Robert Quintero? Oh, he’s a Venezuelan cat. I know him. I was going to say it might have been a Venezuelan cat. [Why would you say that?] Just the way he plays. He’s functional. He puts the right shit where he’s supposed to do it. A solid drummer. From Venezuela, he’s one of the only ones there doing the shit like this. I’ll give this one 4-1/2 stars, for my man, Ray Vega, and for Dafnis.

6. Wayne Shorter, “Angola” (from ALEGRIA, Verve, 2003) (Wayne Shorter: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone; Brad Mehldau: piano; John Patitucci: bass; Teri Lyne Carrington: drums; Alex Acuna: percussion) – (3 stars)

I like this!! Ha-ha! Is that bass clarinet? It’s got a bass clarinet kind of sound. It reminds of Dolphy, when he did “It’s Magic.” That’s the sound. But it’s a tenor, but it’s got another sound to it. It sounds like a tenor-bass clarinet. It doesn’t sound like a bass clarinet, but it’s got that tone. It almost reminds me of Bobby Pinero’s writing. Bobby Pinero was writing like that before anybody – that kind of stuff. [Any idea who the tenor player is?] I don’t know. I can’t recognize the sound. This isn’t Bobby Pinero? It sounds like some of his shit. [Soprano enters] It’s Wayne Shorter. He did some different shit there on the tenor to the sound. I wouldn’t have recognized that tenor sound. I never heard this tune before. But this is Wayne’s shit now. It’s Wayne’s harmony. But that’s definitely Bobby Pinero’s rhythmic shit. He’s from here, man. From Coop City! But I recognized Wayne’s sound, man, quickly. I have no idea who’s playing percussion. Once somebody I knew was playing congas with him, and Wayne said, “We don’t want none of that Fort Apache shit here!!” Thanks a lot, Wayne! Ha-ha! I remember when I first met Wayne, I was playing with Tony, and Tony goes, “Come here, Jerry, I want you to meet Wayne.” And I went, “Oh, yeah, Wayne!” He was one of my heroes. I went, “Wayne, man,” and stuck out my hand to say hello, and the motherfucker just stared at me, like, deadpan, and I’m waiting for him to take my hand and shake my hand. Nothing. I just said, “All right, man, sorry.” He just turned around and walked out. I said, “This motherfucker is out!” But I love you, Wayne, any fuckin’ way. Jive motherfucker. Should have hired me to play with your ass, and not my students. But you got to pay my like a motherfucker! Ha-ha! Been a long time I haven’t heard some new Wayne shit. It’s okay. But it reminds me of Bobby Pinero. The only thing that sounded like Wayne in there was his saxophone, his soprano sound. That’s why I was able to nab your ass. But Bobby was writing this kind of shit way before Wayne. But nice track. I’ll give it 3 stars. [AFTER] I like Bob Sadin a lot. He’s always been an Apache fan and a supporter. Sadin’s a good man. I wish I could get some collaboration with him, because I’ve got this idea for doing… Since I’ve been living in Spain the last three years, I’ve been checking out a lot of flamenco, man, and there’s some shit we’ve got to do that’s beyond SKETCHES OF SPAIN. I’ve got to get this Spanish project out. I’ve been living there, I’ve been paying some dues for this shit now, and now Chano goes and plays at Lincoln Center and Wynton sits in with him, and all of a sudden they’re going to try to do a Sketches of Spain thing, and I’ve been thinking about this before them, and I want to get the first punch out. I want to beat you motherfuckers to the punch with this shit. I’m already talking to people about a collaboration of Fort Apache orchestration and the gypsies and me to do another version of Sketches of Spain, but with another vision. I’d like to collaborate with Larry Willis and Sadin with orchestration, and Javier Limon, the cat that was the engineer on the record I did with the gypsies. He’s a great composer, a great lyricist, and he’s got some great ideas. And he knows all the Spanish rhythmic shit; he’s got that stuff down. So between the three of them – Sadin, Willis and Javier Limon – we could get some shit happening like a motherfucker. And even if they do beat me to the punch, I’m gonna kick their ass. Easy.

[Villa-Lobos piece.] Threnody for the victims of Wally Cleaver! Wally Cleaver seems to be the President now. We got a real Wally Cleaver for President! But he’s deadly, Wally Cleaver. He’s betrayed by his father, Dracula. He’s Nosferatu. No, Nostra-dumb-ass! Ha-ha!!!

7. The Conga Kings, “Descarga De Los Reyes” (from THE CONGA KINGS, Chesky, 1999) (Giovanni Hidalgo, Candido Camero, Carlos “Patato” Valdez: congas; Joe Gonzalez: bongos; Jose Francisco Valdes: clave; Guillermo Edghill: bass) (3 stars)

Yeah, this is Candido. The first hit. That’s him! Is this the Conga Kings? Nailed it!! Giovanni. Patato-Patato-Patato! That’s Candido. Patato and Candido are the most melodic conga players on the planet. They sing with their congas. Giovanni machine-guns. [Do you think that has to do with when they came up and when Giovanni came up?] Well, both of them played melodic instruments. Patato played a bass and he can play a tres, and Candido does, too. Because of that, they sing on their congas. They don’t just play rhythmic slickness. They play melodic slickness. [You play machine guns sometimes.] I don’t think I was ever a machine gunner. I ain’t got the chops for a machine-gun. Ah, that’s Giovanni. That’s an old Tito Puente break, from TOP PERCUSSION. That was cool. I’ll give it a 3. Well, I’ll give it 5 because Patato and Candido and Giovanni are dealing with it, but for musical content I’ll give it 3.

8. Woody Shaw, “Dat Dere” (from IMAGINATION, Muse, 1987) (Woody Shaw: trumpet; Steve Turre: trombone; Kirk Lightsey: piano; Ray Drummond: bass; Carl Allen: drums) – (3-1/2 stars)

Dis-here, dat-dere. Bobby Timmons. Sometimes I get confused between Timmons and Weston because of that “Hi-Fly” thing. It has the same kind of groove. Freddie. He’s got the phrasing. Lee? Oh, that’s Woody! Ha-ha! Go ahead, Woody! See, Woody got all that shit. He got the Lee shit, he got the Freddie shit, and he got his own shit. So I figured it was in there. I loved Woody, man. He’s one of my favorites. In fact, the favorite. Aside from Lee, him and Lee, you know… Before that, it was Booker Little. That’s Steve Turre. Conch-head! So then I imagine this is Victor Lewis… No? Oh, I know. The drummer played with me on AFRICAN VILLAGE with James Williams. Carl Allen. Is the pianist Onaje? It sounds like an older cat. But I don’t know who it is. [It’s someone you know well.] Larry Willis? Ronnie Matthews? Damn! There’s too many cats on the Rolodex. But if I could have listened again, there’s a thing he does… 3-1/2 stars for the music. 5 stars for Woody. Woody showed his Freddie showed his Freddie Hubbard kind of shit, he showed his Lee Morgan shit, and then he came into his own. He did a little graduation of the thing. It was nice. Very hip phrasing. I loved it.

9. Irvin Mayfield, “Latin Tinge” (from Los Hombres Calientes, VODOU DANCE, 2003) (Irvin Mayfield: solo, lead & 2nd trumpet, composer; Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez: drums; Bill Summers: percussion; Ronald Markham: piano; Edwin Livingston: bass; Aaron Fletcher: alto saxophone; Leon Brown: 3rd trumpet; Leon Brown: trombone) – (5 stars)

Is that Wynton? He’s got his Louis Armstrong and Charlie Shavers shit down. I love this! Go ahead, go ahead, go ahead!! Who the hell is this? Is this Nicholas Payton? Go ahead. It ain’t Faddis. [LOUD LAUGH] He’s a bad motherfucker, whoever he is! I can’t get it, though. I’m trying to figure it out. He’s GOT that Louis shit. I should know this guy, huh. [END OF BREAK, BEGINNING OF MONTUNO] Ah, ha-ha, ha-ha!! Ah, what was that?!! That was some funny shit, man! I didn’t expect that to happen. This ain’t Brian? [Do you know who’s playing trap drums?] Horacio. I can tell Horacio’s playing. He’s cool. I like the trumpet playing. He’s showing his history. He’s got trumpet players’ things in there. He’s got the Charlie Shavers, the Louis Armstrong shit, and a little bit of Roy Eldridge in there, too. But damn, I can’t figure this cat out. I don’t know who it is. But this is all trumpet. The rhythm section I don’t like. Nothing happening. Horacio is cool. But the way the piano player is playing, I don’t like it. He could be playing some other shit instead of just the montuno. Sometimes they think because it’s Latin, they’ve got to play a montuno, and it’s not necessary all the time. Because then they get stiff when they just play a montuno. If they were playing themselves, it would be hipper. I don’t know the trumpet player is. Irvin Mayfield? I never heard him. I’ve heard of Los Hombres Caliente, but I’ve never heard the music. He’s a bad motherfucker. New Orleans. That had to be a New Orleans player. Well, New Orleans is hooked up with the Caribbean shit. A lot of the cats in the Preservation Hall Band were from the Caribbean – Perez, Rodriguez. Great trumpet player. I enjoyed that. Irvin Mayfield. Never heard of him before. I liked it. I’ll give him 5. He’s playing some shit. That 5 stars is all the trumpet. The rest of the shit, you know, it’s all right. It’s just too plain. But the trumpet was the special shit on it. I’ll give the 5 stars to my man on trumpet. The music, I’ll give it 2. He’s got to figure out what to do with the piano. They don’t have to play a montuno all the time to identify something Latin. He got to learn the piano styles of the cats of the ‘20s and the ‘30s. They’d be playing a montuno, but it would be all over the place. It doesn’t stay in a corny, locked cell.

10. Kenny Dorham, “My Ideal” (from QUIET KENNY, Prestige, 1959) (Kenny Dorham: trumpet; Tommy Flanagan: piano; Paul Chambers: bass; Art Taylor: drums) – (5 stars)

Ah, Kenny Dorham, I love you, man! I hung for many years with Kenny Dorham. [SINGS SOLO] Is this with Charles Davis and… Oh, it’s another record. He had such a sweet sound. Ha-ha. Lyrical as a champ, too. Go ahead. Hit like a motherfucker. Underdog like a motherfucker, K.D.! I love him. God bless him. His sound brings tears to my eyes. Yeah. I’m not bullshitting either. I’m wiping them, jack. That’s Flanagan on piano. I’ll give that 10 stars. I was very fortunate to hang out with K.D. for three years. We went to New York College of Music together. In fact, that’s how I met him. I was doing an audition for New York College of Music, and K.D. was there. So I’m practicing in the room, and K.D. walked in the room. I didn’t know what he looked like then. He had these big sunglasses on. He looked at me and said, “you sound nice, man.” So I said, “I’m Jerry Gonzalez, how are you?” He says, “Well, I’m Kenny Dorham.” I hit the floor. I said, “Oh, no shit! What are you doing here?” He said, “Well, I’m taking an audition, just like you.” I said, “What? You should be teaching here. You should be a professor already. What do you mean, coming here as a student, auditioning?” I went with him to the Newport Festival in 1969, and that’s when I first saw Count Basie, Duke Ellington, everybody, with the original members. I was hanging with K.D. all the time, man, and I was very fortunate to have been around that wonderful trumpet player. God bless him.

11. Steve Coleman, “Ascending Numeration” (from ALTERNATE DIMENSION SERIES 1, MBASE, 2002) (Steve Coleman, alto saxophone; Jonathan Finlayson, trumpet; Pedro Martinez, percussion; Sean Rickman, drums; Yosvany Terry, clave; Anthony Tidd, electric bass; Regg Washington, acoustic bass).

Steve Coleman. I’ve been into this shit a long time, and he never acknowledged anything. When he went to Cuba, he got his head turned around. I was telling him about this shit long before that, but he was still in another space. The communication wasn’t that open between us. What can I tell you? He’s a late bloomer on this. But this is cool. Got a little scientology shit in there. It got that vibe in it. [You mean mathematical?] Yeah. Is that Anga on conga? Is the trumpeter Graham Haynes? I like the trumpet player. I’m glad Steve discovered the drum thing. Trumpet players I don’t know personally, I haven’t heard them, so I’ve got to figure them out. It’s a good trumpet player, he’s playing some interesting shit. He’s actually looser than Steve. It’s not Richie Flores. It’s not Giovanni. I don’t know who it is. Oh, Pedro! He plays with Puntilla. I’ve played with him. Pedrito’s a bad motherfucker. Sings his ass off, too. I’ll give it 2-1/2 stars. It’s interesting. But it stays in that Frankenstein mode. I like to feel some happy shit every now and then. When you get some rhythm shit, you’ve got to be happy. You can’t be too dark. When you get dark, Frankenstein comes out.

12. Dizzy Gillespie, “Con Alma” (from AFRO, Verve, 1954/2003) (Dizzy Gillespie: trumpet, composer; Alejandro Hernandez: piano; Robert Rodriguez: bass; Jose Mangual: bongo; Candido Camero: conga; Ubaldo Nieto: timbales; Rafael Miranda: percussion) – (5 stars)

Dizzy Gillespie. My papa! “Con Alma.” This is with Candido and the Machito rhythm section. That was some futuristic shit. The Machito band was a futuristic band. Even in its beginnings. Stan Kenton even acknowledged that, said that they were playing some super advanced music. Rhythmically it influenced him. Yeah, drum thing! The drum is so important. This ain’t the ’49 one. This is later. The ’49 one was Mongo and… He did the “Manteca” with Mongo. Alvaro Vega, Peraza, Mongo and Patato, they all came at the same time, and then they stayed. Dizzy first was Roy Eldridge. That was his model. Then he broke into his own voice from there. Dizzy was a drummer and dancer at heart. I remember him showing me the shim-sham-shimmy when I was with his band. One time we played with Dizzy… I was 18 when I played with Dizzy. That was before I even played with Palmieri. A lot of people forgot I played with Dizzy, because we didn’t record anything significant with that band. I wish that we had, because when they have those tributes to Dizzy and all that, nobody ever calls me to come down and play. They call all the new cats who were in the band, David Sanchez and Danilo and Giovanni, but I was in way before those cats. And they never give me any light on that. It pisses me off a little bit. I learned a lot from Dizzy. But when he found out I played trumpet, he used to try to put me out to play then, and I was scared because I didn’t have it together then. I said, “No-no, I’ll sit down and play my conga and take my trumpet lessons from you, and when I’m ready I’ll let you know.” So maybe 10-15 years passed, and I had the Fort Apache band, and we had Dizzy as a guest with us once at the Village Gate. I have that recorded. This was like ’84. It was Machito’s band with Fort Apache and then Dizzy playing with both bands. That was a great night. Jaco Pastorius was there hanging with us, and he wanted to play, and I didn’t want to let him play because he was a little…not-cool, you know. So he ran out and he bumped into Herbie Hancock that night, and brought him down to check us out, and Herbie sat through the whole set. At the end of the set, Jaco tells me, “Hey, man, I want to introduce you to Herbie.” So he introduced me to Herbie, and then I sat there and said, “wow…” Before I met Herbie, the plan was for the second set we were going to open up with “Nefertiti,” and Herbie goes, “Could I sit in with the band?” And I went, “Goddamn, yeah! Sure.” Dalto was playing piano with the band at the time. So I said, “Well, guess what. We’re going to play ‘Nefertiti’ for the first set. You were on the original, man. You’re gonna have FUN with us.” And sure enough, Dalto was playing the first solo on “Nefertiti,” and then he announces Herbie Hancock, and then Herbie takes the whole thing out and then plays the whole night with us. I have that recorded, man. It was deep. “Caravan” time! 10 stars.

13. Arsenio Rodriguez, “Kila, Quique y Chocolate” (from ARSENIO RODRIGUEZ Y SU CONJUNTO: 1946-1950, Tumbao, 1950/1993) (Arsenio Rodriguez: tres, composer; Chocolate Armenteros, Felix Chappotin, Carmelo Alvarez: trumpet; Luis Martinez: piano; Lazaro Prieto: bass; Felix Alfonso: conga; Antolin Suarez [Papa Kilo]: bongo)_

Arsenio Rodriguez. This is “Kila, Quique y Chocolate.” Ay tumbao bongo! Arsenio Rodriguez with Papa Kilo on bongo, La Chocolate on conga… Bad motherfucker. This is still fresh as today. In fact, it’s hipper than some of the shit from today. The professors know this, that our rhythm lacks something. Tin-GOR! So when you got the bongo of Papa Kilo and Chocolate, you know, here’s what they say. Yeah, “the people are always asking to dance to tumba bongo”! This was a prophetic tune. It was telling you what’s coming for the future, what the people want. Tumba bongo! And this was 1950, man, so they were sounding the alarm way ahead of time. It took Steve Coleman a long time to catch up! This was like really early. I was fortunately born into this. This was like first conga lessons! This is not machine gun conga. This is playing tumbao with some grace and slickness. It’s deep, man. A lot of young cats miss that essence. A lot of young cats miss this era. They’ve got the Giovanni era, and the speed machine guns, but they didn’t get to this. This is before that, and this is slicker. It has more essence than the machine gun era. This is definitely classic. 10 million stars! Ha-ha, ha-ha! Yes.

