Tag Archives: DownBeat

For Tomasz Stanko’s 73rd Birthday, A DownBeat Feature From 2008

Polish trumpet master and first-class composer Tomasz Stanko turns 73 today. To mark the occasion, here’s a “director’s cut” of a DownBeat feature  I was given the opportunity to write about him in 2008.

* * *

In 1993, four years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, Poland’s most prominent jazz musician, met drummer Michal Miskiewicz, bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz and pianist Marcin Wasilewski, teenagers who had recently convened as Simple Acoustic Trio. Recently signed with ECM, Stanko was working the international circuit with a quartet of European all-stars—pianist Bobo Stenson, bassist Anders Jormin and drummer Tony Oxley. For local gigs, though, he was looking to hire less expensive, Polish musicians.

“I didn’t have a drummer,” Stanko said in May on a raw, rainy New York afternoon that evoked springtime in Warsaw. Trim at 66, a black beret covering his shaved head, circular glasses framing his gaunt, goateed oval face, he looked like a character from the pen-and-ink illustrations the Polish writer Bruno Schultz created for his short stories of the 1930s. Stanko wore a well-tailored jacket with a brown-check, pressed blue jeans and buffed brown-leather shoes. He spoke precise, thickly accented English, with idiosyncratic turns of phrase.

“Someone told me about this young drummer, the son of Henryk Miskiewicz, a good, swinging mainstream saxophone player,” he continued. “I figured he’d have a good groove, and accepted the recommendation. Then I took a risk and brought his bass player, Slawomir, also a young guy. We had a gig in some small city in the south of Poland. I arrived just an hour or two before, we rehearsed for a few minutes, then played. They were fast, like professional people—maybe don’t know too much, but played good. Good swinging. I decided to keep them. Marcin was pushing them to recommend him to me, and a few months later I took him, too.

“Bobo and Tony are two of the best European musicians, but they were also good! Only different. Fresh. Their education is different. For example, for Michal it is completely natural to have in mind Tony Williams, Jo Jones, Philly Joe Jones, and Jack DeJohnette—everybody combined together. They know this from history. Not like me, step after step.”

Fifteen years later, Stanko and his quartet, an international draw since the 2001 release of The Soul Of Things, the first of their three ECM albums, were involved in another transition. Joined by tenor saxophonist Billy Harper the previous evening at the Museum of Modern Art, they’d performed repertoire by Polish pianist Krzysztof Komeda (1931–’69) in conjunction with a summer series that included films that Komeda scored during the ’60s for the Polish filmmakers Roman Polanski and Jerzy Skolimowski.

That evening at Birdland, the trio, now headlined by Wasilewski, launched a U.S. tour in support of January, its second ECM release, before embarking on the 2008 summer festival circuit. All on the flip side of 30, after seven years of performing at least 100 concerts a year with Stanko, they were preparing to spread their wings, leave the nest and begin their own career. Himself looking to the next step, Stanko, on several occasions, interrupted the conversation to field several calls from a broker about a prospective Manhattan apartment.
Oriented by a single 45-minute soundcheck, Harper played with flair and passion throughout the concert, showing an affinity for Komeda’s Strayhorn-esque “Ballad For Bernt.” “I like that I engaged with Billy,” Stanko said. “I wanted a sax player in Komeda’s style, with the open mind to play free, but sounds like mainstream—modal—what now is typical.”

Such ideas were anything but typical 45 years ago, when, at Michal Urbaniak’s recommendation, Komeda, like Stanko a resident of Cracow, called the 22-year-old trumpeter—then deploying the freedom principle á là Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry in a combo called the Jazz Darings—to join his band.

“Komeda was the top Polish musician, and his record from Knife In The Water was absolutely fantastic,” Stanko said. “I loved this music, and it was a dream to play with him. People don’t speak too much about it, but it was modern music for this time. He liked the same things as me—simplicity, lyricism and combining two things together, like predisposition to the tradition, but also open mind for free modern things.”

For sonic evidence of how in-the-zeitgeist Komeda’s modal, polytonal compositions were, consult two Youtube clips of his 1967 quartet, or, if you can find it, his 1965 quintet album Astigmatic, which can be mentioned in the same conversation with contemporaneous Blue Note dates of similar sensibility by Cherry, Andrew Hill and Sam Rivers. Stanko navigates the inside-out pathways in his improvisations, deploying the multihued, vocalized, tragicomic sonic personality that remains his trademark. In 1997, at the instigation of ECM head Manfred Eicher, he reconstructed a suite of Komeda pieces on the CD Kattorna.

“Komeda’s pieces, especially from the last period, do not get older,” Stanko said.

