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For Uri Caine’s 60th Birthday, an Uncut Downbeat Blindfold Test from 2004 and a Downbeat Feature Article from 2001, plus Interviews for that Article

For the 60th birthday of pianist Uri Caine, I’m posting an uncut DownBeat Blindfold Test from 2004, the final draft (not sure if it’s verbatim of what made it to print) of a 2001 DownBeat feature, and the interviews conducted for that feature with Mickey Roker, Cornell Rochester, John Swana, Dave  Douglas, Stefan Winter and DJ Olive.

 

Uri Caine Blindfold Test (2004):

1. Chick Corea, “Bessie’s Blues” (from RENDEZVOUS IN NEW YORK, Stretch, 2003) (Corea, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Dave Weckl, drums) (5 stars)

It’s “Bessie’s Blues” and it’s Chick Corea playing with Roy Haynes. Oh, no, let me listen. It sounds like he’s playing a lot coming out of Chick Corea, but it’s definitely not Roy Haynes. Maybe it’s the newer group with Avishai and Jeff Ballard — if it is Chick. I’m enjoying the performance. It’s swinging… I’m thinking of it two ways. If it is Chick, he’s playing a lot of stuff that’s new. Some of the runs are definitely different. But the thing about his playing which is great is the buoyancy, the lines, the way they keep on coming. There’s a lot of rhythmic energy; it’s swinging. He’s playing a lot of interesting substitutions on the chord changes of the blues. It’s a famous Coltrane blues from “Crescent” and a really famous McCoy Tyner solo, so in other words, it’s one of those things where… It’s exciting, the way he’s playing, and I always love the incisiveness of how Chick Corea plays and the rhythmic energy of it. The trio is strong. They’re great musicians. The bassist sounds like John Patitucci. I say that because of the way he’s playing those high ideas, and there’s a certain rhythmic attack which he has. I like the drummer. One thing I will say is that I love the way Roy Haynes plays with Chick Corea, because he puts it right up in that area where Chick’s stuff sounds so ebullient. But I’m not sure who the drummer is. He sounds good, though. I like the way Chick is trading fours, too. [AFTER] Wow! Because I never really checked Dave Weckl out so much as a straight-ahead drummer. 5 stars because it’s Chick Corea. I feel like some of the pianists got alot of stuff from hearing Chick’s music. So in a way, this is a continuation of a lot of the great music he’s done from “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs,” especially in the trio vein. Those records are very important.

2. Pete Malinverni, “Elegy” (from AUTUMN IN NEW YORK, Reservoir, 2002) (Malinverni, piano, composer; Dennis Irwin, bass; Leroy Williams, drums) (4 stars)

That’s a hard one to guess. The composition seemed almost derived from a classical type of progression. I thought it was nice the way the pianist, the right hand especially, was playing some really nice things. In contrast to Chick, for instance, the rhythm was a lot more on the beat. The drummer is playing pretty much on the beat. Even the pianist’s left hand, a lot of the time, is playing very much on the beat. I would guess from that that it’s probably an older style, or a younger person imitating an older style, which many people do, too. In terms of who it might be? Oy!! I could get somebody from the Hank Jones-Tommy Flanagan-John Lewis type of vibe. I didn’t really hear enough to be able to identify somebody, but stylistically I would say that it’s coming out of those types of pianists. There’s a certain restraint in it that’s very nice, and also rhythmically it’s sort of staying more within than, say, the way Chick starts his phrases at the end, or even when Chick is trading he doesn’t stay so much in the rhythmic grid. But I enjoyed it. There was an elegance to the way whoever it was, was playing. I liked the composition. That sort of composition is hard to play on, because the type of chords he was using are…it’s one thing when you have a composition based on that, but when you actually have to solo on it, it’s a harder thing. There’s a certain…what’s the word when something is foreordained…when there’s a certain progression that’s happening… I don’t know who it is. 4 stars. [AFTER] They’re great players. I’ve played with Dennis Irwin, and I love playing with him. He gives a lot to the music when he plays, and he’s also a total Mahler fanatic. I’ve spent entire evenings talking to him. We have this connection beyond having played together. I wouldn’t say he really got a chance to play his stuff on that track, but he’s a great player.

3. Geoffrey Keezer-Mulgrew Miller, “Alpha” (from SUBLIME: HONORING THE MUSIC OF HANK JONES, Telarc, 2002) (Keezer, Miller, piano; Hank Jones, composer)

It sounded like two pianists. If it was one pianist, it would be Art Tatum. Again, it could be several people. Playing together that way is hard, and the pianists had really good time. I like the way they accompanied each other. They weren’t always walking. Sometimes they were breaking up the time, sometimes they were letting open space happen, other times they were trying to sort of walk the left hand. It had a good feel to it, a good swing to it. Stylistically, I would put it somewhere coming out of pianists like Mulgrew Miller or Kenny Barron rather than somebody playing more outside. They’re playing really within changes. But there was a lot of creativity in how they were playing. It’s hard to guess who it would be. I’m trying to think of duet records. 4-1/2 stars. [AFTER] Keezer had a nice idea with this record. I used to hear Geoff Keezer more. He has an awesome technique. And I love Mulgrew. He has so much swing, and a lot of harmonic sophistication, and good time. I was thinking of him, especially in those runs, when he’s filling up the space. It had his signature.

4. Chano Dominguez, “Cilantro y Comino” (from HECHO A MANO, Sunnyside, 2002) (Dominguez, piano; Javier Colina, bass; Guillermo McGuill, drums; Tino di Geraldo, percussion; Joaquin Grilo, Juan Diego, Lorenzo Virseda, clapping) (5 stars)

I like this very much. It’s definitely a marriage of flamenco music — flamenco harmony and melody and definitely rhythm — and a Jazz-Latin vibe. You can tell the soloist is familiar with both of those words. I really like playing against that percussion, the clapping. My guess would be the guy from Spain who played with Wynton… I don’t remember his name. Actually, I heard him play at a festival in Spain. I like a lot of people who are bringing those types of rhythms in, where you can go back between 2 and 3 rhythmically. Those types of polyrhythms sound great. The pianist sounds like a combination of coming out of Chick Corea but trying to be more folkloristic about it in dealing with the flamenco part, which I like. So 5 stars. I don’t know the other players, but I’m assuming it’s the same group I saw him with.

5. Roland Hanna, “One For Gustav (Adagietto)” (from APRES UN REVE, Venus, 2002) (Hanna, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Grady Tate, drums; Antonin Dvorak, composer) (3-1/2 stars)

It’s the Adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. He or she played the beginning of… In the first part of the piece, the improvisations were really not on the harmony. They were just alternating on two chords. When people take a piece like that and sort of “jazz it up”… I think whoever was doing it was trying to do it in the style of a jazz ballad. I’m not sure that they got the drama of that music, in a way. There’s a sort of pseudo cocktail vibe to it. Although it was well done. The pianist is good, had a very good touch, and the group is playing together. In a way, I would want more from doing that, because to me, the point of taking these pieces is to bring something else to it, even if you’re going to play it fairly straight, that the improvisation should propel the piece forward. I was looking for more of that. But it was well-done. I don’t know who it is. 3-1/2 stars. [AFTER] Roland Hanna is a great pianist. I think that a lot of… [Does the function have anything to do with the aesthetic?] Well, I was going to say that. Again, there’s many ways to do it, so this isn’t in any sense a criticism. It’s just more a sense that I guess if you’re going to take a lot of his music and try to transform it through improvisation, there’s intense ways to do it. Roland Hanna was a great pianist, and I used to go hear Roland Hanna all the time play with Thad Jones, a really long time ago when I would first come up to New York from Philly to hear the band play, and I’d sit right up next to him. I consider him a great pianist who was a master of many styles, and also a real gentleman. So maybe it’s the idea of a theme record, where they’re suggesting to somebody that they take these pieces and play them. In that sense, it’s okay. But even then, I would rather hear Roland Hanna play his real thing, which I didn’t.

6. Bobby Few, “Continental Jazz Express, Reprise” (from CONTINENTAL JAZZ EXPRESS, Boxholder, 2002) (Few, piano, composer) (4-1/2 stars)

A very powerful pianist, influenced a lot, if it’s not Cecil Taylor, by Cecil Taylor, especially the types of left-hand flurries. The harmony doesn’t totally sound like Cecil Taylor, but if it’s not him, it’s somebody who’s listened a lot to him, especially the way he moves around, those types of two-handed figurations that go up and down, these ostinatos that start and stop and then move back. If not him, I’d guess somebody like Marilyn Crispell, or maybe Matthew Shipp — although it could be many people. In a sense, some of it almost sounds like a cross between certain classical composers, the figuration and sort of a Cecil vibe. But in a way, it doesn’t really sound like…there are certain things that don’t sound like Cecil, so… Like, now it doesn’t sound like Cecil. To me, it’s a challenge to play this way. The ending is very different than everything that came before it. I was very surprised by that ending, because in a way, it sort of went into a very tonal bebop type of ending. But it’s a different challenge to play this type of music than it is to play on changes, because in a certain way, you have to keep things moving and harmonically interesting without the benefit of having types of chord changes. But I enjoy this type of music very much. So I would give it 4-1/2 stars. [AFTER] Wow. I should be more familiar with Bobby Few’s work. That was strong. I need to check him out more.

7. Hilton Ruiz, “Black Narcissus” (from ENCHANTMENT, Arabesque, 2003) (Ruiz, piano; Joe Henderson, composer)

This is a Joe Henderson song called “Black Narcissus.” It’s a beautiful song. It’s very hard to play. Again, it could be many people. Maybe somebody like John Hicks. Just because of the style of the runs. He or she is keeping a rhythmic pulse going in the left hand to accompany. That’s another thing that’s hard to do when you’re playing a song like this without a rhythm section. You have to keep that thing moving. I’m hearing the pianist move in between playing in time and a more rubato type of feel, where the time is a little bit freer, which is nice. There’s also the attack. It’s a harder sound rather than a softer sound. But dynamically, it’s working, because they built up to a solo, and now they come back to the head and it’s more gentle, slower. I like the performance. Maybe it’s Joanne Brackeen. I know she played with Joe. But it is a certain maybe New York style of really digging in and playing. I wish I knew who it was. 4 stars. [AFTER] Hilton! Another pianist I’ve been hearing ever since I moved to New York, and usually not in this sort of context. Usually with his group. I love the song. Joe Henderson is a great composer, and it’s a challenge to play on tunes like that. They’re deceptively simple, but they were really vehicles for the type of floating improvisation that combines so many different styles, from the blues to outness, with very advanced harmony, very inside harmony. It’s a great tune.

8. Classical Jazz Quartet, “Invention #4” (from THE CLASSICAL JAZZ QUARTET PLAYS BACH, Fine Tune, 2002) (Kenny Barron, piano; Stefon Harris, vibraphone; Ron Carter, bass; Lewis Nash, drums) (5 stars)

It’s Bach’s Two-Part Invention in D-Minor. I’d guess the pianist is Kenny Barron. Especially his right hand is very…the timing is beautiful, the touch is very beautiful. It’s very light compared to the Bobby Few take, for instance. And it’s very well-suited for playing Bach. I would also say that unlike the other piece of Mahler, where you’re taking the piece but not necessarily adding to it, here I think that they are sort of using the harmony. Bach also lends himself to this very much, these type of circular harmonic patterns that are really satisfying to improvise on. So this feels like it’s moving forward in a better way. There’s a good contrast between how they’re soloing on it that sounds real, rather than sort of, “All right, now we’re going to take a little solo after we play this whole classical piece.” So in that sense, I think there is a better integration between the soloing and the piece. I like this middle section when they do that sort of minimalist thing, and then it breaks, and then they’re sort of vamping, and then they go back to the Bach. The arrangement of the piece is nice. And I really can’t say enough about Kenny Barron. Again, another pianist who, ever since I moved to New York, I’d make it my business to go see him play at Bradley’s. I’ve gotten to know him. He’s seen a lot and heard a lot, and he’s also from Philly. 5 stars. [AFTER] Let me say that Stefon Harris sounded great on that. That was a nice arrangement.

9. Orrin Evans, “Some Other Blues” (from BLESSED ONES, Criss-Cross, 2001) (Evans, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Edgar Bateman, drums)

It’s a blues by John Coltrane. There’s a looseness in the way they’re playing which is sort of different, let’s say, than some of the other pieces you played. I like the way that the pianist is touching on different styles, however briefly. There’s a mixture of sort of a bebop vibe, but also sort of playing outside of the harmony, playing real swing type of lines, but then sometimes moving sequentially, leaving it, using the themes from the melody as a basis for improvisation — sort of repeating things over and over again versus playing more fluid lines. So I like the contrast that’s going on in the piece. I like the way the bass and the drums sometimes seem like they’re falling behind, and then catching up. A lot of times, when people play a blues, they keep it very straight, and I think that the group is going for more of an open feel. I wish I knew who it was. [Any idea who the drummer might be?] That is a really good question. The drummer… Wow, wait a minute. The drummer seemed like he or she was very influenced by… It could be an older drummer, coming from the ’60s. There’s a certain looseness and almost non-chops-oriented approach to playing the swing thing. It almost reminds me of somebody like Barry Altschul. But I really don’t know who it is. It sounds familiar, and that’s why I’m frustrated, because I feel I should know who it is. And when you tell me, I’m going to hate myself. It’s not the sound of the record; it’s a certain approach. Certain people wouldn’t like that approach. There’s a certain looseness to it, and it’s okay. I like it when people go for that feeling. For the vibe, 4-1/2 stars. [AFTER] I was almost going to say that it sounded like Orrin, but in terms of the style… I grew up playing with Edgar Bateman, and he was considered to be a very eccentric drummer in Philadelphia compared to the more eccentric style people like Philly Joe or Mickey Roker. He was playing a lot of complicated stuff that I’m sure a lot of people couldn’t deal with. Because the way he was trying to play, it really was coming out of that head where instead of creating these continuous grooves that you sort of float on, he’s also trying to set up obstructions, then relax, then go forward, and so there’s a certain give-and-take which I really like. It’s great you played Edgar Bateman, because a lot of people really don’t know about him. Orrin is also somebody that I’ve known from Philly even before he moved to New York. I knew him through Ralph Peterson. Orrin is really combining a lot of stuff which I like. I think he has a lot of sense of humor in his playing. Also, I like the fact that he’s not afraid to sort of go for things, just as a musician. So I give it up to him.

10. Pablo Ziegler, “Chin Chin” (from BAJO CERO, Khaeon, 2003) (Ziegler, piano; Walter Castro, bandoneon; Quique Sinesi, guitar; Astor Piazzolla, composer)

It definitely sounds like Piazzolla. It was definitely out of the tango. It wasn’t Piazzolla, but sounded like a group playing his music. Maybe it was Richard Galleano or Gil Goldstein…I’m not sure who it was. It was interesting formally. I really liked the arrangement, and then sort of everything dropped out, and there was a longer piano solo and then a very short ensemble at the end, which was different. I don’t think that would normally happen, necessarily. For me, it was hard to tell from the solo who it was, because a lot of the solo piano part didn’t necessarily sound improvised; it sounded like it was composed and part of the arrangement. The harmony in that piece, as in a lot of Piazzolla’s music, is beautiful, the way it goes around and a lot of unexpected chords come into it. So I liked it. It was hard for me to tell from that piece who the pianist was, because I didn’t recognize the style — it was more playing a part. But I liked the arrangement. 4 stars. [AFTER] When I discovered Piazzolla’s music, it was a revelation, and then when I played iun Argentina I got a chance to see some of these clubs where they’re dancing to the tango, and it was interesting to see how there were some people saying “Piazzolla is not tango,” and then other people saying, “No, he took tango to the new form.” It reminded me of the way people talk about jazz or improvised music, where some say, “no, this is really jazz,” and others, “No, this is really the shit” or “he took it, but it’s not the real thing.” It was interesting, because I’m not prejudiced by those things, and I can deal with the traditional tango and also the Piazzolla, but once you start to really get into it and appreciate what he not only had to struggle against, but to develop his thing against a lot of people who said it’s not the real thing, it’s a good lesson that you should go with your own thing and create — using the tradition. Because it really sounds like he is using that tradition. But you see it in a different context with different music, and you realize that this dynamic goes on in a lot of musics.

11. Vijay Iyer, “Circular Argument” (from PANOPTIC MODES, Red Giant, 2001) (Iyer, piano; Stephan Crump, bass; Derrek Phillips, drums)

Geri Allen? I like the melody. It has a Monk vibe to it. Also sort of a looseness of how… Again, the soloing is not based on bebop harmony so much. It’s this rising progression. A good ending, too. The reason I said Geri Allen is because certain phrases reminded me of some of the stuff that she might play — or maybe Michelle Rosewoman. The lines had a certain feel like that. But I liked it. It sounded like a challenging piece to have to improvise on. It was combining swing with — especially in the piano part — a freer type of playing over that. Which means it could be a lot of different people. Maybe Andrew Hill? I’m trying to think of the drummer, because there was a very distinctive… But I don’t know. 4 stars. [AFTER] I’ve played with Derrick Phillips. He’s great. I first heard Vijay Iyer playing with Steve Coleman, and the other stuff I’ve heard that he’s trying to do in dealing with certain rhythmic structures… I think he’s an interesting pianist.

12. Fred Van Hove-Frank Gratkowski-Tony Oxley, “Tiddledit” (from GRATHOVOX, Nuscope, 2002) (Van Hove, piano; Gratkowski, alto saxophone; Oxley, drums)

Stylistically, it’s coming out of a much freer school. When it started out, it could have been a piece by Stockhausen. Now we’re in an improvisation section. The saxophone player could be Greg Osby or Tim Berne. Neither of those? Oh, shit!! Or Anthony Braxton. [You’re on the wrong continent.] There’s a certain tone, and also the line he’s playing over and over again is complicated, wide jumps… Well, this part I would say is more in the Tim Berne area. But maybe it’s somebody like Louis Sclavis. It’s not Peter Brotzmann. [Wrong horn.] That’s true. It’s definitely coming from the free jazz vibe. The pianist reminds me of… Especially the way they were playing in the beginning, the way they’re using the pedal and the way they’re voicing, almost using the harp sound, it’s very typical of certain music of Messiaen. Now, in this more active section here, it has more of a Cecil Taylor vibe. But who knows? Again, it could be a lot of people — and I wish I knew who they were!! 4 stars. It was interesting. It was not surprising after a certain point, and in this music it really needs to be surprising. But actually, I shouldn’t necessarily say that, because I can listen to that music for a long time. There’s a certain vibe that gets going, and I guess the question becomes in any music, if something can be said in 5 or 10 minutes and then you start to get bored with it, is that your fault or the music’s fault. I don’t know what the answer to that is. It just sort of happens. Any music that stays in a certain area can be accused of that, and it’s not a good way to criticize music, because there are certain aspects of a lot of music that… You’re not going to get another thing from it. You’re not going to get a free jazz solo in the middle of a Mozart sonata. In that sense, I can accept it. It’s definitely well played, as opposed to a lot of free music that I think just sounds like a hit-and-miss attempt by a group that can’t play. These guys can play. Who are they? [AFTER] These are all musicians who are not getting the type of due that they should be getting, especially in the United States and especially, I guess, in a more mainstream jazz whatever. When I look at it that way, I want to defend musicians like that, because I know, in a certain way, they’re keeping up a certain tradition that’s important, and I enjoy it. It’s even more than a tradition. It’s just fun. As a musician I enjoy playing that way.

13. Brad Mehldau, “Paranoid Android” (from LARGO, Warner Brothers, 2002) (Mehldau, prepared piano; Derek Oleszkiewicz, bass; Matt Chamberlin, Jim Keltner, drums)

There was a very interesting contrast in the arrangement between the sort of quiet, almost classical sounding piece with the harmony and the pianist sort of playing against those long chords, and the more rhythmic, Latinesque type of piece. It’s hard to guess who it was. For a minute (I know this is a strange guess), I thought it was Brad Mehldau, because of certain lines he was playing. But it’s characteristically… I guess I’m more familiar with his Art of the Trio records. I enjoyed it. Brad Mehldau is a great pianist, very original. He does amazing things with his touch and also the time, how he plays standards in different time signatures. His whole sensibility is beautiful. 4-1/2 stars. In the middle it sounded like they were distorting, or trying to change the sound of the piano. That was okay. I guess he was going for a contrast between those different sections. That sounded okay to me. I’m not sure how clear everything was to him, especially in the percussive part. But again, in terms of creating contrast between section, it works.

14. McCoy Tyner, “Contemplation” (from LAND OF GIANTS, Telarc, 2003) (Tyner, piano; Bobby Hutcherson, vibraphone; Charnett Moffett, bass; Eric Harland, drums) (5 stars)

This is a McCoy Tyner piece…what’s the name… It’s on “The Real McCoy.” That one I can identify. McCoy Tyner!! That’s one of the amazing things about McCoy, that he’s instantly identifiable, especially with those runs, his touch… In a way, he’s the pianist that so many other people followed in this groove, and it’s… Wow. That’s all I can say. Great musician. Sounds like Bobby Hutcherson on vibes. I could listen to this a long time. I heard Bobby Hutcherson play a lot this summer with Herbie. 5 stars. Again, it’s the same vibe. You have somebody who’s done so much over a long period of time, and I think… A lot of pianists studied his stuff a lot — the lines, the way these tunes moved. I also love the original recording of this with Joe Henderson. There’s a lot of classic McCoy solos where he’s playing both as a leader and as a sideman which maybe are more intense than this thing you’re playing for me. But even McCoy’s bad days are great. There’s a total consistency. When you invent a certain style, that’s what happens. You’re creating this area you’re playing in, and he’s certainly created a distinctive sound for piano.

*******

Uri Caine DownBeat Article, 2001 — Final Draft:

In late February, a packed house at the Knitting Factory witnessed a performance by the pianist Uri Caine and an octet of Caine’s adaptation of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.”

The set, videotaped for “B.E.T. On Jazz,” was textually rigorous, expertly paced, cinematically orchestrated, never condescending, and hardly ever arch. It proceeded as follows. Addressing a slightly out-of-tune piano, Caine gracefully stated the opening variation. After a brief rest, turntablist DJ Olive let forth a swoopy Spike Jones sound, launching Caine into a barrelhouse refrain. Olive countered with a Dada voice inquiring, “Are we sure we know where we are?” Violinist Joyce Hammann played a straight classical theme against a Caine bop variation; trumpeter Ralph Alessi and clarinettist Chris Speed commenced a free rubato dialogue; the ensemble plunged into a N’Awlins blues concluding with a Caine quote of “Over the Rainbow.” Over the next hour, they referenced Hardbop styles from Kenny Dorham to Woody Shaw; Barbara Walker sang four spirituals, moving from Mahalia Jackson fervency to spirit-shaking shuffles to Fontella Bass-like avant-pop declamations over atonal horn lines; Olive punctuated with a series of aphorisms, jokes, cantorial grunts, and synth sounds sampled from musique concrete; Caine crafted compelling solos in the Tyner-Hancock-Corea mode. It ended with a succession of Olive-spun snores, reminding us that Bach had written his epochal masterwork of theme-and-variation as a soporific for an insomniac noble patron.

Caine streamlined this Goldberg from the elaborately reimagined version that he recorded in 1999-2000 for Winter&Winter. He arranged 26 of Bach’s 30 original variations — and wrote his own variations on the given harmony — for various ensembles drawn from a dramatis personae including early instrument specialists, a German choir, singers Walker, Mark Ledford and David Moss, several deejays, and jazz improvisers like Don Byron, Greg Osby and Ralph Peterson. He devised an intricate system of strategies to impart structural unity to the whole. Where Bach wrote a Sarabande or a gigue as a dance form, Caine riposted with a drum-and-bass or a tango. Bach wrote every third variation as a canon voiced at each interval from the opening unison to the ninth; Caine composed variants incorporating the intervals and equivalent time signatures — i.e., the canon at the fourth is 4/4, the canon at the fifth is in 5/4, and so on.

“Theme-and-variation can liberate the composer to write in other people’s styles, because the game of the piece is the variety,” Caine had noted a few weeks before at a Cuban-Chinese restaurant not far from his Upper West Side home. “If Bach composed a nod, say, to Scarlatti, I could do mine to other people. You can emphasize the contrasts of miniatures following one another in rapid succession that are unified by a central theme. Unlike a sonata, where you develop and recapitulate the opening material, here it’s like a jazz solo; you lay out the theme, and then BOOM, all these different chords and variations. If you gave a jazz musician the 32 chords of the Goldberg theme, it would be like a 32-bar song form. I’m dealing with it from that point of view.”

Back at the Knitting Factory, after a brief intermission, the octet launched into a program of songs and symphonic excerpts drawn from the corpus of Gustav Mahler, played in a relaxed, stretched-out manner that had the quality of a jam session. Caine first recorded the material on “Urlicht:Primal Light” [W&W] (it won a Best Mahler Recording of 1997 award from The International Mahler Society), and offered a live concert followup two years later, “Mahler in Toblach.”

“Even in high school in Philadelphia, I could see that Mahler switched up feelings,” Caine recalled after swallowing a forkful of arroz con pollo. “He would cut from a complex Wagnerian orchestral sound to, say, a klezmer band playing a folk melody, or break up a marching band section with blaring trumpets, or bring in the simplest heartbreaking melody. He was one of the first modern composers who juxtaposed the beautiful and the vulgar to reach a greater whole, and he referred to aspects of his own life. He gave music a psychological dimension, setting up an expectation, then bringing in a counteractive element, for which he was severely criticized in his lifetime. I read that Mahler added trombone parts to Beethoven’s symphonies because he was convinced Beethoven would have done this if he’d had a modern valve trombone, and it reinforced my idea to give this music to players who can find different ways to play it.”

One of those players is the trumpeter Dave Douglas, in whose sextet Caine regularly appears (see Douglas’ acclaimed homages to Booker Little, Wayne Shorter and Mary Lou Williams). Not long before the Knitting Factory set, Caine sidemanned for a week with Douglas’ newly formed quintet at the Village Vanguard for a series of tightrope-walking sets that blended the best-and-brightest of cusp-of-the-’70s Miles Davis, Mwandishi, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Lee Morgan, the Sonny Rollins-Don Cherry Quartet and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Perched before his Fender Rhodes, fully in synch with the formidable bass-drum team of James Genus and Clarence Penn, Caine spun out surging solos that evoked sturdy melodies from complex voicings and jagged rhythmic designs, and drew on a comprehensive awareness of contemporary electronic music to navigate nuanced open-form structures. From night to night he refined his touch, testing different angles of approach without fear of failure; by the end of the week, Douglas observed, “I felt Uri had come up with an entirely new style with which to play this music.”

“The reason it’s exciting to play with Uri is that he understands so many different musical languages,” Douglas continued. “It’s rare to find someone with the technical knowledge to perform the Goldberg Variations, who can deal with freedom and move in and out of the post-jazz continuum without missing a beat. Uri arranges the Goldberg or the Mahler or his own trio completely free and flexible, so everyone can go for it. I’ve been on Mahler gigs where we’d have this incredible train wreck, and if I was the bandleader I’d be freaking out. Uri would have a beatific smile on his face, like, ‘Here we are in the real music — now deal!'”

Caine’s dialectical tinkerings with the tradition make him a hot commodity on the European continent. According to my seatmate at the Knitting Factory concert, his beautifully packaged CDs, each a fine piece of handiwork, receive place of prominence in German record stores alongside the Three Tenors. He has performed his Mahler at an international assortment of Classical and Alternative Music venues, including the prestigious Salzburg Music Festival and a slew of Mahler festivals.

Following one such appearance, a representative of the Munich Opera invited Caine to do a project with the music of Robert Schumann. Caine’s response was “Love Fugue” (1999), which sandwiches Schumann’s Piano Quartet, Opus 47 — performed by La Gaia Scienza Ensemble with ravishing idiomatic specificity — with Opus 48, “The Poet’s Love,” a song cycle of 16 love poems from the composer to his wife, deploying three poets (“it’s about the poetry of love”), guitarist David Gilmore (“the intimacy of the Bill Evans-Jim Hall vibe”), and vocalists Ledford and Moss (to evoke the “the gospel and pop overtones we hear in this beautiful piano harmony written in 1840”). That followed “Wagner e Venezia” (1998), which documents a Caine-led sextet of New York first-callers performing his arrangements of iconic Wagneriana in the cafes of St. Mark’s Square that Wagner habituated a century ago.