Yes, sir. Thank you, Ted. That was a great one. Yeah, you had some goodies for me, man. I enjoyed that Blindfold Test.

Leave a comment

Filed under Andy Gonzalez, Arturo O'Farrill, Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Jazz Times, Jerry Gonzalez

For Joey DeFrancesco’s 44th Birthday, a Blindfold Test From 2007 and a Jazziz Article

In recognition of Hammond B-3 master Joey DeFrancesco’s 44th birthday today, I’ve posted three separate pieces I’ve done with him over the years — a 2007 Blindfold Test for Downbeat, a 2006 profile for Jazziz, and a publicity bio for his 1999 concept album Goodfellas, on Concord.

 

Joey DeFrancesco Blindfold Test:

1. Sam Yahel, “Saba” (from TRUTH AND BEAUTY, Origin, 2007) (Yahel, Hammond B3; Joshua Redman, tenor saxophone; Brian Blade, drums)

That’s nice. That’s got a Larry Young influence. I’m trying to figure out who the horn player is. This is not typical organ stuff, which is nice. Some guys trying to do something different. Once they get into the thing, I might be able to know who it is. There’s a lot of arranging here. It’s a nice sound on the organ. It’s a nice recording. It’s definitely something more modern. It kind of reminds me of Larry Goldings. But is it Sam Yahel? They’re very similar. I knew it was one of those guys. Sounds great. I don’t know who the horn player is. That’s not Josh Redman. Is it Josh? I kind of thought so. But he can play so many ways. Sounded like his sound, though. I love it, man. Who wrote that? Sam did? I like it. It’s a nice piece. It’s difficult. What are they, in 7? It’s all over the place. Brian Blade is on drums. That’s right, this is a group that was working. I don’t have this record, though. Oh, it’s brand-new? It’s nice to hear people doing some different things with the organ like that. It sounds a little like it’s difficult just for the sake of being difficult. But there’s still a great feeling there. I mean, they can do it, so why not? I like Sam. He’s got a lot of facility and a lot of harmony. He reminds me of Larry, but Sam to me has more fire than Larry does. He gets a little funkier sometimes. But I love Larry, too. Sounds great. I love Brian Blade, of course. We’ve never played together, though; that’s one guy I haven’t played with, but he’s a great drummer. 4 stars.

2. Mike LeDonne, “At Long Last Love” (from LIVE AT SMOKE, NYC, Savant, 2006), (LeDonne, Hammond B-3; Peter Bernstein, guitar; Joe Farnsworth, drums; Cole Porter, composer)

This is the way of recording the organ that… Everybody is really trying to get that old Rudy van Gelder Blue Note sound, because that’s the staple. “At Long Last Love,” that’s the tune. Frank Sinatra, man. “That’s what I’m feelin’, for real…” Yeah! Look out. Is this something new also? Recent? This is traditional here. Good organ music here. Nice guitar. The guitar player sounds NICE. Got a little Grant Green in there. I like when the organ player is playing in that low register. It’s a nice, warm, bell-like sound with the percussion. Ah, Lonnie Smith. No? I’ve got to listen a little more. He’s building it like Lonnie. Tony Monaco? No? Oh. That’s Mike LeDonne. I love Mike, man. See, you’ve got to listen. When somebody’s building, it could sound like a lot of different things, but then there’s signature things, and there it is. He’s got a lot of harmony, and he plays the organ in a swinging tradition. Is that at Smoke? That sounds great. So that’s Pete on guitar and Joe Farnsworth on drums. I don’t have this record, and I never heard it, but I’ve heard about it. I know about… [BREAK] Whoo! Ha! He’s got a lot like Don Patterson, Jimmy Smith… A lot of similar influences that I have. I guess that we all have. That’s nice. This always feels good. The drummer’s playing what they used to call a conga beat. Hey, man, 4 stars. He’s building and building and building. I’m going to have to get that. Again, really nice recording, and that’s live. That organ isn’t easy to play in there. That B3 organ at Smoke is a tough organ. He plays it all the time, though, so he’s probably really used to it. It’s got a great sound, though, and the way… See, he’s building up to the big full organ… Now, you get the Leslie spinning on tremolo. Everything’s out. All the stops. Smoke was interesting. When I first played there, they took a direct signal out of the organ, straight into the system, as well as miking the Leslie, and that’s how Rudy Van Gelder… That was his big secret, how he recorded, that nobody could figure out all those years—then finally we did. That’s how we play live now, too. Because you get that nice fatness straight out of the organ for the bottom end and all that. That style there comes from Wild Bill Davis—the shout. Because it’s like a big ball when it gets into the shout chorus. This system does sound… Man!

3. Gary Versace, “Gallop’s Gallop”(from Loren Stillman, THE BROTHERS’ BREAKFAST, Steeplechase, 2006) (Versace, Hammond B-3; Stillman, alto saxophone; John Abercrombie, guitar; Jeff Hirschfield, drums; Thelonious Monk, composer)

This has got some nice humor in it. Everybody you’ve played so far uses the Jimmy Smith setting. That’s just a staple. I mean, you’ve got to play with your own style, but as far as how you set the organ, he really set the ground rule. Whoever it is has got some imagination. Yeah! Is this somebody new? [It depends on what you mean…] I don’t know who that is. I liked it, though. The approach is similar to where I’m at, what I’m doing right now, but I’m always thinking different. But I like that. When you say the name, I’ll probably know who it is. I’m not sure, though. I like the saxophone player, but I don’t know. [How do you mean similar to what you’re doing.] Harmonically, going outside the vocabulary with a different language a little bit. He’s got nice technique, too. Who wrote the tune? Monk? I figured it was someone like that. “Gallop’s Gallop” is a rare tune. I’m going to learn this. Well, the bass line isn’t swinging as hard as I would like. But I don’t know if he wants to do that. It might be a kind of implied thing. [polyphonic section] Wow. Definitely a piano player first, whoever it is playing. I can’t recognize anybody. You got me! 4 stars. This tune is a bitch.

4. Medeski, Martin & Wood, “Note Bleu” (from THE DROPPER, Blue Note, 1999 (John Medeski, Hammond B3; Marc Ribot, guitar; Chris Wood, electric bass; Billy Martin, drums)

This sound is a very over-driven sound. That’s what we call that, when you push the Leslie and get that little crunch in the sound. Which is sometimes a cool little effect. There’s a bass player on this one. A minor blues. This guy really likes a dirty sound on the organ. It’s a little too much for me. Too much overdrive—distortion. It’s a little jerky style for me. It’s okay, though. It’s still good. I don’t like all that overdrive, though; it’s just too much. Especially for something like… I mean, if you want to play some high energy rock or something, that’s the sound for that. 3 stars. I don’t know who that is. Medeski, Martin & Wood? That makes sense. Too much distortion, John. That’s his sound, though. But for something a little mellower like that… But he still has the organ set the same way we all do, except he uses a little bit…on the vibrato part, the chorus, he’s got a little bit less depth on it. That’s for the organ geeks out there.

5. Count Basie-Oscar Peterson, “Memories of You” (from NIGHT RIDER, Pablo, 1978) (Basie, organ; Peterson, piano; John Heard, bass; Louis Bellson, drums)

Now, I like this. This is happening. This is old…I think. Is this from the ‘80s? Earlier? I can tell just by the sound. With the piano in there… This is a very old-school style. He’s got the Leslie on tremolo, fast speed. Not as percussive a sound. It’s very pretty. “Memories of You.” Is that Milt Buckner? It’s the older style like that. Is that Ron Carter on bass? Somebody influenced by him, though. That style. It’s definitely an older player. Is the pianist Oscar Peterson? You can tell that. Is it the Count on the organ. Man, I’ve got to get this. I’ve heard about it. That’s Oscar and Count. Is it Bobby Durham on drums. [No, Louis Bellson] And Ray Brown. [John Heard] I have the two-piano things they did, but Count’s playing organ here. I knew it was Oscar, and I knew the organ player was somebody from back in the day. Milt Buckner played with Lionel Hampton, and he kind of played like Count. 5 stars, man. That’s easy. The way he sets the Leslie is very old-school. See, when the Leslie speakers first came out, they weren’t supposed to be turned on and off. They just were on to add tremolo to the organ, to add vibrato to the organ. Then really, the jazz people and the pop people started to think, ‘If we could turn this in and out, it would be very dramatic.” That’s how that started.

6. Larry Goldings, “Sound Off” (from Michael Brecker, TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE, Impulse, 1999) (Brecker, tenor saxophone; Goldings, Hammond B3; Pat Metheny, guitar; Jeff Watts, drums)

Pat Metheny on guitar. That sound is unmistakable. Michael Brecker. Great. Whoo! On the drums, is that Jeff Watts? Oh, and Larry Goldings. I don’t have this record. But everybody on there is so unmistakable, such a strong style. Pat Metheny, Michael, Tain… Tain is killin’, man! The tune has a lot of rhythm in it, there’s a lot of hits, and it’s a little brisk, too. It’s also modal; not a lot of changes in it. A minor kind of thing. Who wrote this? I thought it was Larry. I could tell. It’s his harmonic approach to stuff. Larry’s got a nice bassline. He doesn’t play much foot, though. But he doesn’t like to play it. He don’t want to play it. Now, he can play. I love Larry. He swings. 5 stars. He hasn’t soloed yet, but it’s gonna be good. I want to hear it. I love Jeff Watts. A lot of fire. I’ve played with him quite a bit. I regret that I never played with Michael. We talked about it. We were going to record a record at one time. I often thought about recording two organs with Larry. We’re so different. But same, too, in a lot of ways. He plays perfect, man. Every note is the right note. He’s got wonderful feeling. He’s influenced a lot by Larry Young. Fantastic player. Smooth. Pat’s compin’ nice behind him. I’d like to play with Pat. I’ve never played with Pat either. I’d like to just get in there and play with that whole band. Isn’t Elvin on this record, too. I’m going to have to go out and get this. It’s interesting for Pat Metheny, too, because he doesn’t have his delay and all that shit out. It’s just guitar. And Pat can play his ass off. 5 stars there, man, for sure. A bunch of bad motherfuckers.

7. Melvin Rhyne, “Light Life Love” (from TO CANNONBALL WITH LOVE, King, 1992) (Rhyne, Hammond B3; Carl Allen, drums)

I don’t recognize the tune. I think I might know who the organ player is, but I’m going to listen a little more. It’s a very organic sounding recording. See, there’s a touch of the overdrive I was talking about before, but it’s nice. [That little burry thing?] Yeah. It’s a growl, kind of. It’s an older player, I think. Is this just a duet thing? I don’t hear a guitar comping, but he could be laying out for now. Is it Mel Rhyne? I know his style. When he played with Wes, he had a different sound, and later on, he used different settings. I like it better. But I know his style. Very melodic. Played around the changes. Very bebop, old-school—wonderful style of playing. Who’s on drums? Carl Allen? Ah, now he’s playing the foot with the chords with the left hand and the melody with the right, which is really the legitimate style of organ playing. That’s great. Mel Rhyne, man. 5 stars. Is this a ballad he wrote? Very nice. Wow, I don’t know this record. I don’t know any of these! I mean, I heard of some of the ones you played, but I definitely don’t know this one. It’s happening.

8. Don Pullen, “The Sixth Sense” (from David Murray, SHAKILL’S II, DIW, 1991) (Pullen, organ, composer; Murray, tenor saxophone; Bill White, guitar; J.T. Lewis, drums)

Nice. They’re playing something in 5 here. He got a different kind of sound on the organ there! These guys sound a little uptight. They don’t sound relaxed. It’s not swinging. It’s not 4/4, it’s 5/4, but you’ve still got to groove. They’re rushing a little bit. You gotta relax! It’s obvious they know what they’re doing. Who’s the tenor player? David Murray. He knows what he’s doing. But now that I know who he is, he’s going for a more edgy thing. He can play in, but he played more out. He had like a nice combination. He’s playing an organ setting, man. That’s pretty cool. This must be from a while ago. I have a pretty good idea who the organ player is. It sounds like Don Pullen. I have a video of him playing with John Scofield, so that’s how I know. Don was an organ player, man. A piano player, but he knew what he was doing with that organ, too. These are the Out guys playing In. But it’s edgy, man. It’s rushing. It’s not real relaxed. But they didn’t play that way that often. But they knew how to play inside. At one time, probably that’s what they did. For many years, most of David Murray’s stuff was way out. So this is cool. But that’s why I’m hearing that little edgy thing. I’ve still gotta give it 4 stars. I have a lot of respect for these guys, the tremendous body of work and things they’ve done. But I stand by it’s not relaxed-sounding. He’s got some weird sounds on the organ, too. He’s got a weird vibrato, like UHHUUHHHUUHHH… I use that sometimes for an effect. But he’s playing the organ the way you play it, got the left-hand bass going and… There are his Pullenisms. There’s still Jimmy Smith in that. There’s still a Jimmy Smith influence in the style. A lot of people don’t know that Jimmy could be out as could be! He had a very avant-garde approach. If you knew him and heard him play on his own… But a lot of the things Pullen is playing here, you know he definitely dug Jimmy Smith. I mean, I don’t think he could play the organ without… Anybody who says anything different than that, they’re lying.

9. Pete Levin, “Uptown” (from DEACON BLUES, Motema, 2007) (Levin, Hammond B3, composer; Joe Beck, elec. guitar; Danny Gottlieb, drums)

It’s amazing. There really are a lot of organ players. You think there’s not that many, but… I’ve got to figure out who this is. Too much melody, man, for too long! It’s not interesting enough to be that long. I mean, you get into the soloing… All right, here we go. The guitar player went into Wes Montgomery right away—the octaves. A lot of Wes Montgomery influence here, which is great. The organ player is playing too much behind the guitar player. The guitar player is playing block chords. You’ve really got to play minimal, almost no chords, just bassline, and leave it open for the guitar when he’s playing that fat. Otherwise, it gets too busy-sounding. He shouldn’t be playing any chords there—in my opinion. It’s a little corny-sounding. It’s not real greasy. Even if you play out or avant-garde or harmonic, there’s got to be a certain amount of grease in there, funkiness and… This is very choppy. I don’t know who it is. Now, the guitar player was really into Wes. But the organ is real stiff-sounding. It’s not necessarily wrong. But it doesn’t move me. 2 stars. [AFTER] He’s probably not an organ player. Right? I like Joe Beck. Joe sounded like Wes there, man. I did a record with Joe, one of those Japanese releases. It was all songs named after ladies.

10. Trudy Pitts, “Just Friends” (from Pat Martino, EL HOMBRE, Prestige, 1967) (Pitts, organ, Martino, electric guitar; Mitch Fine, drums)

[IMMEDIATELY] Trudy Pitts, Pat Martino, “Just Friends.” I love Trudy. I grew up… Trudy was like a musical mother, man. I know Trudy and Bill Carney, her husband, Mister C, since I was 8 years old. In fact, we just did a concert together… I didn’t have to hear too much of the playing. I just knew what it was right away. [You probably know every note on the solo.] Oh, yeah. Pat plays his ass off on here. His choice of drummer on here… I asked him years later. I said, “That drummer on there wasn’t really up to par, Pat.” He said, “Yeah, but the guy was a sweetheart, and I really liked him, and he was my friend, and he was excited to do the date.” But Trudy sounds great on here, so does Pat. I could do without the bongos. But this is 5 stars easy. I haven’t heard it in years, but this is one of those things you just know. This solo Pat takes here influenced generations of guitar players. For me, this is Pat’s best playing. The feeling he played with, and he was bluesy, and he swung hard, and he listened more. I love this period of Pat. And Trudy is playing so great here. Trudy is underrated. She never got the due she should have. That’s Orrin Evans’ godmother. I’d love to have heard this with a great drummer, though. Pat basically played like Wes Montgomery, but with a pick, and a little more percussive and aggressive attack. But this is definitely out of Wes—totally. Grant Green. He’s probably 19 or 20 there. Swinging like crazy. They did a record, Bar Wars, a Willis Jackson record. That’s some shit there. That’s Charlie Earland and Idris. Charlie Earland was very limited, man, but he could swing like crazy. And you know what? Sometimes that’s what you’d rather hear.