He referred to “Requiem,” which Komeda wrote in 1967 in response to the death of John Coltrane, and which Stanko interpreted on his 1997 Komeda celebration, Litania: The Music Of Krzysztof Komeda.

“This is not exactly jazz composition,” Stanko said. “Everything is written—order of solos, these bridges. But still, it is jazz composition. With whomever I play, it sounds different. His compositions live their own lives, perfect no matter how often evaluated. Three notes only, sometimes. One small motif, and this ballad inside. A simple bridge, but it gives you a lot of power. This is what best jazz compositions have—power inside. They have their own logic, like computer program. He cared for every detail, even a half-note higher or lower.”

In Stanko’s view, Komeda developed certain characteristic syntax and themes from fulfilling the narrative imperatives of the plays and films he scored. Indeed, although he denies any programmatic intent, Stanko’s own investigations have the quality of an imaginary soundtrack.

“Many times, this angularity that I liked in Komeda’s music comes from movies,” Stanko said. “Sometimes motifs have to be longer, sometimes shorter. Sometimes he’d have to give more bars to make longer motif. Then he finds this original composer style. To me, though, music is abstraction. This abstraction means not sad, not happy. It’s music. This is the color of this art.”

However Stanko conceptualizes musical flow, his ideas gestated after the death of Stalin in Soviet Bloc Poland, where musicians and filmmakers were granted a degree of mobility and freedom of expression unavailable to the public at large. He was born to a family whose cultural mores might serve as a paradigm of the pre-war intelligentsia—his father was a judge who doubled as a professional violinist, while his mother was a librarian in a conservatory. The teenage Stanko soaked up Italian neo-realist cinema (“all the Fellini”), existential novels and tracts (Kafka, Schultz, Sartre), and regarded painters like Modigliani, Kandinsky and Klee as gurus. He decided on trumpet after seeing Dave Brubeck play in Cracow in 1957, and listened to Miles Davis (“I liked that he don’t play too much, his control of the band, the contrast between him and sax players”), Don Ellis (“he was playing and starring in Poland”), Booker Little with Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln (“he was my favorite because of legatos—I love legatos”), Cherry with Coleman, and Bill Dixon with Cecil Taylor.

“I formed through art, not only through jazz,” Stanko said. “I have always predisposition for novelty, for avant-garde, something new, and I like artist-desperadoes. Because in this life, you get illumination, like Charlie Parker. Jazz musicians have this illumination. Illumination built this modern music. For example, if I was listening to Coltrane at Village Vanguard, ‘Chasin’ The Trane,’ I didn’t know it was blues. For many months, I assumed that this was free. Then I recognized, ‘This is only the blues.’ Instinct dictated to us.

“The filmmakers were influenced by jazz—especially Polanski. Jazz musicians have a big position in Poland at this time throughout the society. Like, biggest. Because we can travel. We were often in Paris. Komeda was a couple of times in Copenhagen, because we had concerts. I had a tailor, and paid a lot of money for clothes. I want to feel fashionable, good-looking, attract the ladies. Anyway, our position was high. Probably these Communist Party people were a little bit snobby for these artists. Maybe the children was into more of these different people. Probably they don’t feel danger from music, from jazz. Jazz for them was something like the same for us, a synonym of freedom.”

[BREAK]

“In the beginning, we were focused on America, on American playing, because the Communist time had passed away,” said Wasilewski, the day after the trio that now carries his name played a sold-out set at Birdland.

“We grabbed from ECM recordings from the ’70s, like Jack DeJohnette and Jon Christensen with Keith Jarrett and Jan Garbarek,” Miskiewicz said. “Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Tony Williams, as well as Kenny Garrett, Wynton Marsalis’ Black Codes From The Underground, the Branford Marsalis Quartet.”

“When I was 5 or 6, I was competing with my cousin, because we had only one Walkman,” Wasilewski said. “I heard tapes like Michael Brecker or Pat Metheny, volumes one and two of Keith Jarrett Standards Live, some of Jack DeJohnette’s New Directions. Good ECM records. I didn’t know I was listening to great music.”

Wasilewski sat between his partners at a conference table in a meeting room in ECM’s Midtown Manhattan offices. Wasilewski and Kurkiewicz were 5 when the shipyard workers of Gdansk began the nationwide strike that would lead to the development of Solidarity, the first independent labor union to exist in the Soviet Bloc. When the Berlin Wall came down, they were 14.

“What happened in Poland in the ’60s did not influence us much,” said Miskiewicz, two years their junior.

“At the same time, our generation had to respect what was before—for older musicians,” Wasilewski said. “Then in the ’90s, it became a DJ’s world, and it’s now popular to sample and mix music from the Polish Jazz label from the ’60s. This generation realized that the ’60s were important.”