Nor is Caine close to slowing down. Another record of Mahler’s songs is in the can, and he’s working out the logistics of an “audio film” project constructed around the musical tropes of Brazil. In 2000 the Stockholm Ballet Company made a ballet for Swedish television of “Wagner e Venezia”; in May 2001 the Pennsylvania Ballet will premier their version of his Goldbergs. As we speak, he’s writing a piece based on Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations with improvisation commissioned that Concerto Köln commissioned for a June 2001 premiere. Still in gestation is a scored piano concerto for the Frankfurt-based Ensemble Modern to which Caine will add arrangements of iconic jazz compositions, and he’s mapping out a version of “Otello” for Milan’s centenary celebrations of Verdi’s death.

“Uri is working with the history of Western music,” says Caine’s producer Stefan Winter. “Both the jazz and Classical audiences in Europe understand what he is doing — if he is turning a section of Mahler’s music into a Jewish klezmer feel, or putting something on top of a Bach bassline. I think they love this incredible variation and interpretation. Uri’s music has no categorization. He is using all his influences; he works in the same way with the ideas of Bach or Mahler as with Herbie Hancock’s ideas. He is absolutely reflecting what happened in the last 400 years of music history. He has the talent to take these elements apart and make his own puzzle out of it.

“When I was coming up in Philadelphia, I wouldn’t have predicted that my thing would develop the way it has,” Caine says. “I wanted to move to New York and play with Freddie Hubbard.” That said, “Blue Wail” (1997) is Caine’s only hardcore jazz date for W&W. Tackling a set of eight distinctive originals with a take-no-prisoners trio (James Genus, bass; Ralph Peterson, drums), he reveals an improvisational personality informed by but never imitative of Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett and Cecil Taylor, as well as Philly piano idols McCoy Tyner, Kenny Barron and Hassan Ibn-Ali. It begins and ends with a pair of let-it-all-hang-out improvisations on Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose” that evoke the spirit of Earl Hines’ free associative solo performances of the ’60s and ’70s.

Caine spent a good chunk of 1999 exploring the jazz prehistory from which Waller emerged while researching and preparing “The Sidewalks Of New York: Tin Pan Alley,” a kaleidoscopic “audio film” for W&W that he dedicated to his grandfather, Edward Caine, a Russian Jew who died that year at the age of 97. It postulates an idealized music hall in which a multicultural cast of in-character performers who play 27 tunes of provenance ranging from 1892 (“After The Ball”) to 1915 (“Cohen Owes Me $97”). Caine eschews parody, vividly reconstructing the sound and animating spirit of the time. More clearly than any of Caine’s projects, “Sidewalks” articulates the enduring American ethos of perpetual reinvention, the incessant reshaping of the canon to vernacular imperatives.

“I was thinking about how a lot of the songs we play as jazz musicians became established,” Caine reflects. “I read about the history of Tin Pan Alley and the groups of musicians who worked in different genres in New York at the turn of the last century. I’m fascinated by the immigrants who came to New York City, who were transforming America as they were being transformed themselves.”

Caine credits an immigrant from the post World War II diaspora as the catalyst of his personal transformation at 13 from unfocused student to driven musician. This was the virtuoso French pianist Bernard Pfeiffer, a stylistic omnivore whose conceptual range spanned Art Tatum to Cecil Taylor. “Bernard told me that if I really wanted to improve, I’d have to get intense on every level,” Caine relates. “I’d have to practice and investigate and start reading and start thinking. I’d have to start playing with musicians my age and older, listen to them and try to move into what they do, even if I don’t accept it all. Since then I’ve felt that if you can play in all these different areas, you should go for it.”

At 17, Caine left home to attend the University of Pennsylvania, where he became a conservatory-trained practitioner of Modernism under the tutelage of twelve-tone composer George Rochberg, who gave Caine an early assignment to write a piano reduction of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. “I didn’t want to be in the position where somehow I couldn’t do what they did,” the pianist notes with some asperity. “I knew they couldn’t do what I did.”

Caine was learning his jazz the old-fashioned way, on the streets of inner-city Philly. He apprenticed on gigs playing electric keyboards in a variety of bars and lounges with local sax hero Bootsie Barnes, master drummen Philly Joe Jones, Mickey Roker and Bobby Durham, bassists Jymie Merritt and Charles Fambrough. He jammed with Rashied Ali, Pat Martino, Hank Mobley, Johnny Coles and even Grover Washington; he workshopped with post-Coltrane tenorists Odean Pope and Willie Williams; he played Avant-Funk with drummer Cornell Rochester and electric bassists Gerald Veasley and Jamaladeen Tacuma; he worked cocktail gigs in the upscale parts of town.

“Whatever circles Uri moves in, he maintains his identity and speaks up,” says Rochester, who remains a close friend. “He never changed up what he’s about. I grew up with a lot of gang activity, and Uri impressed me because he always hung with us in the hood; he played in areas that I would never even go into. I didn’t know he was involved in Classical music; I just thought about him in our context, which was different than what Philly Joe and Mickey Roker were doing, where he functioned perfectly. He’s been functioning multi-dimensionally for a long time.”

“I never felt a barrier coming from those musicians,” Caine emphasizes. “They basically told me, ‘If you’re cool and properly respectful, and keep your ears open, you’re welcome.’ I always enjoyed the power of the drum, how you get a chance to surf on top of all these incredible feelings. Philly Joe and Mickey Roker were dynamic players and strong stylists, and I was lucky that they took me under their wing and were generous with their advice.”

Caine began to lay down New York roots in the early ’80s, and by 1987 he found the studio apartment that he and his wife still use as their primary base of operations. At first he scuffled, working as a rehearsal pianist, doing $15-a-night gigs at places like Augie’s, sitting in at public jam sessions and workshopping at private homes with like-minded peers such as Douglas, Mark Feldman and M-Base bassist Kevin Bruce Harris. Not infrequently, he toured with Cornell Rochester, and at a festival in Saalfelden, Austria, Caine met clarinetist Don Byron, who was in Craig Harris’ band. They bonded during a long bus ride to the next destination; in 1990 Byron invited Caine to join his successful klezmer project and continued to use the pianist in his jazz groups. That year Caine also began to get steady employment with disparate stylists like Buddy DeFranco, Barry Altschul and Sam Rivers. In 1992 Caine made a demo, and Winter — prodded by Gary Thomas, then a JMT artist — released it as “Sphere Music.” Caine followed up with “Toys,” on which an ensemble featuring Douglas, Thomas, Byron, Dave Holland, Ralph Peterson and Don Alias tackled four reconstructed Hancock standards and six tone-parallel-to-Herbie originals.

“Stefan may have thought I would be his Postbop, inside-out piano player,” Caine speculates. “He didn’t have someone like that; a lot of the M-BASE guys and Cassandra Wilson were leaving him at that point. It all changed when Stefan broke with Verve in 1995. He took from that a resolution to never again become involved with a corporate entity. That’s when I started these other projects, which — without trying for commerciality — became more successful for him than the stuff he tried to do to fit into the corporate realm.

“I think the idea of taking a preexisting form and transforming it through group improvisation can be done with any music,” Caine muses. “I hear the groove in Mozart. I love Stravinsky. I want all the different emotions that I can get listening to Trane and Miles; I can also get them listening to Verdi. It’s a question of accepting the basis that they’re dealing with. On the largest level it’s all one thing. But I don’t want to disrespect any of the musics by saying it’s all the same, because it’s not. Coltrane’s achievement is specific unto itself, and however people want to deal with it, it has to be honored and studied and imitated and played. Stravinsky and Mahler have to be analyzed for what they did. I’m for less generalizations and more specifics.

“Now, once you start taking commissions, the process involves the input of a lot of people. For example, the Bach was going to be just my group of musicians and deejays in New York. Then German radio said they could give us a choir and free studio time, and Stefan Winter jumped at it. Of course, I wanted to write something for choir, but I wasn’t originally thinking about it. I try not to compromise. But for instance, if someone commissions you to write a piece ‘doing what you do,’ and what you do depends on having a trumpet player to whom you can say, ‘Okay, when we get to this part we play on these changes,’ and their guy is like, ‘What does that mean?’, then you have to say to yourself, ‘Okay, I’m going to write this out.’ I’m still adjusting to the idea that these groups have their own thing. Part of you is saying, ‘This is not going to work,’ part of you is saying, ‘This is an experiment; even if it messes up, I’ll try it.’ The worst that can happen is that it fails.”

Caine turns 45 this year, and he is content. “My vibe is that the most important thing is to try to stay in the game, like I’ve been doing since I was 17,” he says. “To the extent I’ve been able to do that and not play barmitzvahs on Long Island, I feel very happy.”

**********

Interviews with Uri Caine’s Colleagues: (Mickey Roker, Cornell Rochester, John Swana, Dave Douglas, Stefan Winter, DJ Olive):
TP: What are your early memories of Uri, of your first encounters, and his musical level at that time?

ROKER: Well, he always had great potential. He went to University of Pennsylvania. Him and a friend of his who played piccolo… When I first came back to Philly, I had just left Dizzy and I started taking gigs around Philly because I wanted to learn how to play jazz again. Because playing with Dizzy in the later years, we played a lot of rhythm-and-blues and Latin and Rock type things. So I started taking local gigs. And one of the first gigs I had was with Uri Caine. First we played with the tenor player Bootsie Barnes from Philly. Then Uri had a gig and he asked me to play with him, and we played at a club called All That Jazz on 18th Street. We played there one or two nights every weekend for about a couple of months.

TP: What were your impressions of Uri as a player then?

ROKER: Well, he was just a young kid then. He was trying to find himself. But now he’s found… You’re always trying to find yourself. We didn’t really play together that much for me to know exactly what was in his head. I can only tell you what I think was in his head. He always had good potential, he always had a good beat, but harmonically and rhythmically he was trying to find himself.

TP: He seems always to have been able to fit in well with dynamic drummers.

ROKER: Well, any musician. If you’ve got a good drummer, then that’s part of it, man. Then you don’t have to worry about the rhythm. You dig? All you’ve got to do is worry about the melody and harmony.

TP: Do you remember what kind of tunes you’d be playing?

ROKER: We were playing like some standard tunes and some original tunes. But mostly standard jazz type tunes that guys play. I can’t remember, because it was 20-some years ago.

TP: But I assume you’ve been keeping an eye on Uri over the years…

ROKER: I haven’t really been keeping an eye on him. We play together whenever we can play. For the last ten years he’s been living in New York. We played together about a year ago.

TP: I’m sorry to push this in this direction, but I’m interested in someone who has known and played with him for the amount of time you have who can discuss how he’s evolved.

ROKER: Well, he has definitely grown since the first time I played with him. He can tell you about himself better than I can tell you about him. My impression is that when I first started playing with Uri, he was a young guy who showed a lot of potential. In fact, he had probably just come out of college. And now, he’s a productive piano player. You know what I’m saying? So he had to be sincere and do a lot of woodshedding and a lot of practice in order to become what he is now. But the main part of that is finding yourself. Once you learn the basics. First you’ve got to learn the basics, and then you’ve got to find which direction you want to go in. A lot of guys can play the piano, a lot of guys can play instruments, but you have to find out which direction you want to go in. There are so many avenues, so many ways to get to the same thing. Now, I think he’s found his direction.. The last time I heard him was a year ago and I think he… I’ve always had respect for him as a piano player; he’s always been a good piano player. But he was a young piano player when I first joined him.

TP: So he always had chops and instrumental ability, and you’re saying that just as part of working very hard and growing up, he’s begun to display his own sound and style.

ROKER: Right. It takes time to do that.

TP: One thing about Uri is that he functions simultaneously in different style s of music. He has the European Classical projects, then when in Philly, apart from hardcore jazz he played a lot of funk and electric gigs with keyboards, and he seemed able to do all of those in the manner in which they’re supposed to be done.

ROKER: Well, Uri is a good rhythmic player. You’ve got to know all the different aspects of rhythm. The horn players, all they do is deal with melody. But the rhythm players, you have to know all these rhythms and know them authentically. There’s a lot to rhythm.

TP: So you would call Uri a good rhythmic player.

ROKER: He’s a good musician. Which takes all three — rhythm, melody and harmony. He’s a good musician, and he’s grown musically over the last five-six years. He’s mature. I can’t pinpoint it because I don’t play with him all the time. I play with him every once in a while. And there are so many young cats I’m listening to. But I’ve always respected Uri because he’s always been a good player. I mean, you can live three lifetimes and you still won’t have it all. Nobody’s got it all! But as long as you grow and show some kind of improvement in the way of maturity, then you’re going to be respected by your peers.

 

ROCHESTER: I had a band in Philadelphia years ago with the bass player Gerald Veasley, and Gerald brought Uri to my attention. I live in North Philadelphia and grew up with a lot of gang activity and stuff… I was always impressed with Uri because he always used to play in the black neighborhood. He used to work with Philly Joe Jones and a cat by the name of Bootsie Barnes, and like I said, I basically grew up in a gang type of situation, and I was always captivated by that because there were areas I would never even go into… But I always came into contact with him from that perspective, but I didn’t know he was involved in a multitude of things like going to the University of Pennsylvania and studying up there; I didn’t know he was involved in Classical music; and I didn’t know that he was basically… I thought he was from West Philly, and he was basically from Valley Kenwood, like out on the main line to a certain extent. He always hung with us in the hood and everything. But I just never knew he was into all these different kind of things. He’s a very interesting individual, multi-dimensional. And he can function definitely in a lot of different situations.

I always respected him, because he’s Jewish and like I said, we had a couple of people who were Hebrew-Israelites here in Philadelphia, and he don’t care where he go at, he really maintains his identity and he really speaks up, don’t care where he’s at, what environment and everything. I was always impressed with… He’s just a very interesting guy! Almost like Frank Sinatra; they say he’s a guy that can actually fit in in any kind of situation. Like I said, when he started doing this Mahler stuff, I wasn’t… I did tour with him with that Mahler thing in England. And I had never even heard of Mahler before! It was just interesting.

TP: Do you remember when you first met him?

ROCHESTER: Well, that’s when I first him… I used to play with Jamaladeen Tacuma, so then he was on Gramavision, and by me playing with him, Jonathan Rose had approached me to do a project, because he was familiar with me from playing with Odean Pope, the saxophone player who plays with Max Roach. So we had a record with me, him and Gerald Veasley years ago. I wasn’t a writer, and I tried to explain to him that I wasn’t a songwriter and stuff. But he said he could just come up with something. Then I told him I was in a partnership, and I went and got Gerald Veasley. Then we started getting a band together, and the first person he brought through was Uri Caine. And he was really receptive to what we were trying to do. We were basically trying to do something different. We were basically thinking about trying to do something more commercial, but I think Jonathan Rose wanted to do something more different. That was his emphasis. So Uri, even during that time… I was mostly thinking about him playing with Philly Joe Jones and Mickey Roker and these jazz musicians, and he was into this synthesizer and everything in the early ’80s.

TP: When Uri played with Philly Joe and Mickey Roker, would he be playing acoustic piano or electric piano?

ROCHESTER: Well, this was in the early ’80s. I don’t think they were doing a lot of acoustic piano.

TP: Those rooms didn’t have piano.

ROCHESTER: They were basically just playing in bars, like in the 21st Street Bar, and all these places really in the hood, far as… I know Philly Joe Jones is international, and I’ve been traveling there since 1980, and I know all about Philly, but as far as my environment… Philadelphia is highly segregated, and you have the African-American community here, you might have the Asian community… It is highly segregated, but everything is within the community, so you don’t really have to go out of your way, so you can be isolated to a certain extent. So as far as these black clubs are concerned, I’d never seen any of these black clubs that had an acoustic piano. So I think he was basically playing electric piano. And he was playing with Bootsie Barnes. I think he was even doing an organ trio thing, too. I did a record on Moers in ’93, and I had him playing on black keys versus white keys, with Willie Williams on sax and I was playing drums. It was based on an organ trio, something like what Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette were doing in the late ’70s. It was based somewhat on that. That was my last one. You don’t know about it because I had rappers, and the name of the record was… I said, “Your Mother’s On The Pipe.” It was kind of controversial. So a lot of promoters and distributors shunned it. But we did three or four European tours on it. But basically, that’s the reason why they said it was offensive.

TP: So with you Uri dealt with the electric keyboard function and more with funk and less jazz.

ROCHESTER: Well, I was basically playing with Jamaladeen Tacuma, so I was trying to intermingle that with the Rap. Because even in the ’93 record where I think I was one of the first one who was trying to have the rappers on a more progressive… I got these rappers rapping, and their music is more progressive than that rapper up in New York was doing with the vibe player… I was something a little bit more progressive, because I was looking at it from a musical perspective. So I had like the rappers doing these lines, something like what Steve Coleman was doing, with the bebop lines and everything, unisons with the horn and stuff like that. But basically, when we did that record in ’93, that’s what he was talking about… He was more into acoustic piano and everything, and he did a couple of acoustic piano things on the date. I wasn’t really all that familiar with the piano, because when I write, I write off of the regular electric piano. So then I said, “Man, I could have did this whole record with the acoustic piano.” So right now that’s all he plays, basically, is acoustic piano.

TP: I saw him play Fender Rhodes last week with Dave Douglas. He seems so comfortable doing so many different things, and he seems to do them all in an idiomatic way. When he plays classical music, he does it the way classical music is supposed to be; when he does funk, it’s the way that’s supposed to be; and when he does bebop and post-bebop, it’s the way that’s supposed to be.

ROCHESTER: Well, like I said, he’s a guy who was functioning multidimensionally for a long time. Because like I say, when he was in our little thing, I never thought about him in terms of classical or in terms of this other stuff that he does. I just thought about him in that context, and in our context he was functioning perfectly. So I think that it was just a learning experience in all these different contexts. My context was different than what Philly Joe Jones and them was doing. This girl, Terry Gross, she has a show on NPR, was saying she used to go to these clubs down in center city. I never really went to these places. But she used to see him down there, playing in duos and stuff like that. You know what her show is about; you can imagine what environment she was in. I listen to her show a lot, too. But at the same time he was playing with us, I guess he was playing at these places, too.

TP: You know Uri pretty well. What do you think it is about him that lets him function like that? It isn’t most guys from his background who can function comfortably, without giving up their identity, in a hardcore Black situation for sure. A lot of white guys would try to be Black or act that way.

ROCHESTER: First of all, I kind of know his father, and his father is a lawyer, who was the President of the Civil Liberties Union in Philadelphia, and his mother is a university professor. He said that when he was growing up, they constantly had intellectual discussions and debates; his father is a great debater. And he was head of the Civil Liberties Union, so you know where he’s coming from, what his politics is about. So I think by him saying that they grew up like that, debating over the table. So I think that was naturally in him. And like I said, I was always impressed because when he came into our environment, he never changed up what he was about. He just is an interesting guy.

TP: Do you ever remember Uri being in a dicey situation or having to stand up for himself physically?

ROCHESTER: Like I said, just being in that situation… He’d fit in so good with them. He was just a part of their thing. It was never really about a racial thing on that level. People in North Philly, they’re so busy hustling and trying to make money, it’s not a (?). Especially with the whole drug situation, like you have everybody in your community come for drugs and stuff like that. So it’s not really on that level. But you very rarely found somebody that’s very vociferous, when they get into an environment. One time I was in Europe with them, and I seen these guys, they were like Germans or something, and it seemed like he was ready to get into a thing with them [LAUGHS] — and I was kind of scared to death! I think basically it’s his upbringing with his father, and that’s what gave him the character that he is. Like I said, that’s why I always respected him, because he was what he was.

TP: If you were going to describe him to someone as a keyboard player, as a musician, how would you do it?

ROCHESTER: Well, that’s kind of hard to say now. Because like I said, he can play everything. I can always go get him… When I’m trying to make a record, I can go get him, because he can play what I want him to play. Because before I got my writing to the point it is now, I wasn’t real clear what I was trying to do, and he was able to really formulate and translate what I was trying to verbally say. Because I tried to dictate things to a certain extent at that point, and he was able to process the information and he was able to do something great with it. So he’s real creative on that level.

You’re asking how can a guy go int these different style like that… I’m not trying to get too out there on you. But I think as far as that astrology thing, he’s a Gemini, and Geminis are people who have multiple personalities, and I think that’s one of the reasons why he seems to be… Miles was a Gemini. Know what I’m talking about? I think maybe that’s what it is, that they can handle a multitude of things comfortably simultaneously.

TP: Maybe that’s what it is.

ROCHESTER: I don’t want anybody to start laughing at that shit. But I used to work with Jamaladeen, and he was a Gemini, and he seemed to be trying to do a multitude of things simultaneously. Even one time he was trying to do a Classical project, too, when we were in D.C.

TP: Kind of what you’re saying is that Uri can get into the thought process that goes into whatever piece of music is being played in whatever particular way.

ROCHESTER: But also I think basically that not only can he feel that naturally, but he actually studied it. Because a lot of people have a feeling that they would like to get into a Classical thing and would like to do this. But they haven’t really studied it enough to make it legitimate. He can effectively play in these different things because he’s effectively studied these things.

TP: And he’s had functional experience in all of them. He’s played Funk, he’s played Bebop, he’s played Classical music.

ROCHESTER: Yes. From my perspective, that’s why I say I’ve always appreciated what he’s about. Even though I didn’t know the full extent of what he’s about and didn’t really understand that he was as analytical and thinking person as he is, because we were so busy just trying to play… I didn’t know that he had an overall perspective on what he was trying to do, and what his relationship in hanging with us was about. So I didn’t see that picture from that far away. He’s an interesting guy.

 

 

TP: When did you first hook up with Uri? Do you remember your first encounters?

SWANA: I remember the first time I saw him. It was either ’82 or ’83. I used to sit in at this organ bar called Gert’s, and I came in expecting organ, and he was in with a bass player, playing Fender Rhodes. Gert’s was at Broad and South Street, in South Philly. It was the place where Philly Joe played and Shirley Scott and Don Patterson. I was a real organ hang. When I heard him, I was blown away. I sat in with him, and then I asked him if he taught. He said, “No, we’ll just hang out!”

TP: He was about 25 then. What did he sound like?

SWANA: It was straightahead. He was kind of out of Herbie and Chick, the way they would play Fender rhodes. But it was Uri. He always sounded like Uri. He has a certain feel that I can tell it’s him right away. When I heard him I was like, “Whoa!” I just knew that I really liked the way he played. He’s a very rhythmic player.

TP: Did you see him playing with Philly Joe or Mickey Roker?

SWANA: I saw him play with Mickey. I never saw him play with Philly Joe. I used to go around and try to sit in with him. He’d be playing in these weird trios, playing… After he stopped using the Rhodes, he was playing the DX-7, and he’d play with this guy Akim Emmanuel, and he’d just be going nuts. He’s always had this energy. I always looked up to him. I would ask him… I remember sitting next to him on the bus when we played with Joe Sudler’s Swing Machine — which is a big band that would bring in different people like Freddie Hubbard, Lockjaw, Phil Woods, Bob Mintzer — and barraging him with all these questions about music, and he would tell me what records to get and turn me on to a lot of great even bootleg stuff.

TP: Like ’70s Miles stuff?

SWANA: He turned me on to the Miles stuff and he turned me on to McCoy, Time For Tyner and The Real McCoy and Herbie’s stuff from the ’60s. He loves Joe Henderson, so he made me tapes of Joe Henderson In Japan, all this stuff. And Now He Sings, Now He Sobs.

TP: Have you continued to play with Uri over the years?

SWANA: I play with him once in a while. I went to Taiwan with him over the summer, playing the Mahler and then the Bach.

TP: Did it seem of a piece with the Uri you know?

SWANA: He’s so laid back. I went over… We were playing before a big audience, and before we went on stage, he looked at me and said, “It’s just another Joe Sudler gig; it’s just another gig.” Then we go on, and he just gets wacky. I have jet lag and I’m used to playing straight jazz gigs, not really reading lot of music.. So I’m looking intensely at the music, and I look over at him and he smiles at me and starts throwing his elbows on the piano and playing even more crazy. It seems he just has a good time. He doesn’t get uptight. I mean, he might. But it’s his own gig and he’s so laid-back. I was actually really impressed how he handled himself.

TP: But in terms of the structure of the music and the concept.

SWANA: I think it fits with where he’s coming from. Because when I first used to see him, it was only on straight-ahead, and I love the way he plays — straight-ahead he just burns. But he always had this other side where he’s listening to all this crazy stuff.

TP: Do you mean Modern Classical?

SWANA: Well, Modern Classical or… I don’t even remember the guy ,but I was at his apartment in New York and he was, “Check this guy out,” and he was playing this guitar player who was playing these weird sounds. “Man, I dig this!” He was listening to so much stuff. So it was inevitable for him too come into projects like this.

TP: And he’s so well-studied. Just his educational background, his academic background; he’s a very highly trained musician. Cornell said something interesting. He said when he met Uri he had no idea that he was going to University of Pennsylvania and studying classical music, that it was almost a separate thing. He was impressed that he could function in the Black community and maintain his identity, just being him. Cornell said that Uri would go place where he, Cornell, wouldn’t want to be going.

SWANA: Totally. I remember playing at this place called the Top Shelf with Uri, Edgar Bateman, Chris McBride and this guy Julian Presley. Uri’s taking a solo, and this black guy comes in and he goes, “Uri! I love you, man!!” and he just grabs him and kisses him on the head while we’re playing the gig. He’s so comfortable. He just seems so comfortable in any context. On the whole black scene… He used to play with Bootsie Barnes, and so many people…all the time you’d see people coming up and hugging him. He seemed so natural.

TP: So you played the Mahler and you played the Goldbergs on the same tour?

SWANA: Yeah, it was one gig, then there was four days off, then we did the Bach, the second gig.

TP: I realize the Bach parts for trumpet are a certain thing; he has different configurations doing different things even with the live performance. Is that part of your background as a musician, studying classical music? Are Mahler and Bach part of your practice and study?

SWANA: Yeah, I am familiar with it. I didn’t feel necessarily totally comfortable on Uri’s gig. Because as I said, on most of my gigs I hardly read music. I came up Classical but I never really… When it came to that crossroads where you’re going to dive in and try to go to like Juilliard for your Masters or do something else, I chose jazz. I didn’t feel like I did a great job. I didn’t feel completely comfortable. I would have liked to do more gigs..

TP: Uri says that through the live performances, it morphs into something different all the time.

SWANA: Yeah, he’s real loose. Once the violin and Uri were playing one of the variations really straight, and he pointed to me and said, “Just improvise.” We were playing and he pointed to me and the DJ and he said, “Okay, DJ and John, go!” We just started playing.

TP: So he sets up situations where he knows you can function but likes to keep you a bit off-balance and uncomfortable.

SWANA: I don’t know if he meant to… I enjoy that kind of challenge. My uncomfortableness wasn’t because of Uri; it was because of my feeling like I haven’t been on gigs where I have to read a lot of music, so I have to concentrate more. I feel comfortable in those situations. Uri makes me feel comfortable, because I know the wackier I play, the happier he’ll be.

TP: So to please Uri, you have to stretch out.

SWANA: Right, stretch out.

TP: Any other anecdotes?

SWANA: I remember once driving somewhere… They used to play this Brazilian jazz on the radio, and I was driving Chris McBride home or something, and Uri was right next to us, and we opened our window and he had this Brazilian music blasting out of the car. I remember Chris McBride going, “Uri, he’s crazy!”

 

 

 

DOUGLAS: It was different every night too.

TP: That’s emblematic of the personnel you used, and it’s one thing I wanted to broach regarding Uri. Formally, if we look at recorded evidence, he’s been part of these rather specific projects of yours that take off and fly in various directions depending on how much the band plays and where they play it and where you go with the material. Cornell was talking about that, and it seems to be operative with Uri, his utter flexibility and malleability…

DOUGLAS: As I was dialing your number I was thinking of that very word — flexibility. The reason that it’s so exciting to play with him is that he understands so many different languages of the music. No matter where the music goes, he’s able to completely deal — and without missing a beat ever — with all of the changes. I think also what’s interesting in the last few years is that Uri has also become a captivating bandleader. People have problems with tribute projects and theme concepts…

TP: Do they?

DOUGLAS: I hear a lot of talk, like, “Oh, now it’s the Mahler thing, now it’s the Bach thing, now it’s the Mary Lou Williams thing.” Like, in jazz, if you’re not just being yourself, it’s dishonest or something. I think people heap that on the traditionalists as well as the experimentalists. But the comment I would make about Uri is that when you hear him play the Goldberg or the Mahler music or his own trio, it’s completely free and flexible. The way he arranges it is that everyone can just kind of pick up and go for it. I’ve been on some Mahler gigs where there’s been some serious train wrecks in the music, and it’s like it didn’t matter.

TP: He sort of welcomes the train wreck.

DOUGLAS: Yeah. It was almost like we’d have this incredible train wreck, if I was the bandleader I’d be freaking out, but I’d look over at Uri and he’s got this beatific smile on his face, like “Here we are in the real music now. Now deal.” It’s pretty rare to find someone who would know enough about the Goldberg Variations, have the technical knowledge to be able to perform that but also to be able to deal with the freedom and to go in and out of the post-jazz continuum.