11. Dr. Lonnie Smith, “Invitation” (from Ximo Tebar, GOES BLUE, Omix/Sunnyside, 1998/2005) (Smith, Hammond B3 organ; Tebar, elec. guitar; Idris Muhammad, drums)

Well, there’s no question of the drummer. That’s Idris. I’ve played with him a lot. He just swings his ass off. That’s Ximo Tibar and that’s Lonnie Smith. I’ve played with Ximo and Idris. Boy, listen to Idris. Ximo is directly out of George Benson, Pat Martino…and that’s the Doc. Let it play, though. Ximo’s my man. I love Ximo. Now he lives here. But being Spanish, at this time… I think they made this record before the record we made. He did a lot of funny things sometimes, quotes that… We used to tell him, Idris and I, “Don’t play that, man. That’s corny.” Or “If you go to New York and you play that, they’re going to laugh at you.” He wasn’t aware of certain things. We used to have a lot of fun. One night he said, “I can’t play this. I can’t play that. I can’t play… What am I going to play?” We said, “We’re helping you, man, filter all this shit out so people don’t laugh at you.” He’s such a great player, but he would put little corny things in there. Now he’s even better. Is Lou Donaldson on this record, too? [3 tracks] Of course, this is “Invitation,” a standard. Now, there’s the Doc. I love Doc. Lonnie Smith plays better now than he ever did. In the ‘60s, when he was with George Benson and Lou Donaldson, he was just learning how to play the organ. But he had such a great FEELING that he could pull off… But now…oh yeah, he plays his ass off. 5 stars. Idris and Lonnie, man! Plus Ximo. Lonnie’s got some showbiz in him, too. A lot of showbiz. Lonnie’s from Buffalo, N.Y., and there was a guy in Buffalo named Joe Madison that he learned pretty much everything from, and he does sound a lot like him. My family, except for me, is from Niagara Falls. My Dad kind of learned from the same cat. So Lonnie’s and my father’s groove always reminded me of each other, and then I figured out why. Idris is so lyrical, man. He plays that Second Line and funky stuff just unbelievable. Killing, man. I love that. Lonnie’s playing that full organ sound.

12. Jeff Palmer, “A Happy Trail” (from SHADES OF THE PINE, Reservoir, 1994) (Palmer, Hammond B3; Bill Pierce, tenor sax; John Abercrombie, elec. guitar; Marvin “Smitty” Smith, drums)

One thing I know right away, it was recorded at Rudy van Gelder’s. I know that sound. That’s fast, man! Blues in B-flat. Is that Marvin Smitty Smith on drums? Who the heck is this, man? Whoa! John Abercrombie? That’s Jeff Palmer. I’m not aware of anything he’s really recorded. [He hasn’t recorded much since this record.] I have a record he did years ago by himself. It was a solo organ record. I think Marvin Smitty Smith and John Abercrombie played together some. And John did another record with Jeff, and maybe Adam Nussbaum. [He did a few records with Jeff. One with Rashied Ali, one with Victor Lewis.] I want to play with Rashied Ali. Let’s see if I know who the horn player is. Is that Bob Berg? No. Who is it? Oh, is that Bill Pierce? Jeff is a nice player, man. I think underrated. It’s a shame more people didn’t talk about him and he didn’t have more recordings. I like Jeff. 4 stars. He likes to play tempos, man. A man after my own heart. Great, swinging player. He’s got a nice imagination. Doesn’t play the norm. He’s stretching it out nice. He’s got a lot of chops, man. He can play. He isn’t swinging real, real hard, but it’s still happening. I played with John Abercrombie once, and I liked the way he accompanied. He comped real nice.

13. Larry Young, “Luny Tune” (from Grant Green, TALKIN’ ABOUT, Blue Note, 1965/1999) (Young, organ; Green, guitar; Elvin Jones, drums)

This is the shit, man. “Luny Tune.” Larry Young, Elvin Jones and Grant Green. What can I say, man. Larry was influenced by Jimmy Smith, but he took it into a little different vibe, with the influence… When McCoy started playing with Trane, and playing fourths and things like that, that influenced Larry. Grant Green just swings so damn hard. And Elvin… How can you go wrong here? This we’re going to have to give 10,000 stars. This is some of Larry’s best playing on record. Is this Talkin’ About J.C.? I covered this tune on a date for the producer Milan Simich, with Lenny White, Kenny Garrett, and a guitar player, Tony…an Italian name. We did it. It was cool, but nothing’s going to be like this. There’s a warmth and feeling to this. Elvin played so great on here. Just a big huge, rolling sound. That’s such a big pad to play over. You never heard a Rhythm change swing so hard, man. That is really, really swinging! And Elvin’s just stomping that sock cymbal, man—hi-hat as they call it now.

[END OF SESSION]

* * * *

Profile for Jazziz in 2006:

It’s noon on the last Saturday of June. Joey Francesco is sitting on a couch in the front section of his bus—a fully outfitted unit in which he sleeps, cooks, showers, and hauls his Hammond B-3—as it ambles along the Delaware River into South Philadelphia.

“I love the B-3,” muses DeFrancesco, who, above his bare feet, is dressed comfortably in a T-shirt and pajama trousers. “They have a certain smell with the motors and the oils and the wood—especially if it was in a smoky club for years. It’s organic, like having an orchestra right at your fingertips. All the sounds and power you can get—very brash or obtrusive, and at the same time mellow and warm, just like a person. It’s a moving, human sound if it’s played right. And it’s the most spiritual of instruments, which is why it’s used in church. I was born to play it. There’s nothing on organ that I can’t do, and a lot of stuff that most guys that play it can’t do.”

Asked precisely what that “stuff” is, DeFrancesco elaborates. “Maybe the way I can play a tempo and the bass line never moves. Then my energy level and the way I never play anything that’s not swinging. I feel so at home behind that instrument. It’s an extension of me. I own it. It doesn’t own me.”

DeFrancesco, who titles himself “The World’s Greatest Jazz Organist,” now owns a dozen or so Hammonds, including a portable 1958 B-3 that Jimmy Smith used on the road for most of his life. Smith gave it to him, along with a baby grand and Yamaha upright piano, not long before he died in 2005, symbolically transferring to his protégé the keys to the organ kingdom.

Originally a pianist out of Norristown, a blue-collar Philadelphia suburb, Smith singlehandedly turned the organ trio into a jazz genre with several dozen LPs for Blue Note and Verve between 1956 and 1966. Onto the aggressive, extroverted sound of the popular Wild Bill Davis, who played big, stomping block chords and percussive left hand bass figures, Smith extrapolated the virtuosic single-note approach of Bud Powell, with whom he played when Powell lived in Philadelphia in 1954. That year Smith formed a trio with John Coltrane, and became the first organist to separate the bass and horn functions, conjuring modern basslines to support harmonically sophisticated solos that he executed with impeccable technique and unending groove.

Smith was the right voice for the time. “In the ’50s and ’60s,” DeFrancesco says, “people who owned lounges and beer gardens realized it was cheaper to have someone carry in their own organ than to own a piano. Organ and drums, you have a gig. Add a guitar or saxophone, you have a bigger gig. So every club around Philly had an organ. It was big in the blue-collar world, because they played this very soulful, bluesy, spiritual stuff that moved people when they needed it. It was the same thing they heard in church—that rocking, grooving sound.”

That sound was out of fashion in 1989, when DeFrancesco, 18 and fresh from a year playing keyboards with Miles Davis’ “Amandla” band, signed with Columbia and released the first of five organcentric sessions with the label. Wynton Marsalis, along with various editions of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, had brought hardcore ’60s jazz back into the consciousness of the post-Baby Boom generation, but as in the years before 1956, the organ was perceived as a poor relation. In the wake of DeFrancesco’s success, such ’60s soul-jazz icons as Smith, Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff, Charles Earland, John Patton, and Shirley Scott—all of whom were recording for small labels and gigging in various hotels and inner-city lounges—found new audiences.

“I was kind of the savior for the instrument,” DeFrancesco says without affectation. “I say that humbly and with no ego—it just happened. I might have played terrible, but it made everybody interested again. My first record sparked an interest. I’d worked with Miles, and things were rollin’ nice. People who’d forgotten about organ said, ‘Wow, that’s a great thing.’ People who still loved it were happy it was happening again, and people who’d never paid attention or younger ones who thought it was brand new wanted to check it out. There was a demand for that sound again. It needed a new face, and I was young and white. As Jack McDuff said, white people never had a white organ player to cheer for.”

DeFrancesco was always much more than a Great White Hope. He started playing at 4, inspired by his father, a gigging Philadelphia B-3 organist known as “Papa John,” who in 1978 took the prodigy to hear—and sit in with—Smith at New York’s Sheraton Hotel. At 10, DeFrancesco bought his first B-3, a used model, for $900. Before puberty, he had played weekend jobs around Philly with the likes of Hank Mobley, Bootsie Barnes, and Philly Joe Jones. How deeply he assimilated their work is apparent on his latest release, [i]Organic Vibes[i] [Concord], titled for the presence of Bobby Hutcherson and also notable for two guest shots by veteran tenor sax virtuoso George Coleman. Playing with authoritative, old master relaxation, eschewing tricks, licks, and long-held notes, DeFrancesco guides the icons through a broad range of genres—Coltranecentric postbop, on-the-one bebop, testifying ballads, travel-the-spaceways funk, pork-chops-and-pasta soul.

The rhetoric of organ marketing rankles DeFrancesco. “Jimmy [Smith] was as sophisticated harmonically as he was soulful,” he says, “but everybody latched onto [i]Back at the Chicken Shack[i]. Of course, Jimmy had a lot to do with that, because he latched onto those hits and had the same set for almost 40 years. I get that, too. Every ad, every marquee, every poster says, ‘greasy, soulful, gutbucket.’ Now, I love the blues. But I’ve played with John McLaughlin, Pharaoh Sanders, and Miles. What about when I play Coltrane tunes? His influence is one reason why I play a lot of notes sometimes. My guitar player’s role is the piano in a quartet. Trane would play a tune’s head, then McCoy built for a while, and Trane entered when the fire was stoked and took off from there. The organ is nice for that.”

But DeFrancesco has few other complaints. “I’ve always pretty much stuck to my guns and done what I wanted to do,” he says. “For some reason, people like it. I played recently in Dayton, Ohio. There was a nice middle-aged to older black crowd who wanted the hits and some white college kids who were calling out all the Wayne Shorter stuff. I catered to them both. As long as everything comes from your heart, you’re going to be okay.”

Sidebar for Jazziz Article

In production from 1955 to 1975, the tone wheel-based, analog Hammond B-3 organ weighed 425 pounds and was a sonic universe unto itself. It had two 61-note keyboards (manuals), and players could incorporate various effects—percussion, chorus and vibrato, adjustable attack and decay. Each keyboard had 9 preset keys and two sets of stops (drawbars), representing the harmonic wave patterns of an orchestral array of instruments. Add to that a two-octave set of foot pedals with two pedal drawbars built into the console, an expression pedal built into the base, and massive Leslie speakers with a pair of rotating treble horns at the top of the cabinet, a pair of rotating horns at the bottom, and a bass woofer that enhance the organ’s vibrato.

“The very early ones sounded good, but the sound we love so much, the way Jimmy Smith sounded when he started recording for Verve, is from the models after 1958,” says Joey DeFrancesco. “They made little refinements to the technology that no one really knew about. But it became too expensive to make them—all handmade, a lot of parts, a lot of screws.”

In 1977, Hammond launched a transistor-based model called the B-3000. “It wasn’t too successful,” DeFrancesco says. “Then they attempted one called the Super-B, which was a nightmare, with all kinds of problems—people still weren’t happy.” In 1988, Suzuki Instrument Corporation bought the name and, as DeFrancesco puts it, “got serious about rejuvenating the legend.” In 1993 they introduced a line of digital, MIDI-adaptable organs, and as the decade progressed, with help from DeFrancesco, continued to work on sampling techniques to tweak the nuances, an effort that culminated in 2002 with the “New B3,” which uses a digital tone generator.

“They’ve come a long way,” DeFrancesco says, of Suzuki’s exertions to replicate the B3’s nuances digitally. “ Now you’d be hard-pressed to tell the old and the new apart.”

While every electromechanical B3 was idiosyncratic, like a piano, the digital iterations are consistent. “That’s good, because I know what each one will sound like,” says DeFrancesco. “On the old model, everybody had their own sound. But these new ones represent the ideal sound that we all love.

“To bend a note before, you’d shut the motor on and off, like Groove Holmes used to do, but now you can actually hold a note—there are pitch bend wheels which weren’t on the original. With MIDI, I can put strings on my lower manual, play the organ on the top, and put an upright bass on the foot. I can switch from organ to piano trio with my own upright bass. Another band.”

Bio for Goodfellas, 1999
“The whole concept of Goodfellas,” organist Joey DeFrancesco comments, “was three Italian guys playing music that we grew up listening to. We all in common love Mafia movies and Italian-oriented films. All the tunes are hand-picked to associate being young as an Italian, growing up with all Italians around, the music that we listened to and played — living the Italian life. The whole thing — the food, the music, and a lotta love.”

Joined by guitar virtuoso Frank Vignola and crisp swing-to-bop drummer Joe Ascione, the 28-year-old South Philadelphia native puts forth a varied paean to the Italian-American experience with musicality and brio, displaying his characteristic blend of jawdropping chops, attention to nuance, and high comfort zone for playing many styles and colors of music with a singular idiomatic voice. “I’ve always been a chameleon with everything I do,” he remarks. “If I’m talking to somebody with an accent, I start talking with that accent. I don’t even do it consciously. And it rubs off in my music. I can get pretty much into any bag with anybody.”

It’s as though DeFrancesco was born to play the organ. His father, “Papa John” DeFrancesco has gigged steadily on the Hammond B-3 around Philadelphia and its immediate environs since the ’60s. “I started playing when I was 4,” he recalls. “I could just play. I was already hearing Jimmy Smith and stuff like that around the house, then one time my Dad brought the organ home from the gig, and when I heard that sound I really got into it. He guided me in the right direction, the dos and the donts, but he was never very forceful about it.” His father began taking the prodigy to clubs at 7 or 8, and he began playing for money on weekend gigs at 10 years old. By high school DeFrancesco was working steadily around Philadelphia, receiving first-hand instruction from the top-shelf organists who populate and come through the City of Brotherly Love, such as Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, and numerous others. During those years his trio was named “Best High School Combo” at MusicFest USA, a student competition; he was also the first winner of the Jazz Society of Philadelphia’s McCoy Tyner Scholarship.

“I went five years to music school,” he recalls. “I didn’t pay attention, never learned how to read a note. I love to play and I love to listen, and pretty much whatever I hear I can play pretty quick. I’ve been influenced by everything — Miles, Coltrane, piano players like Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock, Wynton Kelly, Red Garland, Ahmad Jamal. Whatever music is prevalent in my life at the time comes out in my approach. If I’m listening to a lot of horn, I’ll play horn-like, single-note lines; if I’m listening to a lot of piano, I’ll play pianistically. Ray Brown and Ron Carter influenced my bass lines, but I don’t even have to think about them. They’re like another brain that’s just there. I can totally concentrate on my right hand; the coordination has always been easy.

“I love Jimmy Smith; to this day he’s the king. The Blue Note records he did in the late ’50s are very innovative; he was doing things that Coltrane did five-six years later. He’s a great hardbop single-note player with impeccable technique, but blues-drenched with an amazing groove. He’s all-around great! Larry Young’s the one who put the John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, McCoy Tyner approach to the organ. He didn’t swing as hard as Jimmy Smith, but his touch was so nice.”

You could appropriate DeFrancesco’s description of Jimmy Smith to describe his style. He swings ferociously, executes spot-on single-note lines and imaginative bass lines underneath them, can dig deep into the pocket or float over the time. He’s told his story with equal comfort in a panoramic range of idioms — power postbop, on-the-one bebop, abstract reharmonizations, funk that travels the spaceways and soul jazz of the pork chops-and-pasta variety. His high-visibility career kicked off when Miles Davis asked the 17-year-old organ wunderkind to join his late ’80s band (he appears on Amandla and Live Round The World). Then he signed a contract with Columbia that resulted in five varied records from 1989 to 1994. He’s worked extensively during the ’90s with legendary guitarist John McLaughlin (see After The Rain and The Free Spirits [Verve]), and been a sideman in bands led by guitarists Dave Stryker, Randy Johnston, Jimmy Bruno, Danny Gatton and Paul Bollenbeck, his band guitarist for many years. He’s been in the studio with saxophonists like Houston Person, Ron Holloway, Kenny Garrett, Gary Thomas and Eric Alexander.