In February 1995, one year after they joined Stanko, before any of them had reached 20, the Simple Acoustic Trio recorded Komeda (Gowi), a mature recital of eight Komeda tracks. Compared to now, Wasilewski’s lines have more notes, the dialogue is more florid and the transitions are less sophisticated, but the group is recognizable. In contrast to the prevailing European-ethos of eschewing blues and swing toward the end of constructing an individual tonal identity from local vernaculars, these musicians followed Stanko’s example on Komeda’s Astigmatic, engaging and responding to the building blocks of American post-bop modern jazz—McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Jarrett—on its own terms, embracing an inclusive playing field.

“It seemed like an obvious thing to do,” Wasilewski said of the repertoire. “We were listening to Komeda’s quintet recording with Tomasz. He was in the air. An older saxophone player gave us music sheets with Komeda’s compositions in a workshop. We rehearsed it, and were totally fresh to play together.”

“It was easy to play, easy to improvise,” Miskiewicz said. “After we made the recording, we started to be more interested in Komeda as a person, what his feelings might have been.”

“He was a window to explore the Polish roots we could be influenced by,” Kurkiewicz said. “But there was a big jazz scene, opposite to the system, and jazz was a synonym of freedom. It was common for jazz to be put into the movies—it wasn’t just Komeda.”

“Komeda wasn’t a virtuoso player, but it doesn’t matter,” Wasilewski said. “Thelonious Monk as well was not so technically great. But at the same time, Thelonious Monk is one of the most important composers in jazz history. With Komeda it’s the same, but unfortunately he had accident, he died much earlier than he should.”

Born in Koszalin, a medieval city on the Baltic Sea, Wasilewski and Kurkiewicz met as 14-year-olds, at a music academy in Katowice, in southern Silesia. “We were really focusing on playing jazz—jazz competitions, contests, some band contests, workshops, learning jazz every summer with Polish and also American teachers from Berklee School of Music.” At a workshop in 1993, they met Miśkiewicz, then 16, and immediately joined forces.

“We want to connect the European and American ways of playing—it doesn’t matter what either one means,” Wasilewski said.

Well, it did seem to matter.

“Rubato tempo playing,” Wasilewski elaborated. “More influence from classical music. More influenced from different folk music. With the European Union, Europe is very much the same now. But Bulgarian, Romanian, French, and Norwegian folk music. Polish folk music, though we don’t like it—it’s not so inspiring. Hungarian is more entertaining, stranger, more attractive maybe for us than for Hungarian people. Jazz for me is a kind of folk music.”

“We respect the traditional way of playing, and we respect the soul of it,” Miśkiewicz said.

“From the beginning we did a lot of jazz and blues form, and it was actually our best form,” Wasilewski said. “Next we would like to work on developing forms.” He mentioned his admiration for outcats Alexander von Schlippenbach and Peter Brotzmann, with whom Stanko had played back in the day in the Globe Unity Orchestra.

“They use not only playing ability,” Kurkiewicz added. “They use the soul, the ghosts, the spirits. It’s important for musicians to be aware of this.”

[BREAK]

“It seems that always, whole history of art, people think that if you are old, art is over,” Stanko said. “In our time, everything was more rich, more intense. I try to be like Miles, a little under, a little downstairs, and see what’s really going on.”

Today’s musicians don’t face official censorship, as Stanko did during his youth in Poland. Perhaps the stakes were higher then.

“My generation don’t care about money like these young people now care,” the trumpeter said. “They only care money. But this is not important. The important thing is music. Always fresh slate. For this reason, I rely on musicians I play with to give me power. Billy Harper give me power. He was fresh in this band, playing free.”

Reflecting on the Komeda compositions that had inspired Harper the night before, Stanko reflected on the Polish cultural streams that inflect both his and Komeda’s musical production. “We have a predisposition for anarchy, but also for lyricism, and that is in my music,” he said. “Maybe our weather, the same weather like today, a melancholic mood, a little depression coming from melancholic, but also an ‘agghhh’ coming from a little drinking too much.”

Drinking perhaps, but then there are the existential realities for Poles who lived first under German and then Soviet occupation. “My father had a quarter Jewish blood, and he looked also quite much like a Jew,” Stanko said. “In wartime, he was working in the administration of a Polish city. The Resistance was active, and the S.S. was taking people from the streets, and they make a line and every tenth person they shoot. Father had fast reflexes. He spoke German, and he start to speak to the Germans that he work in the city in this administration, and he’s musician—I don’t know—and then they said, ‘Go away.’ I don’t think he thought himself Jewish. I don’t either, although I am happy that I have this blood. I also don’t feel much Polish. I feel international. I feel human.”