TP: You and Uri in are both experimentalists and traditionalists in a fundamental way… Well, this isn’t about whether Uri is one or the other, but about how what he does stems from his life and experience in palpable ways. Cornell said that when he heard Uri in Philadelphia, it was on synth in Gerald Veasley’s funk band.

DOUGLAS: That’s the first time I heard Uri, too. He was playing funk on a synthesizer.

TP: He said he had no idea Uri went to the University of Pennsylvania, he had no idea he knew anything about classical music, he had no idea he played cocktail piano gigs, and that Uri would hang with total comfort with this very hardcore group of people in hardcore neighborhoods without ever losing his identity, and he did it without ever trying to be “Black,” and he spoke his mind. From your perspective, what was your first encounter with him?

DOUGLAS: There was a place on McDougal Street called the Scrap Bar. I was friends with some musicians he was playing with there, and I went down and he was playing synthesizer. It was totally a fusion, heavy Rock vibe. And it was happening. The same as Cornell; I thought, “This guy really has some shit together.” Then I probably didn’t run into him again until 1990, when I joined the Music of Mickey Katz group with Don. I was coming to the Mickey Katz music like it was completely fresh; it was a vocabulary I had never played before. I had to learn the whole book from scratch on two days’ notice. I came into it and Uri just sounded like he’d been playing it for years. I later found out that for him,, he felt like he was on a wedding gig or something. Again, it was like, “Hmm, interesting.” I knew he was also playing jazz and doing other things.

TP: How have you observed Uri evolving over the years? Is he more comfortable in his own skin with these projects? Is he just having a chance to do it.

DOUGLAS: I would just say that he is doing it now. I think arranging the Mahler stuff was a real step out for him, and probably something he’d been thinking of for a lot of years, and it just became possible to do it when Winter & Winter came along.

TP: He said he had been dissatisfied with turgid renditions of Mahler, and there was a piece in Toys with a bass line that comes from a Mahler symphony, and Stefan heard it and said, “Ah, you know, Mahler,” and then Stefan asked him to do the score for this Mahler movie and Uri said, “Yeah, I can do that.” So a lot of this stuff has come about through the relationship with Stefan, which is a complex relationship.

DOUGLAS: We’ve all had our interesting relationship with Stefan. Well, I no longer have a relationship with Stefan. That’s another article. Or I’ll write a two-minute piece and call it “Summer and Summer.”

TP: Uri has always played acoustic with you.. Talk about how he functions on your projects.

DOUGLAS: I always see articles when they talk about the guy and then they interview somebody and the person ends up talking about themselves. I don’t want to go in to say, “Well, I called Uri because.” But it is true that when I started the sextet to play the music of Booker Little I couldn’t think of anyone else I would have called that would understand where I was coming from. There are very few people who would have understood what I meant when I said, “I want to do rearrangements of these pieces from 1961 and play them totally our way, differently, and here I’ve got this sheaf of original music that comes out of that spirit, and I want to play this originally but this is why we’re doing it.” There’s a big leap of faith going on in there. So the person really has to have a rock-solid understanding of the traditional aspect of the music, but also have a real experimental sensibility to know how far is too far. Uri can play as out of a piano solo as you could ever want to hear, and I have certainly asked him to do that in certain situations. But that’s not always what it’s about. When you’re talking about taking traditional elements and moving them forward, there’s something else that has to happen. And Uri is really brilliant in understanding that. I think that’s what he brings to these projects he’s working on now.

TP: I don’t know how proactive you want your sidemen to be. But how much input do you get from Uri in doing these projects?

DOUGLAS: I think it depends from piece to piece. A lot of times for me… Again, I think that Uri works this way. Rather than speaking about it, you hear what someone does, and then you make a decision based on that. You say, “Okay, they’re playing this here because they think that’s what this is, and it might be more interesting if blah-blah-blah.” So I think that in this kind of music, you rely on musicians to help you develop the thing, but it’s up to the leader to make those ultimate decisions.

TP: Talk about this new body of music you’re working with here in relation to what Uri was doing with the Fender rhodes.

DOUGLAS: I thought it was interesting to watch Uri this week, because the Fender rhodes really is a different instrument than the piano, and it’s a delicate instrument, and he had to refine his touch, and it was interesting to see from night to night that he would approach the music differently each night and approach the instrument differently. I felt that by the end he had really come up with an entirely new style with which to play this music. I obviously chose to ask him to play Fender rhodes for sonic reasons, and I wrote the music that way. So aside from having this wealth of harmonic and melodic and rhythmic knowledge that he has, I also wanted to draw on his awareness of electronic music and contemporary sounds, contemporary electronic music. I think it took him six nights to figure out how to get the Rhodes to speak that way. That’s what I like to see, is somebody who is willing to not get it the first night. I mean, it was still great. Sometimes I feel like musicians are too quick to just say, “Yeah, I got it, no problem.” But someone like Uri, who is willing to take a chance that it may not work and to actually develop it on stage, is really special. I think that’s the legacy we all take from Miles Davis, is that creative music should be developed onstage, in front of an audience.

TP: And it seems that Uri also deploys that attitude with these Classical projects.

DOUGLAS: Absolutely. That’s what I was saying before about actually being on a Mahler gig. I hadn’t played the music in three or four years. It was in Israel on a big festival stage, and I was totally lost. I looked over, and there he was smiling. It was like, “Yeah, now we’re here.”

TP: So you first met him around ’87 at the Scrap Bar…

DOUGLAS: I think it was earlier than that. I think it was in ’84-’85. It was when I first moved to New York.

TP: You first gigged with him in Don Byron’s Mickey Katz thing.

DOUGLAS: I think so. Around 1990. I hired him in ’94 to play on In Our Lifetime. Then he hired me in 1995 to play on Toys. He’s been on all my sextet records, and now we’re continuing together in this new concept.

TP: Are you recording this music, Dave?

DOUGLAS: Eventually. I’m not in any rush to, because this one, unlike a lot of my projects, I want to see it develop. Most of the sextet records I just write and they’re fully formed, and we just go straight into the studio. But this one we have some gigs later in the year, and we’ll work some more before we record it.

TP: This would be an interesting live record.

DOUGLAS: I was thinking about that all week actually. But it would have to be a double-CD. Because everybody was stretching out. We’re not talking about Uri now, but I don’t know if you saw Ben Ratliff’s review in the Times. It was interesting to me that he was only able to make links to the obvious connection of the Miles quintet from ’67.

TP: I was hearing a lot of early Freddie ’70s CTI stuff.

DOUGLAS: Right, but also Lee Morgan, Live At The Lighthouse Joe Henderson, If You’re Not Part of The Solution, and a lot of other things as well.On line a woman says: “I’m curious how someone who operates so deeply within a Jewish sensibility has his CDs produced in Germany.”

 

TP: I want generally to discuss with you a few aspects of your relationship with Uri — the history of it, the dynamic of how projects are generated nd conceptualized, how what Uri does fits into your personal aesthetic, and perhaps some sociological observations on the reason why what Uri is doing has struck such a chord. People tell me that what he’s doing has made a tremendous impression. How did you first come in touch with Uri and what of his qualities made you want to record him?

WINTER: Basically, it started out that Gary Thomas introduced me to Uri. The very first album that Uri did on JMT, Sphere Music, Gary Thomas was playing on. Gary gave me a tape where he’d played together with Uri, and I very much enjoyed his playing. Then Uri and I got in contact, and I think we figured out pretty quickly that we have a common understanding and that we want to work together. So we released two albums on JMT, and then basically the story really starts when I was talking to Uri about the tenth anniversary of JMT. We were organizing a three-day festival at the Knitting Factory to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the label, and besides the normal performances of music, I wanted to have also some special performances. I have known that Uri, when he studied music, was very much interested in Gustav Mahler’s music, and I gave him a film documentary that I and my brother did together and asked him if he could use this film documentary about Gustav Mahler as a silent movie and if he could play with his group Mahler’s music. That’s what Uri did at the tenth anniversary of JMT at the KF.

TP: At that point, did you consider what Uri would do with Mahler’s music? Was it something that you foresaw or discussed?

WINTER: I mean, we had spoken about it, of course. But if you talk about something and hear it later on, most of the time it’s different. Maybe it sounds arrogant, but I have had a certain expectation, and after we have done the project my expectations were absolutely fulfilled. It was even like going further and more deeply into the direction I thought it would go. So for me, it was not like a super surprise when I did the album or when I heard the music live at the tenth anniversary at the Knit.

TP: What was your expectation?

WINTER: My expectation was that Uri is doing with this music the same thing that jazz musicians have done for a long time with the history of American popular music. Basically, they’re taking known songs, songs from musicals and so on, and playing around with these songs. They’re improvising, they take these songs apart and put them together in a new way, they reharmonize these songs and they play different melodies on it, come back to the melodies, and play with excerpts and parts of this music. So in a way, they make this music to their own music. That’s one of the reasons why jazz music in the States became popular, is because a lot of people can recognize their music history. They can recognize songs which were popular in the ’20s-’30s and the big musicals. And if you recognize something (this is giving each listener a big helping hand), then you know where you are, and it’s much easier to understand the music.

TP: Now, there’s one difference, it would seem to me, between the way jazz music was developed, which came out of a vernacular, vis-a-vis what Uri is doing with Mahler, Schumann, Wagner or Bach, which is the Canon. It would seem to me that the audience for this music has a different sense of what that music is, if that makes any sense. I’m just saying this to refer to the position this music occupies in the social hierarchy. Do you see that at all? Is this changing now in Europe, the attitude towards Classical music.

WINTER: Well, if this attitude exists (and I’m not sure it’s the truth), then certain writers and certain critics have these attitudes. But the audience and I think the majority of the writers don’t have this attitude. I think this attitude is clearly coming from the 19th Century. It’s coming from a time where the music, more or less, was ruled by the middle class, especially here in Europe. In the time after Beethoven, when the middle class were making certain compositions to their heroes and they wanted to have certain artists where they could go to opera houses, to concert houses and so on, to listen to these heros. It’s coming from a time which to my eyes was a very-very short time period. It was maybe 100-150 years long. And before that, talking about Baroque or Renaissance music, we didn’t have this kind of hierarchy in the music. It was very different. Maybe we’re coming back now to the point that it’s really possible just to listen to music without having this hierarchical thinking in our brain.

TP: Uri said that in one of the tunes on Toys, the bass was taken from a Mahler symphony, and that’s how you arrived at a mutual understanding.

WINTER: Yes, that’s how it started out, it’s true.

TP: With Mahler, obviously you demonstrated the evolution of Uri’s concept through the studio and live albums. Can you discuss how the Schumann and Wagner projects were set up from your end?

WINTER: In a way, all these projects are projects which Uri and I have created together. Sometimes he has had certain ideas and sometimes I have had certain ideas, and we talked about it. If you work together with somebody, and you work together with somebody in a close way, then you share thoughts. And if somebody is telling you his thoughts, this is working in my brain, and if I tell Uri some of my thoughts, I guess this is working in his brain. So it just came together. I made an album in Venice where I recorded the orchestras that play in the coffeehouses at St. Marks Square in Venice, and I knew that Wagner’s music was played at these coffeehouses during Wagner’s time. Wagner wrote letters very often that he heard his music at St. Marks Square. I talked with Uri about it, and then we both had the idea to arrange Wagner’s music for a coffeehouse ensemble. Everything more or less that we do, it’s not that there is one great idea by either Uri or I. I think it’s a common sense that we have. I am very open to what Uri wants to do, and I am trying with my thoughts to give Uri a helping hand so that he can really develop what is inside him. This is very-very important for me, and it’s not so important for me to fulfill my own wishes and thoughts. I’m not that kind of producer.

[Uri comes from a background where he was immersed and functioned professionally in three areas of music — as a student of Classical music with academic training; as an idiomatic jazz musician, and as an idiomatic funk-jazz musician. The way he puts it, when he was in Philadelphia, Philly Joe Jones and Mickey Roker didn’t know he was playing with Cornell Rochester, and Cornell Rochester didn’t know he was studying at the University of Pennsylvania. He kept each sphere kind of separate from the other. So he comes from this background, and there’s a very heavy jazz component to what he does.]

TP: To what extent do projects come out of Uri’s have struck a chord in the European community in terms of getting commissions or going to festivals and so forth? But he’s had tremendous success in penetrating the European festivals, and I wonder what you think the attraction is to them.

WINTER: The attraction is that Uri is in the history… It’s like part of the history of the music scene in the Western world. All composers worked with music that was written from other composers. I mean, Beethoven did something about the Diabelli Variations, and then Bach used some Vivaldi, and Mahler used some Mozart, and so on. And it’s going on and on. In our day, sometimes it’s a little bit more difficult, because the law forbids certain adoptions, because you need the permission from the composer, which was very different over one hundred years ago. I know that there are, for example, certain composers who were working with certain materials in our day… Cage, for example, wrote a piece which he named “Imitation,” and he used some ideas of Eric Satie, and the people who held the rights for Eric Satie didn’t allow Cage to do it, but Cage turned it around to such a degree that he made it into his own piece and they couldn’t anything against it. He called it, I think, “Imitation,” which I’m sure was a sarcastic title.

It’s a shame, what’s going on at the moment, and I think that the law, which normally should help the musicians and the artists to secure them, is now turning around, and it’s working against the musicians. They can’t just go on and adopt the music as they want.

But the success in Europe has to do with the fact that Uri is working with the history of Western music. And the people — on the one side the jazz audience, but on the other side, the Classical audience — understand what he is doing, because they are able to recognize the parts and they understand if he is turning certain parts of Mahler’s music into, say, some Jewish feels, or with Bach, if he is working with this bassline and putting something else on top of it. I think they just love this incredible variation and interpretation that he is doing.

TP: Uri always seems to have a narrative goes… I was sitting next to a musician at the Goldbergs last night, and he commented, “It’s a revue,” which is a good description of The Sidewalks Of New York. It evokes an imaginary, idealized music hall circa 1905. One dynamic comes on, then another, then another, and it’s unified by some overarching narrative. That’s apparent in Uri’s records going back to Toys, which was devoted to the vibration of Herbie Hancock. It makes him an effective leader, because his personality comes through so clearly.

WINTER: Uri is using all of his influences. He studied Mahler on one side, and on the other side he is very close to Latin music, then he also studied Herbie. There are so many different aspects. And he is able to use these aspects in his own music and make his own music out of it. I don’t really see all these so-called arrangements, that he is more or less adapting or arranging Mahler’s music. I look at it in a different way. I look at it that Uri is taking elements from that music and making his own music out of it. Sometimes he is focusing on Mahler or on Bach or on jazz musicians, but it’s all on the same level. There is no difference. I think the unifying point is that he is always making it through his own music.

TP: Do you have any speculations on the role that national identity plays in Uri’s generating this music, that as an American Uri can observe the music in a fresh way or without the weight of the tradition upon him…

WINTER: I have thought about this, too. But I don’t really think it has to do with Uri being American. In my eyes and what I hear today… If anybody else is around who can do what Uri is doing at the moment… I think Uri is an absolute exception right now. It’s not that he is an American or European or whatever. It’s just him. He is a total exception. Looking at the whole music tradition, I have absolutely no fear to mention Uri’s name in the same category as Beethoven’s name or Mahler’s name or Wagner’s name or Bach’s name.

TP: In what regard?

WINTER: He has the same kind of value for our music in terms of reflecting everything… One element of an important artist for me is that he is able to reflect what happened before him, what happened before his time. And Uri is absolutely reflecting what happened in the music history in the last 400 years. He is absolutely able and has the talent to use all these elements, and take these elements first apart and then put the new puzzle together — making his own puzzle out of it. I think this is a very-very important part of a musician. Bach or Beethoven, all these people, they have done something like that, and this made those people very special, that they were able to reflect the time before them and make something new out of it.

TP: If I can paraphrase: Uri is going back to the future. He’s going back to a certain attitude of musicmaking which had gone by the wayside in the last century or so.

WINTER: Definitely, yes. And there is no categorization in Uri’s music. He is working in the same way with the ideas of Bach or Mahler as he is working with Herbie Hancock’s ideas. There is no difference. I think this is very important. As I said in the beginning, we have these categorizations. Our schools and universities and so on tell us this is a high-level music and high art while this is low-class art. I think this is absolutely nonsense. If you would talk to Mozart, he used certain melodies in the “Magic Flute”… The biggest success for Mozart was always that the people in the street were whistling his songs and that they were turning his songs into popular folk songs. Brahms did the same thing. The music was always connected with the people. And I think it’s a big mistake to put something on the throne, because then it’s not reachable for us. If something is on a throne, then we are afraid of even touching it or we are afraid of doing something with it. If this is happening with art, then I believe that we kill this art.

TP: The Sidewalks Of New York might seem like anomalous to the other projects, but not if we look at it as a revue, as a commentary on the material. How was that generated?

WINTER: I started doing what I call Audio Films. It started out in Venice, where I recorded these coffeehouse orchestras and tried to record the atmosphere of this location. I’ve done it in Buenos Aires, in Havana and in other places. I was thinking about New York and how is it possible to make an audio film about New York. My girlfriend, Mariko Takahashi, told me at that time to do something with Tin Pan Alley. This is one of the most important areas of…

TP: It’s the prehistory of American Popular Music.

WINTER: Yes. And even I, I have to say, had a wrong understanding. Because I thought it’s later, after the First World War, which is not true. I realized after I started working on the project that the Civil War and end of the Civil War was basically the starting point for that music scene. There is so much in it. The idea, in a way, was to try to make an album where we can capture the music and the feeling of the time as we see it. I talked a lot with Uri about it. We talked about the sound effects we wanted to use, and the different elements, how we would like to present the music, and that this song should play in a vaudeville, and this song should play in like a Jewish marriage and so on… Like somebody else would produce a movie; to produce an album about an historic subject, and doing it as someone else would produce a movie about that time. That was the idea. If you listen to the album, I think you can close your eyes and time travel into that era, and be free to discover a different feeling.

TP: Uri did a great job at imparting an idiomatic quality to the music. It didn’t sound in any way condescending. He got into the skin of the time. Do you and Uri operate by a contract, or do you go from record to record?

WINTER: We go from record to record. That’s how I work with most of my artists.

TP: I’d like to speak with you about Paul Motian. In a sense, he’s commenting on a life and history lived in music — fifty years of experience as a professional musician. There’s a direct correlation between his association with your label and the flowering of what had been the beginning of a creative renaissance for him in mid-life. He’s been able to take projects that he was beginning to fully articulate in the ’70s and ’80s, and with you was able to realize their fullest implications. Again, what was the appeal for you? What qualities did he embody in his persona as an instrumentalist and as a composer-bandleader that made him someone you wanted for the label?

WINTER: I discovered jazz very late, when I was around 20 years old. [43] I knew about jazz before I was 20, but there was nothing that I would say hit me. I came from Classical music, I started at that time Classical music, and by whatever coincidence, I heard a Keith Jarrett album which I have to say is still one of my favorite albums. It was the first what I call jazz album I really heard, and I still love it. It’s the album Somewhere Before with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian. It’s a live album. As far as I remember, it was released on Atlantic. This album is for me absolutely beautiful. Keith on the one side is playing some free pieces, and on the other side I think he is playing maybe a Joni Mitchell song. He is touching so many different fields, and he is reflecting on this album a lot of things, and I was totally touched by it. I also loved what Paul and Charlie were doing on that album.

A couple of years later I had the opportunity to meet Paul. I think it was Tim Berne who said to me, “Ask Paul to make a Monk album.” I thought this was a great idea, and I asked Paul, “Paul, what do you think about doing a Monk album?” and Paul immediately said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” That’s how we started our relationship.

TP: You have a knack for knowing how to market an artist in the best sense of the word, by giving them projects that allow them to strike a chord and yet be entirely themselves within a frame, which would describe the Motian Meets Broadway series and Motian Meets Bill Evans. Those records gave him a certain definite identity among the jazz audience beyond being a superb drummer.

WINTER: I am trying to think about where a musician or where a personality is coming from. I think everything you’re doing has to be connected with yourself. If you’re doing something that is connected with yourself, I think you give also the listener a certain kind of identification. Again, it’s like watching a movie, and if you can identify yourself with a certain character or with a certain time period of your life, then I think this movie will talk to you in a very specific way. If I start to work with artists, I m trying to listen not them and to hear where they are coming from, and when we are sitting together and drinking a glass of wine or whatever, just to talk about this and talk about that a little bit. The best is if then these artists start to realize that they want to do this and that project. I think it’s important that it’s not coming from me and I’m not saying to someone, “Let’s do a Broadway album.” That’s not how it happened. How Paul and I work together, we talked about it. We talked about where he’s coming from and what he loves and what he wants to do, and then this idea came out. Paul himself said, “What do you think about doing a Broadway album?” Basically, I was waiting for something like that. Then I’m just jumping on it and pushing that this was happening. Because an idea by itself doesn’t mean anything if you don’t realize it.

TP: Again, can you elaborate the qualities Paul Motian embodies that make him such a distinctive artist to you.

WINTER: I learned a lot from Paul from the way Paul works with his so-called sidemen. Paul is giving his sidemen, or the people with whom he’s working, a lot of freedom, and basically he giving them space to develop in his group their own personality. I would say Paul is for me like a godfather. I learned from him to watch people, to see what they can, and then even support them or do something for them so that they really can develop their own language and their own style. I think that’s what he did, in a way, with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano. Paul is also able, like when he’s playing together with Charlie Haden, to respect other people and to work together with them and just give his identity, to add it together with their identity, and then build together something new out of it.

TP: So it really transcends instrument and technique. It has to do with the development of tonal personalities.

WINTER: It has a lot to do with tonal personalities, and I think it has a lot to do with how you look at music, if music should be made in a certain hierarchy, like how we know it from the Classical world, like there is a conductor and he is telling the people what to do, or if we look at music that it is played by individuals and we have to respect these individuals. I think Paul is one of the key people who is respecting individuals. I think how he played together with Bill Evans (and I still love today to listen to these albums) or how he played together with Keith and then later on in his own groups, like in the Broadway groups or in his trio with Bill and now with the Electric Bebop Band, he is opening up a world for other musicians so that they can develop their creativity.

TP: Particularly with the Electric Bebop Band he’s doing what you would think of as repertoire music. I had been not so impressed with that band, but when I heard them at Sweet Basil last time they were treating the music in an utterly creative way.

WINTER: I think this is very important, what you are saying now. Because even if he is playing with young musicians bebop music, he is giving them the understanding that they have to make their own story out of this text. For me it is boring if I hear today a musician who is playing as another musicians played 40 years ago or 30 years ago. It doesn’t give me anything. But if I hear that somebody has his own style and own language, but he can also work with traditional material, this is incredibly nice. And this counts also for Classical music. If a Classical musician is able to turn the text, for example, of Schubert’s music into his own music, if he can interpret Schubert like it’s his own music and make it to his own thing, then it makes sense to listen to it again. The repertoire by itself doesn’t mean anything. I think it’s really just some written notes on the piece of paper. The question is what you do with it. If there is somebody who is turning the text into his own language, that is his own text, then the music talks to the listener. Then it’s talking to me. I think that’s what Paul is doing. Paul is like the master of everything that he is playing. If he is playing his own music, his original music, or if he is playing Monk’s music or Bud Powell’s music or Broadway songs, he is making his own music out of it.

TP: Can you tell me some rough estimate of the sales of Uri’s records, dividing them between Europe and America. Uri told me you mentioned to him that one of the records sold 1000 copies in a short period of time in Hamburg. Are the records selling well, within your terms?

WINTER: Some are doing very well, other ones are difficult…

TP: Which are doing the best?

WINTER: That’s something I hate to talk about. Because I am not producing music and looking at sales figures, and I am not continuing working with musicians because of sales figures.

TP: I’ll ask you this, then. Do you marketing in the sense that you break down who is buying the music? Who are the people in Europe who have Uri Caine’s records?

WINTER: I don’t do that at all. Even in Europe, one day I got the record for whom are you producing this-and-this music. It happened to me when I was writing music for an album which was called The Little Trumpet 10 or 15 years ago, and the German company asked me, “For whom did you write this?” I said, “What do you mean?”

TP: But I’m not asking that. I’m asking who is buying it.

WINTER: But that’s what I mean. Really, seriously, I don’t want to even think about it, because if I think about who is buying it or who could be the target group, then maybe I could change or the artist would change his music around to fulfill a certain group of people. And I think it has to go the other way around. Uri or Paul have something to say, and up to us to bring it to the audience. And I believe if we make good efforts to bring it to the audience and the music is good, then people also will enjoy it.

TP: But you do a certain packaging and presentation. The records stand out. I assume you mean it to reflect a visual analog of your aesthetic. The musician I was sitting with yesterday said he was in Cologne, and that Uri’s records were prominently displayed in the record store, next to the Three Tenors. I think the stores here like Uri’s records and consider it a mark of status to sell them, but they’re not marketing them with the Three Tenors. I don’t care about the commerciality; I’m more interested on what this tells us about the impression Uri’s music is making upon the public that buys these records.

WINTER: When I was 18-19-20 years old, I read the letters between Schoenberg and Kandinsky. From that time on, it was always inside me that I want to bring together as an editor and work together with artists who on the one side are musicians and on the other side are painters and photographers and so on, and the best would be if I am able to bring together certain artists. That’s how I feel I want to work as an editor, and my main work is to be an editor. Our whole packaging is a result of just presenting the music or some other arts in the same kind of value or in the same kind of form. And I figured out that it is impossible to do this in a plastic box. I mean, you are killing the art if you do that in a plastic box. So I was just searching for another way. That is the main reason why I’m doing that. It happened, for example, that a new album which we are releasing right now for an accordion player, Theodore Ansilotti(?), is playing Scarlatti’s music, the artwork was done by Baselitz, who is one of the most contemporary German artists. These kinds of things are happening. Then Baselitz invited the musicians, and he played for Baselitz, and an interactive thing was doing on between Theodore Ansilotti(?), the accordion player, and Baselitz. I love if these kinds of things are happening. And especially talking about the States, one of the most important artists is Steve Byrum who did most of the JMT covers and also a lot of cover and artworks for Winter&Winter. He is for me a very important voice. If you ask me, then I say Steve Byrum is as important as Baselitz is in Germany. It’s just that these people don’t get the recognition they should get.

TP: I think in the art world, even more than the music world, the market and commodity value of the work is what causes an artist to be visible in the arts community. What is Uri’s next release going to be?

WINTER: That is a rather difficult question. We are working to release three albums at the same time in more or less three different directions. I have no idea if we can realize what we are planning to do. But that’s what we have in mind. We have in mind to do three albums and to put them out at the same time, but these three albums are going in three different directions. One album will be a piano solo record which is already recorded. Then there will be another album which he wants to record with a trio and with deejays; it’s a combination of his trio works and deejay works. And the plan is to make a third album with Brazilian-Latin music.TP: Uri said that you and he first encountered each other at various sessions at the Tap Bar. Is that how you and he started making narratives together?

DJ OLIVE: Yeah, but I didn’t really know him. That was with a group called Liminal, which was me, Danny Bloom and Richard Pinsiera. We were playing the Tap Bar, and anybody could basically jam with us. Danny Bloom knew the Knitting Factory scene a lot better than we did; Rich and I were from kind of the electronic music scene. A lot of people played there who we didn’t really know but Danny knew. Then when Uri was working on the Mahler record, he asked Danny if he knew any crazy deejay, and Danny said, “Yes, I know Olive.” So he brought me out to a studio in Brooklyn, and Danny and I jammed on the multitracks for like a 9-hour day. When the Mahler record started selling pretty well in Europe and the tours started coming in, he asked me to go and tour with him, which was a really different role than jamming to multi-tracks. He really liked what I was doing on the road so…

TP: I want to elaborate on several things you said. On the Mahler thing, what was the criteria for the choices you were making within that jam? Obviously, once you have some time under your belt, you can codify your ideas. But jamming as a deejay, what areas of music and sound were you thinking of as matching Uri’s concept?

DJ OLIVE: Well, I really didn’t know when I went to the studio. I had no idea. Danny basically called me and said “Do you want to do some studio work? We’re going to play to some multi track, and it’s like jazz interpretations of Mahler.” I really had no idea. I put together my arsenal, my toolkit of different directions I could flip the script. The main thing for me, in general, that I look for are records that have a single instrument on them or sections with solo instruments. Because if you’re playing with a band, and you start mixing in a whole other band, it’s very hard to have it integrate with the musicians. I find one of the dangers of deejaying with bands is that it can become a kind of two-dimensional thing, where you have the band and then you have the sound coming out of the sound system. It happens a lot when deejays play beats with a band and there’s a drummer there as well, and you hear the processed beats coming out of the sound system… It’s kind of complicated. But records have timing and tuning. So if you pitch something up so that it’s the right pitch, it’s very…almost never going to be in time. So for me, when you start playing beats for stuff that has both timing and pitch involved in it, then the band starts to play to the record rather than the record being inside the group like another instrument.