Though assembled specifically for the date, the “Goodfellas” trio plays with the synchronous intuition that long-standing interaction imparts to a unit, finding fresh approaches to the classic material. “If something swings, I like it,” DeFrancesco enthuses. “It really doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it’s grooving. I’m more of a Miles Davis-John Coltrane approach kind of player, but the stuff on Goodfellas is more Louis Prima oriented! It’s grooving. It’s swinging. It’s supposed to be fun, but on the other hand the musicianship is impeccable. We weren’t goofing off and making fun of it.

“Frank Vignola’s sound goes way back into the Swing Era — Freddie Greene, Django Reinhardt. “He’s got a lot of soul and a very clean way of playing that makes me play more in the mode of traditional, older school jazz, like before Bebop, more like Count Basie big band style. I accompany him like I’m the whole horn section, little stabs here and there, comping. Frank brought Joe Ascione on the date; this is the first time we’ve played together. He played great, and he knows this bag very well.

“If you’re going to do an album about Italians and having influence from Mob movies, you’ve got to have the theme song from ‘The Godfather,'” DeFrancesco continues. “Am I right?” Yes, Joey. The trio addresses “Speak Softly Love” with “Jimmy Smith’s version of the Erroll Garner approach; the tune’s probably never been played like that — Frank’s got Freddie Greene happening on it.”

“Volare” evokes images of Italian crooners like Vic Damone and…Jerry Vale. “My favorite!” DeFrancesco laughs. “Those tunes are great. See, I heard jazz all my life, mostly. But when we went over to our family’s houses on Sunday for pasta, sausage or meatballs, this was the stuff that your aunt or uncle or grandmother was playing in the background. That’s part of the tradition.” The band gooses up the tune with a heartbeat-steady up-tempo groove treatment directly out of the Louis Prima textbook.

“Fly Me To The Moon,” “All The Way,” and “Young At Heart” are direct tributes to Frank Sinatra, a huge presence in the aural soundtrack of DeFrancesco’s life. “Sinatra is like a God for Italians, especially from South Philly, where I grew up,” DeFrancesco states. “Now, they liked him more because he was Italian and had a good voice. But when you’re a musician, especially a jazz musician, and you listen to Miles Davis and Coltrane and guys like that, you start to realize how great he was. His phrasing was perfect! He sounded like an instrument. Many of the ballads Miles would play were Sinatra tunes, and Miles played them like Sinatra phrased them. He always credited Sinatra for his phrasing. I really got hip to it when I started playing with Miles. He told me, ‘You’ve got to listen to more Frank Sinatra.’ I said, ‘Well, I do listen to him.’ He said, ‘No, you’ve got to listen to the way he’s singing those notes.’ He was truly a jazz singer, particularly in the early days, the ’50s and the ’60s. He took a lot from Billie Holiday, too, the way he slides, and from Dorsey with those long notes. He had that sound, and he swung like crazy. That’s why guys like Miles and Trane loved it.

“‘Fly Me To The Moon’ is the Frank Sinatra-Count Basie arrangement in trio form. It’s a great tune. We played ‘All The Way’ very sweet; I like the way it came out. We played the melody of ‘Young At Heart’ straight. It’s one of my Dad’s favorite tunes; he always used to sing it when I was a kid, and the song became one of my favorites.”

The trio swings the “O Solo Mio” aria; opera influences DeFrancesco’s shaping of melody and phrasing. “Opera is very powerful, with a lot of dynamics and emotion. It comes out in my playing. That’s why I play so wild, like such a maniac sometimes, and then I can come down and play something real sweet.”

There’s Italian vernacular (“Mala Femina”, taken as a boogaloo, and an album-closing “Tarantella”), and three originals that take titles from Mafia argot. Ascione’s “Whack ’em,” a blues based on Jimmy Smith’s arrangement of “Organ Grinder Swing,” takes inspiration from hit-man dialogue in the Martin Scorsese film that gives the album its title. “You See What I’m Sayin'” references a trademark declamation by Robert DeNiro, a DeFrancesco hero; “it’s an Uptown ‘Rhythm’ changes with a ‘Jumpin’ At The Woodside’ vibe on it.” The title track is a slow blues in the organ tradition, collectively developed by the trio. The trio is jazz all the way on Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence,” also known as “Justice,” where DeFrancesco floats with fire over the angular harmonies.

Goodfellas is DeFrancesco’s debut as a leader for Concord, after a sideman appearance with guitarist (and fellow South Phillyite) Jimmy Bruno [Like That, C-4698] and a co-led two-organ date with mentor organist Brother Jack McDuff [It’s About Time, C-4705]. It’s the latest chapter for the protean young veteran with a firm grip of the jazz lingua franca; like all his records, it celebrates the music’s eternal values of communication, intelligence and swing.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Jazziz, organ

For Harold Mabern’s 79th Birthday, An Uncut Blindfold Test from 2004

Pianist Harold Mabern celebrates his 79th birthday today. I had a chance to hear him last night playing bassist Gregory Ryan’s weekly gig at at a midtown steakhouse (Joe Farnsworth on drums). The piano, which is decent but was shaky in the upper register, is placed between the stairway down from street level and the bar, and to call the room noisy would be an understatement. Still, Mabern played with customary focus, power, melodic invention and soulfulness — treated the gig with complete respect and commitment, revealing his encyclopedic knowledge of the American Songbook. A son of Memphis, Tennessee, who spent the second half of the ’50s in Chicago, Mabern has been a beacon and mentor for several generations of pianists, among them James Williams, Donald Brown, Mulgrew Miller and Geoff Keezer, with whom he played in a five-piano band twenty years ago. I had several opportunities to talk with HM during my WKCR years, and had an opportunity to do the DownBeat Blindfold Test with him in 2004. Here’s the uncut version.

Harold Mabern Blindfold Test (10-1-04) – Raw Copy:

1.  Earl Hines, “Don’t You Know I Care” (from EARL HINES PLAYS DUKE ELLINGTON, New World, 1970/1997) (Hines, piano; Duke Ellington, composer) – (5 stars)

Duke Ellington’s “Don’t You Know I Care.” I can’t say that I right away recognize the pianist. I like what I’m hearing. It’s hard to tell if it’s a recent recording or something that was done a few years ago. Right now, Ted, I must say you’ve got me on this one so far, even though the sound… Right away, I know it’s not, but right now I can’t say who it is. Phineas recorded this, but I know it’s not Phineas, and Mulgrew Miller recorded this recently—I know it’s not him.  It’s not Ray Bryant, and it’s definitely not Hank Jones or Tommy Flanagan or any of those people. And it’s not Art Tatum.  It’s not Teddy Wilson. So if I had to take a wild guess (I don’t know if guessing is permitted), I would have to say someone like Jay McShann, or probably someone like Earl Hines. That’s just an educated guess. Of the two, I would say Earl Hines. I like the overlapping phrases with left hand and right hand. And the touch of the right hand. His touch seems to be a little heavier than Teddy Wilson’s, whose touch was a little more velvety, like Art Tatum’s was. 5 stars. [AFTER] What I’m accustomed to do, as I tell the students: Process of elimination. Eliminate who you know it’s not, and then you feel it can only be one or two people. I possibly could have said James P. Johnson, but I didn’t, or Fats Waller. When I first came to New York City, I worked at Smalls Paradise with the MJT+3, and a couple of the old-timers were there, and they looked at me and said, “Young man, you remind me a lot of Earl Hines.” To me, that was a compliment, because I didn’t know much about Earl Hines at that point. However, we all know that was Nat Cole’s hero in Chicago. He was doing everything he could to be around Earl Hines whenever he could be. I was told that he even dressed like Earl Hines—very impeccable. As they say, Earl Hines was like the Bud Powell of his time; he just opened up everything. I had a chance to work opposite him on a Newport Jazz Festival in San Remo, Italy. George Wein produced it.  I was with Wes Montgomery. We had a chance to talk. We had some pictures taken together, if I can ever find them—little small snapshots.

Reflecting back, I don’t know if you watch the Westerns channels, but they’ve been showing a lot of the black cowboys, and they mainly talk about Herb Jeffries, who was the first one to really get some prominence. He was singing with Earl Hines’ band in Chicago. Every time I hear his name, I think about Herbie Hancock. People don’t know this, but Herbie was named after Herb Jeffries—Herbert Jeffrey Hancock. A little bit of trivia.

2.  Uri Caine, “Stiletto” (from LIVE AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD, Winter & Winter, 2004) (Caine, piano, comp.; Drew Gress, bass; Ben Perowsky, drums) (3 stars)

Right now you really got me, because he could be anybody, blanket statement. I don’t hear enough of the concept to really say. We know it’s avant-garde, or controlled or uncontrolled freedom, whatever way you want to look at it, and I’m not really into it that much, even though I can appreciate some of the things I’ve listened to by Cecil Taylor over the years. Well, I can see at least it has some kind of form to it, even though I still don’t recognize the pianist. I don’t think it’s Cecil Taylor, because the form is a bit on the traditional side…whatever that means. It’s more of what I would call, as I said before, “controlled freedom,” because it has some kind of theme to it. But as to who it is, at this point it’s hard to say. Conceptually speaking, I think it’s probably somebody on the younger side, one of the younger generation guys. To take a guess (because I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything by this pianist), Matthew Shipp. That’s just a guess. Or another pianist who I also don’t really know a lot about—Jason Moran. Again, that’s just a guess. It’s definitely somebody who’s been influenced by McCoy Tyner and Herbie, even though, as I said before, it’s a little bit on the free side.  But it swings. I like the sound of the drums. See, with this kind of music, at least if it swings, you can get some kind of musical enjoyment out of it. As I said, not to be redundant, I hear traces of McCoy and Herbie and them. Is it possible it could be a female? I don’t think Geri Allen, but perhaps someone like Rachel Z—even though I’m not that familiar with her playing. It’s definitely somebody younger than I am. One person comes to mind, but again I haven’t heard a lot of him—Eric Lewis. But I don’t think he’s recorded yet. Or possibly Marcus Roberts. That’s just a guess. 3 stars, because it swings. [AFTER] I know who he is, but I’m not familiar with his playing at all. Once they got into the form, I enjoyed it. It was swinging. It took on a theme of its own, so it was something I could grab onto.

3. Danilo Perez, “Overjoyed” (from …TILL THEN, Verve, 2003) (Perez, piano; Ben Street, bass; Adam Cruz, drums) (5 stars)

I like the song, Stevie Wonder, “Overjoyed.” But I have to figure out who the pianist is. So far, I like what I’m hearing. It reminds me a little bit of one of my favorite pianists, but I don’t think it’s him. I hear it in the left hand-right hand. Geoff Keezer comes to mind, but I don’t think it’s Geoff. I like the sound of the recording, too. The bass is in tune, good sound on the drums. Very interesting.  Here we go again; educated guess again. It’s not Geoff Keezer. It’s not Mulgrew Miller. Possibly somebody like Brad Mehldau.  That’s just an educated guess. I enjoyed it, so I’d say 4 stars for the performance, and another star for the genius of Stevie Wonder. So 5 stars. [AFTER] Isn’t that something. I should have known it, because I think I heard it recently on the radio. I’ve heard Danilo do some wonderful things with Roy Haynes.

4. Alice Coltrane, “Walk With Me” (from TRANSLINEAR LIGHT, Verve, 2004) (Coltrane, piano; James Genus, b; Jeff Watts, d) – (4 stars)

It’s a good sound coming out of the instrument. So far I haven’t heard enough to put my finger on anybody that I recognize. It has what you call a gospel type theme to it. Whoever the pianist is, they have a good sound out of the instrument, good technique, good chord voicings in the lower register. But right now, I don’t know who it is or who it could be. Something about the theme reminds me a little bit of Keith Jarrett, but I don’t think it’s Keith. Some parts of it remind me a little of Stanley Cowell, one of my dearest and closest friends and a true musical giant, but I don’t think it’s Stanley. 4 stars. [AFTER] I noticed the harp-like qualities in the right hand. Alice Coltrane, nice. Very, very well played.

5. Eric Reed, “La Berthe” (from E-BOP, Savant, 2003) (Reed, piano; Rodney Whitaker, bass; Rodney Green, drums; Elmo Hope, composer) (4 stars)

Nice little theme. It reminds me of something that maybe Thelonious would have written, theme-wise and the way it’s syncopated. I like the performance. I like the pianist.  Nice touch. The concept reminds me of the kind of stuff that Woody Shaw used to play. But I don’t have an idea who it could be. I like the piece. I like the concept. It’s a good touch from the pianist. It’s the kind of song I would enjoy playing. But I can only take a guess on who it might be. Like I said, I hear a lot of Monk influence in the performance and in the theme itself. Possibly someone like Jessica Williams, but that’s just a guess. I think it’s an original composition. That’s the feeling I get. What period? It sounds like something that could have been written within the last year or so, conceptually speaking. Both the piece and the performance sound very up-to-date. 4 stars. [AFTER] Sorry, Eric. But he’s one of my favorites. That just shows music is never dated. Because conceptually speaking, it sounds like it could have been written last week. Eric Reed is a tremendous young musician. I have a lot of respect for him. He understands all phases of the music. I told him he’s one of the few young pianists who understands the difference between blocked chords and locked hands, and he looked at me and said, “Oh, do I really?” and we laughed. But he’s a tremendous young man. Stride, boogie-woogie, everything. I have a lot of respect for him.

6. Don Pullen, “Warriors” (from NEW BEGINNINGS, Blue Note, 1988) (Pullen, piano; Gary Peacock, bass; Tony Williams, drums) (5 stars)

Right away, it sounds like a pianist I always enjoyed, because he proved he could play on the edge of being out, but he could play inside, he could play tradition. He was also a very good organ specialist. Just listening to the theme and the pianistic things he’s doing, it reminds me a lot of Don Pullen. Bingo!  At last! He was a tremendous musician. [Who do you think the drummer is?] I get a feeling it’s someone like Ed Blackwell. I don’t know if it’s him, but… The thing I like about Don Pullen… One night at the Vanguard years ago, before they got the new piano, and the upper register was a little bit out, I asked him, “Don, how did you hear up there without… You make it sound so…” He said, “I just play it.” The upper register can be a little tricky. He did wonderful things, and it didn’t seem to detract from his performance. I had a lot of respect for Don Pullen. Great musician. You can hear his classical training in his piano playing. I guess the obvious thing to say about the drummer, since they worked together, would be Dannie Richmond, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be him. Something about him reminds me a bit of Roy Haynes. I don’t hear enough of the snare sound and the cymbal, but rhythmically it reminds me a little taste of Roy Haynes. Or possibly Tony Williams. Ah, see, that’s that Massachusetts connection with Alan Dawson, Roy, Tony. Boy, could Tony play. I’ll give it 5 stars for the overall performance. To me, that’s what you call controlled freedom. The things he was doing on the piano made sense because you can hear the skills he had developed through his classical training coming through.

7. Geoff Keezer, “Gollum’s Song” (from WALK ON, Telarc, (Keezer, piano; Scott Colley, bass; Karriem Riggins, drums) (5 stars)

I like that. Geoff Keezer comes to mind. The concept of the song, the touch in the right hand, the ideas in the right hand. At first, a little bit, it reminded me of Mulgrew; they have a similar kind of thing at times.  But listening, it reminds me a lot of Geoff. But I need to listen a little bit more to the right hand. If I had to guess, I’d say Geoff Keezer. Give him 10 stars, if there’s such a thing. I mean, he’s that good. He’s a tremendous musician.  The one thing I love about him is that he’s really captured the essence of Phineas Newborn, Jr., more than any pianist that I can think of. Naturally, Mulgrew and Donald Brown. But Geoff has captured the little nuances. Not just the obvious stuff, which is hard enough, but Geoff has captured those little nuances that Phineas used to do. And consider the fact that Geoff never met Phineas, and all he had to go by was what he heard on records and the one video.  But I have tremendous respect for this young man. He never ceases to amaze me. I like the interplay with the bass and drums. I heard Scott Colley once with Herbie Hancock at the Blue Note; he’s a very good bassist. Geoffrey Keezer. Eau Claire. Wisconsin. 5 stars. He’s even found a way to get into his playing a lot of those Latin montuno rhythmic things. He’s been getting into that a lot.