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under DownBeat, ECM, Tomasz Stanko, trumpet, Wasilewski

For Ahmad Jamal’s 85th Birthday, a Downbeat Feature from 2002

Today is the 85th birthday of  Ahmad Jamal, whose approach to orchestrating the piano trio format has had a deep impact on the development of jazz language since the middle-1950s. I’m sharing here the pre-final-edit version of a feature article that I wrote about Mr. Jamal for DownBeat in 2002 in conjunction with the release of In Search Of…Momentum. The interviews that I drew on in writing this piece — and a few that didn’t make the cut — are found in this post from four years ago today.

 

Ahmad Jamal (Downbeat–2002):

“Extended form is because of extended living. I project my life and musical experiences in my writing and performance. I’m 72, and I’ve accumulated some information. Now I’m absorbing all the feedback, and trying to channel it into my present lifestyle. I’m going back to my early roots. All I want is to write my music and learn to perform it. Some things I write require a lot of skill, so I have to learn to play all my compositions, and I practice every day. Sometimes I’ll resurrect a composition that I haven’t done in years, because it fits in that spot. Then I use the same basic structure, although the approach is more musically mature than it was years ago. Why change a good minuet or a good concerto? You just try to interpret as the best you can. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” – Ahmad Jamal, December 2002.
________________________________________

Hearing Ahmad Jamal in the freedom of his autumnal years is one of the great jazz pleasures, as evidenced by the elite cohort of New York pianists who came out on the final night of the maestro’s week-long residence at Iridium last December. With bassist James Cammack and drummer Idris Muhammad dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s with precision and panache, Jamal enthralled the likes of Monty Alexander, Harold Mabern, Mulgrew Miller and James Williams with fresh takes on his iconic arrangements of “But Not For Me,” “Poinciana” and “Woody ‘N’ You,” which first appeared on But Not For Me: Live At The Pershing, a recording from 1958 that sold a million copies, spent two years on the top-ten charts, and brought him international fame. For good measure, Jamal brought forth a pile of daunting recent works, which included the twisting, vertiginous opus “Gyroscope,” the Chopinesque waltz “Should I,” and a dramatic Tatum-meets-bebop line called “I’ll Take The 20.”

“Every time I hear Ahmad, I leave totally inspired,” Mabern said not long after the Iridium show. “He plays a three-chord masterpiece before he even sits down on the stool, then he throws up his hands to give a signal, and from that point on it’s magic. It’s his sound, his knowledge of chords, the way he orchestrates from the bottom of the piano to the top. Or the way he’ll play a ballad, where he keeps returning to the bridge in a totally different way each time. And there’s his touch, which I call the Franz Liszt touch. A lot of pianists might have equal technique, but their touch and sound distinguish them. That’s the way Ahmad and Art Tatum are. Ahmad is too deep for some people; a lot of piano players don’t come around because it’s too much piano to handle.”

“Should I” and “I’ll Take The 20” are among eight new  compositions that appear on his exhilarating new trio release, In Search Of…Momentum [Dreyfus], the latest product of a fruitful decade-long collaboration with French producer Jean-Francois Deiber. On the previous albums in the series, often expanding his rhythm section with percussionist Manolo Badrena, Jamal augments the trio with strong, idiosyncratic tonal personalities, interacting with George Coleman on The Essence (Verve/Birdology) and Olympia 2000 (Dreyfus), Stanley Turrentine on Nature (Atlantic), trumpeter Donald Byrd and violinist Joe Kennedy on Big Byrd (Verve/Birdology), and a septet composed of Coleman, Kennedy and guitarist Calvin Keys on a À Paris, a 1996 radio broadcast due for fall release on Dreyfus. On each album, Jamal plays with unfettered imagination and customary authority, projecting deep emotion and a palpable sense of inner balance. He finds ingenious ways to link the repertoire thematically, imparting to each album the feeling of a connected suite.

In Search Of … Momentum is the first of the Deiber series on which Jamal explores only the sonic universe of the piano trio, the configuration he has helped define from his very first recordings in 1951. In truth, it’s hard to overstate his influence on the sound of the post-bop piano mainstream. Miles Davis, Jamal’s most famous acolyte, assigned homework on appropriate rhythm section comportment to Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones by sending them to 64th and Cottage Grove for first-hand observations of the Three Strings, Jamal’s trio with guitarist Ray Crawford and bassist Israel Crosby, and his subsequent trio with Crosby and drummer Vernell Fournier. McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Kenny Barron, Cedar Walton, Mulgrew Miller and Bill Charlap are among the pianists who cite Jamal as a seminal influence, and at early ’90s sessions at Bradley’s, the iconic New York piano saloon, Cyrus Chestnut, Eric Reed and Jacky Terrasson enthusiastically experimented with Jamallian dynamics and orchestrative strategies.