TP: I’m interested in the way in which your own personal narrative intersects with Uri’s, because you’ve obviously developed a strong relationship.

DJ OLIVE: Yes. Well, in general, I was playing with a lot of bands, and I was boiling down my toolkit into the single sound records that I could find, and then starting to press my own records that I call palettes, which are various single noises and sounds and people talking who are mostly friends of mine or musicians I know who get in the studio. That kind of way that I am deejaying with bands is I guess why Danny said, “Why don’t you use this guy?” I already kind of had that formula going. When I went to the studio, they had 90 minutes on multi-track, and then they would play us a track, and we would jam to it, then maybe we’d jam to it again, and they could edit us out or cut-and-paste us anywhere they wanted later. So I would try different things and see what the response from Uri was, because I was getting to know him that day. He was digging it. He seemed like he was really liking it and I was doing the right thing, and he didn’t sort of tell me what to do or second-guess me. I tried to do what I thought would add something, would be a cinematic element. So it would be as if, as an audience, you could start to picture the sound in your head.

TP: How did this develop on the tour?

DJ OLIVE: On the tour he just kept telling me to play more. I wasn’t playing very much.

TP: How did your concept of what he was doing evolve over the tour?

DJ OLIVE: Well, I wasn’t sure whether he wanted me to play the same things or to be like a wild-card for a little while, so I was testing that ground. Then I really found that for me (and he seemed to agree), the more wild I could be… It’s almost like I was keeping the band on its toes, in a weird way. If I was playing the same sounds, the same little spoken word chunks, then the band wouldn’t have a reaction to it in the same way. Because if you put in some spoken word, like collecting the garbage or something, people react to that only the first time in the same way, because it has the humor and the content or something. So I was trying to keep the band on its toes by always playing something different, coming in on different people’s solos with different sounds. Then there were a few sounds that I found would really worked somewhere, like the snoring at the end of the Goldberg Variations. I started to play something like that every time, and it really fit. But I don’t think that the turntables are a very good instrument when you start having to hit cues, where you’re playing a set record at a set time. Then you really should be picking out a sampler.

TP: As far as the Goldberg vis-a-vis the Mahler, are you using the same process? Are you working from the text, as it were, or are you relying on your intuition in regard what the sound is in the moment?

DJ OLIVE: It’s a combination. The text from Mahler is really different than the Goldberg.

TP: And Uri’s process is very different in dealing with the two.

DJ OLIVE: Yeah. But I think a lot about Mahler and about Goldberg; not so much about Bach, but more about this insomniac who couldn’t sleep, and that he’s sitting in his bed and these pieces are being played in his castle over and over again. So I started to think about incidental things, like dogs barking or a cat or going to the toilet, or things that would happen for an insomniac. Mahler is really different especially because we were touring Germany and there was this issue about Mahler being coopted by the Nazis, and this kind of Jewish-German meeting place of culture.

TP: You mean the Nazis coopting Mahler’s legacy.

DJ OLIVE: Yes. They were using his work, which was really ironic because he was Jewish. So that kind of thought started to come into play as far as what kind of person he would be, and trying to… For me, I had a much more melancholy sense about some of the tracks. I guess his kid died. There’s a song about that. So I would try to put my head in a very different place for each piece. But the technique is pretty similar. On the Bach I tried to be a loot more funny.

TP: So you’ve known Uri now for 4-5 years. Tell me your impressions of him as a thinker, as an improviser.

DJ OLIVE: You know, it’s really not my world. So I am constantly amazed by these players and their process. I work with computers and samplers and stitching little tiny bits of sound for hours and days and weeks, just one measure of some beat. Very synthetic. And it’s all basically intuitive, except knowing the programs. I can’t write a bar of music. But to watch someone like Ralph Alessi sight-read and sight-transpose simultaneously, like having the sheet music for say the clarinet and transposing it for trumpet while it’s the first time he’s ever seen the music, blows my mind. I see that on the road working with these guys. So I’m more amazed by what Uri is doing. When he was working on the Goldbergs, we were in Austria, and his hotel room was just papers… He was talking on the phone and writing music, and you had to walk over piles of music, and there was all these different players, and they were rehearsing every day. It was like four days rehearsal. He was constantly rewriting. I was really blown away by how intense his process was, but it didn’t seem to be bogging him down at all.

TP: He seems not to get particularly phased by much of anything.

DJ OLIVE: Yes. He’s an amazing guy as a bandleader. I’ve never been on the road with someone like that, as far as not stressing the band. He is ridiculously nice and considerate, and trying to take care of everybody without it being like a panic. Everybody seems to get on the train, everybody seems to get on their plane and get to the gig. There’s no drama. And that’s his style. That’s true with his playing, too, that he won’t necessarily try to mold people into his pieces, but to have pieces evolve with some of the players.

TP: So basically he’s extrapolating everyone’s tonal personality and have that comprise what the music is at that particular moment. I guess the music can have infinite iterations just by who plays it. Maybe that defines what his music is, that there are 8 million ways to skin the cat.

DJ OLIVE: Exactly. And I think he’ll play different tracks when different players are on the road.

TP: Tell me about some of the other bands you play with.

DJ OLIVE: I did a record with William Hooker and Glenn Spearman called Mindfulness, a totally different vibe. I learned a lot from William, and I was on the road with him for two trips. I just did a record with Kim Gordon and Ikue Mori on Sonic Youth Recordings, which was mixed by Jim O’Rourke, who did a really great job. We’re going to go on the road in March, to France and Italy. I have my own project called We(tm). That’s an electronic outfit, and we’ve put out three records. I work with Christian Marclay.

TP: He’s kind of the pioneer of this particular end of deejaying, I would think.

DJ OLIVE: Well, that would be too big a statement. In a way, but I think there’s a middle ground that people like me are finding me that are between the skills developed by Hip-hop and the skills developed by people like Christian. It’s like two different branches on a tree…

TP: I have vivid memories of things Christian was doing in the ’80s.

DJ OLIVE: Yes, and Hip-Hop was happening at the same time in a totally different way somewhere else. I grew up on Hip-Hop and then did some really weird pieces, and someone said, “Do you know Christian Marclay?” and I was like “Whoa!” They gave me the Footprints record. [38] The main thing I’ve been working on is what I call the Vinyl Score, which is compositions for the turntable, which are played by solo deejays. So it’s like a palette of sounds, and you have three copies. You can only play that palette on three turntables for 10 to 20 minutes. So what I would paint and what you would paint would be totally different.

TP: So within a finite set of sounds and these finite instructions, you give your interpretation.

DJ OLIVE: Right. And every time it’s mixed, it’s different, and what you’re hearing are the skills of the deejay and the instruments of the turntables. so I’ve been making those and doing performances in Europe and here with different deejays, playing the pieces back to back. I’m starting a label that’s focused just on doing that. I’m going to do one vinyl score that Luc Ferrari is making and another vinyl score that DJ Toshio, my partner on the label, is working on with John Appleton, who’s a concrete guy. They’re both about 75, one’s American, one’s French, and they’re both concrete composers.

I learned a lot from Ralph Alessi, Ralph Peterson, Michael Formanek, Drew Gress and all these guys. I learned a lot from these guys, just sitting in a train for a few hours. Don Byron, what a thinker, man. That guy is amazing just to sit around and talk with. Ralph Alessi and Drew Gress, and Don can get into this, too…this linguistic gymnastics that’s hilarious! Drew Gress is incredible with it. All this linguistic stuff. It’s pretty funny. Barbara Walker is an amazing person. But she’s not heady in the same way at all. She’s really down to earth but super-smart. For me it’s great to be with these musicians after being in the studio with deejays, which I love, too, but there’s a lot of shallowness and Fashion… It’s a lot about Fashion. Music has Fashion, music has Design. Which I like. I like that aspect of it, of music being like design.

TP: You represent a point of view for other people, and people get very wedded to their points of view (I’m talking about the public aspect of deejaying), so I imagine it would be an easy trap to fall into. Because deejays get a person, a certain authority, whatever that status is, and it would be very easy to get carried away with that.

DJ OLIVE: Yeah, and then you get categorized and…

TP: So a lot of the things you’re doing are consciously to avoid that trap.

DJ OLIVE: Well, these people who are like gods to me. Kim Gordon calls me. Am I going to say no? The same with Uri. I knew him a little bit, just his name. But he’s this incredible musician. I’m not going to say no to the chance to work with these people and soak something up, and try to get some feedback, you know, how can I make this instrument work as an instrument, not as a playback device. Or not just as a reference device either, although I use it that way a lot with Uri, like referencing sounds or sound effects or people speaking. For instance, with William Hooker I didn’t do any of that. It was all just usually synthesizer, early experimental synthesizer records. I wasn’t making like any reference to any content or the way that records usually are used when they’re not playing beats.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Piano, uri Caine

For Craig Taborn’s Birthday, a Downbeat Feature From 2008

The magnificent pianist/keyboardist/soundshaper Craig Taborn turned 46 yesterday. For the occasion, I’m posting a Downbeat feature that I wrote about him in 2008.

* * * *

Home in Brooklyn during the first days of spring, Craig Taborn was engaged in research and development. Among Taborn’s various self-imposed tasks was to memorize 10 new Tim Berne compositions in preparation for a three-week April tour in Europe with Berne’s Science Friction group, to which, during the winter, Taborn had contributed—as he had done with David Torn’s Presenz, which enfolds Berne’s band—slamming grooves and an orchestral array of sounds from keyboards, synths and home-brewed “junk” electronics.

“With Science Friction, there’s a lot of electronics and reading,” said Taborn, pointing across his living room to a concert upright Bechstein piano on which Berne’s scores shared space with piano music by Arnold Schoenberg. “Sometimes I’ll want to do a particular part on one keyboard, another part here, then another there. It would be a real problem to read music and also think about all the knobs and dials, or to look at a computer screen and problem-solve while the part is coming.”

Taborn’s penchant for sustaining creative fluency through a 360-degree span of stylistic taxonomies, in contexts “inside” and “outside,” acoustic or electronic, makes him a singular figure among improvisers of his generation. But at this moment, his keyboard wizardry was posing a peculiar problem. “I’m still deciding what to bring,” he said. He wasn’t talking about clothes.

A half-full fiberglass camera case, neatly stacked in two tiers, lay at his feet. “Flights in Europe have been strict on overweight,” he said. He added that during his winter travels he had drastically exceeded the 20-kilo limit beyond which a 10 Euros per kilo fee is imposed.

“Now, this case is actually light for its kind,” he said. “Nothing happens to it—it’s waterproof and you can throw it down the stairs. But it’s 7 kilos empty, and there’s no way to avoid the overweight. So now I’m thinking, ‘What do I want to deal with? What do I need and how much do I want to take?’”

A possible option would be to place the contents of the case into the square bag that sat across the room, transforming it into an unprotected, carry-on satchel. “You get on these little connecting flights and they want to hand-check your stuff,” he said, nixing the notion. “So you’re giving $1500 worth of stuff to somebody in Italy, and God knows what happens once it’s out of your sight. You get to the gig, and it’s just gone.”

Taborn would bring a laptop with a hard-drive loaded with software emulations of all the instruments he plays, and a contract rider stipulated that each venue would provide an acoustic piano, a Rhodes, and a virtual Hammond organ. “I’ve been trying to phase out my laptop thing, because it takes me out of improvising,” he said. “It’s wonderful, but I find I get more mileage out of one or two nice things that do something.”

Deciding upon those “nice things” was therefore the task at hand. One essential was a coil of high-grade electrical cord in a corner of the case. “This is the thing that makes the weight,” he said ruefully. Below the cord was a Line 6 Delay pedal, for echoes, and a Berenger mixer with two stereo and two mono lines.

“A lot of people send everything to the house soundman, but I like to mix myself,” he said. “I’ll plug in the Rhodes and the organ and a couple of synths, then send all the lines to my own amp, and have them mike the amp. That gives me complete control over my sound.”

Taborn considered a keyboard and a wood-trimmed, knob-loaded Creamware Pro-12 ASB synthesizer, built to capture the essence of the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, a popular synth at the cusp of the ’80s.

“I’m an improviser, and I don’t know exactly what sound I want to make until I hear what’s going on,” he said. “During the ’70s into the ’80s, as synthesizers became refined, the emphasis was put on programmability and keeping presets—you designed your sounds at home with the luxury of time and silence, and then could call them up with, say, button No. 1 at a specific spot in the music. It’s like tuning your TV to your favorite channels. You always know that exact sound will be there, balanced the way you want in the environment.

“I’m interested in the process of making and designing the sound as part of the improvisation,” he continued. ‘I come more out of Sun Ra, who approached synthesizers by turning the knobs, playing in real time, and figuring it out as he went along. Those instruments were new, so people didn’t know them, and they weren’t designed to be pre-programmed, so you couldn’t call up a sound. Throughout the ’90s, hardcore musicians from hip-hop, techno and electronica were buying those older synthesizers to be able to personalize and improvise in real time. The marketplace went way up, and now it’s hard to find things that don’t have knobs and switches.”

Taborn continued to ponder the issue of weight. “I have this whole rig inside my laptop,” he said, referring to his Macbook Pro. “I could plug it into the system, and use a little controller to do all this. I could even emulate the knobs. I always take the laptop with me, and I’ve used it a lot in the last couple of years—although I like to have things dedicated, and I prefer the real thing, I don’t prefer it to carrying all that stuff around. I do hear qualitative differences in the sound. Also, if your entire setup is on the laptop and it crashes, then what do you do? If I run one thing, for instance, it will probably be OK. But if, to emulate a sound I get in real time, I layer a software version of a Prophet-5 and then a software version of a delay, the processors have trouble handling it. It takes a lot of number-crunching in the computer to program things that have the subtle play of an analog oscillator or analog filter, and their imperfections, such as going out of tune a bit when it heats up. For what I do, a lot of real-time manipulation, turning knobs frantically, the Sun Ra kind of thing, the computers will freeze up.”

Offering to demonstrate the virtual gear, Taborn transitioned to his studio, a converted second bedroom. Among other things, it contained a Mac Power desktop, Event 2020 reference-quality speakers, a Mackie 1202-VLZ3 mixer, a MOTU-2408 interface, a Kurzweil K-2500 synthesizer, an Oxygen-2 mini-keyboard, and a model 240B Wurlitzer electric piano from the early ’70s with a broken speaker. A larger wood-body 140B from 1962 was in the closet. His personal Rhodes was parked at his parents’ home in Minneapolis.

Taborn turned on the Mac, clicked Applications, pulled up his Prophet-5 knockoff, a Native Instruments Pro-53, and waited. The response was sluggish. “Something weird is going on,” he said. “If I were live and it started doing this it would be a drag.”

He opened the B-4 Hammond organ sample and uncorked a grooving line on the QWERTY keys. “I don’t play the keyboard computer like that, but that’s how it’s mapped,” he said. He switched the setting from “Funky Kingston” to an idiomatic Joey DeFrancesco-generated B-3 sound.

The computer was balking, so Taborn went to the closet. He pulled out a bright-red keyboard-synth labeled Yamaha PSS-470, the kind musicians once used, in Taborn’s words, “to play a cheesy samba.” Its wiring and circuitry were transformed into random pathways and patterns by Taborn’s friend Ryan Olcott. “You can’t emulate this on a computer,” he said. “I have two of these. You could get them in pawn shops for $50–$100, and then go inside it. Ryan is into these real improvising machines. This one came out in the ’80s, and it has a WHAM! sound, like George Michael, in its original functionality.”

He played a skronky, distorted line. “It can do something like this almost immediately, and when you turn on the switches it gets you into some abstract areas. The mentality is avant-garde; it’s made to be random, so you don’t know what it’s going to do. That’s why I like improvising with it—responding to the sounds and dealing with them is endless.”
As if to emphasize his affinity for radical esthetics, Taborn turned to a pile of books on a shelf, topped by the anthology Film Theory And Criticism. “Film, dance and music all deal with time, and how these events unfold in time is very influential for me,” he said. It was observed that, like experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, well-represented in that text, or, for that matter, such formative musical heroes as Thelonious Monk, McCoy Tyner and Cecil Taylor, Taborn thinks like a Modernist, focused on the purity and elaboration of a particular idea, rather than translating styles into ironic cultural signifiers in the Postmodern manner. You’re not likely to hear David Torn play hardbop chordal lines as Taborn did with James Carter during the ‘90s, or Berne to limn the melody of Ellington’s “Stevedore Serenade” in an idiomatic manner, as Taborn did with Carter some years ago at a Jazz at Lincoln Center concert. But Taborn seems not to recognize hierarchical distinctions between the idioms. He’s as committed to generating fresh ideas in one environment as the other.

After his April tour with Berne, Taborn would return to Europe for the first three weeks of May with Scott Colley and Brian Blade in David Binney’s quartet, interpreting Binney’s harmonically dense, long-form jazz compositions on acoustic piano. Over the previous six months on continent-hopping long hauls with Chris Potter’s Underground, he had donned his Fender Rhodes hat, juxtaposing crisp, surging odd-meter bass lines with simultaneously improvised melodic variations, supporting the proceedings with informed, tasteful comp. Briefer trips and local one-offs—with Roscoe Mitchell, William Parker, Gerald Cleaver, Drew Gress and Susie Ibarra—augmented Taborn’s mix, as did a September 2007 acoustic trio engagement at the Monterey Jazz Festival with Cleaver and bassist Thomas Morgan.

A broadcast of the latter performance documents a six-tune, 55-minute suite marked by fresh ideas and unending musical conversation. It fills a gap—although Taborn, 38, has a large enough backlog of solo, trio, electronic, and ensemble material to fill several CDs, his last acoustic recording appeared in 2001 on Light Made Lighter (Thirsty Ear), while his most recent leader date is 2004’s Junk Magic (Thirsty Ear), a seven-track suite on which Taborn convened violinist Mat Maneri, tenor saxophonist Aaron Stewart and The Bad Plus drummer Dave King to investigate themes executed with various circuitry and computerized synthesis.

“I’ve postponed my leader thing,” Taborn said with a shrug. “Because of finances, I take the tours as they come, then everything fills up.”

Taborn’s employers state unequivocally that his incessant sidemanning in no way inhibits his ability to project his sonic personality.

“It takes a lot of confidence not to go along with the crowd,” Berne said. “If Craig wanted to, he could eliminate all this other stuff and impress everyone with his piano trio. But he based all his decisions on his interest in the music he plays, not only his career or being seen as the great pianist he is.

“I wanted to do away with guitar and bass, but somehow have the power and range of both instruments,” Berne continued, explaining why he first recruited Taborn around 2000. “I didn’t want synthesizers, and I didn’t want somebody to play like a keyboard player, so to speak. I wanted somebody who just played music on the keyboard.”

“Craig is an idiosyncratic genius, which is a word I don’t use lightly,” Torn said. “He’s not a chameleon in the studio sense of the word; he has strong conceptual ideas about what he’s doing in any context. But with the exception of his acoustic playing, which is remarkable, he’s incapable of pinning himself down to an idiom or particular sound. He’s the rare musician who takes the approach, ‘what can I do with this instrument?’ rather than playing through its book of techniques. Regardless of its organic or electronic nature, every instrument is an expression of technology; Craig is able to eschew the technological aspect in order to get out the sounds that he feels are suitanble for the music he’s playing.”

Furthermore, as Berne noted, Taborn directs his speculative investigations towards the function of the moment. “Even playing something complicated, Craig simplifies it to its fundamental components,” Berne said. “He won’t do anything just to show he can; if one note does it, that’s what he’ll play. He also has the guts to lay out, to not play, when most people would feel obligated to. He’ll always take the opposing view. He’ll pose another question or look at things in a way you didn’t consider.”

Potter noted that Taborn’s experimentalism stems less from a contrarian sensibility than a desire to explore the ramifications of the multiple vocabularies that comprise his frame of reference. “Craig has spent a lot of time learning and thinking about the lessons of past masters in the jazz tradition—and other traditions, too,” he said. “When he improvises, he keeps the essence of what makes his influences work musically but takes care not to copy what they did. Perhaps he’ll introduce elements from other sources. He’s intellectually thorough enough to take his own angle.”

Particularly when deploying electronics, Taborn hews to textural imperatives not dissimilar to those that impelled Mitchell and the members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago—an early Taborn influence—to incorporate “little instruments” into the sonic flow 40 years ago.

“I’m always aware of sound,” Taborn said. “I approach the acoustic piano somewhat as a sound device, which it is, but my relationship to it contains a lot of pianism. I learn the Rhodes, the Hammond, the Wurlitzer, the electronics, so that I can use them as devices to work with ideas, but I don’t practice them like I practice piano. Electronic music isn’t playing certain scales over certain chords, or working over a particular form. You might play with the delay, or the rate of an echo, or modify the reverb. It’s less about technique on an instrument, which a lot of jazz is, and more related to visual and conceptual art.”

But it’s also about being able to execute almost any idea he thinks of—Taborn possesses a surfeit of technique. He doesn’t use it, as he puts it, “play in one bag and then shift to another.” Rather, Taborn prefers to borrow fluently rendered vocabulary from the diverse musical languages he commands to create contextual gestures that support and augment the flow. The architecture trumps the facade.

“Prescribing notions of the parameters of bebop or hardbop or avant-garde is to posit a sort of fixed thing that was never fixed anywhere,” he said. “It’s useful as a model to construct and look at things, but it doesn’t have much bearing on the creative process. I draw specific influence from Frank Zappa, Blood Ulmer and Wayne Shorter, not the note choices or harmony, but in phrasing and sound. What’s interesting is that it doesn’t translate to piano or keyboards at all, but comes out sounding like something else.” DB

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For Jeff Watts’ 56th Birthday, A DownBeat Article From 2002 and an Uncut Blindfold Test From 2004

In honor of master drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts’ 56th birthday, I’ve appended two pieces that it was my honor to write about him for DownBeat more than a decade. On top is a Downbeat feature piece written on the occasion of his second release, Bar Talk, in 2002 (the Zinc Bar, which figures prominently in the piece, was then on the north side of Houston Street). Below it is an uncut Blindfold Test that Jeff did with me in 2004.

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Jeff Watts (DownBeat):

When he isn’t on the road with Branford Marsalis, Michael Brecker or his own increasingly busy group, Jeff “Tain” Watts often plays in the cramped environs of Manhattan’s Zinc Bar, a low-ceilinged shotgun basement on the north edge of Soho where an international mix of New York’s finest workshop various projects. In the front section, patrons and waitresses vie for elbow room in a narrow aisle between a well-stocked bar and a long line of dime-sized banquette tables. The tables run past a 10’-by-5’ performance area between the waitress station and a sheetrock wall that conceals a pair of dimly lit restrooms. No matter how esoteric the material, the bands never stray too far from a groove of one diasporic origin or another, the better to keep the party going. Watts knows how to play the room and push the envelope as well as anyone.

The Zinc Bar’s skronky-cosmopolitan ambiance figures prominently in Bar Talk (Columbia), Watts’ 2002 release. Consider the CD’s cover photo. Shot in tones of boudoir red, Watts, in a leather jacket, perches over a drink, perhaps anticipating a round of conversation with Jean-Claude Rakotoniaina, a Madagascarian charmer and bon vivant who until recently mixed and poured $10 mojitos, caporinhas and martinis to a varied clientele. Watts signifies their profound banter—“He’d say, ‘Tain, you are the man’; I’d be like, ‘No, J.C., you know you’re the man!’”—on “JC Is The Man,” a singable five-note hook propelled by the drummer’s urgent, insouciant beat.

“Vodville,” which follows, celebrates another archetype of bar culture. Dedicated to the principle “in vodka, veritas,” it opens with onomatopoeic variations on “Giant Steps” by Branford Marsalis. This, Watts explains, “symbolizes the early stages of drunkenness, when guys suddenly are enlightened and aware of deep things.” There follows an abstract minor blues form where, “the conversation becomes more base; the time starts to slip around; the tempo speeds up; then the drunkard tries to make his way home, perhaps in denial about his drunkenness. In the third part the guy’s at home, drunk again, trying to cop a plea and pledging not to do this any more. Of course, the cycle starts all over again.”

For the remainder of Bar Talk, Watts eschews further exploration of the nuances of lush life. But he frames himself with an assortment of environments—a Brazil-inflected paean to Stevie Wonder; a tenor burnout by his two primary sources of income; a nasty blues; two harmonically luxuriant ballads; a post-bop evocation of Billy Higgins; even a contemporary-styled tune with a torchy lyric—that artfully convey the range of skills, predispositions and stylistic idiosyncracies that make Watts perhaps the most influential hardcore jazz drummer of his generation. He’s a storyteller, adept at extracting melodic motifs from challenging harmony and weaving his signature metric shifts and superimpositions organically into the form. He’s a drum virtuoso who plays with volcanic flash, but also intuitive taste, and he sustains a constant dialogue with bandmates Ravi Coltrane, David Budway and Paul Bollenbeck. On the heels of his 2000 leader debut, Citizen Tain, Bar Talk documents how deftly Watts, 42, has morphed himself from flow-shaping celebrity sideman to leader with an inclusive vision.

“I’m still trying to figure out what the hell I’m doing in general!” Watts exclaims with a raucous laugh from his spacious Brooklyn apartment. A video of the Miles Davis Quintet, circa 1967, flickers on the television. “I want to be able to interface with almost any type of musician. Stretch jazz vocabulary abstractly, but keep elements that are heartfelt and centered—music anyone can understand—and always keep what’s raw. I want to deal with the whole world rhythmically. As drummers, our prime function is rhythm. So we should know as many as we can.

“I’ve questioned my rationale for writing music or addressing stuff on the instrument that isn’t straightahead jazz,” he continues. “It took me a long time to resolve this. Maybe because I felt for so long like I was in the trenches trying to save the world with jazz, there’s an unspoken guilt about loving a simple song with three chords, or one groove and two fills. But when you analyze things in fusion or things Miles Davis did that people find questionable, often it comes down to a different base rhythm. But if there’s a dance and invention and interaction and a group sound and a certain level of quality, then the jazz thing is still there.”

Perhaps Watts retains a fresh attitude to jazz became he discovered it so late. Immersed in funk, r&b and fusion as a Pittsburgh teenager, he matriculated at Duquesne University as a classical percussion student, anticipating a future in the studios. Then he met Steel City trapset giant Roger Humphries, transitioned from a devotee of Billy Cobham, Mahavishnu and George Duke into, as he puts it, “a jazz head,” and transferred to Berklee College of Music. There, Watts encountered a cast of talented, ambitious peer-groupers—including Branford Marsalis, Donald Harrison, Greg Osby, Kevin Eubanks, Wallace Roney, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Cindy Blackman and Gene Jackson—eager to investigate the future upon a solid bedrock of tradition. In the fall of 1981, Marsalis, aware that his trumpet-playing younger brother was looking for a drummer to play a few gigs, recommended his friend.

“I always felt that Tain was the guy,” Branford says. “I liked how he constructed his comping behind soloists at jam sessions. As opposed to being a complete, thorough historian of the music and playing all the right things at the right time, he played strange things at the right time, imposing his fusion influences on a jazz context. I appreciated that and thought it would be great for Wynton’s band.”

“My brother liked Tain,” Wynton Marsalis recalls. “There were no auditions. Kenny Kirkland had an apartment, and we started rehearsing. At that time, they knew about jazz and kind of liked it, but they were mainly into fusion. I was into jazz. I liked Tain because he was funny, but he has a phenomenal level of talent and intellect. He’s a master of form, with perfect pitch and tremendous reflexes. Over the years, he developed a vocabulary that only he plays. All those pieces with time changes and different meters came from playing off of him, because he could do it. It forced me to shape my lines that way, too.”

“When Wynton started his thing, we stepped up the learning game,” Branford says. “Tain talked to Tony Williams and hung out with Art Blakey. He hooked his stuff up. When we first got to New York, he didn’t know how to play four-on-the-floor. His cymbal sound was OK, kind of splashy. He would hit the cymbal for hours, getting that together. Then he spent time learning Max’s stuff, then Art Blakey’s, one person by one person. The more you do that, the more sophisticated your language becomes, so eventually you can play almost anything. But on top of that, he was doing it his own way.”