8. Herbie Hancock, “Blue Otani” (from THE PIANO, Columbia/Legacy, 1978/2004) (Hancock, piano, composer) (4½ stars)

I like it. Naturally, it’s the blues. You can’t go wrong with the blues. Now I’ll try to figure out who it is! Oh, I like it. It’s a lot going on. When it first started out, the chord things reminded me a little bit of Herbie Hancock. Then it reminded me a little bit of Ray Bryant. But I’m sure it’s neither one. I enjoyed the performance, but I must say I’m stumped on that one. I have no idea. But 4½ stars. To play like that is very hard to do. That’s the thing that separated Art Tatum from all of us. To play fast or slow, and play it where the consistency of the time is still going on. He had some nice ideas, too. Good technique, good ideas—I liked the overall performance. But I have no idea. [AFTER] You’re kidding! See, I got half of it right! Years ago, we used to talk about solo piano and stride and stuff, and years ago he wasn’t really interested so much in the stride aspect.

9. Brad Mehldau, “Anything Goes” (from ANYTHING GOES, Warner, 2004) (Mehldau, piano; Larry Grenadier, bass; Jorge Rossy, drums) (5 stars)

Hmm, “Anything Goes,” huh?  Nicely done. Cole Porter. Yeah, I like that. I like the concept. I like the fact it’s odd-metered; it sounds like it’s in 5/4. It’s nice to take a song like that, which is unique in its own way. At this point, I don’t know who the pianist is, but I like what I’m hearing. Good right hand, good left hand. I’d guess Brad Mehldau because of the ideas in the right hand, and the way he uses his left hand. You can tell he has a good left hand also. And the overall concept of the piece. Good harmonic concept also. I’ll tell you, with the quality of the crop of pianists coming out within the last 5 to 10 years, if I had to start now, I wouldn’t choose the piano.  There are some rough guys out there, man. And ladies, too. 5 stars.

10. Denny Zeitlin, “E.S.P.” (from SLICK ROCK, MaxJazz, 2004) (Zeitlin, p.; Buster Williams, b; Matt Wilson, d) – (5 stars)

Right away, I know I like the composition. I don’t want to give the wrong composer credit, but I know it’s either Herbie’s tune or Wayne Shorter’s. Sometimes I get them a little mixed up. But that much I know. The tune is either Herbie’s or Wayne’s when they played with Miles.  There’s some stuff there chordally that reminds me of Ahmad. Another one of these two-handed pianists. It reminds me a little bit of a gentleman that I used to hang out with in Chicago, when he was studying at Johns Hopkins. Denny Zeitlin comes to mind because of the harmonic concept and the ability to use both hands equally well. But that’s just a guess. Again, process of elimination, I know who it’s not, but he comes to mind. The cymbal beat from the drummer reminds me a little bit of Tony Williams. I just heard something from the bassist that reminded me a little of Ron Carter, but it’s not Ron Carter. Oh, that’s Buster Williams. Tremendous musician. Unsung hero. Would that possibly be Matt Wilson? So it’s Denny Zeitlin. A couple of years ago, I saw that trio working at Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase in Chicago 5 stars, mainly because of our Chicago connection and the love we both have for Chris Anderson, Ahmad Jamal and Billy Wallace. He had a lot of respect and still has a lot of respect for Billy Wallace, Dr. Denny Zeitlin.

11. Anthony Wonsey, “Darn That Reality” (from BLUES FOR HIROSHI, Sharp-9, 2004) (Wonsey, p; Richie Goods, b; Tony Reedus, d) – (5 stars)

Sounds like “Darn That Dream” but rearranged. I like it. The pianist sounds very familiar, but I can’t quite call him. David Hazeltine comes to mind because of the arrangement of the song, for some reason, but I’m not sure. The drums sound like it could be Joe Farnsworth, but again I’m not totally sure. It sounds like David Hazeltine to me, even though a lot of the stuff he’s doing in the right hand is a little out of character. By that I mean it’s not normally the way he would play.  But because of the arrangement, I would have to say David Hazeltine, possibly Farnsworth, maybe Peter Washington. 5 stars. It’s not? Well, I still give it 5 stars. I hear a lot of Phineas Newborn type of influence in the right hand with the triplets and things. Swinging. [AFTER] Oh, Mulgrew Miller’s ex-student. That’s why I could hear a little of the Phineas Newborn influence. Wonsey. I’ll still give him 5.

12. Bud Powell, “Tea For Two” (from BIRDLAND ‘53, Vol.1, FRESH SOUND, 1953/1991) (Powell, piano; Oscar Pettiford, bass; Roy Haynes, drums) (5 stars)

I know it’s an older recording. Just listening to the concept, I’d have to say Bud Powell, off the top. I’ll stand by Bud Powell, and give him all the stars you can muster up. “Tea For Two.” As an educated guess, I’d say the drummer is Max, and the bassist is either Mingus or George Duvivier. Possibly Arthur Taylor? Just an educated guess. Bud definitely opened stuff up. He and Nat Cole. Two different schools, but very influential. 5 stars.

Leave a comment

Filed under Alice Coltrane, Anthony Wonsey, Blindfold Test, Brad Mehldau, Bud Powell, Chicago, Denny Zeitlin, Don Pullen, Earl Hines, Eric Reed, Geoff Keezer, Harold Mabern, Herbie Hancock, Phineas Newborn

In Honor of Steve Coleman’s 2014 MacArthur Award, A 2011 DownBeat Feature

Heartiest congratulations to the visionary alto saxophonist-composer-conceptualist Steve Coleman on his 2014 MacArthur Award. Here’s a  feature piece that I wrote about him for DownBeat in 2011.

* * *

Around 5:30 on the final day of spring, nineteen hours before the summer solstice, Steve Coleman sat in his Prius, parked a few steps from the Jazz Gallery, where he’d soon conduct the penultimate installment of his seventh season of Monday night master classes at the venue. Dressed down in a red t-shirt with “Ancient Waves” logo across the chest, baseball cap worn backward, baggy jeans, and hightops, he was relaxed and focused after a 90-mile drive from Allentown, Pennsylvania, his home since 1992. Rather than adjourn to a restaurant for a sitdown conversation, Coleman, a road warrior par excellence (his itinerary over the past two decades includes lengthy fieldwork sabbaticals in Ghana, Cuba, Egypt, Brazil, South India, and Indonesia), decided to stay put, taking advantage of the unmetered space.

Later that evening, and at the two other Coleman workshops I attended in June, attendance was decent. Still, it seemed odd that more aspirants didn’t shell out $15 for a hands-on encounter with the figure who, as Vijay Iyer says, “of all the musicians who followed Coltrane, Ornette and the AACM, has done the most work, and sustained the highest level of innovation and creativity, of output and impact.”

It is Coleman’s signal achievement to have dissected rhythmic, tuning, and harmonic systems from various non-Western and ancient Mediterranean cultures, and integrated them into a cohesive weave that refracts his own experience and cultural roots. Operating via the ritualistic practices that contextualized these sounds in their original iteration, he frames his own sere alto saxophone voice within a matrix of interlocking, layered  beat cycles, sometimes whirling, sometimes stately, sustaining continuity with a self-devised harmonic logic.

He’s been remarkably effective at communicating his principles. During the ‘80s Coleman imparted fresh ideas about working with pulse and uneven meters to such experimentally oriented, like-minded, Brooklyn-based contemporaries as Cassandra Wilson, Greg Osby, Terri Lyne Carrington, Robin Eubanks, and Marvin “Smitty” Smith in the loosely grouped collective known as M-BASE, an acronym for Macro-Basic Array of Structured Extemporizations. In the latter ‘90s, Osby, who referenced Coleman in a piece called “Concepticus,”  described him as “my main motivator,” adding, “if I ever reach an impasse, he’ll say something that will transport me to another area.” A few years ago, Wilson was similarly praiseful. “Steve told me that if I could hold my own in his context, I’d have something else to bring to standards,” she said. “He was right. When you learn to improvise over odd time signatures, you develop an elasticity when you work with 4/4, because you’re always certain about your time.”

It would be inaccurate to describe Coleman as a “guru-Grand Poobah” figure for his M-BASE collaborators, many of them major forces on the timeline. But the term fits when assessing his impact on consequential post-Boomers like Iyer, Ravi Coltrane, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Miguel Zenon, Yosvany Terry and Dafnis Prieto, who have drawn upon Coleman’s subsequent investigations—documented over the past quarter century on close to 30 recordings and elaborated upon in numerous workshops and residencies—in constructing their own hybrid tonal identities. “This idea of conceptually dealing with stuff from a different culture and from the roots of one’s culture was an amazing template,” Mahanthappa said recently. “It seemed like the real deal. It was modern American improvised music.”

Anyone with an Internet connection can find interviews and essays in which Coleman postulates and analyzes his intellectual first principles, which are as complex and audacious as the raw materials he works with. He believes strongly that music symbolically represents universal truths and, therefore, human experience on the most fundamental level. Freedom emerges via contingent pathways—rigorously elaborated structures that he actualizes with non-traditional notation—through which creative expression manifests. Numerological I-Ching trigrams denote rhythmic values, each part cycled in thick harmonic layers among the various horns, or, as Marcus Gilmore notes, within the trapset itself, “intertwining and interweaving until they meet up at some point.” A chart representing lunar or solar phases might involve pitch values and voice leading. Another, mapping a celestial moment, can gestate an entire composition, as in “060706-2319 (Middle Of Water)” and “Vernal Equinox 040320-0149 (Initiation) on the 2010 release Harvesting Semblances and Affinities [Pi] and “Jan 18” and “Noctiluca (Jan 11)” on this year’s follow-up, The Mancy of Sound. Patterns of dots on the cover of the latter document symbolize the Yoruba philosophical and divination system called Ifá; transcribed, they comprise the rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic form of a four-piece suite.

With this backdrop in mind, I asked Coleman whether proximity to the solstice would impact the evening’s proceedings. “In an intangible way, it does all the time,” he responded. “I believe there’s a specific energy happening at any moment, in any place, and that we have the ability to tap that energy consciously.” He mentioned core influences—Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Muhal Richard Abrams, the Danish composer Per Nørgård—whose musical production incorporates such metaphysics. “Each person has to figure out their relationship to it. A lot of people who think about these things won’t talk about them publicly. My view is that we’re in a new kind of information age, and there’s less need to be secretive.”

Coleman reached into his bag behind him, and pulled out a book entitled The Unified Cycle Theory by Steven J. Puetz. “I spend a lot of time studying cyclical thought,” he continued. “I’m always paying attention to eclipses and equinoxes, symmetrical nodes where energy intersects. I was well aware of the event tomorrow, or any time we get near these points. Then I focus to see if I can pick up something that I ordinarily wouldn’t. Am I deluding myself or imagining things? You could say that about almost anything that you do. Definitely, if you’re tuned into it, you can feel something special that doesn’t happen in other moments. After a while, you start noticing patterns and start trying to see how you can use these things, how they can work out, what the differences are.”

On the two recent CDs, Coleman seems to be consolidating, loosening forms, transmuting cross-cultural correspondences gleaned from his travels into musical shapes and inserting them into an increasingly epic narrative. Tyshawn Sorey, who plays drumset on both recordings—by himself on Harvesting and in tandem with Gilmore on Mancy—pinpointed the interweaving quality to which Gilmore referred when describing the evolution in Coleman’s rhythmic language from his “much more sonically dense” music of the ‘90s. Sorey traced the transition to the composition “Ascending Numeration,” from the 2002 recording The Ascension To Light, on which “it takes at least a minute” for all the different meters—he calls them “time spans”—to align. “The structures are much more elaborate now,” Sorey said. “The music breathes more. Vibrationally it feels different. I remember thinking in the ‘90s that the music was cold, that it was hyper-technical but lacked emotional content. I played some of that music when I first joined the group. In the music he’s written since then, there’s a lot going on, but it hits you emotionally in some way.”

Recorded in 2006 and 2007, the Pi sessions represent an early stage of this development. But over the past year or so, Coleman said, he’s been “reshuffling,” addressing “pre-composed material ever more spontaneously, using compositions almost like cells of information and recombining them in different ways,” trying to give his musicians “greater responsibility for their part.” Towards this end, he toured Europe last fall and this spring with no drums or bass, presenting consequential challenges for trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, guitarist Miles Okazaki, pianist David Bryant, and vocalist Jen Shyu.

“The music was written with bass and drums in mind,” said Shyu, a Coleman regular since 2003. “It’s not that hard to play each single part, and it’s difficult but achievable to be able to clap one part and sing another. The hardest thing is to improvise and be free over that, and not be locked into, ‘ok, I have to keep my place with this line.’ Steve wants you to hear it as a gestalt—all the parts together, internalizing how they fit, and never lose your place. The compositions are getting more difficult. They’re based on extra-musical things, I think a cycle of Mercury, so the progressions are unusual and harder to hear.”

Coleman described the effect of this drummerless experiment as akin to a colonic. “There was stuff encrusted inside me for years, and when that layer was stripped away, things became crystal clear,” he said. The logical next step, he continued, is to “jettison” the precomposed fragments and move towards “creating spontaneous forms on the spot for the first time.” He added: “It’s not like free improvisation, where whatever sound you make and whatever sound I make, it’s cool. It’s having an intelligent conversation with somebody on the street where you don’t know what you’re going to say, but it makes linguistic sense. It has to be as sophisticated as something you might create if you composed it with pencil and paper, and you have to be able to retain it so that you can repeat it, not verbatim, but as you would a written compositional form. I never write out set lists. We come out, and I blank out my mind and feel what’s coming from the audience and what’s happening on stage. From that comes my first impulse, and I make a sound. Then I start developing and weave a thread.

“The temporal moment has a character, and it imposes on us a certain vibe which we then deal with. Place has something to do with it. The land has an energy that affects us. When I’m in central Java for three months, I create different shit than I would if I stayed here. I get different ideas in south India or Brazil. Usually the effect on you is unconscious. I study all this esoteric stuff to try to figure out what it is. Almost everything I do starts with some vague interior, intuitive, spiritual feeling, which I then try to figure out how to technically work with. In the end, I’m dealing with a craft. I’m dealing with music, and something’s got to be developed out of that music.”

Coleman traces this predisposition to investigate inchoate feelings to childhood. He grew up at 68th and Cregier on Chicago’s South Side, four blocks east of Stony Island Avenue, where the Blackstone Rangers gang dominated street life. “They were recruiting cats my age, but I didn’t want to run with that kind of element,” he says. “They preyed on people with maybe weaker minds. I was the kind of kid that if a cat called me a chicken, I’d be like, ‘well, that’s your opinion.’ I wouldn’t get mad, just indifferent. Before he died, my father told me, ‘What you’re doing musically and the way you are, I saw it in you early. You were a hard-headed baby who wanted to go your own way, and could sit in the corner by yourself and play your own game for hours.’”

Initially attracted to Charlie Parker through his father’s record collection, Coleman received subsequent hands-on mentoring from Sonny Stitt, Von Freeman, and Bunky Green, all regular presences in neighborhood clubs like the Apartment Lounge and Cadillac Bob’s. He traced the origin of his rhythmic explorations to a realization that the quality he most appreciated in Bird and his teachers was “their identity, a strong vibe that told you this was their thing,” and that “the primary ingredient in that strong identity was the rhythm.”

“The main element of their rhythmic base stemmed from the dance music of the time, and I realized that I’d have to look for something different,” he said. “I started to think about Motown, James Brown, the Meters—which I heard as a folk music—and how to do something more sophisticated with it. It wasn’t an intellectual exercise. I feel soul and funk more than what Charlie Parker and Max Roach and those cats did, because it’s what I grew up on. In blues, you have the sophisticated line, the less sophisticated line, and the stuff in the middle, a breadth of feelings, everything from Ma Rainey to Coltrane and in between. I didn’t feel that breadth existed with this music. I thought it could be wide-open. I felt you could take it as far as what Trane was doing with ‘Expression’ and ‘Transition,’ and I was determined to do it.”

Once settled in New York, Coleman—who took gigs with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, with drummer Doug Hammond, and with Sam Rivers’ Winds of Manhattan ensemble, and often played on the street with cornetist Graham Haynes—heard  recordings of tribal, rural folk music from Nigeria, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast. “I was shocked, because in the singing and drumming I heard rhythms that I heard in Charlie Parker,” he said. He absorbed their phrasing of the rhythms, “the sensibility they did it with and the looseness with which they expressed it. Graham and I were trying to work our way into feeling these things, like groping in the dark. You hear back a piece on tape and keep what works, and expand on it.” He cited a eureka moment—“Armageddon” from the 1990 recording Rhythm People, on which Reggie Washington played bass and Smitty Smith played drums. “I had a dream about how the music was going to sound, and something on the bridge of that song was the closest it got. I began to analyze that and go deeper. When I went to Ghana, I saw similarities between what they were doing and what I was doing (and differences, too), and realized that what really attracted me was the cyclic element.”