Jamal now lives in rural upstate New York, but he remained in Manhattan after the December Iridium stand to help care for his grandson while his daughter gave birth to her second child. On the night before Christmas Eve I visited him at his  hotel, appropriately situated on 52nd Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. Relaxed in blue-green plaid pajamas and slippers, wearing a patch over one eye, he stood before his window, where the streetlights on 52nd Street stretched all the way to the Hudson River. Jamal had personalized his room with an electric keyboard and headphones, books of Czerny exercises and torch songs, folios of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” and Maurice Ravel’s “Le Tombeau De Couperin,” an anthology entitled The Ravel Reader, a supply of green tea and dates, medicine for his diabetes and a Koran.

“I hate the word ‘trio’ now,” Jamal insists. “It’s limiting as to what I do. I like to refer to my ‘small ensemble’ or my ‘large ensemble.’ I travel with my small ensemble a lot, but I’ve done other things as well. Now it’s happening in an exciting fashion because I’m writing more than I had been. I wrote for a large ensemble when I was 10, and I’ve been writing ever since. Basically, I’m a writer and an orchestrator. I like big bands. I listen to Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and Count Basie. I’ve always been a fan of 80 pieces, or 16 pieces; I once wrote for 22 voices. I’m not saying I can do it—I never acquired the skill—but I’ve always been a fan of orchestrations, Ravel and Johnny Mandel, all the things that speak of getting incredible sounds out of an orchestra. I’ve had an orchestra going on in my mind daily for all my life.

“I’ve been shaped by the big band era, by the Gillespie–Parker era, and by the electronic age or whatever we call it, and I project my life and musical experiences in my writing and performance,” he continues. “I’m 72, and I’ve accumulated some information. Now I’m absorbing all the feedback, and trying to channel it into my present lifestyle. Sometimes I’ll resurrect a composition that I haven’t done in years, because it fits in that spot. Then I use the same basic structure, although the approach is more musically mature than it was years ago. Why change a good minuet or a good concerto? You just interpret as best you can. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

* * *

Jamal conceptualized his inner orchestra during his formative years in Pittsburgh. A child prodigy who first made music on the piano at 3, he began formal studies at 7, performed Liszt’s Eroica Etude publicly at 11, and joined Local 471 at 14, the year he matriculated at Westinghouse High School, alma mater of pianists Mary Lou Williams, Erroll Garner and Dodo Marmarosa, where Fritz Reiner brought the Pittsburgh Symphony to play assembly programs. There he played piano in the school’s integrated swing band, while spending evenings on jobs at various Elks Clubs, Masonic Lodges, piano lounges, and dance halls around Pittsburgh. “I’d do algebra during intermission, between sets,” he remarks. “That’s too young. I don’t recommend that. But I sounded well enough. My aunt from North Carolina sent me huge amounts of sheet music that I could draw from. I was working with guys in their sixties, and they were astounded because I knew all these sounds. That’s how I got so much work, or enough to start buying my clothes instead of relying on my Mom and Pop to do it.”

“Pittsburgh trained me to work in every configuration. It was a tough town, a critical place. If you didn’t know what you were doing, you were going to be turned down there. We studied Bach and Tatum, Beethoven and Basie; there was no separation. I played with a lot of singers. I played with Eddie Jefferson when he was a tap dancer. I did a lot of big band work with Will Hitchcock, Joe Westray and Jerry Elliott, all good leaders. I worked duo jobs in Uniontown with saxophonist Carl Otter. Later, I worked with the Caldwells, a song-and-dance team who held the instruments, didn’t play them, so you had to be the bassist, the guitarist, the whole nine yards. This training creates the whole musician.”

Jamal devoured music. He collected 78s by Jimmie Lunceford and Count Basie, by Pittsburgher Erroll Garner with Boyd Raeburn and Georgie Auld, and early bebop anthems like “Salt Peanuts.” He heard the Fritz Reiner-conducted Pittsburgh Symphony at school assemblies, caught Basie and Gillespie at the Pittsburgh Savoy Ballroom, and attended concerts by Ellington and Cootie Williams at the Stanley Theater, the latter show featuring a 20-year-old Bud Powell. Later in the ’40s, Jamal—an avid student of the trio approaches of Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Nat Cole and Garner—would begin to incorporate Powell’s progressive harmonic conception into his vocabulary, applying his investigations at jam sessions with Pittsburgh’s finest at the union hall.