Watts describes himself as less apt to break down his major influences stroke-for-stroke than to create something that outlines their essence. “Perhaps I’ve helped people to operate within the tradition but also independently of the tradition,” he notes. “Early study in jazz drumming tends to focus on bebop because it was so codified. Each guy had a signature vocabulary—a certain set of licks—that you can use to try to create the illusion of being melodic over a form. You can get hung up on someone like Philly Joe Jones, and it dictates how you approach a tune. I gravitated to drummers like James Black, Ben Riley, Frankie Dunlop and Papa Jo Jones, who aren’t out of any specific bag, but just swing and make commentary. This freed me up. Wynton pretty much specifically asked me to find things that Tony Williams didn’t play. We used that music and got ideas from it, but it was important to work on a voice.”

That voice has inspired two generations of esthetic descendants as a gateway into jazz lineage. Watts combined the vocabulary of Billy Cobham and Narada Michael Walden with the vocabulary of Elvin Jones and Tony Williams. He found ways to codify the equations of metric modulation, or pure polyrhythm (Vinnie Colaiuta defines this as “playing an alienated group of notes evenly dispersed throughout a given number of beats”), into a consistent improvisational style. “During my second year at Berklee, I skimmed Gary Chaffee’s books and figured every polyrhythm that I would need,” Watts says. “Once again, rather than learning all the specifics, I made my own decisions. That informed the more linear style of my earlier playing with Wynton.

He sings a rhythm with an abstracted second-line feel to demonstrate his point. “Kenny Kirkland would comp that a lot in Wynton’s band to give things a disjunct feeling. People call it playing five, but it isn’t. It’s playing eighth notes grouped in five; it goes over the bars, resolves in a different place, and makes the music flow differently. By 1984, I wanted to do some things that transcended jazz vocabulary, and I started to experiment, play a pure five beats or seven beats over four beats or three beats. To this day, a few recordings are really radical on that end, like Live At Blues Alley and parts of Marsalis Standard Time, Vol.1, as well as Gary Thomas’ first record and Geri Allen’s The Nurturer. It’s like a 20th century classical music device, and it’s evolved and become more complex. People aren’t afraid now to use pure polyrhythm for the ensemble or for soloing.”

Still, the fact that Watts became a household name among jazz cognoscenti during the first decade of his career had less to do with what he played than with whom he played it. He remained with Wynton Marsalis until 1987, went on the road with George Benson and McCoy Tyner, rejoined forces with Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland after their sojourn with Sting, and moved with them to Los Angeles in 1992 for what became a three-year stint on Jay Leno’s “The Tonight Show.” Out of the fray, Watts began to compose, figuring out ways to translate his take on modern trapset vocabulary into the compelling narrative he presents on Bar Talk.

“I had fun for maybe the first year-and-a-half—and then it became a job,” Watts relates. “I was in purgatory. But looking back, it was almost like a paid sabbatical. Wynton was always encouraging me. He said, ‘Write it, and if it’s halfway done, we’ll play it and make it right.’ But I didn’t have a lot of theoretical knowledge, and I was shy about composition for a long time. If I’d stayed in New York I might not have had the time to open myself up and pursue it. Being denied a lot of playing opportunities and access to a pool of musicians made me focus on other routes. And living next door to Kenny Kirkland was not a bad impetus.”

“Kenny and Jeff would work from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., then they could leave and do whatever the hell they wanted,” Branford says. “They were always in one another’s houses. Kenny had the Mac set up with the software, Tain would go in, and they would just write tunes, work on things, and play gigs from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m., maybe get a full eight hours sleep, and still wake up in time to get to work.”

During the ’80s, Watts had supplemented polyrhythmic explorations with tutorials in Afro-Cuban music from Kirkland; these led to marathon master class listening sessions and occasional gigs with Jerry and Andy Gonzales. He continued his homework in L.A.’s dynamic Latin community. “I sat down with people, got some specifics and actually implemented the vocabulary,” Watts says. “Playing Latin music is a bridge to an African sensibility. It helps you get away from bar lines and conventional phrases; you feel a basic heartbeat, but then you cut it up. You have the freedom to create from nothing—a personal world of music with just the drums.”

Watts resettled in New York in 1995, well-prepared to tackle the Pan-American rhythmic mix of Danilo Perez, with whom he played and recorded for two years. “Tain had done enough homework where now it was just a matter of execution,” Branford says. “He was able to apply what he had already peeped and find out if things worked or not. Danilo was smart enough to hear that Tain would bring more of a jazz dynamic than most Afro-Cuban drummers.”

“People will always emphasize authenticity,” Watts says. “But some Latin and quasi-ethnic folk call me because they also want something that doesn’t sound like what they’ll get from somebody from their country. Now I’m not afraid to add some American stuff or things I make up. People are taking chances compositionally, and you want to make it sound real within the first 10 minutes, to let them know they’re on the right track.”

Watts put some Tainian mojo on a recent no-rehearsal hit at the Zinc Bar with an Afro-Jazz sextet led by Nigerian-American bassist and Jazz Messenger alumnus Essiet Essiet. He propelled the band with four-limbed variations on a set of vernacular juju rhythms that Essiet had shown him a few years earlier, ratcheting the intensity, conjuring from the trapset a sound not unlike that of the talking drum choir with King Sunny Ade and his African Beats.

His playing recalled a comment by Brecker, Watts’ frequent employer since 1997 and himself an avid drummer. “Tain has come up with a new language on the drums,” Brecker says. “When I’m not playing, I stand next to him every night, transfixed, and hope some of it will sink in. Sometimes I think I understand it, then when I sit down at the drums, I can’t do it.”

On “Like A Rose,” the final track of Bar Talk, Brecker constructs an ingenious variation on a stutter-step rhythmic modulation that occurs after the bridge, a construction inspired by Meshuggah, a Swedish heavy metal band Watts admires. The leader brings forth his soulful alter ego, Juan Tainish, to sing an affecting lyric reflecting the side of Watts “that’s almost corny, that loves unapologetically sweet things, like Stevie Wonder and Elton John ballads.” He wrote it on the road last year after a nostalgic conversation with Sting – appropriately, at the bar – at the Central Park after-concert party during Sting’s Desert Rain tour.

Watts and Sting go back to Sting’s ‘80s quasi-jazz period with Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland, when Watts unsuccessfully auditioned for the band. “In those years, when I was immersed in jazz, I listened to a lot of things, but kept a mental log rather than actually address stuff I’d want to incorporate into a contemporary style down the road,” he says. “Branford had been telling me about the audition for months. But I was a wild and crazy guy, and as the months went by I was just in the street doing my thing and doing my jazz gigs. The night before, I went to Branford’s house, grabbed four Police records, put them on cassette, went to the rehearsal the next day and jammed with Sting, Darryl Jones and Branford. To make that transition at that point of my life, I would have had to spend some time.”

Fifteen years later, Watts remarks: “I want to practice a lot, and see what happens if I’m studious and conscientious. I might as well find out before I’m 50. Most of what I’ve done has been through musicianship as opposed to technique. I want to change my approach and get better purely in a drumming way; instrumentally, I want to refine everything and not be limited by lack of preparation.”

Well aware of what he’s accomplished, Watts anticipates his next phase. “Dave Holland said in Down Beat a few years ago that he writes tunes, records them and plays them on the road to find out what he can do on them. He uses that knowledge to determine what he writes later. I look forward to being in that artistic cycle. I get a percentage of it from my very close sideman associations, because I usually end up shaping the rhythm. But being able to write stuff, get it recorded and play it with people you choose—having control entirely over your musical world—is a cool thing.”

 

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Jeff Watts Blindfold Test (2004):

1. Chucho Valdes, “Sin Clave Para Con Swing” (from NEW CONCEPTION, Blue Note, 2002) (Valdes, piano, composer; Yaroldy Abreu Robles, congas; Lazaro Rivero Alarcón, bass; Ramses Rodriguez Baralt, trap drums) – (2-1/2 stars)

That’s like some quasi-progressive, Latin-based… I guess a lot of stuff that I began to become aware of maybe in the early ‘90s, people utilizing odd time signatures but still retaining clave structure. It comes into some of my writing, some arrangements I do, and of course, on “The Impaler.” It’s stuff I got from talking with various, mostly Cuban musicians, and also stuff that Danilo Perez started to experiment with, maybe in conjunction with but maybe as a reaction to stuff that was going on in Cuba. It’s a logical progression. If you have Latin jazz musicians listening to early jazz… It’s mostly a combination of fusion and what happened with jazz in New York in the ‘80s, stuff that we were experimenting with in Wynton’s group, and also Steve take on permutations of structure and time. So it’s a natural progression with Latin jazz musicians to try to use this to get to something else or whatever. Sometimes it really works and it feels natural; sometimes it can be kind of gimmicky. But I think that the end result of this experimentation will be down the road, probably in the next five or ten years.

But this particular one? It was cool. There’s kind of a problem that exists with…well, even in a lot of jazz tunes. Not enough of the material that’s used for the exposition is actually improvised on. And it’s cool. It’s not etched in stone. Something can be an introduction to something, to take you into a vibe, and then cats can solo on whatever material they choose. I kind of prefer when it actually uses some of the material that’s in the exposition. But it’s fine. I really don’t know who it is, though. Pianistically, it didn’t sound strong enough to be someone like Chucho, but then again, it could be. And I’m not familiar enough with his writing to say that it’s him. It’s definitely not Danilo. It didn’t strike me as being someone like Ed Simon or even Luis Perdomo. Those are the obvious culprits that come to mind. I’m not really sure who it is. It was just coming from a whole lot of places. Then there’s the little swinging kind of section on one chord that comes in, and it’s just kind of there… I’d be interested to know if this is part of a suite or if it’s just a straight-out composition.

The drums were fine. It’s not someone like El Negro, and I don’t think it’s Robbie Ameen, and I’m very sure that it’s not Dafnis. There’s like a couple of different schools of this type of drumming that are around. Those guys I just mentioned, even though they have very different styles, were they want the drumset to come from is more folkloric, as opposed to… From the sound and instrument choices, this feels like someone reinterpreting, for an example, I’ll say Dave Weckl’s contribution to that style or whatever. It’s more of a fusiony style, more somehow American-sounding than folkloric sounding, just from the choices of drums and cymbals and the way that they played. Do I have to give this stars? [LAUGHS] Unfortunately, 2 stars compositionally and 3 for the performance. So 2-1/2 stars. [AFTER] It was Chucho?!!? Sorry, bro. It’s from his last record ? I’ll pick it up. I know there’s some stuff on there somewhere.

2. Donald Harrison, “Heroes” (from HEROES, Nagel-Heyer, 2004) (Harrison, as, comp.; Ron Carter, b; Billy Cobham, d) (2-1/2 stars)

Kind of a little poem. The alto was the antithesis of a Kenny Garrett or someone like that. It’s kind of a folky and open vocal sound kind of thing. The approach reminds me of Miguel Zenon or someone like Myron Walden, but I don’t really think it’s either of them, and I can’t venture a guess on who it is. The drums? There’s more than a handful of guys now who are coming out of a Jack DeJohnette type of thing or whatever. When I hear that sound, I kind of grade it on a different scale. I look at it creatively as opposed to looking for a serious swinging thing. And I can safely say that this was not swinging at all, so I have to throw that out immediately. But it’s cool. Because a lot of stuff that I really, really enjoy by Keith Jarrett is not swinging in the traditional sense. So it doesn’t necessarily not mean a thing! Imagine playing that for Lou Donaldson!!! But anyway, it’s cool. It’s not my flavor. I probably would have played it like a little groovier or put some kind of thing on it. It kind of floats around, and then it starts walking. It never gets to a real THING, which is cool. It could be something from Europe that I haven’t heard, from the ‘70s or something like that, or it could be something from almost anywhere now that I haven’t heard. But it’s loose and open, and sound-wise and melody-wise it felt like it was trying to come from a folky kind of place—an earthy place. But whenever it was time for the drums to do something besides kind of swing, like to actually play some stuff, it felt like he was just trying to see what he could fit into that space as opposed to trying to speak or groove or whatever. But it’s cool. Should I try to be generous? I should be honest. 2-1/2 stars. [AFTER] Oh, Billy!!! No!!! No!!!! I didn’t say anything bad about Ron Carter. Donald Harrison? Are you serious? I’m glad you didn’t tell me before, because it would have influenced me, because I would have been merciful to Billy in some capacity. That just wasn’t it, man. And everybody knows he can do it. If he keeps doing this for a couple of years, it will be a whole nother thing. I love him so much. He’s so important to me, man. I can’t kiss his ass enough. But damn, Bill! He’s trying to do his thing, man. It’s cool.

3. Baby Dodds, “Spooky Drums, No. 2” (from TALKING AND DRUM SOLOS, Atavistic Unheard Music Series, 1946/2003) (Baby Dodds, solo drums) (3-1/2 stars)

Nice press roll. Felt pretty good. The character of it sounds like some early jazz stuff. My first thought was of somebody like a Baby Dodds vibe. I don’t think it’s Big Sid. Chick Webb came to mind, but it didn’t seem virtuosic enough for him. He feels a little more aggressive than that. It sounds like an older drummer, but something about the kit sounded like it was maybe something later in their career, because it sounded like there were at least three tom-toms. That’s about it. It was cute. It could easily be somebody I love, but it sounds like it’s later in their career or something like that. Or it could be Cyrille or someone like that, who is more associated with the avant-garde, kind of messing around with an older style. 3-1/2 stars. [AFTER] Oh, my first thought. Get down, Tainish!! Go ahead!! What year is it? So it’s late in his career. I’m BAD, man!!

4. Stefon Harris, “Red-Bone, Netti-Bone” (from EVOLUTION, Blue Note, 2004) (Harris, vibraphone; Marc Cary, keyboard; Casey Benjamin, as; Anne Drummond, fl.; Darryl Hall, bass; Terreon Gully, d; Pedro Martinez, percussion) (3 stars)

Lovely. Oh, yes, indeed, a very fine selection. I’m not really sure who it is. The Rhodes kind of puts it in a time space, but then as I listened to the drum sound, with the thicker hi-hats and higher snare, it put it later—like at least late ‘80s to today. The presence of the mallet instrument, the vibes or marimba or whatever, put me in mind of the Caribbean Jazz Project, but it doesn’t have to be that. At first the alto put me…it didn’t put me anywhere. It sounded like a few guys. But when he went to the altisimmo, then it put me in mind of Paquito, obviously. The tune is cool. It’s kind of good for summer festival listening, have a couple of rum drinks and walk around and look at some bikinis and stuff like that. It serves its function. The tune is cool. It’s fine. It’s not trying to be ground-breaking. It’s just an excuse to have a good time. The arrangement was cool. It was pretty much all in clave. And I have no idea who it is. There’s a lot of other Latin Jazz I would purchase first, but it’s fine. But maybe it’s the drummer’s thing. Then I would look at it differently. It’s not? Well, it could be Mark Walker or someone like that. That’s who I thought of. [You thought it was a Latin band.] Didn’t have to be. They had a couple of breaks that… I mean, I know them, so they can’t be that deeply folkloric! But it’s cool. A very hefty 3 stars. [AFTER] That’s Blackout? Really? Well, with those guys, that’s not bad. I’m sure there’s some funky stuff on the record and other stuff. Pedro Martinez sounded good, and for that to be Terreon, that’s really cool. He just called me right before you came. He’s up the street having some soul food. It was well done, and over the scope of the whole record and what Stefon is trying to do, it’s fine. Terreon took a lesson from me when he was in high school, and his attitude was really cool. He’s staying really open, and he functions pretty decently in a number of contexts. I guess his real strength right now is he can really play some up-to-the-minute hip-hop and funk and stuff like that. He checks out what people program, and also a lot of R&B, so he’s up on some Timbaland and stuff like that, trying to get that effect and those sounds on the drums. So this level of Latin drumming from him, that’s pretty good.

5. Cyrus Chestnut, “Minor Funk” (from SOUL FOOD, Atlantic, 2001) (Chestnut, p; Christian McBride, b; Lewis Nash, d) (3 stars)

That was cool. I’m a lot more liberal than in the past. Everybody has to do what they have to do to get to what they’re tryin’a do! Piano trio. Tasty. People that can all play. It was tight. I don’t know what to think about it. There’s something about that that’s cool. It was trying to have that standard of whatever it is that the piano trio has, that sound or whatever. It’s almost like it was trying to break through its traditional gloss and be a little bit modern at the same time. It didn’t really work like that, but I could feel it kind of trying to break out of those confines. Cool tune. Snappy. Peppy. I have no idea who the pianist is. But he sounded good. The bass player sounded good. The drummer’s like a younger person, but somebody that’s heard Philly Joe, knows about that, and has good hands. For some reason, I don’t think… It’s not Lewis Nash. Greg Hutchinson came immediately to mind for some reason. He came to mind, and with some of the stuff that was happening on the cymbals, I thought about Winard Harper, and at the beginning, before I heard the sound of the cymbals and the cymbal beat, I thought of Billy Drummond for just a second, but I don’t think it’s him. I dug the solo more than the actual stuff in the rhythm section. They were playing beboppy things, but once in a while, some of the independence would indicate someone has heard some stuff that’s more modern. But then at the same time, it had a skippy kind of cymbal beat, swinging, but it’s not completely laying it down at that tempo. But I’m sure it’s somebody I really like. I’m stuck in that 3 star zone. It’s cool. [AFTER] Wow! Nash. Okay. I guess I haven’t listened to Lewis in a long time. I thought it was him, but then I felt like it wasn’t. I knew it was somebody who good, though, professional and cool. There’s kind of a bouncy thing that drummers play whenever the tempo gets reasonably fast, and the challenge of it is to have… Even though you’re skipping in between the primary notes, the challenge is to have that quarter note really laying with the bass and stuff like that. And it didn’t seem like it was quite doing that. The grace notes were bounced out as opposed to being articulated. It makes you have to lean on the bass a little bit. I just didn’t associate that with Lewis. Well done. That makes me see the tune in a different way. It’s a good blowing tune, but the melody is actually almost like some funk or something like that. I guess you could put it in the hardbop zone.

6. James P. Johnson, “Victory Stride” (from THE BLUE NOTE JAZZMEN, Blue Note, 1944/1998) (James P. Johnson, p., comp; Ben Webster, ts; Vic Dickenson, tb; Sidney deParis, tp; John Simmons, b; Sid Catlett, d) (5 stars)

Early ‘50s? I don’t know what it is! The tenor player could be Coleman Hawkins. But I have glaring holes in my knowledge of early jazz. The drummer was great. He’s easily one of the great ones, whoever he is. When this vibe is on… Papa Jo comes to mind, even though a lot of the stuff I have him in, he’s already moved on to the ride cymbal as opposed to the hi-hat, so I don’t have enough examples of him wearing that thing out. But the touch and the wit reminded me of him. It could be some old guy from New Orleans that I haven’t really checked out. But it felt like that. The tune is fine. Just some real swingin’, swingin’ stuff, man. The cats are completely in control. The tune is cool. It could be a riff written on another tune. But that’s what it’s about. That shit was swingin’. I’m sure some people had fun dancing to it, too. The level is pretty obvious. I don’t want to be like because this is some old, bad shit, I’m going to give it 5 stars, but I know it’s on a certain level, so I’m just going to do it. [AFTER] That’s Big Sid?!! Damn. Well, I said somebody from New Orleans. He’s from Chicago!? Well, you got me. It’s somebody bad. Somebody playing the drums. Big Sid. Ben Webster!? Oh, man, I’m all jacked up. I’m all messed up. I have a good record with these things. I don’t like this. It’s fair game, though. The only recording I have with Big Sid is Pops’ Symphony Hall. I guess I’ve heard too much of Ben Webster playing ballads and not enough of him just all-out swinging. You got me. It’s cool.

7. Andrew Cyrille, “AM 2-1/2” (from C/D/E/, Jazz Magnet, 2001) (Cyrille, d; Marty Ehrlich, as; Mark Dresser, b) (3-1/2 stars)

Ah, tricky-tricky! I thought it was good! I thought that was kind of cool. Everybody sounded good, I thought. The obvious thing when you hear an alto and the piano isn’t there, you think of an Ornette vibe. But it had that vibe, in a more tonal kind of way. I liked everybody on there, and I thought the song was cool. It feels like it comes out of the Ornette kind of conception, but it’s more contemporary. But it had that sound. I liked the drummer. He was tasty and light and cool. He was playing some simple stuff that was cool. It reminded me of Higgins, in a way. It almost sounded like it could be him, but later. But something tells me it’s not. I don’t know who it is. 3-1/2 is not terrible, right? It was pretty good. A nice 3-1/2. [AFTER] Really? Wow, that’s cool. They had a nice vibe on it. The composition was cool. It was cool.

8. Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez & Robby Ameen, “The Moon Shows Red” (from EL NEGRO AND ROBBY AT THE THIRD WORLD WAR, American Clave, 2002) (Ameen & Hernandez, drums; Jerry Gonzalez, tp; Takuma Watanabe, arrangement, string direction; Hiroyuki Kolke String Quartet) (4 stars)

That was kind of fresh. The rhythm was interesting. Sounds like two drumsets playing together. The strings were kind of hip. It had an experimental quality to it. It would actually be nice in a film. I don’t know what kind of scene. But there’s a lot of activity. It’s pretty obviously Jerry Gonzalez! [LAUGHS] My teacher, who I love so much. It’s great. It’s finding more vehicles for expession, and it’s cool. Of course, he’s a master conguero and bandleader. But he has a distinctive trumpet tone and style. I’m not sure if this is his record or not, though. I haven’t heard how deep he’s gotten with his flamenco thing. But they were trying to do something. I liked it. There was a lot of stuff going on, but it wasn’t random, and it had a vibe. The two drumsets give it a looseness but also a steadines. I’ll give it 4 stars. [AFTER] Is it like “Deep Rumba”? Oh, it’s their record. I like those things Kip Hanrahan does with Robbie and Negro. I have a few of those “Deep Rumba” things. Nice piece of music.

9. Fly, “Child’s Play” (from FLY, Savoy, 2004) (Jeff Ballard, d; comp; Mark Turner, ts; Larry Grenadier, b) (4 stars)

Wow. That was very cool. Some more tasty, Latin-based music. He had a lot of stuff going on. I don’t know what to think about that. At the beginning, the horn had an alto type of flavor, but then as the solo went on, it sounded more like a tenor, and just the way he was playing reminded me, for some reason, of Joe Lovano, but I don’t think it was him. Somehow it could be David or someone like that. It sounds like this branch of that music. The drummer definitely reminded me of Antonio Sanchez, for some reason, in the choices that he makes. For that music, these days, he’s kind of like the Tony Williams of that school. He tends to play drums a bit more open-sounding, cymbals that are less dry, and he tries to control their attack with the stick pressure. I liked the stuff at the beginning, with the kalimba and things like that for texture. It was a really good performance, so 4 stars. [AFTER] Really! Wow, that’s Ballard! There you go. They made some music, it’s cool.

10. Marcus Roberts, “Cole After Midnight” (from COLE AFTER MIDNIGHT, Columbia, 2001) (Roberts, p; Thaddeus Exposé, b; Jason Marsalis, Leon Anderson, d) (3-1/2 stars)

Stumped once more. Not a clue. But it’s one of those things that’s in two places at the same time. The sound in most of the playing feels like an older guy, who’s pretty proficient on the piano, but the structure of it is kind of different from a time standpoint. It’s like they’respending 12 beats on each chord, which gives it a different feeling. It still has a nice feel to it. The drummer for the most part is functioning like a percussionist, just giving it little accents. He doesn’t really lay down very much functional time until right before the end. But it sounds like some kind of early experimental group. Sounds like early ‘60s, in a way. They were trying to mess around with some stuff. It’s an older vibe with a little twist on it. I enjoyed it. 3-1/2 stars. Who the hell is that?

11. Ramón Vallé, “Kimbara pá Ñico” (from NO ESCAPE, ACT, 2003) (Valle, p., comp; Omar Rodriguez-Calvo, b; Liber Torriente, d) (3-1/2 stars)

It’s a Latin fiesta here. The writing is kind of modern and cool. The playing is loose. It’s in clave, but it’s kind of loose, like a jazz kind of texture on it. Some of what the piano player is playing reminds me of Danilo, but for some reason I don’t feel it’s him. But the architecture of his solo reminds me of him. I don’t know who anybody is. But I liked it, and I’ll give it my hefty 3-1/2 star rating. [AFTER] More of them damn Cubans! He sounds like he’s listened to Danilo. Sounds like he checked him out, definitely.

12. Chick Corea & Three Quartets, “Quartet No.2, Part 1” (from RENDEZVOUS IN NEW YORK, Concord, 2001) (Corea, p, comp; Michael Brecker, ts; Eddie Gomez, b; Steve Gadd, d)

It’s a live recording. Pretty obviously Michael Brecker or someone who loves him deeply. So Mike is there. At first it sounded like a piano improvisation, then everything came in. There were some harmonies that were extracted from Monk, but then it went to a few different places. Other than that, the bass solo was somebody. I couldn’t really place them. At first, I thought it was Patitucci or someone like that, but as it went on… I have no idea who this could be. The only thing I could think of was perhaps a live version of Charlie Haden’s group or someone like that. [Any idea who the piano player is?] No, I don’t. I really have no idea. The drummer sounds like somebody I know and probably like, but as soon as they started swinging, he was playing kind of an open hi-hat on all four beats, and at that tempo, that’s kind of strange. So I’m thinking it’s a younger guy trying to do something to make it different. They were going for it, but something about it makes me want… Michael took a nice solo. The piano player can play. 3-1/2 stars. [AFTER] I should know that. And that did come to mind. That’s well within Gadd’s style. But it didn’t sound like Chick to me. Cool.

13. Dave Douglas, “Catalyst” (from STRANGE LIBERATION, RCA, 2003) (Douglas, tp., comp.; Bill Frisell, g; Chris Potter, ts; Uri Caine, keyboards; James Genus, b; Clarence Penn, d.)

The drums were cool. The drums were right in between kind of playing some fusiony rock influenced stuff, but kind of loose. It was never really like locked-in. But I think that’s the effect they were going for. Easily some Miles “Bitches Brew” influenced stuff. Obviously not Miles. The guitar reminded me of Scofield for a second. The tenor player reminded me of someone like Chris Potter, so my off the top of my head guess would be some Dave Douglas type stuff. But I’m not really sure. It could be a lot of people. I don’t have Dave’s records where he experiments with that; I’ve just been reading stuff about that direction being there in one of his many bands. I couldn’t guess as far as the drummer’s identity. It was kind of splashy and loose, and kind of in a groove—not really in a serious, serious groove. 3 stars. [AFTER] Clarence Penn. That would match my guess. The thing about the drums that made it contemporary, something as simple as hearing a splash cymbal. Clarence is cool. He usually plays the appropriate thing. He can be creative, but then he can play out of bags and stuff like that, and that’s cool. But the bass definitely sounded like James to me. It had that air, that little excitement that was around that period of Miles. It got that color.

14. Horace Silver, “The African Queen” (from THE CAPE VERDEAN BLUES, Blue Note, 1965/1989) (Silver, p., comp; Woody Shaw, tp; Joe Henderson, ts; Bob Cranshaw, b; Roger Humphries, d) (5 stars)

Thanks for the gift. That’s got to be Horace Silver with Joe Henderson, and I guess that’s Woody Shaw, and I’d think you’d give me some Roger Humphries. Something about the crispness and the different style of placed me in that direction. I only have SONG FOR MY FATHER, and I’m not sure if this is on that or CAPE VERDEAN BLUES or whatever else Roger recorded with him.it was good for me to grow up seeing somebody like Roger Humphries. At the time I grew up, there was a big separation between this mythological world of jazz musicians and what was actually going on at the time. Because a lot of people didn’t come through Pittsburgh then. Prior to my moving to Boston, Roger was the prime evidence of there being virtuosos in the world who played the music. Actually, right after I first found out who Bird was and who Trane was and started to listen to that stuff, my pianist, David Budway, told me, “Well, if you want to learn to play this stuff, there’s a guy who lives on the North Side who will take you as a student.” It was Roger Humphries. His number was in the phone book, and I called him, and I went to his house. Mostly we just talked, and he showed me a few things, and I’d practice and he’d be across the room shooting pool with his friends. Then I’d go to his gigs and watch him. He chose to be in Pittsburgh and deal with his family, and yet still, I can say that there’s no one substantially greater on the drums today. Roy Haynes sounds better than ever in his seventies, and Elvin Jones the same way, but there’s not a significant difference between them and Roger Humphries. He makes me proud to be from Pittsburgh and all that stuff. He’s a beautiful person. Very much involved in education today, making sure that people understand the essence of what the music is about and that they have a good time with it. He gives them a good reason to love it. I gave Sid Catlett 5 stars, right? I’ll give this 5 stars, just because!

You got me, bro. You got me a couple of times. That’s all right. I’ll be ready next time.