As the ‘80s  progressed (he described the decade as “complete experimentation”), Coleman needed every bit of bullheaded resolve to stay on course and withstand the slings and arrows—some were self-inflected—hurled his way. “Von Freeman warned me that if I was going to go the route of developing my own music, it would take me twice as long,” he said. “I could easily have been one of the Young Lion crowd. All I had to do was play the game and put on a  three-piece suit. Instead, I was in this underground direction, wearing overalls. Stanley Crouch called me ‘the Jim Jones of Brooklyn’—leading everybody to their musical suicide.  That was a good one; if you’re going to signify, you might as well be clever.” Nor was approbation unanimous within the M-BASE community. “I was aggressive in pursuing ideas, let’s put it that way. Some people liked that, some people didn’t. My response was always, ‘Hey, nobody’s got to follow me; I’m not starting no school.’

“Fortunately, I talked to cats like Max Roach, and played with cats like Thad, who had no idea what I was trying to do, but told me, ‘you have to find your own way, whatever it is.’ Von and Bunky told me the same thing. When things got hard, I’d remind myself that Charlie Parker hoboed on a train. Motherfuckers couldn’t come through the same door or drink from the same fountain. They were on drugs. Coltrane took a deluge of negative criticism. What am I bitching about? I was like, ‘You did what you wanted to do; you didn’t let anybody alter your thing.’”

It was now 17 hours before the Solstice, time to leave the air-conditioned Prius, enter the Gallery, order takeout Thai, and prepare for the evening’s business. “You’ve got to eat healthy, and stay in shape,” Coleman said. He recalled the classic cover of Von Freeman’s 1972 debut LP, Have No Fear, on which the tenor master, then 50, stands in a Chicago back alley in a sleeveless tee. “In ‘79, I saw Von pick up some cat and shove him through the door with one arm. I was kind of scrawny as a kid. I thought, ‘Ok, you need to take care of yourself.’ You want to be able to still move around. If you like young girls and all that, too, then you really have to do it. If anything kills me, it will be that—or an accident.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Chicago, DownBeat, M-BASE, Steve Coleman

For the 84th Birthday of Muhal Richard Abrams, Two DownBeat Articles (2006, 2010), one Jazziz Article (2011), and a Profile for All About Jazz (2007)

Best of birthdays to maestro Muhal Richard Abrams, who turns 84 today, and is doubtless following his daily regimen of practicing and writing music.  I’ve had the honor of writing three feature pieces about Muhal in recent years. The first in the sequence posted below was written in response to his election to DownBeat‘s Hall of Fame in 2010. The second features a dialogue between Muhal and Prof. George Lewis in 2006, in response to Streaming (Roscoe Mitchell’s voice is also heard, but as the piece focused on the in-person back-and-forth, it was complicated to incorporate his voice sufficiently). The third piece is a Jazziz feature from 2011, which includes extensive testimony not only from Prof. Lewis but also recent MacArthur grant designee Steve Coleman.

For further insights on Muhal, this link contains a dozen of Jason Moran’s favorites.

* * *

 Muhal Richard Abrams (Hall of Fame Article for DownBeat) – (1st draft):

“Interesting,” Muhal Richard Abrams said over the phone upon receiving the news of his election to Downbeat’s Hall of Fame. After a pause, he said it again.

Arrangements were made to speak the following day, and, in conversation at the midtown Manhattan highrise where he has lived since 1977, Abrams explained his laconic response to the honor, bestowed on the heels of his selection as an 2010 NEA Jazz Master.

“Well, why me?” he said. “There are so many worthy people. The only claim I make is that I am a pianist-composer.” He added: “I’m honored that people would want to honor me, and I have no objection, because people have a right to make the decisions they arrive at.”

It was noted that Abrams had communicated precisely the latter dictum forty-five years ago at a series of meetings on Chicago’s South Side at which the bylaws and aesthetic guideposts by which the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) continues to operate were debated and established.

“Oh, in terms of individuals being free to be individuals, of course,” Abrams said. “It is a basic principle of human respect.”

Informed of Abrams’ reaction, George Lewis, the Case Professor of Music at Columbia University, who painstakingly traced the contents of these gatherings in A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press), hollered a deep laugh. “‘Why me?’ Are you kidding?” Assured of the quote’s accuracy, Lewis, an AACM member since 1971, settled down. “That’s Muhal for you,” he said. “He’s not an ego guy. Originally, the book was supposed to be about him. He said, ‘I think it should be about the entire AACM.’”

Lewis then opined on his mentor’s “Why me?” query. “Muhal transcends genres, categories, and the little dustups that often happen in the jazz world,” he said. “He’s his own person.  He spent his life reaching out to many musical constituencies. So it makes a lot of sense to have him represent a new way of thinking about the whole idea of jazz. Muhal’s major lesson was that you’d better find your own path, and then, once you do, learn to be part of a group of people that exchange knowledge amongst each other. He provides support for an autodidact way of doing things.”

“I don’t characterize myself as a teacher,” Abrams remarked. “It’s my contention that one teaches oneself. Of course, you pick up information from people whose paths you cross. But I’m mainly self-taught—I found it more satisfying to do it that way.’

It is one of Abrams’ signal accomplishments to have been the prime mover in spawning a collaborative infrastructure within which such AACM-trained composer-instrumentalists as Lewis, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, Leo Smith, Amina Claudine Myers, and himself could conceptualize and develop ideas. Another is his own singular corpus, as documented on some thirty recordings that present a world in which blues forms, postbop themes with jagged intervals, and experimental pieces in which improvising ensembles address text, sound, and space, coexist in the same breath with through-scored symphonic works, solo piano music, string, saxophone, and brass quartets, and electronic music. His arsenal also includes formidable pianistic skills, heard recently on “Dramaturns,” an improvised, transidiomatic duo with Lewis on Streaming [Pi]—it’s one of five performances on which Abrams, Lewis and Mitchell, grouped in duo and trio configurations, draw upon an enormous lexicon of sounds while navigating the open spaces from various angles.

“It’s a vintage collaboration,” Abrams said of the project. “Our collaborations date back to Chicago, and the respect that transpires between us on the stage, the respect for the improvised space that we use, is special. Of course, they’re virtuoso musicians, but I’m talking about silence and activity, when to play and when not to play, just from instinct and feeling and respect.”

Asked about influences, Abrams said, “I find different ways of doing things by coming out of the total music picture.” His short list includes pianists James P. Johnson, Art Tatum, Earl Hines, Bud Powell, Hank Jones, and Herbie Nichols, who “individualized the performance of mainstream music and their own original music”; Vladimir Horowitz and Chopin’s piano music; the scores of Hale Smith, William Grant Still, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, and Scriabin, as well as Duke Ellington, Gerald Wilson, and Thad Jones. “So many great masters,” he said. “Some influenced me less with their music than the consistency and level of truth from practice that’s in their stuff.”

The influence of Abrams’ musical production radiates consequentially outside the AACM circle. Vijay Iyer  recalled drawing inspiration from Abrams’ small group albums Colors in 33rd and 1-OQA+19, both on Black Saint.

“Muhal was pushing the envelope in every direction, and that openness inspired me,” Iyer said. “The approach was in keeping with the language of jazz, but also didn’t limit itself in any way; the sense was that any available method of putting sound together should be at your disposal in any context.”

“I think my generation clearly heard the effect that the AACM and Muhal had on Steve Coleman and Greg Osby, who played with Muhal,” Jason Moran added. “We took some of that energy into the late ‘90s, and it continues on to today. He defines that free thinking that most jazz musicians say they want to have.”

Both Lewis and Moran cite the methodologies of Joseph Schillinger—whose textbooks Abrams pored over on set breaks on late ‘50s gigs in Chicago—as a key component of Abrams’ pedagogy. “It helped me break the mold of sitting at a piano and thinking what sounds pleasing to my ear, and instead be able to compose away from the instrument—to almost create a different version of yourself,” Moran said.

“Schillinger analyzed music as raw material, and learning the possibilities gave you an analytical basis to create anything you want,” Abrams said. “It’s basic and brilliant. But I don’t want to be accused of being driven by what I learned from Schillinger. I am the sum product of the study of a lot of things.”

This was manifest at the January 2010 NEA Jazz Masters concert at Rose Theater, when the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, encountering an Abrams opus for the first time, offered a well-wrought performance of “2000 Plus The Twelfth Step,” originally composed for the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra. As the 15-minute work unfolded, one thought less of the predispositional differences between Abrams and Wynton Marsalis, and instead pondered Abrams’ 1977 remark: “A lot of people will pick up on the [AACM’s] example and do very well with it…who those people will be a couple of years from now, who knows?” Indeed, it seems eminently reasonable to discern affinities both in the scope of their compositional interests and their mutual insistence on constructing an institutional superstructure strong enough to withstand the vagaries of the music marketplace.

“It’s two different setups, but both very valid,” Abrams said, when asked to comment. “There’s no real underwriting for the music of the streets. Never was. It’s very important for an entity to maintain a structure in which work can be expressed to the public, whatever approach or style they use.”

For the AACM, he continued, “the organizational structure was necessary to the extent that we were involved in the business of music. But it did not supersede or overshadow the central idea, which was to allow the individuals within the group a forum to express their own particular worlds. There was no hierarchy. Everyone was equal. As time has shown, every individual from that first wave of people came out as a distinct personality in their own right.

“If you want a house with ten thousand rooms, you don’t complain because nobody has a house with ten thousand rooms to give you. You build it yourself, and do it with proper respect for the rest of humanity. You’re busy working at what you say you are about—doing it for yourself. When you take a different way, people often get the impression that you are against something else. That certainly wasn’t true in our case—we never threw anything away.

“I just go as far as the eye can see in all directions. There’s no finish to this stuff.”

[—30—]

* * *

DownBeat Article on Streaming, 2009

George Lewis’ light-filled office on the campus of Columbia University, where he is the Edwin H. Case Professor of Music, contains a metal desk, a file cabinet, bookshelves, and a wood classroom table at which he and Muhal Richard Abrams were awaiting Downbeat’s arrival.

On the table lay an open copy of Ned Sublette’s Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo. “When you say ‘the beginning,’ I question that,” Abrams responded to Lewis’ paraphrase of Sublette’s assertion that Puerto Rican musicians were prominent in the early years of jazz. “Now, I don’t question people’s participation.”

“I think that’s all he’s saying,” said Lewis. “Just participation.”

“Well, he needs some other language then,” Abrams responded.

It was noted that Cubans flowed into New Orleans in the 1860s and 1870s, participated in Crescent City brass bands and orchestras, and played a vital role in the development of jazz sensibility.

“I disagree with the claim that Jazz started in New Orleans,” Abrams said. “New Orleans people think so. But it was in Mississippi and Alabama, too—that whole area. And who can account for what happened in Sedalia, Missouri? Or  what happened all along the Eastern Shore, in Baltimore and New Jersey, what Eubie Blake did and that crew of people before him, who we never heard of?”

It turned out that Abrams, a stride piano devotee whose answering machine greets callers with James P. Johnson’s piano music, had met Blake around 1974 in Chicago, when the rag master, then 91, was on tour with composer William Bolcom.

“Bolcom really didn’t have a feeling for what Eubie was doing, though he could play the notes, but it was cool, because he loved Eubie,” Abrams said. “I told him that I had been transcribing some of his music. He stared at me, then asked someone, ‘Did he really do that?’ and she told him that I had. I was shooting pictures, and the next time he noticed me, he thought I was a photographer. We talked a bit. He had boundless energy. You’d call his name from the other side of the room, and he’d say, ‘Yeah, what do you want?!’—he’d be right there.”

Abrams’ own boundless energy comes through on Streaming (Pi), a heady recital by Abrams, Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell, who were, respectively, 74,52 and 63 at the time of the recording. Documenting the first meeting of these protagonists since a heady 90-minute concert at the Venice Biennale in late 2003, Streaming embodies the accomplishment of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians as fully as any recording in the canon.

Each man is a multi-instrumentalist proficient at deploying an array of extended techniques by which to extract a staggering array of sounds. They’ve codified and orchestrated these multiple voices, scored them into compositions spanning a global template of forms, and performed them on numerous concerts over the decades.

For this occasion, though, they chose to explore—and spontaneously chart—what Lewis calls “the open space” rather than work with a preexisting roadmap. Abrams played piano, percussion, bell, taxihorn and bamboo flute; from his arsenal of reeds and woodwinds, Mitchell brought a soprano and alto saxophone, as well as a generous selection of calibrated-to-the-sinewave percussion instruments; Lewis played trombone and laptop, generating samples and electronic sounds with Ableton Live, a loop-based digital audio sequencer designed for live performance.

Through three trios, one Mitchell–Lewis duet and one Abrams–Lewis duet, the old friends eschew collage and pastiche, shaping their idiosyncratic vocabularies, syntaxes and postulations into erudite, polylingual conversation.

“I’m trying to develop a language that will work in many situations,” said Mitchell over the phone from his home in Madison, Wisconsin. “Muhal and George are doing the same thing.”

“We’re organizing sound, and everything it takes to organize sound into what we call music—the structure, the melodious and harmonic component—in the same moment, through participating in a mutually respectful manner,” Abrams explained. “We produce what we are.”

Lewis contrasted the operative aesthetic on Streaming to that at play in his numerous meetings with first-generation European improvisers Derek Bailey and Evan Parker. “Derek and Evan wanted to open up their notion of improvisation to include the freshness of the immediate encounter—that is, someone with whom you’ve never performed,” Lewis said. “I became interested in that, and we built up a history of a lot of immediate encounters. Now I need to do what I can to renew and deepen already existing relationships. This project takes our existing collaborations in a new direction while also deepening the relationship.”

[BREAK]

Abrams and Mitchell first shared recorded space on the 1973 Art Ensemble of Chicago classic Fanfare For The Warriors (Atlantic), 12 years after Mitchell—just out of the Army and a student at Wilson Junior College—began participating in a workshop orchestra called the Experimental Band led by Abrams and Eddie Harris at a South Side Lounge called the C&C. Abrams, Mitchell and Lewis first worked together in 1971, initially documenting their exalted simpatico on Mitchell’s Quartet, a 1975 Sackville date with guitarist Spencer Barefield,  and subsequently on Lewis’ Shadowgraph (Black Saint, 1977), Mitchell’s Nonaah  (Nessa, 1978), and Abrams’ Spihumonesty (Black Saint, 1980).

“That was the first recording I was on with anybody,” said Lewis of Quartet.

“Why are you referring to the recording?” Abrams asked.

“It seems like we’re going too far back there,” said Lewis, whose exhaustively researched history of the AACM, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press) comes out in spring 2007.

“It’s important to accept how we view the basis of this,” Abrams said. “George can take his trombone and we can go to any room in this building, and perform a concert—right now.”

“You know that alternate take on the Coltrane record of “Giant Steps,” where Coltrane says, ‘The cats be makin’ the changes, but they don’t be tellin’ no story,’ and then somebody says, ‘Well, I don’t want to tell any lies’?,” Lewis said. “I don’t want to do that. What I remember is the sense of collaboration. The sense of exploration, the sense of openness to all kinds of possible outcomes. The non-judgmental nature of the collaboration. That is not say it was uncritical, but that the critique was not limited to yes or no. It was more that you were trying to understand and think about ways in which the music could be broadened and deepened, to consider more perspectives. That multiperspectival quality is the real origin, not the anecdote about the moment of encounter.”

Lewis returned to Quartet. “That first recording is part of the collective memory, and not just us, so maybe it’s not a bad idea to think about it for a moment,” he said. “I felt completely new to what we were doing. But everyone else seemed to feel they were new, too. For instance, Roscoe’s piece ‘Cards’ is a set of graphic symbols which we were reassembling on the fly. You were free to actuate your part whenever you felt the need to, in accordance with your own analysis of the situation. There was that sense of experimentalism, working with the unforeseen as a natural component, not working with received wisdoms or ideas that are already set up. I’d never seen anything like Roscoe’s card piece, and after doing music of various kinds with a great diversity of experimental composers, I still haven’t seen anything like it. Everybody was able to contribute and have their contributions accepted. The attitude that produces a recording such as this new one is that same sense that we are not in a space of hierarchy, of overweening authority by some individual.”