At one such session, St. Louis-based bandleader George Hudson, who had employed Clark Terry and Ernie Wilkins, heard Jamal and recruited him for a summer-long engagement in Club Harlem, the major showroom in Atlantic City. Starting work at 8 p.m. and leaving when the sun came up, Jamal played for top-shelf singers like Billy Daniels and Johnny Hartman, TOBA veterans Butterbeans and Susie and a charismatic chorus line choreographed and directed by Ziggy Johnson.

Jamal had intended to study at a conservatory, but at summer’s end he rode north with Hudson for a stint at New York’s Apollo Theater. “I didn’t go to 52nd Street,” Jamal said, nodding at the window. “I was too busy playing from 9 a.m. to midnight. We were on the bill with The Ravens, who had the hottest act in the country with ‘Old Man River.’ Dinah Washington. Jimmy Smith, a xylophone player who tap-danced on the instrument. Billy Eckstine was checking me out from the wings. That was fun, because the big band was your cover. You don’t have the same responsibilities.”

Quartered behind the backstage door of the Apollo at the Braddock Hotel, Jamal met trumpeter Idris Suleiman, an early jazz convert to Islam, who approached the introverted youngster with what Jamal describes as “a philosophical presentation.” That encounter planted the seeds for Jamal’s eventual embrace of Islam. “It had everything to do with being all you can be,” he says. “There are people who don’t want to be all they can be, and when you want to be all you can be, they want to put blocks in the path. I know no other existence except my present existence. I’m very guarded about this, because I’ve been abused by ignorant people. The issue at hand is music. If a person wants to interview me about philosophy, that’s a different ballgame, because my philosophy certainly has influenced my music.”

* * *

By early 1949, Jamal, newly wed to a woman from Chicago (“I did everything young,” he comments), had settled in the Windy City. He got on the bad side of Harry Gray, the famously hardass president of the black musicians local, by working a one-nighter with guitarist Leo Blevins before receiving  transfer from Pittsburgh, and subsequently struggled, Taking a $32-a-week job as a maintenance man for the department store Carson Pirie Scott. At a  request of saxophonist Eddie Johnson, Gray finally relented.  Jamal began to make his voice felt on gigs with tenorists Claude McLin and Von Freeman, and took a long-term weekend job with Israel Crosby and tenorist Johnny Thompson at Jack’s Back Door, a lively joint on 59th and State with a long bar and a stage at the end. He also played solo at the Palm Tavern, often joined by drum legend Ike Day “whenever he felt the urge to come by and sit in.”

“I first met Ahmad at the Club De Lisa, which had been burned out a couple of times and gotten down to nothing,” Freeman recalled in a WKCR interview. “I asked him if he’d make some gigs with me, and he said, ‘Yeah, but I’m not much of a band player; I’m a trio player.’ I said, ‘Man, the way you play, you’ll fit in with anybody.’ He was playing sort of like Erroll Garner then. He stayed with me about two years, and then told me that he was giving a two-week notice, until he gave me a two-week notice that he was going to form his own trio. Around that time, he started hanging out with Chris Anderson. After that, I  noticed a big difference in his playing.”

Joined by fellow Pittsburghers Ray Crawford and Tommy Sewell, Jamal formed the Three Strings, a collective title emblematic of his equilateral triangle approach to the trio. In the fall of 1951, with bassist Eddie Calhoun on board, Jamal came to New York for a job as intermission pianist at the Embers, a boisterous supper club on East 54th Street. John Hammond attended, was impressed, and gave Jamal a recording date on OKeh. The sessions produced “Ahmad’s Blues” and arrangements of “Poinciana,” “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” and “Billy Boy,” the latter becoming a minor crossover hit. On the strength of these sides, which immediately caught the ear of Miles Davis—whose own Birth Of The Cool sessions had inspired Jamal—for the finesse and subtlety of their rhythmic momentum, Jamal began to find regular work on the supper club circuit, using a small 63rd Street room called the Kit-Kat Lounge as his Chicago base. He hired his former employer Israel Crosby, and in 1955 went in the studio with Crosby and Crawford to record Chamber Music Of The New Jazz.

“I did something with repertoire,” Jamal says. “I had that vast repertoire from my aunt. The strength of a musician, whether he’s Horowitz or Rudolf Serkin or Jamal or Oscar Peterson, is the repertoire. It’s remarkable what the American classicist/jazz musician has done. They’ve interpreted these songs beyond the wildest dreams of the author, be it Cole Porter or Gershwin. That’s what Charlie Parker did with ‘April in Paris.’ Most of Art Tatum’s body of work was standards, much to the delight of the composers economically! They made a fortune. George Gershwin’s estate didn’t need ‘But Not For Me,’ but they accepted it. Or ‘Poinciana.’”