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

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

 

Chris Potter DownBeat Article, “No Going Back”:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

———–

Chris Potter (Jazziz Article, 2007):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[BREAK]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[—30—]

SIDEBAR:

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

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

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

——————-

Chris Potter Blindfold Test:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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For Lewis Nash’s 57th Birthday, A DownBeat Feature From 2006, and WKCR interviews from 2005 and 2006

For the 57th birthday of the unparalleled drum master Lewis Nash, I’m posting the text of a DownBeat article that it was my honor to write about him in 2006, and a pair of WKCR interviews from that year and from 2005.

 

Lewis Nash (Downbeat Article):

Midway through a late Friday set at a half-full Village Vanguard during the dog days of July, Lewis Nash stated a medium-slow groove on the brushes as 83-year-old trumpeter Joe Wilder improvised six lovely choruses on Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rockin’ Chair.” It followed a series of songbook tunes and blues, and Nash could easily have settled for keeping time. But he was not, as the saying goes, merely “digging coal.” Instead, on each cycle through the form, Nash executed a different pattern and timbre on the snare drum, imperturbably articulating the beat with crisp precision. The back-of-the-bar patrons might not have noticed the subtlety and ingenuity of Nash’s design, but Wilder did, and he tossed his drummer a nod and a broad smile as he lowered his horn.

It was not an anomalous moment. As Andrew Cyrille noted several years ago in a 5-star Blindfold Test evaluation, Nash, now 47, has “dotted all the i’s while coming up with some great inventions in the traditional style of jazz.” After remarking that “all the great brush players like Kenny Clarke, Ed Thigpen and Philly Joe Jones would have to give kudos to that playing,” Cyrille added, “Lewis is working very hard on the drums to make sure that we all remember whence we came and also what’s happening on the contemporary scene.”

If the vocabulary of the aforementioned masters and a timeline’s worth of hardcore swingers stretching from Max Roach to Edward Blackwell is encoded in Nash’s rhythmic DNA, so are ideas drawn from drumset abstractionists like Cyrille and Jerome Cooper, dance-infused grooves from the funk and R&B that Nash played in his pre-jazz years, and a bracing array of Afro-Caribbean meters. He weaves them together smoothly, conveying tried-and-true swing and Latin rhythms with idiomatic authority. Then he tweaks them, working with a full complement of pitches and intervals across the drumset to animate his beats, displacing figures normally articulated on one component and playing them on another, positioning his phrases to suit the overall architecture of each piece.

Nash titled his 1989 debut album Rhythm Is My Business [Alfa/Evidence], and continues to use the motto. The self-description is apt. He was one of New York’s busiest drummers in the ‘80s, building his reputation on prestigious gigs with Betty Carter, Ron Carter, Sonny Rollins, Branford Marsalis, Don Pullen, and George Adams, and cementing it during a ten-year run with the Tommy Flanagan Trio. As the ‘90s progressed, Nash became an A-list freelancer, building a 300-plus album resume that includes Grammy-winners by McCoy Tyner (Illuminations), Nancy Wilson (R.S.V.P.), and Joe Henderson (Big Band); Gerald Wilson’s 2003 Grammy nominated New York, New Sound; important recordings by both Carters, Joe Lovano, Jim Hall, Horace Silver, Russell Malone and Regina Carter; and a slew of equilaterally oriented trios with Flanagan and such lustrous keyboard talents as Roland Hanna, Don Friedman, Kenny Drew, Jr., and Cyrus Chestnut.

“I am thrust into different situations day in and day out with people who may have completely different musical objectives and viewpoints,” Nash said last December from his Hudson Valley home. “I try to bring the same seriousness to each situation. If there’s written music, and time allows, I put the chart under a microscope. If you don’t assimilate the basic character of the piece, you can’t use your interpretative skills to be creative—you’ll still be hung up on how to get from this place to the coda.”

At the time, Nash was decompressing from a week in Osaka with a quartet of Japanese mainstreamers. That occurred not long after a one-nighter in Noumea, New Caledonia, with a pair of Hammond B3 organists, two weeks after he brought his own quartet to Taichung, Taiwan, for a four-night run. He was preparing for a week-long New Year’s engagement in Orvieto, Italy, to be followed by a three-day jaunt to Uruguay with pianist-composer Cedar Walton, an increasingly frequent employer.

“When you are rooted, you don’t have to be afraid to try new things,” Nash said. “You’re manipulating time, beat, phrase, and timbre within a continuity of groove and feeling, so when the timbres change, people may not know exactly what you’re doing, but they know something feels and sounds different than in the previous chorus. I try for subtle transitions. There has to be a certain sense of freedom, of not the commonplace. Sometimes a little craziness is necessary to break through.”

In a recent conversation, saxophonist Steve Wilson, Nash’s partner on a dozen or so speculative improv duo concerts since 2003, observed that Nash’s attitude that a form is less a ball-and-chain than an opportunity to stretch boundaries makes his tonal personality a first cousin to that of Billy Higgins, who suited the needs of such antipodal stylists as Walton and Ornette Coleman with equal effectiveness while always sounding like himself.

“Higgins was always listening, and that’s how it is with Lewis,” Wilson said. “He’s deeply aware of everything happening on the bandstand, and he addresses the entire legacy of jazz and the drums—all the way back to all the way forward. Everything he does is out of the logic of where the line is going.”

Since 2000, no leader has collaborated more frequently with Nash than Lovano, both on his bop-to-free nonet and his more recent freedom-within-structure quartet with Hank Jones. “Lewis’ rhythmic attack is precise, but his phrases are lyrical, not just patterns that you play over,” Lovano said. “If I say something in a melodic phrase, he will answer and say something back at whatever tempo. His approach is refined, but his playing makes you want to jump out of your seat; it’s a force of nature, but that force changes on every piece.”

Tommy Campbell, like Nash a Sonny Rollins alumnus, remarks on his encyclopedic command of the lexicon. “Lewis makes the most intellectual and technical things sound so natural and effortless that you forget about what it takes to play it,” said Campbell. “He uses so many different degrees of character on one groove or style. For example, he must have 20 ways to play a shuffle. He does all the little things, too. For example, he never makes unwanted sounds when he’s changing from sticks to brushes to mallets. In 20-plus years I’ve never seen him miss or muff a beat. He can go from soloing to the groove as fast as anyone. It seems he’s always in both places; it’s all one thing for him.”

“Lewis will stay right in the pocket, while doing some of the most creative stuff being played,” affirmed bassist Peter Washington, Nash’s long-time partner in Flanagan’s trio. “A lot of guys feel swinging and grooving holds them back. To him, it sets him free!”

[BREAK]

“I don’t know if I made a conscious effort to be adaptable,” Nash said. “I always played in a way that I felt would add flavor and variety rather than bring all the attention to me. I’m looking for the beauty in my instrument. There’s beauty in power as well. But a lot of sounds are available to utilize. People hear the tonal detail and clarity, and they tell me that my approach is like a percussionist in the symphony. But my concept comes out of hard-swinging jazz. I try to interject the energy and swagger of funky rhythms into swinging, straight-ahead music—although when you play the rhythms of R&B and hip-hop on a drumset tuned for playing jazz, the sound is not the same.”

Nash came to hardcore jazz rather late in the game. As a teenager he played football (cornerback) and played drums for fun in dance bands around Phoenix, Arizona, his home town, before catching the jazz bug.

“My mother listened to a lot of blues—B.B. King and Muddy Waters and so on,” Nash said in July. A T-Bone Walker jump blues on the car stereo cosigned the statement. “I was less attracted to Rock elements in the drumming of Tony Williams, Billy Cobham, Jack DeJohnette with Miles, and other guys who played fusion, than to the funkier, danceable things. My influences went from James Brown’s drummers or the feeling of Al Green’s Stax records to the people who laid the foundation in jazz drumming. Fusion influences came later, as my knowledge of music increased, whereas that’s the first stuff some people from my age group got into.

“R&B wasn’t played as loud and hard in the ‘60s and ‘70s. More guys played time on the ride cymbal, like in jazz. Once disco and a certain period of funk became prominent, everything was on the hi-hats, and the bass drums and everything else got a fatter, heavier sound that you wouldn’t normally play in a jazz context, so the genres started to separate sonically.”

During the disco era, Nash, who majored in broadcast journalism at Arizona State, was a fixture on the sparse Phoenix jazz scene, playing in local rhythm sections with hired gun saxophonists like Sonny Stitt and Art Pepper. He led his own combo, and wore bells on his ankles in a duo with saxophonist Allen Chase that opened for acts like Old and New Dreams, Sun Ra, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

On the strength of a grant to study drums with Max Roach and a concurrent phone call to audition with Betty Carter, who hired him on the spot, Nash moved to Brooklyn in the winter of 1980-81. There he joined a talented crop of young drummers who included Kenny Washington, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Jeff Watts, and Ralph Peterson.

“We had a lot of leeway to pursue our individual approaches,” Nash said. “For instance, Art Blakey or Jimmy Cobb might influence how you kept time on the ride cymbal, while at the same time you’d study the solo concept of Max or Elvin. The major innovators from the ‘40s through the ‘60s dealt with a true swinging jazz conception that wasn’t terribly influenced by rhythm-and-blues, and didn’t drastically change that approach. But the advent of genre grooves from soul and funk and R&B, and the greater visibility of Latin and Afro-Cuban elements, caused the concept to adapt from the swinging, triplet-based ride cymbal feeling to a less linear straight-eighth feeling.”

Ensconced in New York, Nash refined his approach, going to clubs to watch Higgins, Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, Arthur Taylor, Billy Hart, Victor Lewis and Freddie Waits, figuring out which techniques to use and which to discard. On the road with Betty Carter from 1981-84 and as an ongoing member of Ron Carter’s two-bass quintet and nonet for the subsequent decade, he found tough-love laboratories in which to apply his discoveries.

The singer insisted on precisely calibrated tempos and feels, but took great pains to discourage her young accompanists from playing sets by rote.

“My whole time with Betty, at every rehearsal, she stressed not to lean on clichés, to search for something fresh to play,” Nash recalled. “You knew you couldn’t go on automatic pilot; she’d turn and say, ‘You already played that; play something else.’ You’d be on edge, wondering what change of pace is coming.”

“Ron likes to use a lot of different colors,” he continued, adding that he considers the bassist a primary mentor. “He taught me a lot about tuning, and on some of his music I could be more percussionistic, and utilize finger cymbals, wind chimes and castanets. Steve Kroon often was playing percussion, and I incorporated what Steve did into my drumset.”

“Betty told me that he read music very well,” Carter said. “One thing to his advantage is that he plays the form. Many drummers don’t. I had Lewis take up vibes, to help him visualize the piano keyboard when he soloed. He did very well. He started to study composition, wrote some nice melodies, and expanded his view of the drums as more melodic than they normally are thought to be.”

“I tune the intervals wide enough to give the impression of melodic movement up or down a scale when I play a fill,” Nash elaborated. “I like to interject phrases not just to fill space, but to continue articulating the line I just heard the soloist play. If it’s a horn player taking a breath, I’m almost thinking of continuing his linear thought process until he returns the horn to his mouth, and maybe inspire his rhythmic direction.”

During the ‘80s, while Nash was refining these ideas, Marvin “Smitty” Smith developed ways to make complex meters flow with Steve Coleman and Dave Holland. Jeff Watts began to merge the rhythms of timba with the patterns of Elvin Jones. Ralph Peterson, Carl Allen and Herlin Riley layered New Orleans streetbeats into swing feels. Younger drummers went to their gigs, copied them, and mainstreamed each vocabulary increment into next-generation argot. With the exception of a year of steady touring with Branford Marsalis, Nash played with established, older musicians “with one foot in the history of the music,” and interacted less frequently with his peer group.

“I wanted to immerse myself in the lineage, to interact with movers and shakers in the music from further back,” he said. “I knew I wasn’t going to lose my desire to be creative or forget how to explore.”

Some think that Nash’s impact on the younger branches of the drum tree is less pronounced than it ought to be.

“Most of the younger drummers weren’t in the audience when Roland Hanna and Ron Carter and Tommy Flanagan were playing,” Washington said. “But on every level, Lewis brought something to the drums as unique as the guys who played with Branford and Wynton or M-Base.”

“Once critics hop on a guy’s bandwagon, young drummers looking for someone to listen to will go that way,” Carter said. “Lewis isn’t flashy or domineering in the negative way that drummers can be. I can’t think of another drummer in any age category who plays brushes so well. Not many read as well as he does, and even fewer know how to tune the drums. But critics are less aware of these aspects, and they don’t tune into Lewis when they talk about drummers who are important and can take the drum scene another step, unfortunately for them and for the history of the drums.”

“My influence would have more to do with the sound of the instrument and the clarity of execution than any stylistic development,” Nash remarked, and younger drummers agree.

“Lewis can play with authority like Elvin Jones and also the way Vernell Fournier played with Ahmad Jamal,” said Yellowjackets drummer Marcus Baylor, a former Nash student. “That’s a lot of ground to cover. He’s the most musical drummer of our time period, one of the musical drummers ever.”

“A lot of situations that I play in cause Lewis to pop into my mind,” said Kendrick Scott. “I’ve studied his playing so much that I think, ‘Oh, what would Lewis play right here? It would probably be perfect.’”

[BREAK]

“We’re not supposed to stay where Tommy was,” Nash said during a January engagement at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Coca, where a quartet under his leadership—Washington, pianist Renee Rosnes and vibraphonist Steve Nelson—was performing Flanagan-associated repertoire. “He gave us a carpet and said, ‘Okay, I’m giving you these tools; now what are you going to do with them?’

“Tommy didn’t necessarily want me to play in a way that was reminiscent of the ‘40s or ‘50s or ‘60s. He wanted me to play with him right now—which was the ‘90s. He was an open book. When I did things that come out of developments more recent than you might associate with his roots, he’d look up and I’d see him smile and his eyes gleam. If you remain open moment to moment with all your intelligence and skills, and don’t preconceive or predirect where you’re going, that’s as fresh and modern as you can be, whatever style you’re playing.”

In 1998, Nash decided that it was time to augment his numerous opportunities “to interject my ideas and musical viewpoint in groups where I’m a sideman” and construct a context to allow him “complete freedom to express what I feel.” He organized a septet, and booked himself into the Village Vanguard, the first of several Vanguard combos of various sizes, comprised of long-time associates and talented youngbloods. Building on his yearly Vanguard gig, he’s expanded his activity, and in 2003 and 2004 recorded the Japan-market CDs It Don’t Mean A Thing and Stompin’ At The Savoy, with Washington, Nelson, and pianist Jeb Patton. As of this writing, his 2007 calendar includes 10 weeks as a leader.

During the JVC Festival in June, Nash played the Vanguard with a quintet comprising Wilson, Washington, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, and pianist Gerald Clayton. The less-traveled repertoire, spanning the ‘60s through the ‘80s, included well-wrought tunes by Walter Davis, Jr. (“Pranayama”), Don Pullen (“Sing Me A Song Everlasting”), Thad Jones (“Ain’t Nothin’ Nu”), Kenny Barron (“New York Attitude”), James Williams (“Alter Ego”), and Johnny Mandel (“I Never Told You”). Nash emceed and took a couple of drum features. Otherwise, he gave the soloists much rein, swung mightily, and functioned, as Washington noted, “as the same supportive, musical drummer.”

“Everything depends on how daring you want to be,” he said. “Parameters exist in any musical situation, and they force you to get the most from the least. You try not to limit yourself to ‘this is how you’re supposed to play this kind of music.’ You jump in, let your ears dictate, and keep all options on the table. I might borrow some sound or approach from an avant garde context that works in the middle of trading fours on a blues. Sound can cross genres and styles. It’s just a sound. It’s your job to figure out how to use that sound tastefully and in context. The more things you’ve done, the more you’ll be able to interject something new.”

————

Lewis Nash (WKCR, December 1, 2005) – re Nash-Wilson duo at Sweet Rhythm:

TP: [MUSIC: McCoy Tyner-Lewis Nash duo]

Duets. Lewis records so much and in so many different contexts and situations, that doing an hour on your work is like looking for the needle in the haystack. You’ll be quite present in NYC area in December and directly after the New York. Next week at Dizzy’s Room with Donal Fox and George Mraz. The following week is week one of Cedar Walton’s annual fortnight at the Village Vanguard with Roy & David. Then Umbria with Joe Locke. Then at Dizzy’s Room on January 10th with Flanagan tribute, with Renee, Peter & Steve Nelson. Frequent associates.

How did the duo project with Steve Wilson come to pass? You go back a ways, and you a few records with him on Criss-Cross in the early ‘90s.

LEWIS: That’s correct. Steve and I have played through the years in various situations. As far as the duo format, I enjoy that with the horns, and, as we just heard on the cut with me and McCoy Tyner, with the piano, and I’ve done duo with organ, of course, duo with guitar even. The duo situation is a challenge in many ways. In other ways, it’s pretty much just like any other time you go to play music. You deal with certain repertoire or whatever, with one another musician, and you try to make music as best you can interacting with that person.

TP: But this is a working duo, of sorts, and a duo you’ve both chosen to stick with. It’s not a one-off situation.

LEWIS: That’s right. Steve came to mind for me when I was thinking about doing this as someone I enjoyed playing with, number one, and also someone whom I felt I’d have a nice working rapport with musically for a number of reasons, not least of which is that his time is so great. So when someone has really good time internally, you can try a lot of different things which don’t necessarily have to spell out where you are metrically or in a form. A lot of times, Steve and I come out at the right place as if it just happened naturally. I don’t have to worry about making sure that I mark time for him when we’re playing. He’s one of the musicians I enjoy playing with in any situation, but particularly in the duo.

TP: How would it differ than playing in a rhythm section with Peter Washington or George Mraz, two of the master jazz bassists on the planet?

LEWIS: First of all, there’s a lot more space without the chordal instrument being there. How that would differ from a bass and drum situation is that the sound of Steve’s instrument, of course, won’t be in that bass range, to fill out some of that range I’ll often play different patterns or motifs between the low toms and the bass drum, things like that, to give some weight and low-end sound to the duo. Sometimes Steve will even play bass-type lines, whether walking or harmonically in the bass range. We basically try to give as much of a feeling of arrangement and orchestration as we can with the two instruments.

TP: You mentioned to me that your duo playing goes back to college days when you attended Arizona State University, where one of your fellow underclassmen was the saxophonist Allen Chase, who now runs the jazz department at New England Conservatory. I think you mentioned that you and he would open up as a duo for groups like Old and New Dreams, the Art Ensemble of Chicago…

LEWIS: Mmm-hmm. Sun Ra.

TP: George Adams and Don Pullen. So not all your fans may know that you have roots in that direction as well as creating modern extensions and variations on the masters of jazz lifeblood, Kenny Clarke and Max Roach. People who played with those people appreciate your playing for your ability to put your own spin on what they did in an idiomatic manner, but they don’t necessarily know about that other aspect of your tonal personality.

LEWIS: Well, those were interesting times. It’s before I moved to New York. I was still going to college. It was a good time and a good place for me to experiment with some different things, and Allen Chase and I had a duo, and we played around Phoenix. We opened for those people you mentioned, groups like that. That’s when I first met Ed Blackwell, when he came to Phoenix, playing with Old and New Dreams. I met the guys in the Art Ensemble of Chicago. I was always open to fresh things. Even though, as you mentioned, a lot of fans and listeners may not be aware of that experience I’ve had in that realm, still I always try to bring, even to the more conventional (for want of a better word) situations I play in…I always try to bring a feeling of freshness and openness to those situations that you might expect in a more open musical situation.

TP: One thing that might also be surprising to some people is that you came to hardcore jazz fairly late in the game. You weren’t a teenage student of every record of Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones. It didn’t really happen until college.

LEWIS: Right. In my high school years I was playing a lot of R&B, Funk, Earth, Wind & Fire, James Brown type stuff, and I was playing football and playing sports, and being a jazz musician was the furthest thing from my mind.

TP: Is there any connection between the way you developed—not starting early, but learning rudiments, time, vibe, etc.?

LEWIS: You know, I wonder. I don’t know if I can say with any certainty. But the fact that it was always something I did for fun and I never thought in those earlier days about “this is what I want to do for a living, this is what drives me, this is what I’m here to do”—I didn’t have those thoughts. I was a broadcast journalism major, and my mentor…I didn’t know him, but Max Robinson, who used to be on ABC News, the first African-American anchor. I wanted to do things like that, and follow in those footsteps. But the music started to rope me in.

TP: When did it start to become apparent to you that you were going to become a musician and not a voice?

LEWIS: I’m a voice on the drums, I hope. But I had a professor at Arizona State whose name is Charles Argersinger. He still teaches in Washington State now. One day he pulled me aside in the hallway at Arizona State, and he asked me point-blank: “Lewis, you’re not a music major, are you.” “No.” “You’re not planning to go into music as a career, are you?” “Nope.” He said, “I think you’re making a mistake.”

TP: Why did he think that? Did he say?

LEWIS: He didn’t really spell it out, but I assume he’d heard a lot of young musicians and people he felt had potential or didn’t have potential, and he probably… He did say that “‘I think you’re someone who could go somewhere in this, and you should think about it.”

TP: What qualities were people hearing at that time? You were playing in Phoenix in rhythm section, behind Art Pepper or Sonny Stitt. What were those experiences like? Were they harsh? Were they supportive?

LEWIS: They were demanding, but not harsh. I met Sonny Stitt on the stage. I played a week. We had no rehearsal, we just came in as the local rhythm section. Of course, he used to do that all the time. The first tune he counted off I think was Cherokee at some breakneck, ridiculously fast tempo, and that was, “Hello, I’m Sonny Stitt.” Those kinds of experiences for a young musician…it’s great. It just throws you right into the fire.

TP: As far as learning the correct tone… Were you thinking by that time of the way Max Roach might be handling this situation, or Billy Higgins, or Philly Joe Jones, or Shadow Wilson, etc.? Were you trying to bring any of that vocabulary to bear by that time?

LEWIS: Definitely.

TP: How did you do that without seeing them? Drums is kind of a visual instrument, isn’t it? You have to learn to put your body in position to make transitions and so on.

LEWIS: That’s true. I didn’t have very much exposure to these great drummers—I should say none—in terms of watching them. I didn’t see any of the great names drumming-wise… Actually, that’s not true. I did see and hear Dannie Richmond with Mingus in the late ‘70s, and Blackwell. But Max and Elvin, Tony Williams, until I came to New York, I didn’t have a chance to observe them up-close, the way we do, putting them under the microscope and watching every little thing they do.

TP: How did you pick up vocabulary?

LEWIS: What I heard on the records, I tried to emulate and find the best way to reproduce those kinds of sounds and phrases, and hope that what I came up with was close.

TP: you came out of Phoenix with Betty Carter, didn’t you.

LEWIS: Yes, I did. Another into-the-fire type situation. Freddie Waits actually recommended me to her. I had met him. He came through Phoenix with the Billy Taylor Trio.

TP: I recall you saying that she was very specific and precise about tempos and feels, but wanted you to be creative within those parameters.

LEWIS: That’s very correct. It’s a good way of putting it. She knew exactly what she wanted, and sometimes we didn’t quite know how to give her that in the best way, but we’d try to find it. It was a challenge to play with her at that stage of my career. It was probably the best thing for me then.

TP: The same could be said for a number of musicians in your generation who came up in that tough-love crucible that was the Betty Carter band.

[MUSIC: “Stomping At the Savoy”; “Tickle-Toe”; then with Celtic Jazz Collective, w/ Paddy Keenan on bagpipes]

TP: You were saying that part of the appeal of performing with Steve Wilson is his musicality, his time. You both share a quality of being extremely well-grounded in the fundamentals. He plays a lot of big band sections, studio things, but when it comes to improvising and doing something creative, he’s completely prepared to do that as well. You’re a few years older, but coming out of similar experiences. Last year, there was a month when you did a weekly duo at Sweet Rhythm. How did it evolve from beginning to end.

LEWIS: Each time we did it, of course, you build on the previous time in terms of ideas, the way things evolve musically. That was good for us, because we’re both busy doing so many other things, and we have a limited amount of time that we can dedicate to the duo projects. So when we had that string of performances, that really helped us to solidify the sound we heard for the duo at that time.

TP: Did the sound evolve over the month, or did it remain on the template on which it began?

LEWIS: I don’t know if the sound evolved, but the way that we approached probably became freer than when we first started. We’re still trying to find that happy medium, that balance between freedom and the opposite of that…

TP: Freedom and form, or whatever it is. You’re the kind of musician who’s able to find freedom within form in situations that other people might handle by rote. You take those fundamentals and you always seem to find a new twist or some vocabulary of your own. How much do you work on that off the bandstand? How much comes to you when you’re on the bandstand?

LEWIS: I would say that a lot of it comes while you’re on the bandstand in the middle of the moment. But you have to be daring, brave enough to take a chance in a particular situation where it’s easy to play it safe. I’m always trying to make whatever I play be logical. Just because it’s logical doesn’t mean it has to be corny or rote. But some of the most creative things done in a musical situation I think can be considered logically a part of what’s going on without them being done over and over again or something common.

TP: But you play on a lot of one-off sessions. You might not have played with the person before. You might be seeing the music for the first time. A lot of money is at stake—studio time. How do you keep both processes going, the imperative of trying to do something to at least satisfy even yourself that you’re not doing it the way it was done before, but also fulfilling the function? Is it a process of logic really?

LEWIS: It really is. I think so. I can think of many recording sessions where just what you mentioned is the case. You’re seeing the music for the first time. You’re probably not going to play it again after that live, it’s just for this recording, but maybe the music is challenging in certain ways, maybe form-wise or changing meters or something you’re just not familiar with, or maybe it’s musicians who you don’t play with all the time, so you’re still trying to establish the kind of rapport in the studio playing. So when you have these kinds of challenges, you always fall back on your basic musicianship. For horn players, it might be: Am I playing in tune? Am I reading this part correctly? Am I making these changes? And so on. For me in the rhythm section: “Am I setting up the figures, or am I making the transitions in the music smooth enough so there’s a certain flow where the other musicians can do whatever it is they need to do? Am I helping make sure that everyone who’s playing feels a certain comfort zone that allows them to play to the best of their ability? Is the time feel steady? Am I helping them to feel whatever changes might be going on in the music to the best of my ability from the drums?

TP: A lot of people in jazz particularly, when improvising on their instruments, think of other instruments. Trumpeters think of saxophones, that sort of thing. In that regard, I’ll bring up a comment I once read from Max Roach, which is that you don’t play melody on the drums, you play rhythmic designs on the drums, which is a slightly different thing, and almost gives the illusion of melody. I don’t know if you would subscribe to that statement or not. But one characteristic of your tonal personality is that you play rhythmic designs within the flow of a moment. Can you talk about creating in that way?

LEWIS: The melodic impression comes from the fact the rhythmic variations that may be played on the drumset give the feeling of a melodic line in the way the rhythms are put together. Every melody has a rhythmic component. So when you’re expressing yourself in phrases which have the same types of rhythmic components that melodic lines have, then you’re going to give the impression that you’re playing a melody. But this kind of linear approach to playing the drums of which Max Roach was the founding father in the music is something that really attracts me. It’s something I like to do or attempt to do. I’m always trying to find a way to keep that approach to playing the drums somehow involved in the evolution of the music, so that’s not just thrown away or thrown out as something that was done in the past, but it’s being made to find a contemporary way… I don’t know if that’s the best way of putting it. But a way of today’s creative jazz playing or creative improvising, utilizing that approach to the drums as well as all the other ones.

TP: Try to parse that a bit. By “today’s approach to the drums,” are you talking about incorporating the way drummers play in contemporary dance-oriented music, or the broader rhythmic palette that’s more commonly available to jazz drummers now?

LEWIS: I mean that in the sense that a lot of other influences have become a part of playing this music, influences from the various so-called world musics, and also in terms of the more recent developments in drumming going back to the ‘60s and ‘70s with Tony Williams and Elvin and Roy Haynes, who has been a part of it, it seems like, forever—and still is. That kind of freshness, without losing the approach of that linear style. I guess always trying to find a way to keep that as a part of the equation.

TP: Playing 100-150 gigs a year with Tommy Flanagan for ten years, and many gigs over a long period with Ron Carter, would be a very good way of honing those skills and that sensibility.

LEWIS: I would say so, yes. And all of the recording sessions as well. Because there you have a chance to hear back right away things that you try, and you can go in and listen and say, “Oh, okay, that didn’t come out quite like I wanted it to; I can go back and try a different thing again.” So being in the studio a lot has been helpful in refining or defining whatever it is I’m trying to do.

[MUSIC: From Sea Changes, “Verdandi”; Love Letters, NTB]

TP: You’ve done five-six dates for Japan with this group (Chestnut-Mraz-Nash), and performed about a month ago at Dizzy’s Room with them. By the way, wasn’t Elvin Jones the drummer on the original performance of Verdandi, which Tommy Flanagan made a staple of his ‘90s repertoire. With Manhattan Trinity, it’s a configuration put together for the studio that becomes a working group. It must be very different when you do it live.