“It had to become equal,” Abrams said. “That happened because we all consented to perform Roscoe’s piece in the way that he preferred we approach it.”

“In the AACM there were diverse aesthetics, but there was a lot more agreement on the ethics, which is a larger point,” Lewis stated. “To get to how that basic ethics evolved and was maintained over the years is a pretty intense question. Having tried to write this history and make sense of it all, I have to say that Muhal’s sense of openness was critical. He had to fight hard to keep people focused on the idea of openness. A larger world out there is saying, ‘Well, what’s all this free thinking?’ Somebody has to provide an example. Jodie Christian said, ‘I went along with it because Muhal said it was good.’ Muhal had a lot of respect and people wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand.”

[BREAK]

In an article entitled “Experimental Music In Black and White: The AACM in New York, 1970-1985,” Lewis noted the attraction of AACM composers to “collage and interpenetration strategies that blended, opposed, or ironically juxtaposed” the disciplines of composition and improvisation, “simultaneously challenging and revising various pan-European models, dialoguing with African, Asian, and Pacific music traditions.” Such a stance towards composition, Lewis continued, quoting theorist Kobena Mercer, “critically appropriates elements from the master codes of the dominant culture and creolizes them, disarticulating given signs and rearticulating their symbolic meaning otherwise.”

With the AACM, Abrams spawned an infrastructure within which nascent composer-improvisers like Braxton, Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, and Lewis could assimilate and process such information in a critical manner, and provided them manpower with which to workshop and develop their ideas. The polymath attitudes towards musical expression that they represent in their maturity stem in great part from the inspiration of watching Abrams follow his own autodidactic predispositions.

“I was always curious, and I always felt I needed to make my own way,” said Abrams, a self-educated composer who studied Schillinger between sets on ‘50s Chicago gigs. “Get the information, but do it my way. I am sure this ultimately led to the Experimental Band, and the attraction of the Experimental Band led to the AACM. I could speak of the process in terms of historical tangibles, but I believe that things happen because they’re supposed to. The little routes that are taken to get there are like a bus process in a computer program, which takes the information where it’s directed.”

Was openness to new information always prominent within Abrams’ mindset? “Yes,” he said. “Over a period of time, it became apparent to me that in order to learn, I had to concede that my ideas are housed in my personal universe, and that another individual’s ideas are housed in theirs. To learn about this infinite setup of universes, I had to listen and be willing to learn from others.”

“Listening is dangerous,” Lewis added. “The problem is to channel it into fruitful paths. You encounter ideas you’re not prepared for, that you may not understand, to which you may respond negatively. You have to respond to input. You’re not free at that moment; you can’t just say whatever you like. You have to connect with other people, somehow become part of them, have a sense of acceptance about it. For me, acceptance is the hardest part of listening.

“In improvisation, the superficial aspects—instruments, notes, rhythms, harmonies, timbres, durations—are carriers for the much deeper signals with which we as musicians have learned to exchange meanings which are broader, but also much more direct than these elements. One meaning is this notion of a non-hierarchical ethics.”

“Any idea you encounter gives you an idea about yourself—or I think it should,” Abrams said. “If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll discriminate as to what stays and what goes, and proceed in your own manner, which I’ve always tried to do. It’s good to study something, but making a copy to lean on is another question.”

[BREAK]

“On this new record, I’m trying to hear what Muhal and Roscoe would like to do, how they see the situation, and whether they’re not doing anything or doing something,” Lewis said. “My primary approach is an instant hermeneutics, an interpretation of what is coming through the sound at that moment. This allows me to tell a lot about them. All of the history we’ve been talking about comes through the sound. As musicians, we learn to interpret these sounds, but we also learn to interpret them as human beings. If people could fall back on the fundamental primordial aspects of their own human nature, it would be a lot easier for them to understand and to hear this music. When Muhal plays piano, I know its sound like I know the sound of my dad’s or mom’s voice. I know what Roscoe’s instruments sound like. That hits me before anything. That history is undeniable. It got built up over years and decades. At the same time, I don’t know what that voice is going to say. I feel comfortable with that. It’s almost as if a door opens up, once you forget all the theories and start to concentrate on just what the sound is telling you.”

“I agree,” Abrams said. “The world of sound is an abstract idea. The word ‘musician’ depicts one who allows himself to be trained to organize sound and produce it in the form that we call music. But before it appears, it’s sound without preferenced organization. What does sound want? What does music want? Someone comes along hearing sound differently from anyone we’ve ever heard, and we wonder what causes that. What causes Ornette Coleman to sustain a note, change his position in the sound world and make you believe it changed? It’s the way he hears sound, which is special to him. What makes Cecil Taylor get the textures he gets out of the piano or the AACM people do what they do?”

This seemed a touch abstract. Was location, for instance, at all a launching point for the way Coleman (Texas), Taylor (New York) and the AACM people (Chicago) hear and organize sound?

“No, it’s separate; but yet, yes,” Abrams responded elliptically. “We have many possibilities, and each individual has different points in their time cycles that cause us to hear sound in the particular ways that we do.”

“It’s interesting to consider personal history situations and their impact upon particular directions of music,” Lewis said. “There’s a collective direction, but there’s also that individual space. We’re looking at the paradox that you want to have the history or experiences, but at a certain point, history becomes meaningless and should just not exist, otherwise you become its prisoner. That’s a common conceit. To be without history means you’re not responsible and can sort of do what you want. Well, from my standpoint, as a descendent of slaves, I don’t want to be that disconnected with that history, because people tried to erase it, and we spent all that time getting it back. But I want to be able to abandon it when necessary, to reach these other places that I want to go.”

Lewis began to parse Abrams’ comment about organizing sound. “You have to organize the sound that’s coming in, not just the sound that’s going out,” he said. “In fact, organizing the sound that’s coming in is more important, because what we’re organizing is not just how it’s going to fit technically, but more importantly, what it means, the organizing perspectives on the sounds, what the sound is really saying to us. That can also change—something we remember later in the piece can bring up a consequence we hadn’t considered when the sound came up. So call-and-response is a problem. I want to have call without response. The idea that we’re not stuck in that kind of motion, but are free to challenge even that so-called fundamental wisdom with a fundamental investigation-exploration, and find what we find. You may find situations where call-and-response is an inappropriate methodology, and prepare to take the consequences.”

“I consider each day different; each person is different every day,” Mitchell remarked over the phone, illuminating this issue. “Today I might touch on a sound timbre, tomorrow a rhythmic situation. I hear something and think, ‘Percussion with this,’ start with the idea, and move to what I need to do. It’s instant theme-and-variation. But there are so many levels of improvisation. You don’t want to follow or copy someone. One thing you can do, if you hear something you want to extend, is not use it until another time. Then you avoid the heaviness that happens when someone follows in an improvisation, and maintain your individualism. I tend to fare better if I keep refreshing my mind and go with that flow.”

[BREAK]

“I didn’t teach them how to be themselves, and I didn’t create a situation that caused them to be themselves,” Abrams said of his distinguished progeny. “I helped inspire other people to be themselves from my example: ‘I am going to be myself, and you have the opportunity to be yourself.’

Still, there remains the question of how Abrams, the autodidact, came to pass along his own non-didactic ethos of informed individuality. “There were two older musicians in particular from whom I learned quite a bit—Walter ‘King’ Fleming and William Jackson,” he said. “In  mainstream music, they taught me and allowed me to pursue my ideas, mistakes and all, and it caused me to grow and to eliminate the mistakes. Their kindness and benevolence infused me with that feeling. They brought out what I had. I passed on that continuum when I got to the Experimental Band or AACM situations. All of us created the atmosphere that was created. I realize that some of the musicians feel that this wasn’t the case, that it was me—and that’s OK. I was the first observer. I saw them when they didn’t see themselves. They did it.”

“This is not something you get for free,” Lewis said. “The dynamic does not appear without resistance. At a certain point you get the inspiration, you start to become yourself, and other people say, ‘What the devil are you doing?’ Then you realize that people are still doing it in the face of potential consequences, and that’s the real inspiration.” DB

* * *

Muhal Richard Abrams in Jazziz (2010):

At noon on a warm June day, pianist-composer Muhal Richard Abrams, who turns 81 in December, escorted me  up the stairwell of his midtown highrise to a second floor roof garden for a chat about core principles. “The fact and idea of individualism is important to talk about,” the 2010 NEA Jazz Master and DownBeat Hall of Fame awardee said. “I also want to talk about life and sound.”

Having stated the ground rules, Abrams settled in under a shady pergola. He preferred not to discuss the particulars of his new recording, SoundDance [Pi], a double CD that documents an  improvised encounter from 2009 with the late Chicago tenorist Fred Anderson, and one from 2010 with trombonist-electronicist George Lewis. Instead, Abrams went straight to metaphysics.

“Individualism is a basic constant among humans—and animals, too,” he said. “Each person approaches a situation quite differently, which lets other individuals know it can be said or done that way. I’m not talking about a process of copying anyone. It’s the fact that we learn from each other because of our individualism.”

He warmed to the topic. “To seek one’s individualism seems to be limitless. There’s so much one can pursue.” He called the names of Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Bud Powell, William Grant Still, Beethoven, Chopin, John Coltrane, and Charlie Parker. “Their pursuit of individualism—not their IDEAS—inspired me greatly to pursue my own.”

Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, his home until 1977, Abrams, a sports-oriented youngster who knew a thing or two about the street, was 16 when he decided to drop out of DuSable High School and enroll in music classes at Roosevelt University. After a while, he decided to study on his own. “I don’t know why, but I’ve always had a natural ability to study and analyze things,” he told me a few years ago. “I used that ability, not even knowing what it was (it was just a feeling), and started to read books. From there, I acquired a small spinet piano, and started to teach myself to play the instrument and read the notes—or, first of all, what key the music was in. It took time and a lot of sweat. But I analyzed it, and before long I was playing with the musicians on the scene. Later I got scores and studied more extensive things that take place in classical composition, and started to practice classical pieces on the piano, as I do now.”

As the ‘50s progressed, Abrams trained himself to fluency with Joseph Schillinger’s mathematically-based compositional formulas and analyzed Rosicrucian arcana; some years later, he assimilated several programming languages. The fruits of his determination to follow his own muse are by now well-known. For one thing, there’s his uncategorizable corpus, perhaps half of it publicly documented on some thirty recordings. Ensembles ranging from quartet to big band interpret elemental blues themes, hard-hitting postbop structures with winding melodies, textural soundscapes, and experimental collage pieces that address text, silence, and space; tabula rasa improvisations share pride of place with fully-scored symphonic works, string quartets, saxophone quartets, solo and duo piano music, and electronica.

Of equal consequence is Abrams’ primary role in embedding his principles within the bylaws and aesthetic guideposts of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a collective that coalesced in 1965. Within the AACM setup, he mentored, among others, such singular composer-instrumentalist-improvisers as Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph  Jarman, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, Leroy Jenkins, and Lewis during their formative years. He focused his pedagogy on creating an infrastructure that offered to each individual an opportunity to critically analyze ideas from a global array of sources and refract them into original music, performed by ensembles comprised of AACM personnel in AACM-promoted concerts.

“During the week, we’d all show up at Muhal’s place,” Mitchell told me in a 1995 WKCR interview. “We studied music, art, poetry, whatever. It was a school. Muhal would be bothered with us for that whole week, and still come to the rehearsal on Monday with a composition for the big band.”

Abrams’ partners on SoundDance are more than passingly familiar with these principles, which manifest in different ways. An AACM member from 1965 until his death in 2010, Anderson customarily recorded trios and quartets in which he blew long, clarion lines over fast, rumbling grooves. In the first moments of their conversation, Abrams is sensitive to the outcat tenorist’s tentative, softly stated postulations as he attempts to orient himself to the wide open space. He presents ideas, listens as Anderson utters his own, [and] negotiates common ground via subtle sonic cues until, at a certain point, as if to offer a mnemonic signifier, he plays a hammering rhythmic figure, eliciting Anderson’s confident trademark roar, which remains operative for the duration.

The latter duo—which Abrams opens with variations on a four-note figure that begins in high treble range and concludes in the deep bass register, Lewis riposting with electronic tones—is epigrammatic and staggeringly erudite. Now the Edwin Case Professor of Music at Columbia University and author of A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music, and himself a paradigm-shifter both in reshaping the sonic possibilities of the trombone and in creating software that improvises in real time, Lewis—then 19—met Abrams in Chicago in 1971. Thirty-nine years later, he and his mentor transition from one concept to the next—the range spans stride piano to post-Stockhausen—without a blink, as though two 18th century  philosophes were conducting a 45-minute colloquy on the sum total of human knowledge.

I asked whether Abrams’ shared background with Anderson and Lewis in any way inflected the music.

“No,” he responded bluntly. “The sound of that document had to do with what we did in that moment only. There is no shared background that comes to the stage when you’re performing. It’s the individual’s background. Each individual brings his or her path in to collaborate with the other individual’s path, and makes the choice as to how they contribute to the improvised space. That’s it. There’s nothing to reach for in the past or any place else.

“I listen to all kinds of music all the time. I practice all kinds of music, every day. I practice here”—he pointed to his head—“and here”—he unfurled his long, tapered fingers, each vertically imprinted from fifty-five years of incessant practice. “I write all kinds of music. So when I go to improvise, it’s just a continuum of how I feel in general through listening to all these things. I’m endeavoring to be continuously musical in the pursuit of organizing sound until I stop the improvisation.”

Lewis noted that Abrams’ ability to execute any idea he wants at any time, and to react to anything that anybody can throw at him, poses certain singular challenges. “In most cases, I feel that when people make the sound, their inner lives become an open book,” he said. “You read the mind through sound, or sonic gesture. I’ve never been able to do that with Muhal. Somehow, there’s a certain opacity. I’m not a big believer in pure spontaneity, but with maybe with Muhal you have to think differently about that. With him, you really shouldn’t rely on previous encounters, or make assumptions about what should happen, or about style, or method, or technique, or sound—not least because I think that Muhal is very good at detecting people who do that, and the banana peels will start coming thick and fast. You have to find your way moment by moment through an infinity of possibilities, before a path suddenly appears that you have to follow. If that path doesn’t happen to be the one you preferred, you have to make do. A lot of what goes on in improvisation, musical or otherwise, is a process of making-do, trying to work with and take a stance to the conditions you find, which are whatever sounds the other person is generating at that moment—pitch, timbre, a sense of the rhythm, the rate of change. It’s very prosaic.”

However prosaic the process of creative gestation, these instantiations of Abrams’ musical imagination are never dry or wooden. For one thing, even at 80, he accesses his immense database of sonic information with pentium quickness in the heat of battle. There’s his mastery of the universal laws of rhythm, which “he hears and then allows his harmonic style to infiltrate,” as Jason Moran wrote for http://www.jazz.com two years ago in a piece citing a dozen favorite Abrams tracks. He pulls his voice from the piano with an arsenal of attacks that span whisper to thunderstorm, infusing highbrow concepts with a blues sensibility developed in early career as a Chicago first-caller.

“Chicago was a blues town, so we all could play the blues real well,” Abrams says. “Playing the blues and playing jazz used to be one and the same; later, people separated the music into some that can sell and some that can’t. To say jazz is a deep part of who I am is fine. But not to say, ‘Well, he can play changes, so he’s all right. Not as a reference for the young people today who are doing all kinds of things, but don’t know anything about the mix I’ve been playing—they’d be confronted with something that might obstruct their approach.”

Abrams probably wasn’t referring to present-day movers-and-shakers like Moran, Vijay Iyer, and Steve Coleman, who regard him as a deep influence figure on their respective paths. In a long conversation about Abrams’ qualities, Coleman, himself a Chicagoan, noted Abrams’ penchant for rotating between the “inside” and “outside” factions of the South Side music community.

“Muhal played with cats like Johnny Griffin and Von Freeman, who you couldn’t get up on stage with if you didn’t know a certain amount of information from the tradition,” he says. “It impressed me that he had a wide-open concept that included cats from strong blues and R&B backgrounds who didn’t go through that tradition, some guys who initially couldn’t play anything. He didn’t impose those strictures on anyone. Muhal was like, if you’re sincere, and you have a burning desire, then we’re open to your coming in and experimenting. It wasn’t some shit like, ‘We want you to come in here and be a joke.’ But all these different backgrounds were able to come together and try to develop a common thing on which they could communicate. That involved a tolerance that I found interesting.