In 1955, following what he describes as “a horrible experience” at the Embers, Jamal “got in my car with Israel Crosby and drove back to Chicago. When I got back to Chicago, I went to Miller Brown, who owned the Pershing Lounge, and said, ‘I want to become an artist-in-residence; I want a steady gig.’ That gave me time to get the people I wanted. Ray Crawford stayed in New York, and I decided to hire a drummer. It was almost impossible to get Vernell Fournier, because he was busy. But I waited for the right moment, and I finally hired Vernell.”

* * * *

“When the Judgment Day comes, I would hate to be some critics!” Fournier exclaimed during an interview on WKCR in 1991, reflecting on the disdain and condescension that the jazz press gave to Live At The Pershing.  Indeed, many writers continue to be deaf to Jamal’s qualities, in pointed contrast to his immense popularity among the public and his fellow musicians.

“At the time I heard Ahmad,” says Keith Jarrett, referring to Live At The Pershing, “I thought, ‘This is swinging more than anything I’ve been listening to, but they’re doing less. What’s the secret here?’ With Ahmad, the intensity was in the spaces. The simplicity of their playing made the swing work the way it did.”

“Ahmad put together the best trio I ever heard!” said Marcus Roberts in a conversation several years ago. “He and Errol Garner exemplify a hard-swinging school of Pittsburgh piano playing that had a profound impact on me. Garner typically would use his left hand to emulate Freddie Greene’s guitar playing in the Count Basie band, while in the right hand he played what you might think of as saxophone or trumpet figures in a big band. Ahmad extended that and expanded the form.

“Most of what Miles Davis did in the ’50s came directly from Ahmad’s concept. On a straight-ahead AB tune like ‘Autumn Leaves,’ Ahmad would expand the A-section until he had nothing left to play, then he’d move to the bridge and use a totally different groove. That brings the whole tune to life from a different angle. He’s a brilliant bandleader who knows how to make the piano sound like an orchestra; he could play a single line in the highest register of the piano and make it ring. Israel Crosby played all kinds of hip stuff underneath, but Ahmad’s left hand was never in the way of Israel’s harmonic direction.”

“Ahmad used difficult dynamics, and so many of them,” Fournier said. Out of New Orleans, Fournier’s extrapolation of the vernacular Crescent City streetbeat known as “Two-Way-Pocky-Way” on “Poinciana” is one of the most emulated rhythmic signatures in jazz. “He could play one tune five or six ways. He might insert something from another tune into the tune you’re playing, and would want you to play the appropriate accent when he did it. You had to be conscious at all times that he was playing the piano.”

Jamal uses dynamics to denote a spontaneous inner narrative, and he developed techniques to spontaneously shape and arrange the flow. “Ahmad’s music has structure and form, but he directs inside the form with hand signals,” says Herlin Riley, Jamal’s drummer from 1982 to 1987. “One signal tells you if you’re playing the top of, say, the head section or A-section, he has another cue for the bridge, and another for the interlude. If he wants any of the cycles repeated, he’ll give the appropriate cue, and when it’s done he cues you to go to the next part. So it’s always organic and rich.”

From the beginning, Fournier noted, “Ahmad intermixed exotic feelings — rumbas and tangos — and made it sound like jazz,” Fournier continued.Indeed, Jamal’s complete command of rhythm is a major component of his mystique.  “I’ve always said that if Ahmad Jamal’s time was the brakes on a car, you would never have an accident,” says Harold Mabern, who first heard Jamal at the Kit Kat Club in 1954, and religiously attended sessions at the Pershing. “He will play a run and stop on a dime. And he’s a master at playing without cliche in time signatures like 5/4 and 7/4.”

Fournier gave an example. “When Ahmad got the melody for ‘This Terrible Planet’ (Extensions, Argo, 1965), he laid down his melody line and the bass line for Jamil Nasser, and he and Jamil formulated the sound that Ahmad wanted,” he recalls. “I developed the drum pattern from inside the melody. It was in 6/8, but 1, 3 and 5 was on the bass drum, and 2, 4 and 6 was on the snare drum, so it was like a 4/4 fighting the 6/8, which seems almost impossible, but your right foot will always fall out on 1—so it starts the sequence over and over again. Once you get used to that, the rest is easy.”

“Most New Orleans drummers grew up within street band and parade band traditions, in which the bass drum is prevalent, and so we play the drumset from the bottom up,” notes Riley, a son of the Crescent City. “Ahmad is a very percussive player, and he loves to play vamps; he’ll stand up, watch you play, and clap his hands to get inside the groove. He introduces 3/8 and 5/8 and 7/8 rhythms inside the music, and you have to react and find your place inside of that.