LEWIS: Yes. Especially since we hadn’t really established a live group personality yet. Everything had been done in the studio.

TP: And the producer gives you the tune list and tells you to do something with it.

LEWIS: Yes. But given the level of musicianship with Cyrus and George, we could pretty much do whatever we wanted and make it work. So it’s a great situation to be part of.

TP: We were talking about being creative and fulfilling the function in the studio. We’ll play now one Grammy-winner and one Grammy-nominee record that Lewis was part of. You performed on Nancy Wilson’s RSVP this year, which won the 2005 Jazz Vocal Grammy, and you appeared on Gerald Wilson’s 2004 Grammy-nominated date, New York Sound.

[MUSIC: Nancy Wilson, “I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart”; Gerald Wilson, “Jeri,” from In My Time]

TP: Since 1998, you’ve been leading ensembles of varying sizes—septets, quintets, quartets, trios, been in the Vanguard, been at Dizzy’s at the Kaplan Playhouse. No records yet, though. Only a couple of dates with trios for the Japanese market on somewhat circumscribed repertoire. It seems every year that you’re doing more and more, gradually building up repertoire and a base of concerts on which other people can draw in recognizing you as a bandleader. What are your aspirations in this regard?
LEWIS: I think they are never-ending for someone who desires to continue to grow musically. I think about various things I’d like to do every day that I haven’t done yet. Wearing the bandleader hat takes a lot of work and takes a lot of time and effort, but it’s worthwhile to watch things come to fruition that began as just an idea or a thought. With that in mind, I’d like to do a lot more things in the future. Nothing specific comes to mind right now, but we have unlimited possibilities.

[MUSIC: Diaspora, from Blues for Marcus]

[END OF CONVERSATION]

———-

Lewis Nash (WKCR, June 26, 2006):

[MUSIC: Kenny Drew Trio, Apasionata]

TP: That featured one of the most prominent drum-bass combinations of our time, Lewis Nash and Peter Washington, who’ve been playing on bandstands countless during the ‘90s with Tommy Flanagan, and are performing together this week in the Lewis Nash Quintet at the Village Vanguard. Since 1999, when you first seriously undertook leading groups and performing out with them… This will be your second group-leader gig this year on New York bandstands. You were at Dizzy’s Room in January. You’ve played often with a septet, and lately a trio as well with Steve Nelson and Peter Washington, and a duo with Steve Wilson. Is this quintet a new band for you?

LEWIS: The newness this week is basically having Gerald Clayton on piano. In the past, generally it’s been Mulgrew Miller or Renee Rosnes or no piano, and others on occasion. But Gerald is a fantastic young musician who is certainly going to make a name for himself. Many people are aware that he’s the son of bassist-arranger John Clayton.

TP: New repertoire this week?

LEWIS: A few things. We do have all this various repertoire in a soup, and each night, depending on the vibe or feeling, I decide whether we’re going to play it or not. Basically, this week is not so much about new repertoire, although I generally like to do a gig in town when I do have something new to offer. But I didn’t want to let a whole year go by without playing at the Vanguard. So this week really is about our creativity on the stage in the moment no matter what we play, because there won’t be any incredible unveilings of new material.

TP: Do you approach your role, your performance in any different manner when you’re leading a group versus playing as a sideman? Does your point of view become the guiding flow for the performances when you’re leading the group? Although of course, it would in other ways when you’re a sideman.

LEWIS: Of course, since it’s more or less my musical vision in that sense, I am providing some direction for how I want it to go pacing-wise and all of that. But I am actually trying to allow everyone else to establish a direction without dictating where I feel it should go. I don’t like that kind of dictatorial way of approaching it from a bandleading standpoint. I like to be open to the input from everyone else. So while I am selecting the set and the pieces, and kind of deciding how long they’re going to be and all that, I just give some basic parameters and then let everybody go where it’s going to go.

TP: You’ve also developed a circle of people around you, good friends with busy schedules who’ve made time to play on your gigs and help develop the sound of your band.

LEWIS: You bring to mind several things to me. For me, I was listening to and enjoying Bill [Stewart]’s interview on the way here, and some of the things you were talking about… As a sideman, I have a lot of different varieties of things that I’m really happy to do, and fortunate to be able to do. So I get a lot of different looks and feels, musically speaking, from all these different things I’m doing, so when I come to do my thing, I can bring elements of those various things to mind. But also, I don’t feel like I have to necessarily explore some of the other things that I explore in other situations to greater depth just because it’s my situation. I might feel like I can do some other things. And those things may change each time I play live as a leader. But I’m so satisfied that I don’t feel a need to explore so many different varieties of things in my own situation. I can concentrate on certain things.

TP: Has being a leader evolved your own drum technique or sense of flow as a drummer? Do you find that you do certain things that are idiosyncratic to you more readily than you would in sideman situations? Ways of hitting beats…

LEWIS: Not so much now. Maybe in the earlier years of deciding to do things as a leader, that might have been the case. But I’m not even sure then how much it was the case. Because so much of how I approach the instrument and how I approach making music with people is consistent, no matter what. So whereas there may be things I’m less apt to do in one situation versus another because of the type of music or the style or whatever, I think generally there is a consistent thread that you can hear running through everything. I can tell it’s me. Whether it’s a piece of music that’s quirky and out, or if it’s a piece of music that’s straight down the middle, swinging, I know how I touch the drums, I can hear that same consistency throughout that. I think that’s an important thing.

TP: You went out with Betty Carter in 1981. So you’ve been a working professional New York musician for 25 years. There’s 25 years of musical history that you’re part of now. In an overall sense, what are some of the salient things you’ve seen change in the musical ideas people are articulating now vis-a-vis 1981, when you came up. There are continuities, but it’s a very different world.

LEWIS: You could say that in many respects. I’m not sure I’d be the best arbiter of that. I came here in 1980 the first time, and I was going around to hear as much music as I could possibly hear. At the same time, I was taking some lessons with Freddie Waits. There were certain guys who were working quite a bit. Billy Hart seemed to be everywhere in those days; he was playing every week somewhere, or it seemed like two different places a night at times! Some of the greats were still leading bands—Woody Shaw, Dexter Gordon, Art Blakey, Betty Carter (whose band I was in). There were these kind of iconic leaders who were still around, and young guys wanted to be in their bands and hone their craft and whatnot. For me, I tried to bring a certain sensibility to the music. When I got here to play with Betty, before that in Arizona, I had been playing a lot of different things with people who’d come through town—Sonny Stitt and people like that when they’d pick up a rhythm section—but I also had an ear to the more exploratory things. I had a duo with saxophonist Allen Chase, and we opened concerts in Phoenix—before I even moved to New York—for Old And New Dreams, which is how I met Ed Blackwell and Dewey and Don and Charlie Haden. Then we opened for the Art Ensemble of Chicago, we opened for Sun Ra., playing this duo. I had bells on my ankles. We were doing a lot of interesting and exploratory things. So I always had an ear to those kinds of things. But what I realized was that I didn’t want to marginalize myself… I don’t know if that’s really the right way of putting it. But I wanted to take advantage of whatever I could get from the people who had been the movers and shakers in the music further back, the Betty Carters and Ron Carters and Tommy Flanagans and people like that. I didn’t want to not be able to associate myself with that lineage.

TP: You didn’t want to cut yourself off.

LEWIS: No. So I felt like, okay, at some point in the future, I can always… I’m not going to lose my desire to be creative, I’m not going to forget how to explore. So I wanted to make sure I immersed myself in where the music was coming from to such an extent that I had an opportunity to interact with these great players. So over time, I have fortunately been able to do that. People like Horace Silver and McCoy and all these different people I’ve played with, all of that has contributed to whatever it is I’m offering as a bandleader, I hope.

TP: Another thing I touched on a little earlier with Bill, we were discussing about the ways in which over the last 15 years odd meters and world rhythmic structures have become more part of the musical vernacular rather than slightly more exotic, as it was in the ‘80s. From your perspective, as someone who became established during the ‘80s, before people like Danilo Perez and Ed Simon came to town, and when Steve Coleman was just starting to deal with the things he did with Dave Holland… How do you see those developments affecting the rhythmic template of jazz these days? Has that changed a lot?

LEWIS: I think it’s just become more of a wide palette, I guess. The stuff has always been there, people have been exploring things from Max and Brubeck and various people in the ‘50s, and there’s already a precedent in world music. So I think the foundation was already laid for people to explore a lot of different things, whether it’s odd meters, whether it’s interesting and different harmonic ideas or structural things with tunes that are not necessarily 32-bar song forms of AABA. People have been exploring a lot of different things for a long time. What you have to learn how to do is incorporate all of it, and not be afraid of any challenges, and then also not be afraid to be basic, too. You can be complicated and simple, and both things work. Also, everyone has a different thing to contribute to this thing. We’re not all supposed to do the same thing.

TP: Did anything new happen in the last 15 years? How would say the sound of jazz in 2006… If you’d left the planet in 1990, came back now, and hadn’t heard any jazz since, what changes would you discern?

LEWIS: I leave the planet on a regular basis, but I do come back. You know, Ted, I really never think of it in those terms. But I suppose the same way there’s new technologies… If you left the planet, came back 15 years later, and the Internet. So I imagine for your ear, yes, but when you’re in it, you can’t hear or observe the changes so clearly, I guess. It might be like if you go away and come back home and see someone who was an adolescent when you left, and when you come back they’re grown up but it’s the same person. That probably didn’t answer your question.

TP: It didn’t, but that’s fine. As Charlie Parker once said immortally on that video, “music speaks louder than words.” In 2003-04, or maybe in 2004-05 you did a few recordings for M&I, the Japanese label…

[MUSIC: “Tico, Tico”]

What’s it like to play so much with the same bass player? You’ve played a lot with George Mraz over the years, with Christian McBride and Ron Carter. But the names Washington and Nash go together in a certain interesting way. How has it evolved?

LEWIS: There are certain vibes that you feel from musicians when you play with them for the first time. Even though I’ve played with a lot of different bass players, as you’ve mentioned, the special rapport I have with Peter… I have a special rapport with the other guys you mentioned as well. But with Peter, I don’t have to worry about whether he’s going to be doing what I need him to do to make everything come across like I’d like it to. You were asking me if I’m thinking about the directions of how things are progressing as we’re playing with my group. With Peter as the bass anchor, there are certain things I know are going to be in place, and I don’t have to worry about those things. They are unspoken things. It’s telepathic almost. So it’s kind of a comfort zone, a comfort level having him there that allows me to feel free to do a lot of things that I might not attempt.

TP: Can you name what a couple of those things might be?

LEWIS: He can sense when I’m orchestrating things a certain way and breaking the time, exactly what to do to keep the forward momentum of the time going, so it doesn’t seem like we both pulled the rug out from under everyone else. In other words, we kind of share the duties of keeping the forward propulsion of the music going. Also, sometimes I can just look to him and nod if I want to change the feel, and he knows to go wherever I’m trying to make it go. His ears are wide open. He picks great notes in his walking bass lines. I’m often keying off of the bass for the harmonic structure and framework of the tune much more than the piano comping or something like singing the tune in my head. I’m more focused on the movement of the bassline.

TP: I recall reading Max Roach saying that there’s no such thing as melodic drums, but there is such a thing as rhythmic design, and people sometimes confuse rhythmic design for playing melody on the drums. You seem always to be very conscious of rhythmic design within the forward motion. How has that concept evolved for you?

LEWIS: That rhythmic design that Max was talking about, in the sense he’s speaking about the melodic interpretation… Another word I’ve heard for it is linear. I tune the drums in a way that the intervals are wide enough that it can give the impression of melodic movement. If I play certain fills, and the drums are extremely close in the tuning, you don’t get the sense of separation and you don’t get the sense of movement up or down a scale. So if I tune the drums at wider intervals, then it seems to give more of an impression that I’m playing some types of melodic things. I like to interject phrases that are not just drum fills, but maybe necessarily a continuation of the line I might have heard the soloist just playing, except I’m articulating it on the drums, so when he takes a breath (if it’s a horn player), I’m almost thinking in terms of continuing his linear thought process on the drums until he puts the horn back to his mouth, and maybe inspire him to go rhythmically in one direction or another, rather than just a drum fill for the sake of filling space and very drum-oriented—I might make it more linear.

TP: Let me repeat a couple of questions I asked Bill Stewart before. I asked him early on in his career how aware he was of the history of the drums in reference to his own development, and, if he emulated other iconic drummers, who some of those drummers might have been. That led to asking him at what point he got beyond those influences and began to assimilate them into his own thing.

LEWIS: Of course, anyone who gets involved in this music at the drums is going to have to go through a certain group of players if they’re really going to say that they’ve studied the music and the history of jazz drumming. For me, in my earliest development, before I really started playing jazz, I was playing a lot of R&B and funk, and that’s pretty much what I was playing. So I wasn’t as… Coming from an R&B, funk and blues… My mother used to listen to a lot of blues—B.B. King and Muddy Waters and that stuff. Coming from that kind of background, I wasn’t necessarily as attracted to the Rock elements, the fusion stuff so much. Even though I could appreciate the drumming aspects of Tony and Billy Cobham and the guys who played in the fusion genre, I was more attracted to the funkier, danceable things at that time, in those earlier years. Then once I became aware of people like Max Roach and Roy Haynes and Philly Joe Jones, Elvin, Jimmy Cobb, and all the various people, then I started to explore the possibilities of that approach to playing the drums. So my influences went from James Brown’s drummers and the Stax records, Al Green and that whole feel, to the guys I just mentioned in straight-ahead jazz, Kenny Clarke and those people who laid the foundation in jazz drumming. So in a way, I have less of the influences of, say, the fusion era, like Tony and Billy Cobham, Jack DeJohnette with Miles, in that context. That stuff actually came later rather than earlier, whereas for some guys that’s some of the first stuff they got into. Whereas for me, I got into the other stuff, and then I kind of backtracked. With my knowledge of music being a little greater, than I think I was able to appreciate and assimilate more of the elements of the more modern players…

TP: How would you assimilate vocabulary? Playing along with records and trying to replicate the style?

LEWIS: Yeah. Playing along. Because then you turn it up loud, or you have headphones and you’re playing along, and you can almost interject yourself into the band, in a sense. That’s one way of beginning to assimilating some of the vocabulary, just playing along.

TP: Were a lot of these guys coming through your town?

LEWIS: No, not that many people came through Phoenix. I didn’t see much.

TP: Probably you’d heard Ed Blackwell before you opened for Old & New Dreams.

LEWIS: Yes.

TP: But seeing him probably put a whole different spin on what he was doing.

LEWIS: Definitely. But I didn’t get to see that many great players. Only towards the end, before I eventually came to New York in the late ‘70s… As I mentioned earlier, Sonny Stitt came through town and I played with him, and I’d meet and see other people that way. I heard Tony Williams with VSOP I think in ‘78 or ‘79. Yeah, I began to see and hear a few people like that. But coming to New York and being able to sit in the front row of the Vanguard to watch and listen to Elvin, yeah, there wasn’t anything like that going on in Phoenix, I’m afraid.

TP: Many young aspirants will be sitting in the catbird seat or the Vanguard this week, and get there when the doors open at 8:15 to get a bird’s eye view of Lewis Nash and quintet… This puts you together with Billy Hart, who as you said was playing everywhere when you came to town… Dark Shadows.

[MUSIC: “Dark Shadows:; Ray Bryant (RRB), “Glory, Glory”; Hannibal-George Adams, Cry]

We heard Lewis getting into a very African conception of the trapset. I think you said you heard Sunny Ade’s talking drummers and were trying to get that quality, as well as Edward Blackwell. And it doesn’t get any more fundamental than Glory, Glory.

We’ll hear recordings Lewis made with several people who recently passed on. Jackie McLean, and John Hicks, with whom you performed on three Joe Lovano nonet recordings. Did you ever record trio with John?

LEWIS: I didn’t record trio with John, but I made gigs in trio with him. He brought something special to any situation. But in the Lovano dates and in the nonet, John was such an integral part of the sound of that group.

TP: That nonet gig is an interesting one, because there’s lots of room for you to roam and travel rhythmically and sonics to weave in and out of. Since Lovano himself likes to play drums… Unfortunately, the only tracks that are applicable are 10-16 minutes…

[MUSIC: w/ Jackie McLean, “Little Melonae”]

LEWIS: It was an interesting date, because I think that may have been the first time that Jackie and Junko met, in the studio. Of course, that happens quite often in jazz anyway. I remember it very well, because I remember someone in the studio mentioning something about intonation, probably someone associated with the label, some peripheral person, and I remember hearing Jackie say, “I’ve played out of tune my whole life; why should I start playing in tune NOW?” I thought that was the funniest thing I had… It was tongue-in-cheek, it was just everything. It lightened up the session and allowed us just to go ahead and play. It was a funny comment.

TP: When you hear Lewis Nash, you’ll be hearing someone who’s embodied the experiences of playing on a regular basis, at one point or another, for ten years with Tommy Flanagan, on many occasions with Tommy Flanagan’s good friend Sonny Rollins, with Ron Carter for years, with Betty Carter, with McCoy Tyner, with Don Pullen, and with just about every significant musician who made a mark on jazz from the 1940s on up, and even going to a date with Doc Cheatham and Benny Carter and Hank Jones. All those experiences are encoded in Lewis’ playing and performance and presentation in one manner or another, and you should not miss him when he’s leading a band.

[MUSIC: w/ McCoy Tyner from Illuminations, The Chase]

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Filed under DownBeat, Drummer, Lewis Nash, WKCR

For Lenny White’s 66th Birthday, An Uncut DownBeat Blindfold Test From 2010

For drummer Lenny White’s 66th birthday, here’s the uncut proceedings of a DownBeat Blindfold Test that I conducted with him in May 2010. His remarks were unfiltered and trenchant. We did this in a high-end midtown recording studio, which I mention because of Lenny’s comments on how the positioning of the drums in the mix of several of these recordings affects our perception of what the drummers are doing.

 

Lenny White Blindfold Test (Raw):

1. Roy Haynes, “The Best Thing For You” (LOVE LETTERS, Sony, 2002) (Haynes, drums, Joshua Redman, tenor saxophone; Kenny Barron, piano; Christian McBride, bass)

This is one of the six masters. This is the history of jazz right here—the living history of jazz. Do I have to say who it is? Roy Haynes. He’s the living history of jazz. He’s played with everybody, done everything, and he’s one of my six heroes. The others are Philly Joe, Max, Elvin, Art Blakey, and Tony. It’s Roy Haynes! That’s all you’ve got to say. All the drummers that I named transcend the instrument. They’re not drummers. They are musicians who happen to play drums. Because they have such a unique approach to playing music, they don’t play just drums—they play music, and the drums are the instrument that they use to interpret the music. 9 stars. I’m not even listening to the other cats. No disrespect, but Roy commands such attention when he plays the instrument… Is that Christian on bass? I wasn’t listening to the piano player, so I didn’t hear his solo. Is this Marcus Strickland on tenor? No? I’ve got to tell you a true story with Roy Haynes that helped shape my musical life. Roy Haynes used to have a group that he called the Hip Ensemble, and every night, the last tune he would play on the set would be the Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” At the end, he’d go, BAH-DAH-DOO-DAH, BRRMMM, and he’d play a drum cadenza. He was playing at Slugs’, and he knew I was there, and said BAH-DAH-DOO-DAH, BRRMMM, stopped, and called me up on the stage, and had me play the drum cadenza. That’s all I’ve got to say.

2. Jason Marsalis, “Puppet Mischief” (from John Ellis & Double Wide, PUPPET MISCHIEF, Obliq, 2010) (Ellis, tenor saxophone, composer; Marsalis, drums; Brian Coogan, organ; Matt Perrine, sousaphone)

Is it Dave Holland’s band? No? That’s very interesting, because of the use of the tuba, and they can negotiate their way through 7/4 pretty seamlessly. The drummer is playing within the music, doing an admirable job within the music. I haven’t a clue. It’s cool. He’s not getting in the way. You know what’s interesting with the younger guys? I think they’re very technically proficient, but there’s no particular emphasis on a sound—an identifiable sound, whether it’s choice of cymbals, or how they tune their drums, to the point where I say, “Oh, I know who that is” immediately. It sounds great, though. 3 stars.

3. Kendrick Scott, “Short Story” (from REVERENCE, Criss-Cross, 2009) (Scott, drums, composer; Mike Moreno, guitar; Walter Smith, tenor saxophone; Gerald Clayton, piano; Derrick Hodge, bass; Kenny Dorham, composer)

Is it Tain? No. I like it. He’s killing. I like the organic sound of everything. It sounds great. My only problem, sometimes, is how the recordings are today. See, what drives the music is the ride cymbal. A lot of the guys now play more drums than play cymbal. See, I don’t get a sense of the real hard drive with the music with a lot of drums. It got it when they were playing in open 7, but when they started to swing over the changes it didn’t work as well. From that standpoint, I’d like to really hear some hard swinging. 5 stars. Kendrick Scott? A new guy. But when they start to play straight-ahead stuff, it’s a little weird. From another perspective, what music is, is how you break silence.
So when you make a statement, it better be good. If you’re coming back from silence… That’s why it’s a little strange. There’s this flood of music, and then the music has to compete with movies, it has to compete with games. So the emphasis is not on art, like it used to be, or the art has been fragmented.

4. Brian Blade, “Joe Hen” (from John Patitucci, REMEMBRANCE, Concord, 2009) (Blade, drums; John Patitucci, bass, composer; Joe Lovano, tenor saxophone)

John Patitucci, Joe Lovano, and Brian Blade. I don’t know the record, but I know them. It’s ok. 4 stars. I like Brian’s playing. [If I run this entry, it would be nice if I had a little more than “I like Brian’s playing.”] What is it that you want me to say? [Just your response…] Let me ask you what do you think? [Of this piece.] Yes, and Brian’s playing. [Open, interactive piece, Brian’s responding on a dime like he always does…] Everybody that you’ve played me so far has done exactly the same thing. Everybody’s responded and played, and it’s great. The drums sound great. The sound is great. The thing about it is that conceptually…what defines concept, or helps make up concept, is your choice of cymbals, how you tune your drums, and hopefully that will come out in a recording. This is recorded well. The drums sound fantastic. In conjunction with the music, it still sounds great, and all of that. I think it’s great. 4 stars.

5. Dafnis Prieto, “Si o Si” (from SI O SI QUARTET, Dafnison, 2009) (Prieto, drums, composer; Peter Apfelbaum, tenor saxophone; Manuel Valera, piano; Charles Flores, bass)

You’re giving me all these weird time changes. I like this, though. Great composition. Is it the drummer’s composition? Tain? It’s great. I love the composition. It shows that drummers can be musicians, too. That’s why I think I know who it is, but I don’t want to say yet. Is it Jack deJohnette? No? Who is it? Dafnis Prieto? Nice, man. You can tell that he wrote this composition. Very musical. It says something when someone comes here who is not from the United States, and they take their culture and adapt it to jazz. He’s not trying to play jazz; he’s playing jazz within his culture, which is cool. Oh, it’s live. I really like it. Who’s the piano player? [Manuel Valera.] Are they all Latin? [The tenor player isn’t.] It’s killer. Very believable, very honest, and they were going for it. It’s not as much as Roy Haynes, but 6 stars. Whoo!

6. Teri Lynne Carrington, “The Eye Of The Mind” (#2) (from Tineke Postma, THE TRAVELLER, EtceteraNOW, 2009) (Postma, piano, composer; Geri Allen, Fender Rhodes; Scott Colley, bass; Carrington, drums)

Great-sounding recording. Whoever this is has been influenced by Jack. Unless this is Jack. No? Oh, Teri Lynne Carrington. The statement was accurate. I thought it sounded great. It’s kind of hard for me, because I don’t want to sound cynical or jaded, but I have such… The best way that I can explain it is that jazz is not a style of music to me. It’s my heritage. The reason why I say that is that those six heroes I mentioned all took me aside and told me things about how to interpret and represent the music. I got a lot from listening to their records, but it really made sense when they said what they said, when you sat and listened to somebody and they’d say, “Ok, you see that? This is how you make that turnaround.” Or, “You see this? This is what you need to…” Every one of those guys I mentioned actually did that with me. So they gave me their perspective of how to represent the music the right way. That’s why for me it’s a heritage. Everything you’ve played is a very good representation of where the music is today, or where it’s going. But you haven’t played anything yet that was a true sense of swing from the perspective of all of those guys that I named, and all those guys that I named, maybe with the exception of Philly Joe and Buhaina, they took the music from a straight-ahead swing situation, and amped on it, and made it into something else, to what this is right now. But I still haven’t heard that link back to those guys yet. I’ve heard great representations of what the music is today, but with the exception of what I just heard with Teri Lynne, I can’t say where the influences of the drummers have come from. She sounded great. 4 stars. You haven’t played me anything that I did not like and which sounded bad—and was a bad representation. And I would hope you wouldn’t write about either! It’s just from the standpoint that what keeps a music pure is that there’s a source point, and you can trace the lineage from A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and it goes down the line. But when there’s an offshoot that is something that doesn’t have a point on the chain, it becomes something else. Now, it might be totally valid. I’m not saying that nothing else is valid. That’s not what I’m saying. Just that to this point you haven’t played me anything where I can see a link. The reason I haven’t been able to recognize some of the people is because I don’t hear those influences in their playing. When you played me Roy Haynes, I knew who it was in a second.

7. Ali Jackson, “Dali” (from Ted Nash & Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, PORTRAIT IN SEVEN SHADES, JALC, 2010) (Nash, composer; Ali Jackson, drums)

Does anybody play in 4 any more? Not a clue. Don’t know who the band is. It could be Gil Evans—I don’t know. There’s not too much the drummer can do, because he’s playing in odd time, and it’s pretty much arranged—so he’s kind of in handcuffs. Is it a ‘50s or ‘60s recording? [Neither. It’s 2010.] Whoa! I was just thinking of how far back the drums are. [Ali Jackson with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.] That’s really interesting. See how far back the cymbal is? I know Ali, and I like his playing. But this doesn’t represent his sound. They’re probably all great musicians, but there’s no drive. You can’t hear any drive. All you hear is the bass, but the drums have no drive.

8. Ernesto Simpson, “We See” (from Manuel Valera, CURRENTS, MaxJazz 2009) (Valera, piano; James Genus, bass; Simpson, drums; Thelonious Monk, composer)

This must be the piano player’s record. That’s all you can hear. You can’t hear any drums. Well, you can hear the drums, but you don’t hear any cymbals. When was this recorded? A year or two ago? The piano is so out in front, you lose perspective. I spent a week playing with Danilo and Avishai Cohen when he was doing the Panamonk stuff in the ‘90s, and I had a ball. It was great. [Did you play Afro-Caribbean music, salsa, when you were a young guy?] I did a lot. I played in a band called Azteca. I actually did a record called Afro-Cubano Chant with Bob James, Gato Barbieri, Andy Gonzalez, Mike Mainieri, and Steve Berrios, and we did all stuff like that. We played Lonnie Hillyer’s “Tanya” from the Soul Sauce album, Cal Tjader. But I don’t know about this…

9. Cindy Blackman, “Vashkar” (from ANOTHER LIFETIME, 4Q, 2010) (Blackman, drums; Mike Stern, electric guitar; Doug Carn, organ; Benny Rietveld, electric bass; Tony Williams, composer)

This is Cindy Blackman. This is her Tony record. I don’t like the sound of the recording, but I love what Cindy’s playing. The recording is weird. No clarity. Cindy knows how to tune the drums, she has a great choice of drums and everything, but I don’t really get that. It sounds muddled. It sounds like drums and guitar. You’ve got to be able to HEAR the drums. That’s Mike Stern on guitar and Doug Carn on organ. I knew it exactly because I know the music and I knew they made the record. The guitar is way too loud. I’ve been reluctant to do a tribute album for Tony. His playing comes out so much in me, I didn’t think I had to do that. I’m not saying that Cindy shouldn’t have done that; I’m not saying that at all. But I’ve managed just to be able to trace through him and find what I needed to find. And anybody that listens to me play can hear his influence on me. If there’s any negative about this, it’s the sound of the recording. That’s all. 4 stars. It sounds like the snare drum and bass drum in the mix. There’s a whole bunch of stuff she’s playing that you miss. Cindy’s playing some great stuff, but you don’t hear it. Who’s the bass player? [Benny Rietveld.]