“Muhal has a Yoda quality, a sage kind of thing. You’re struck right away that this is an incredibly wise cat, whose breadth of knowledge goes way back. But he doesn’t lord it over you or come on egotistical or try to sell you something. I think people’s respect for him comes from that standpoint. Muhal can discourse with you about anything you want to talk about—esoteric stuff, whatever. Talk about walking down a street with somebody, and he can tell you how this relates to music.  He told me stories about being in Washington Park when he was a little kid, listening to elders debate all this metaphysical stuff; they’d pass the stick, and whoever had the stick would talk. Muhal grappled with these things early in his career, and thought deeply about them. He sees them all as connected. I can see why the AACM concept came up with him, because his playing has an unusually broad palette.”

Both Lewis and Coleman are clear that Abrams’ primary legacy will be situated not so much in the specifics of his musical production as the example he sets by it. “There are different kinds of ethos embedded in what people do,” Lewis says. “For some, it’s amazement at what they’re doing, how intricate and virtuosic it is. I don’t come away from a Muhal performance thinking about any of that. I come away thinking, ‘Boy, this certainly gives me a lot of work to do.’ Just when I thought I’d figured it out, there’s another facet of the puzzle which Muhal has brought out without pretending to solve the puzzle. It’s the confrontation with the puzzle which he encourages and exemplifies in his work—the puzzle of creativity, the puzzle of creation.”

That Abrams himself anticipates his ninth decade with a similar spirit can be inferred from his response to a hypothetical proposition that he play a ten-day retrospective of his oeuvre. “I probably wouldn’t do that,” he said. “I’m not interested in repetition. It’s not that I don’t like it. I use repetition, but in different ways. I’m interested in creating a new event that’s just right for the occasion that comes up. When I say ‘right for the occasion,’ I mean designing something that’s special for how I want to be musical at the time. That’s my focus.”
[–30–]

Five Muhal Richard Abrams Recordings:

Muhal Richard Abrams’ discography is so remarkably consistent that it’s complex to pick just five. On July 9, 2011, these seem like the ones to emphasize.

Sight Song (Black Saint, 1975): In duo with bassist Malachi Favors of Art Ensemble of Chicago fame, Abrams offers idiomatic, swinging meditations on ‘50s South Side associates Wilbur Ware and Johnny Griffin, before  proceeding to push the envelope every which way.

Lifea Blinec (Arista, 1978) A two-woodwind (Joseph Jarman and Douglas Ewart), two-piano (Abrams and Amina Claudine Myers), and drums (Thurman Barker) session that addresses the leader’s preoccupations with a cohesion and precision that anticipates such ‘80s signposts as Colors In Thirty-Third and View From Within.
Hearinga Suite (Black Saint, 1989): Hard to choose amongst Abrams’ big band recordings, which also include the Black Saint dates Blues Forever, Rejoicing With the Light, and Blu Blu Blu. At this moment I’m impressed with the unitary, narrative quality of this impeccably executed, seven-piece suite, which has a 21st century Ellington feel.

One Line Two Views (New World, 1995): On this masterwork, which opens with a soundscape and concludes with a blues figure, Abrams fully exploits the tonal and rhythmic possibilities of a tentet that includes violin (Mark Feldman), accordion (Tony Cedras), harp (Anne LeBaron), and an array of woodwinds and percussion.

Vision Towards Essence (Pi, 2008): A transcendent hour-long improvisation on which Abrams evokes the inner self. He traverses a 360-degree dynamic range, conjuring a stream of thematic ideas that don’t repeat.

* * *

Muhal Richard Abrams article in All About Jazz (2007):

 

At a certain point in the mid-‘60s—the exact date escapes him—pianist-composer Muhal Richard Abrams, a lifelong resident of the South Side of Chicago, visited New York for the first time, on a gig with saxophonist Eddie Harris at Harlem’s Club Barron.

“New York suited my energy,” Abrams recalled recently. “Of course. But I was already in that sort of energy. I had no doubt that I could be in New York. No doubt at all.”

Doubt seems to be a concept foreign to Abrams, 76, who moved to New York permanently in 1975. In 1983, he established the New York chapter of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, commonly known as the AACM, which launches its 24th concert season on May 11 with a recital featuring Abrams’ quartet (Aaron Stewart, saxophone; Brad Jones, bass; Tyshawn Sorey, drums) and a duo by Abrams with guitarist Brandon Ross at the Community of New York at 40 East 35th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues.

The institutional pre-history of the AACM began in 1961, when Abrams and Harris joined a West Side trumpeter named Johnny Hines to organize an orchestra where local musicians could workshop their charts. By Harris’ recollection, over one hundred musicians of various ages and skill levels attended. Although it disbanded within a few months, Abrams decided to begin another orchestra, which he called the Experimental Band. He recruited younger musicians like Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman, who were interested, as Abrams puts it, “in more original approaches to composing and performing music.” Over the next few years, musicians such as Malachi Favors, Leroy Jenkins, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, and Kalaparusha entered the mix to participate in the adventure. A certain momentum developed with the Experimental Band as the nucleus, and in 1965, Abrams, fellow pianist Jodie Christian, trumpeter Phil Cohran, and drummer Steve McCall convened a meeting towards the purpose of forming a new musicians organization devoted to the production of original music with a collective spirit. Thus, the AACM was launched.

Under the AACM’s auspices, Abrams mentored composer-instrumentalist-improvisers like Mitchell, Jarman, Braxton, Smith, Henry Threadgill and George Lewis in their nascent years. He also spawned an infrastructure within which each individual had autonomy to assimilate and process an enormous body of music from a broad spectrum of sources in a critical manner, and gave them manpower with whom to workshop and develop their ideas while evolving their respective voices.

The AACM first hit New York in May 1970, when cultural activist Kunle Mwanga produced a concert at the Washington Square Methodist Church with Leroy Jenkins and Anthony Braxton, who had relocated from Chicago three months earlier, their AACM mates Abrams, Smith and McCall, and bassist Richard Davis, also a South Sider. At the time, Abrams had recorded two albums of his own music—Levels and Degrees of Light and Young At Heart, Wise In Time—on the Chicago-based Delmark label. Added to the mix by 1975 were Things To Come From Those Now Gone (Delmark), and Afrisong [Trio], the latter a lyric solo piano date. Once settled in New York, however, Abrams would record prolifically for the next two decades, with 16 albums on Black Saint, in addition to two dates for Novus, two for New World Countercurrents, and one for UMO. You can’t pigeonhole his interests—in Abrams’ singular universe, elemental blues themes and warp speed postbop structures with challenging intervals coexist comfortably with fully-scored symphonic works, string quartets, saxophone quartets, solo and duo piano music, and speech-sound collage structures.

Abrams resists the idea that location factors into the content that emerges from his creative process. “What affected my output is the opportunity to record,” he says. “In Chicago, if an opportunity presented itself, I created something for the occasion. When I got here, there was no difference. I am always composing and practicing for myself. Actually, it’s more like studying than composing; I research and seek and analyze music—or sound, rather, because sound precedes music itself—and things come up. When a recording or something else comes along, I put some of those things together, and it becomes a recording. Of course, in New York, I’m hearing more around me, but it doesn’t make me process things any differently. I’m still dealing with my individualism.”

The notion of following one’s own muse at whatever cost was embedded in South Side culture during the years after World War Two, when African-Americans were migrating en masse from Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama to Chicago for factory, railroad and stockyard jobs. As Harris told me on a WKCR interview in 1994: “In Chicago, you could hear Gene Ammons in one club, Budd Johnson in another, or Tom Archia or Dick Davis—just speaking of the saxophone. Then there were all sorts of piano players that were really…different.  You’d go to one club, and the guy didn’t sound a little different from the guy down the street. It was totally different.”

“You were expected to do whatever it is that you felt you wanted to do, and nobody said a word,” Abrams says of the ethos of the South Side’s world-class musician pool. “The jam sessions were like that. We played bebop and kept up with the geniuses like Bird. and them. But I was never that interested in copying something and then using it for myself. I was interested in copying it in order to analyze it. Then I would decide how I would use or do that same thing. Chicago was full of musicians who distinguished themselves as individuals.”

As an example he cites pianist John Young, best known outside Chicago for his work with tenorist Von Freeman, and a prominent stylist since the 1940s. “When you listen to John, you hear remnants of Fatha Hines,” Abrams notes, leaving unsaid Hines’ presence in Chicago from 1926 until the late ‘40s. “He was very influenced by Fatha Hines, but John  had his own way. We were impressed with the individualism from him, Ahmad Jamal, Von Freeman, Chris Anderson,  Johnny Griffin, Ike Day and Sun Ra and the Orchestra. People wonder how an AACM could develop in a city like that. It’s because you could do individual things, and nobody bothered you.”

Abrams himself is a self-taught pianist and composer. “I used to play sports, but for some reason, whenever I’d hear musicians perform, I had to stop to listen,” he recalls. “It fascinated me, and one day I decided that I wanted to be a musician. So I took off and started to seek out information about how to play the piano.”

Although Abrams attended DuSable High School, where the legendarily stern band director Walter Dyett held sway, he preferred sports to participating in school-sponsored music programs. But by 1946, he decided to enroll in music classes at Roosevelt University in the Loop. “I didn’t get too much out of that, because it wasn’t what I was hearing in the street,” he says. “I decided to study on my own. I don’t know why, but I’ve always had a natural ability to study and analyze things. I used that ability, not even knowing what it was (it was just a feeling), and started to read books. From there, I acquired a small spinet piano, and started to teach myself how to play the instrument and read the notes—or, first of all, what key the music was in. It took time and a lot of sweat. But I analyzed it, and before long I was playing with the musicians on the scene. I listened to Tatum, Charlie Parker, Monk, Bud Powell and many others, and concentrated on Duke and Fletcher Henderson for composition. Later I got scores and studied more extensive things that take place in classical composition, and started to practice classical pieces on the piano, as I do now.”

Abrams documents all his New York performances. Still, the decade between 1996 and last year’s issue of Streaming [Pi], a compelling triologue between Abrams, Lewis and Mitchell, shows only one, self-released, issue under Abrams’ name. As of this writing, no releases were scheduled for 2007.

“That’s okay,” Abrams says. “I think things that are supposed to reach the public, eventually will. I understand that people want to be able to hear whatever is happening at any given time. However, the recording industry has ways that it does things, and sometimes this may not be consistent with what the musician wants to do. Business has a right to be whatever it is, and the artist has a right to be whatever the artist wants to be. I also think the fact that musicians can do these things themselves today because of technology causes output to come out a little bit slower. But the quality is pretty much equal, often higher, than it used to be, because the musician can spend more time preparing the output. It’s important for people to hear what I do, but the first point of importance is my being healthy enough to do it. I don’t worry about whether it gets distributed right away.

“I always felt that you need to be about the work you need to do, and that’s to find out about yourself. That’s pretty much a full-time job. You pay close attention to others, but the work that you have to do for yourself is the most difficult. I seem to move forward every time I reflect on the fact that I don’t know enough. If you feel you have something, it’s very important to get that out and develop it. Health is first. But your individualism I think is a close second.”

1 Comment

Filed under AACM, Article, DownBeat, Jazziz, Muhal Richard Abrams, Steve Coleman

For Wayne Shorter’s 81st Birthday, A Brief Conversation About Blue Note Records and a Link to a 2002 Feature In Jazziz

A bit of grandmaster Wayne Shorter’s flavor comes through in this brief conversation we had in 2008 for a DownBeat piece in which several dozen musicians talked about their favorite Blue Note recording. I’ve appended it below in recognition of his 81st birthday, and linked as well to a post from three years containing a feature piece I wrote about Mr. Shorter for Jazziz in 2002.

* * *

Wayne Shorter on Favorite Blue Note Recording (Nov. 12, 2008):

WS:   You know like Duke Ellington said what was his favorite composition? The next one. Everything that happened is a work in progress, and that makes it great in itself. But favorites? That’s a controlled selling-marketing thing. It’s time to change just even the way life is perceived, so I’m starting right here. You can put that in. Downbeat can be one of the forerunners in changing how music and everything is perceived.

TP:   I wouldn’t disagree. But I’m wondering if , as a teenager, in your formative years, you were into Monk’s records on Blue Note as they were coming out, or Bud Powell’s records, or Miles Davis’ records.

WS:   I’ll just put it this way. More than…actually, not more than the records… Two guys, Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff, started Blue Note, and they had the perception and the kind of vision to stick to their guns—as Monk would say, stick to your guns. They stuck with something that was almost doomed to be like the low man on the totem pole or the marketplace, or even some people wishing it would fail. But I would say that you don’t have that kind of dedication… I don’t think they set out to be billionaires. But who is like that now? This is the 70th anniversary of Blue Note, and to capture that, who is like Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff, the creators of that record label, and the musicians who created all that stuff then… It doesn’t have to sound like it did then, but who has… I think Downbeat would be well-advised to have their searchlight on who’s the Lone Ranger? Who’s sticking their neck way out there, in the middle of a falling economy and everything like that? The 75th anniversary in this falling economy is the time to create. That’s what I would celebrate for 75 years.

Whatever the music that was done on the Blue Note label expressed the challenge of doing this, the challenge of change. The only constant is change, so to speak. Without naming them all, all those artists that they had…I mean, they weren’t doing “Sunny Side of the Street.” They were not doing the hit stuff, the comfort zone stuff.

TP:   No, they were doing original music.

WS:   Yes. I think Blue Note probably had their finger on something, that you need that kind of resistance in the marketplace, that overwhelming resistance to commercial stuff to be used as fuel. It takes resistance for an airplane to take off. So we can thank the Madison Avenue marketing machine for all of the fights that they put up against originality.

TP:   Did you listen to, say, the Monk records on Blue Notes or the Bud Powell records when you were a teenager?

WS:   I listened to Monk before he was on Blue Note. I didn’t get into music until I was about 15, and I heard mostly on the radio… Some of that music was probably on Dial or Savoy, Charlie Parker and all that. I was listening to a show called New Ideas in Music… I know you want to pinpoint this to Blue Note.

TP:   Well, that’s what the article is about. But I’m all ears.

WS:   Not even being in music, I was listening to Art Tatum. I was listening to Shostakovich, all the classical people—New Ideas In Music, every Sunday it came on. I heard Toscanini do his last performance, where he put the baton down and said “goodbye” to the audience on the radio. Later on, I was checking out the music that was on Blue Note, what inspired the musicians, like, when they went to the movies—some of them talked about it. John Coltrane was on Blue Note for a minute. I know he went to the movies.  Charlie Parker wasn’t on Blue Note. But Blue Note or not, these musicians saw things in life that really escape us now, and I think Blue Note managed to capture a lot of the things that they saw in life. I think that Blue Note was a way of providing not just a musical voice, but a voice of what these guys wrote about, like Horace Silver. He wrote about things. Some song called “Room 608,” someplace, somewhere he had to stay, where he couldn’t pay the rent—stayed in a hoity-toity place. The wrote about and played about those things. If you just look at a lot of the song titles, and shuffled them, like put them in a puzzle, you’d probably get a sentence-tized story. You’d get a paragraph from a lot of the titles. You could spend all day doing that. [LAUGHS] All those titles, it becomes its own lyric. For me, it’s like gathering all of the things that have gone hither and thither and pulling them into a place where you can see what the celebration means of 75 years.

TP: It’s 70 years of Blue Note and 75 of Downbeat, which is a long time.

WS:   Yeah, I guess Downbeat was a voice for things people talk about that you couldn’t get. You won’t get this in the Enquirer. Pre-Internet, you could put Downbeat in that category. If you look up Downbeat on the Internet, you can say… It makes sense.

My job still, in jazz or what we call the creative process, is to break through the very mandates that they want in celebrating the 75 years of this and that, Downbeat and Blue Note. Someone has to break through that, too. That still has to be a creative process, even if you have to come out legless! Send me to the hospital with the veterans. I’m not being facetious. I’m just saying at this point, a lot of us are, symbolically…we can’t run around and jump around like a lot of the young guys do. So we take it like this. We have nothing to lose. Let’s have some fun, man! I’m taking the solemness out of it…the anniversary!

TP:   I hope this will not have been a waste of your time.

WS:   No! Hey, man, communication is important. Even the most difficult areas of communication is a challenge. Life is so complex, and life should be complex.

I’ll see you in the movies. The movie of your life, where you’re the producer, director and actor, describing your own destiny. We need you guys to write more novels…

TS:   We need more everything.

WS:   Yeah, we need it, man. Won’t you join?

[END OF CONVERSATION]

Leave a comment

Filed under Article, DownBeat, Interview, Jazziz, Wayne Shorter