“He understands musicians, and can hear their voice for what it is. Either he can work with it or he can’t. If he can, he’ll let you speak your musical voice as it may be. Now, sometimes he gives you subtle directions, and he’s always directing the volume and dynamics. But really, he’s just shaping whatever talent you have, and lets it grow and be better.”

Jamal himself is wary of focusing on the details of his art, preferring to accentuate the larger picture. “The little variety of time signatures that I do are absolutely natural,” he says. “I respect technique, but technique without the ability to tell a story is meaningless. Art Tatum and Phineas Newborn had incomparable technique. But they also told a story.”

* * * *

Within two years after Live From The Pershing broke, Jamal was commanding several thousand dollars a week. He purchased a 16-room, six-bath Hyde Park mansion that had once belonged to the nuclear physicist Harold Urey, and a four-story office building on South Michigan Avenue, creating his own posh, alcohol-free supper club, the Alhambra, on the ground floor. But he overextended, got divorced, lost the club, disbanded and moved to New York in 1962, taking an engagement at the Embers with bassist Wyatt Reuther and drummer Papa Jo Jones. He became artist-in-residence at the Village Gate on Bleecker Street, which like the Pershing had upper and lower levels and a bar area.

“When Ahmad got to New York, he really started opening up,” Mabern observes. In fact, it’s evident from a recording at San Francisco’s Blackhawk in 1961 that Jamal was already beginning to spread his wings. “Earlier, I never picked up a stick, except for ‘Poinciana,’” Fournier said. “But toward the end of the trio, Ahmad was getting more into the stick sound. He became more progressive on the piano, showing what he really could do.”

The Jamal who created such 1964–’71 albums as Naked City Theme, Extensions, At The Top: Poinciana Revisited, Tranquility, The Awakening and Manhattan Reflections had moved a distance from the elegant miniaturist of 1958–’61. Like a short story writer morphing into a novelist, Jamal’s improvisational flights took on the discursive, kaleidoscopic character that remains his trademark. He denies that this evolution reflected the intense New York quotidian, saying only, “I was in New York, but not of it.” To this he adds, “and I was in Chicago, but not of it.”

“Does that mean you’re in Pittsburgh?” I ask.

“I am in Pittsburgh, but I am also in where I live now,” Jamal responds. “Since I moved to upstate New York, I am in tune with my surroundings. By the grace of the Creator, I’ve been backing off, being very selective and taking the time that’s been granted me to sit down and get away from the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd. I go to my little place in the country, hopefully I’m not watching TV, and sit down and do what I enjoy most — writing and practicing the things I write.

“Still, the fact is that I was shaped, first of all, by my hometown. I come from the land of giants, and there you have to practice restraint. There’s always a faster gun than yours. I still practice restraint. But sometimes I play, too!

“Some things I write require a lot of skill, so I have to learn to play all my compositions, and I practice every day. But I’m not interested in quantity. I’m interested in quality. I’ve never had the discipline to practice 6, 7 or 12 hours a day. But I live music, and now I’m interested in exploring the keyboard more. Steinway used to send me pianos to keep in the room so I wouldn’t have to run out or wait for the club to open. Now I’ve decided to take an instrument around with me again. I’m not ever going to practice without joy. And I don’t ever want to take this music for granted. If you do, you’re finished.

“I practice for many reasons. One, I want to do it. Two, I want to always develop my craft. Three, I don’t ever want to take this music for granted. If you do, you’re finished. Musicians have to stay on their game. And I have to devote a certain amount of time to music. Many things can take you away from the discipline of practice. You have to be very careful of losing those good disciplines.”

Jamal points to the score of “Le Tombeau de Couperin.” “Ravel wrote that about his comrades who died during the war.” The tapered finger moves to the “Lush Life” folio. “Okay? A reflection of Billy Strayhorn’s life. ‘Take The A Train.’ That’s what we are. We write according to our lives. The way I write and perform is a part of extended living. That’s what’s changed it. The more in-depth, the more in-depth.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Ahmad Jamal, Article, Chicago, DownBeat

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

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

* * *

Monty Alexander Downbeat Article:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[BREAK]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[BREAK]

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

* * *

Monty Alexander on Ray Brown, 2002:

TP:    When did your association with Ray Brown begin?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    So his lessons to you were life lessons.

ALEXANDER:  Yes.

TP:    Comportment and sustaining yourself within this big sharkpit.

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

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

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

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

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

Leave a comment

Filed under DownBeat, Monty Alexander, Piano

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[BREAK]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[BREAK]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave a comment

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

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

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

 

Joey DeFrancesco Blindfold Test:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[END OF SESSION]

* * * *

Profile for Jazziz in 2006:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sidebar for Jazziz Article

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Jazziz, organ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave a comment

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave a comment

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