10. Paul Motian, “Abacus” (from LOST IN A DREAM, ECM, 2010) (Motian, drums, composer; Chris Potter, tenor saxophone; Jason Moran, piano)

Ringing snare drum. See how far back the bass drum is from the snare drum. These engineers and producers make jazz records try to sound like pop records. Jazz music is ambient music like classical music. You need to hear the air around the instruments, and then you hear it in direct proximity. You don’t hear a first violin louder than the viola. It’s a section. It’s a drumkit; you should always hear the whole kit, not the snare drum louder than something else. Is this a younger guy? [No.] I didn’t think so. It’s Paul Motian, but it sounded like Roy Haynes, from some of the things he did. I liked it. 3 stars.

11. Jeff Watts, “Caddo Bayou” (from John Beasley, POSITOOTLY!, Resonance, 2009) (Beasley, piano, composer; Brian Lynch, trumpet; Bennie Maupin, tenor saxophone; James Genus, bass; Watts, drums)

Finally we have somebody swinging. Same thing, though. The cymbal is not loud enough. The music doesn’t swing if you don’t get… And the guy can be really swinging, but it suffers in the mix. I believe what happens is that guys are set to play, and they’re not content enough to make the band swing just playing the ride cymbal. They want to play a whole bunch of drums, and it overpowers everything. So the producers that make these jazz records bring down the drums because they’re afraid that it’s going to overpower everything. But you miss the ride beat. It doesn’t swing if you don’t hear that. It just sounds like a rolling thing. You hear the bass, but you hear the low end of the bass. You don’t really hear any finger noise. And you hear the soloist way up front. So the rhythm section has this rumbling thing, nondescript. Is this one of them new trumpet players? Now, let me ask you a question. Listening to the drummer, who is his influence? [This sounds more coming out of Tony with Miles than anything else, at least in intention.] No way. Because the stuff Tony played, he played off of a ride cymbal. [Is that from the recording or the actual vocabulary the drummer’s playing?] A little bit of both. I mean, the stuff that Tony played was so intricate, it wasn’t just a rolling thing. There was great coordination between hands and feet, and a ride pattern. It was the cymbal beat which keeps the rhythmic perspective, so that when he played some other stuff, it was really amazing, because he played it against and coordinated with the cymbal beat. This just sounds like it’s a whole bunch of stuff going on, but there’s nothing to keep it focused. I don’t know who it was. 2 stars.

I honestly think that the recording made Tain’s contribution suffer there, because I know he has more of a cymbal ride beat than that, because you couldn’t hear it. That’s what made me say what I say. [This is  illuminating for me. Because so many records sound like this, I’m used to projecting what I hear live onto the record, and it becomes like a ghost sound…] See, the problem is it’s as if you went to a jazz club and heard a classical orchestra, and you got used to that sound, so that when you went back and heard a classical orchestra in a correct auditorium, you’d say, “Wow, that’s really interesting, because I’m used to hearing it in….” One of the things that is important in maintaining the history and giving the right perspective about the music is how you record it. When I listen back to the records I came up listening to, the Blue Note records and Columbia records, it had a sound that we all loved and got used to hearing, and it was a quality sound. It didn’t sound bad. That sounded bad. {Is that because of compression?] I think it’s basically attitude from the producer and the engineer. The engineer gets the sound, but the producer says, “This is the sound that I want,” and the artist usually leaves it up to the producer. Or maybe the artist doesn’t know enough to say, “Hey, let’s use this amount of compression on the piano, let’s use ribbon mikes on the cymbals so we can get a sweeter sound.” They don’t take that impetus or study enough to get a great-sounding record. And if the record doesn’t sound good, how are you going to get what it is you want to get across to people? Today we listen to music on phones! It’s like, “Please!” It’s gotten to that point. So I think basically what made Tain’s sound suffer for me was the way it was mixed.

The reason why I became a producer was out of… I was so disgusted playing on someone’s session, and someone sitting behind a glass telling me to do this, and listen to the sound, and the sound sounded horrible. I said, “Man, I’ve got to think and do my homework to find out what it takes to have a good drum sound, and record it.” If I want to make records, then I’m going to need to know how to make my drum sound. I didn’t want to be at the mercy of someone else, to say, “Ok, that sounds good.” No. So I had to take control.

[These aren’t self-produced recordings, but are independent labels, producers who have a point of view, so I’d suspect they think they’re putting some effort into the sound… For example, Paul Motian is on an ECM record; Manfred Eicher puts out a very curated sound…] Yes, and that sounded eons better than the last one. [But you were critical of the sound on that.] No-no. The point is… Yes, I have my opinion. But that was much more of a representative sound of what the music was like. It was a live recording. He had a very open bass drum, and I don’t know who decided, but some producer decided, “We don’t want to have ringy drums like that, we don’t want the snare drums to ring, so we’ll put tape on it and do this and do that.” Motian probably took control and said, “No, this is my sound, this is what I want to…” That’s why I said I knew it when I heard it. Roy Haynes plays a big open bass drum like that, too.

See, Ted, I just want to go on record as saying that what I say is not gospel. It’s just my perspective on it. When I am asked about it, I say what my perspective is. It took me a while to decide to record a record again, because I had listened to what the landscape was and thought about it and said, “Well, do I really want to make a statement in this particular landscape?” My statement is a lot different than what I just heard. But it’s my statement, and I take pride in how to make my instrument sound and how to mike it and all of that. I would hope that would come out in my recording. That’s why I’m so critical about the sound, because I don’t want great artists to make statements and for them not to be heard—and I’m talking about not to be heard while listening. It’s one thing that you don’t hear the record, but if you don’t hear the statement that they’re making while the record or CD or MP3 is being played…

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Drummer, Lenny White

For Cassandra Wilson’s 60th Birthday, a Jazz Times Feature From 2012 and a Downbeat Feature from 2008

To mark the 60th birthday of the great singer Cassandra Wilson, I’m posting a pair of feature articles I’ve had the opportunity to write about her — first a long piece for Jazz Times in 2012, next a feature for Downbeat in 2008.

* * *

 

Cassandra Wilson, ‘Jazz Times’ Article (2012):

On Memorial Day, as afternoon turned to evening and the barbecues wound down in the brownstone back yards next to Complete Music Studios in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights district, Cassandra Wilson convened her band for a five-hour rehearsal to prepare for a one-week run that would launch two days hence in Bergen, Norway, continue in Lviv, Ukraine, and conclude in Moscow. Ensconced in Room 4 of the sprawling converted warehouse, they worked methodically through the set list, postulating frameworks for such older Wilson standbys as “Fragile” and “Time After Time,” and newer repertoire like “Red Guitar” and “Another Country” (both from Wilson’s June release, Another Country [E1]), and a stark, intense arrangement of “The Man I Love” by harmonicist Gregoire Maret, Wilson’s current musical director, and a steady presence in her bands since 2003. They sat in a circle, Maret to Wilson’s left, and then, proceeding clockwise, guitarist Brandon Ross, drummer John Davis, bassist Ben Williams (filling the chair for Reginald Veal, who would join the troupe in Europe, as would percussion Lekan Babaola), and guitarist Marvin Sewell.

The final song was Wilson’s “A Little Warm Death,” which she debuted on New Moon Daughter, her 1995 chart-topper. Wilson was navigating the concluding vamp (“One little warm death/Come have one little warm death with me tonight”), denoting the time feel with gracefully calibrated arm swoops, when, suddenly, she interrupted the flow.

“It’s a lazy rhythm,” Wilson said casually, looking at Davis, a recent addition to the band. Her blondish dreads hung loose, and she wore a diaphanous earth-toned blouse, white capri slacks, gray espadrilles, and clef-shaped earrings. A red Telecaster guitar stood to the right of her chair; a closed Mac-Pro was on the floor to her left. “In Bahia, they’ve got a thing, too, where they’re way behind the beat. Most instrumentalists want you to push it. But most singers, like me, we want to lay back—we’re lazy.” She offhandedly referenced several rappers. “They got some serious swag way behind the beat.”

After a final runthrough of “A Little Warm Death,” Ross asked Wilson to try the Lennon-McCartney song, “Tomorrow Never Knows.” “I don’t really know it yet,” Wilson responded. “Can you sing it?” Ross complied; Wilson listened attentively, smiled encouragingly, beat the rhythm on her knees. “Nice,” she said after Ross’ quick Polaroid of his intentions. While Ross and Davis established the changes and key, she opened the Macbook, and, scrolling with her big toe, talked out the lyrics from the screen. In due time, she closed the computer, sat erect, planted her feet, and claimed possession with a completely realized interpretation, bobbing and weaving within the rhythm, her infinitely flexible contralto conveying nuance and unveiling implication.

“I think they were dropping acid then,” Wilson said dryly after this textbook display of what it means to practice like you play. She exhaled and shook her head. “I’m running out of power.” But she recouped for a stomping “Come Together,” skipping registers with the ease of a bird in flight, even soaring into the soprano range for a quick minute. Then the evening’s work was done.

[BREAK]

“I’ve witnessed that for many years, and it always amazes me,” Maret remarked the next morning on Wilson’s ability to instantly alchemize a song into her own argot. “She has no limits. She goes into the moment, and interacts with whatever the whole ensemble has created for her.”

For Wilson, first and foremost, to be daring is a matter of musicianship. “The gospel that I’m trying to get out is that, ok, it’s fine to have a beautiful voice, but it will be even finer if you are able to communicate with that instrument as a musician,” she said over the phone from her home in Jackson, Mississippi, a week before the rehearsal. “In jazz, I think that is the connection you have to make before you even step foot into that world.”

“Cassandra does things that most singers should do,” Ross confirmed. “She’s more out of the Miles Davis realm of dealing with a melody. In an understated way, she takes things in a direction that doesn’t necessarily give you a lot of extended information, but can change the path of what you’re doing, which makes it can sound wide-open.”

Still, Wilson acknowledges that a certain ineffable, intuitive mojo also shapes her interpretations. Speaking to me several years ago, she analogized it as akin to “trying on clothing, when you walk in the store and find something that really fits; I’ve found a path inside it, a way to sing it that’s true to my life story.”

In a separate conversation, Ross elaborated on that metaphor. “When I was Cassandra’s Music Director,” he said, referencing the years 1993 to 1996, “I always looked at rehearsals as like a fitting session. I get the thing set up, do a tuck here or pin it there, then she’d come in and say, ‘Yeah, let’s go that direction,’ then maybe take a break or be out on some business, and then come back in and hook it up. She doesn’t tell anyone exactly what to do. She lets people find the best things that can be played with her music. Maybe it takes a bit of time to get to that point. But once you get there, it’s magical.”

Time is not an infinitely available commodity on recording sessions, where Wilson, when functioning as her own producer, has occasionally found it problematic to achieve magical results on deadline with a hands-off creative process. “I am probably the worst when it comes to organization,” she told me a week before the rehearsal. “I procrastinate until the last minute to do things. I tend to give musicians too much freedom. I don’t like to tell someone how to play something. I have gotten to the point where I do express my feelings about how I want something translated, But in the past, I’ve been pretty laissez-faire. I just let the music unfold. Sometimes it comes out great, sometimes not so great.”

Perhaps for this reason, Wilson has decided on various occasions to rely on a producer’s vision to create the frame in which she operates. Craig Street oversaw the transitional mid-‘90s recordings Blue Light Til Dawn and New Moon Daughter on which, as Ross states, “she claimed all of her personal experience, and molded it into a statement of who she is as a human being and as an artist,” removing her voice from the plugged-in frames of funk and hip-hop and modern jazz that she had navigated over the previous decade, and placing it in a spare, elemental strings-and-percussion context drawn straight from Mississippi roots, specifically her apprentice years as a singer-guitarist around Jackson, where she was born and raised.

In 2000, after eighteen years in New York, Wilson, needing time off to “get my bearings” and also wanting to keep an eye on her aging mother, began the process of resettling in Jackson. In 2002, she made the 150-mile drive up Highway 61 to Clarksville, to record the nostalgic, self-produced Belly Of The Sun. For most of the aughts she also kept a residence in New Orleans, 185 miles due south; there, in 2008, she made the drumcentric covers date Loverly, a Grammy-winner, and, in 2010, put together the studio segments of Silver Pony, which documented the kinetic mojo her then-constant working band with Sewell, Veal, Babaola, pianist Jonathan Batiste, and drummer Herlin Riley, could generate in live performance.

She stayed in Jackson to make Thunderbird (2004), for which she recruited T-Bone Burnett to conjure a zeitgeist-appropriate version of the blues-and-roots trope that underpins her mature tonal personality. On four Wilson songs, keyboardist Keith Ciancia constructs complex and detailed sonic landscapes—entextured layers of samples, loops, programming, beats, various vocal effects—that serve as couture to her timbre and illuminate the metaphysical subtext of her autobiographical lyrics. They effectively counterpoint less dressed-up vernacular-oriented repertoire to which guitarists Marc Ribot (Burnett’s “Lost”), Keb Mo’ (Willie Dixon’s “I Want To Be Loved”) and Colin Linden (“Red River Valley”) respond with more explicit blues connotations.

Vibrations of place are equally palpable on Another Country [E1], conceived in New Orleans in February 2011 and recorded six months later in Florence, Italy. It’s a joint venture with producer-guitarist Fabrizio Sotti, a son of Padova whose c.v. includes hit tracks by, among others, Dead Presidents, Q-Tip, Tupac, Ghostface Killah, Rihanna, Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, as well as several jazz albums with world-class improvisers that feature his luminous sound, impeccable chops, and lyric imagination. Performed by Sotti on acoustic guitar, Julien Labro on accordion, Nicola Sorato on acoustic bass, and Lekan Babalola and Mino Cinelu on percussion, the program, suffused with Mediterranean flavor, includes seven originals, six of them co-composed with Sotti, an extraordinary rendition of “O Sole Mio,” and two solo miniatures by Sotti.

They met in 2003, when Wilson, not thrilled with the fruits of several recording sessions for the follow-up to Belly of The Sun, was looking “to experiment, to find different textures to play with.” Their simpatico was instant. “We became friends quickly,” she recalls. “It was really easy to work with him.”

The end product, Glamoured, to which Wilson contributed five originals and idiosyncratic renditions of Sting’s “Fragile,” Willie Nelson’s “Crazy,” and Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay,” was the singer’s most personal, self-revelatory album of the ‘00s. Seven years later, freed of caretaking responsibilities after her mother’s death the year before, and having fulfilled her obligations to Blue Note, her label since 1993, Wilson found herself again focusing on “constantly playing with and exploring ideas—I felt ready to start writing songs again.” Late in 2010, she and Sotti, with whom she had stayed in touch, began serious talks about a new record. A few months later, around Mardi Gras, they got to work in her French Quarter house.

“For a couple of months, we’d been tossing around ideas, frameworks, and chord progressions or songs, and Fabrizio already had ideas,” Wilson recalls. “I sat at the piano, he’d play and record the changes, and in the process we’d have conversations about how he felt when he wrote the music. From that, a couple of tunes on Another Country—for example, ‘When Will I See You Again’—were formed based on those emotions.

“There is a strong, sympathetic energy between us. Fabrizio is detail-oriented and meticulous. Everything is in place in his universe. His nails are always cut. His guitars are clean. He doesn’t like to touch a guitar whose strings are too old. That organizational side of his personality matches me well. Also, we’re both guitar lovers, and we communicate very well based on that. Through the way he plays his guitar, he’s able to tap into certain basic emotions, places in my memory that are powerful and evocative.”

Armed with a half-dozen or so melodies, Wilson let the information marinate. She gradually conceived lyrics over the next several months, but didn’t complete them until August, when she and Sotti reunited in Florence for a fortnight to make the recording. “Passion,” a tango, is her response to “the beautiful apartment we had in Piazza della Signoria—you’ve got the David there, the museums, the fountains in the street, the balconies, the foot traffic, people eating out.” Wilson relates that she came up with “Almost Twelve”—an idiomatic street samba that Sotti positions as “a modern version of what Gilberto and Ella Fitzgerald did with Abraca Jobim”—after “traveling back from the studio one night, not being able to find our way back to the hotel, and going around in circles in the maze of the old city of Florence for about an hour-and-a-half.”

Wilson adds that she found the melody and the lyric of the title track not long after the idyllic sojourn, while in Woodstock, where she keeps a residence. “I’m still trying to decipher the meaning,” she says. “It’s about experiencing life in different stages and in different times, and experiencing love, and seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, seeing their world—which is what I did when I went to Italy with Fabrizio. I experienced Italy in a totally different light. We tend to identify ourselves as the other whenever we go into a culture. But once you’re inside it, you begin to make a connection.”

Sotti remarks that the songs bear a tone parallel to those of Glamoured, which addressed subjects of love, loss, and betrayal. “It’s a similarly transitional time for her, and these are clearly quite personal, a lot of stories of things she’s actually going through,” Sotti said. “Cassandra’s voice is a unique instrument. She’s an originator, not only in the style she plays, but in the sound of her voice. There aren’t too many other comparable voices out there—prior or after. We respect each other, and trust each other deeply. Either of us could say that something was ready, and we’d follow the other’s lead. It was a total collaboration between two musicians who totally speak the same language. We talked about chord changes, forms, even beyond just the poetry of the words and everything else. There no boundaries, no stigmas of any kind. We just said, ‘Let’s try to write the music we feel now, and do it the best way we can.’”

It was Sotti’s idea to use the accordion, which seals the Mediterranean ambiance. “I associate the instrument with the emotion that the Italians call malinconia,” Wilson said, savoring each syllable. “It’s in the lyric of ‘O Sole Mio.’ Malinconia is melancholy. Saudade is another great word—it’s the same emotion. The Irish love melancholy, too.

“I think I’m a melancholy specialist. It’s a sweet—or bittersweet—emotion. There’s always this condition of the human heart to long for something that it imagines it would need. It’s not a bad feeling. For me, it’s a rich feeling. I think it’s a beautiful part of being human, to have longing, to always search for something, to always seek to make the heart whole.”

[BREAK]

On tour with her band in Italy before her fortnight in Florence, Wilson performed a concert “at some Etruscan ruins or an archaeological dig.” She researched the subject, and found “interesting connections between the Etruscan culture and the Yoruba people—the way they created their courtyards, the architecture, the spiritual stuff.”

She references this connection on the coda of Another Country, a lilting track titled “Olomuroro,” a Yoruba word that directly translates into “one with droopy breasts,” but also denotes a mythological monster who stole a boy’s meal while the boy grew thinner.

“We’re drawing upon the former story,” Wilson said when she stopped laughing. “The song is about the women in the village who come around to care for the children when their parents are not there, because they need feeding, they need milk. The breasts are drooping because they are the breasts of the wet nurse. The Yoruba people don’t have any issues singing about the beauty of big, drooping breasts.”

Herself the mother of a son who is past his majority, Wilson—who draws deep sustenance from Mississippi roots—attends closely to matters of heritage. “The first five years of your life, your personality is formed,” she remarks. “The place where that happens is significant, and it holds a lot of powerful emotional material that you can draw upon.”

It is not surprising that, in the second half of her sixth decade, Wilson would conclude an album of love songs with one that directly signifies a matriarchal world view from an ancestral perspective. Her mother, Mary Fowlkes, was a Ph.D and professor of Spanish at Jackson State; her grandmother, to whom she was particularly close in her own early childhood, was a conjure woman figure.

“Her habits were mysterious and unusual,” Wilson recalls. “She would wear an apron, which had two pockets in which she carried seeds, and had a wonderful smell. I have some of those seeds still. She was a woman who had moved from what would be called rural Mississippi to the city, and she kept a gun. Even in her seventies, she loved to go off into the woods and gather. She was an herbalist. She could make medicines. She used to take a cup and raise it above her head and circle her head three times. Lekan Babaola told me, after I described it to him, that it’s a Yoruba gesture. Three times over the head before leaving something, casting it away.”

Although Wilson hasn’t cast away her Harlem apartment or her New York connections, she states that she is now “out of New Orleans” and spending most of her time in Jackson. “Making this the base has completely turned my thought processes around,” she said. “Instead of thinking about what I need to do in New York to further my career, or to get the message out, or to create the music, I’m doing that here. The way that I look at my career now is based on my community, and the work that I do in this community. I look at this stage of my life as being mine to make, and my decisions are based on what I think my path is.”

Part of that path will include hewing to Abbey Lincoln’s suggestion that “it’s important for singers to write songs about what’s happening in their lives, not to focus on the songs and the stories of other people’s lives. Abbey explained to me that it’s great to sing a standard—and of course, it is, if it’s your own story—but it’s so much more important for you to add to that your story, and to constantly stay in touch with that story, that narrative.”

Towards that end, Wilson states, “I’m going to work on developing a core of musicians to play with, and making sure that core is strong enough to interpret the music on its own. Then, once you get to the live part, you begin to create the other life of the song. The song doesn’t just stay where it is. It has to go through all these permutations and changes. That’s exciting, too, because you can stumble across something else entirely new that then, again, will lead you to the next project. It can be scary. But it’s a good scary.

“I love the mistake, and I love that feeling of stepping out and doing something that will cause a mistake. In order to get to that point, you have to get out of your comfort zone. You can’t continue to make music that engages the audience on the level that you want them to be engaged if you remain in your comfort zone. I change my policy every day. Who knows what’s going to happen next time?”

———–

Cassandra Wilson, Downbeat Critics Poll Article (2008):

“I felt I’d come to an emotional wall,” Cassandra Wilson said over the phone from Jackson, Mississippi, describing her state of mind after completing Thunderbird [Blue Note] her rootsy, quasi-poppish 2006 release, and also explaining in part why her latest, Loverly [Blue Note], comprises ten songbook standards, a Robert Johnson blues, and a Yoruba praise song.

“I couldn’t find my footing,” the 52-year-old singer elaborated. “I’ve decided to backtrack, simplify, learn the blues, REALLY learn the blues. Which is not that simple.” Asked whether her reference point is the hometown version of the blues-as-such or the blues as a world view, she opted for the former. “It’s something more particular to Jackson,” said Wilson, who has spent much time there in recent years tending to her aged mother. “There is a sound here. It’s halfway between the Delta and New Orleans, so it swings.”

“A certain amount of narcissism goes with being a vocalist—a jazz vocalist, or whatever you want to call what I do,” Wilson continued. “Songwriting as well. You have to let go of something in order to take care of people.”

Still, by deciding to wear the producer’s hat on Loverly, after collaborations with Americana guru T-Bone Burnett on Thunderbird and Top-40 (Mariah Carey) craftsman Fabrizio Sotti on Glamoured from 2003, Wilson returned to the methodology that generated both Travelin’ Miles and In The Belly of the Sun, her highly personal cusp of the 21st century releases. As on those occasions, the process was collaborative.

“I don’t really think about categorizing what I do, but going into this project, of course we knew that we were going to revisit standards,” Wilson said. “The treatment came about from a confluence of events.” While mulling a list of “maybe 30-40 songs” generated by Blue Note head Bruce Lundvall, Wilson took input on repertoire selection from bassist Lonnie Plaxico, her one-time musical director, and from Nigerian drummer Lekan Babaola, whose rolling grooves, articulated in synch with trapsman Herlin Riley, frame a complex rhythmic flow that Wilson traverses with surefooted grace. For the first time since Rendezvous, a label-arranged 1997 encounter with Jacky Terrason, she deploys the tonal personality of a pianist—in this case, native Houstonian Jason Moran—to signify on her narratives.

“Lekan stepped up and reminded me about the importance of the drums,” she said. “That’s a no-brainer for me. I’m deeply tied into rhythm, so it made perfect sense to approach these standards with a focus on the rhythmic bed that the music is lying on.”

Several years ago, Moran cut his teeth with Wilson for a brief, unrecorded stint. “I met him through Steve Coleman,” Wilson said. “The way he plays feels great to me. You don’t always find pianists who are strong soloists on their own yet are able to accompany a singer. I’ve worked with pianists where it’s difficult to find a space, but Jason seems to understand my phrasing really well, maybe because his wife is a singer.”

Only the Robert Johnson-composed, Elmore James-associated blues “Dust My Broom” was in Wilson’s repertoire during the months leading up to the August recording date, which made inhabiting the songs, many of them canonical, a tricky proposition. Indeed, for the most part, Wilson has eschewed such fare since Blue Skies, the swinging 1988 recital that placed her in the conversation with such empyrean divas as Betty Carter, Sarah Vaughan, and Nancy Wilson.

“Certain songs have been done over and over, and some have definitive versions,” she said. “Unless you completely tear it apart, there’s not much you can do. But certain songs. I don’t care if there’s a definitive version or it’s been done to death. I’ve found a path inside it, a way to sing it that’s true to my life story. Sometimes you know instantly when it feels right. It’s like trying on clothing, when you walk in the store and find something that really fits. I dance in a certain way with it. Musicians in my band have told me I move a certain way when I feel really at ease inside of a song.”

Both as producer and bandleader, Wilson, by her description, embraces a Venus-lets-Mars-think-it’s-in-charge approach. “I’m probably the least proactive leader,” she said. “ I tend to walk away from the musicians. Maybe it has something to do with the way women feel around men—I don’t know why I feel that, but I do. Some sort of male bonding thing happens in jazz when cats come together to work on a project. So I tend to come in and out, disappear, come back, see what’s happening, and just let them flow. I don’t try to direct them. I let the stream find its own way, instead of trying to create its path.”

One such moment occurred on “Til There Was You,” the Meredith Wilson love song made famous by both the Beatles and Frank Sinatra, on which Wilson proceeds through an allusive web of rhythm-timbre comprised of Herlin Riley’s New Orleans streetbeats and Babalola’s hand drum and cowbell, stabbing blues phrases from guitarist Marvin Sewell, and apropos chording from Moran.

“Lonnie asked if I knew it—it was not on the list,” she said. “I started singing, and he said, ‘Yeah, that’s it.’ Then I left the room, and Herlin and Lekan and Lonnie came up with that feel.”

A visit from Babalola to Wilson’s Jackson studio a few months before the recording generated the Afrocentric treatment of “Dust My Broom.” “Lekan said, ‘I want to show you something,’ and asked me to play some blues on the guitar,” Wilson related. “I started playing the regular 12-bar blues, he played rhythms under it, and said, ‘This is sakhara. This is one of the genres of blues music that we have in Nigeria. If had had the drum in Mississippi at that time, and if Robert Johnson were playing with the drummer, I think that he would have been playing this rhythm.’”

African rhythms saturate “Arere,” a Yoruba praise song to Ogun, the warrior god. The word also refers to a tree that emits a powerful, uncontrollable, odor so offensive that a Yoruba proverb cited in the book Rethinking Sexualities in Africa—type “arere” and “Yoruba” into Google Search, and it comes right up—states “any home where a woman is vocal, loud, influential through self-expression, will have the arere tree growing in the courtyard.”

The piece emerged in January 2007, when Wilson and Steve Coleman, her musical mentor and domestic partner during the middle ‘80s, presented a concert at the Stone in Lower Manhattan. The mandate was to create music for the 16 principal Odu, or stations of the human condition, represented in the Ifa system of divination.

“Lekan was going to Nigeria at the time, and I asked if he could get me the song for each major odu,” Wilson recalled. “I didn’t get them on time, so Steve winged it. He took it into Egyptology, made correlations between the numbers, the colors, the directions, the astrological things, went deep into it, and devised a system for the music to be created.

“At the time I met Steve, I wanted to get out of a certain comfort zone, and he encouraged me to do that. He told me that if I could hold my own within his system—cycles of rhythm, hearing cues in the rhythm instead of chords, the layering of rhythms—I would have something else to bring to the standards. He was right about that. I had to develop a certain swagger with his music, to pump myself up, find some confidence, find a way to sing over it that would make sense. I guess that was the very beginning of a distinctive sound that I knew was something that I had that no one else had. When you learn to improvise over odd time signatures, 4/4 becomes very relaxing. You develop a certain elasticity in your phrasing. You can do something outside of the box on the standards, play with it, let it stretch, because you’re always certain about your time.”

Wilson had to call upon that swagger during a March tour of Europe with David Murray, a fellow 1955 baby, who called her to sing two Ishmael Reed lyrics on his own 2007 release, Sacred Ground [JustinTime].

“I thought I’d just get up and do the songs from the record, but David sprang three or four new tunes on me, and I had to learn them quickly,” she said. “The music is very thick, not terribly porous, and there’s always a struggle, a tension inside it. The changes move in strange ways, as do the melodies, and you have [to] weave these complex melodies around this complex environment. I had to rise.”

Wilson expresses even more enthusiasm about her own band, which over the summer will consist of Sewell, Riley, Babalola, bassist Reginald Veal, and the young New Orleans pianist Jonathan Batiste.

“I’m in a working mood,” she said. “I get so excited to go on stage, because it’s a great group of very strong musicians. Everybody has something to bring to the table, when needed, on the stage. Maybe I’m at a point in my life where I feel like I’m hitting my stride.”

 

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