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For Kenny Barron’s 70th Birthday, A 2005 DownBeat Feature and WKCR Interviews From 1991 and 2004

To mark the 70th birthday of the magnificent pianist-composer-conceptualist-educator Kenny Barron, who made it to the big leagues of jazz at 18, not long after he moved to New York, and has remained there ever since, I’m posting a pair of interviews we did on WKCR — a Musician’s Show in 1991 and an appearance promoting a week in a club in 2004. I’m also putting up the first of two interviews I conducted with the maestro for a DownBeat profile—which leads this entry—that I pitched and was given the opportunity  to write in 2005.

Kenny Barron Downbeat Article:

The wall of windows behind the bandstand of Dizzy’s Coca-Cola Room revealed a twilit tableau of Central Park treetops and the Fifth Avenue skyline as pianist Kenny Barron, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Mino Cinelu prepared to begin set one of the Kenny Barron Festival last April. Barron put down his glass of red wine, cocked his head slightly to the left, and began to play “Prelude To A Kiss.” He spun out flowing rubato variations on the melody, imparting to his lines the joyous ache of romance, then brightened the tempo and stated a kinetic Caribbean beat as he painstakingly built the arc to ecstatic resolution.
As the sky turned indigo, and the lights of Fifth Avenue twinkled in the distance, Barron sustained the Spanish tinge with discursive three-way dialogues on “All Blues,” a tune he played frequently during a lengthy ‘70s stint with Ron Carter, and “Calypso,” a lively original that he first recorded on a 1981 solo album for Xanadu.  Then he parsed the melody of Thelonious Monk’s “Shuffle Boil,” and embarked on a solo tour de force, conjuring luscious voicings atop a rock solid stride to complement the long, fluid, melodic lines he carved out with his right hand, deviating slightly in tempo and inflection from a version that appears on The Perfect Set, a new release on Sunnyside that documents an April 1996 engagement at Bradley’s, the saloon that was then New York’s sine qua non for piano jazz.
Thus inspired, Barron concluded the set with “Madman,” built on a fourth interval theme constructed around a bass line he heard in his teens from Hassan Ibn Ali, a famously eccentric Philadelphia pianist who regularly came to Barron’s house to practice with his older brother, Bill Barron, a tenor saxophonist with a taste for navigating the outer partials. He channeled the into-the-wild-blue-yonder side of Bud Powell,  engaging in intense rhythmic dialogue with Cinelu; at the end, he announced that this was his first public performance of the tune, which he recorded in duo with Roy Haynes on Wanton Spirit [Verve] in 1995; he deviated from the record by adding a free, rubato coda.
The festival lasted three weeks, and Barron framed himself each week within a different sonic environment. He shared the stage with Cinelu for the remainder of week one, joined by bassist George Mraz and kora player Abou M’Boop on nights three and four, and Mraz and guitarist Romero Lubambo on the final two evenings. During week two, Barron addressed hardcore, straight-ahead modern jazz, assembling a crackling sextet, fueled by drummer Victor Lewis, to interpret his fire-to-romance compositions. For the final week, Barron recruited Drummond and drummer Grady Tate to form a Bradley’s style “classic” trio.
Throughout the engagement, Barron followed the imperatives of the moment, resolving audacious ideas with the panache, in the words of Victor Lewis, of “a cat who always lands on his feet.”
“The rhythms were all over the place,” Barron said of week one. “I don’t think we played anything straight-ahead, which forced me to play other things. We started with no preconceived ideas or notions, and the tunes went whichever way they went.”
“What always surprises me about Kenny is his apparent nonchalance and very casual approach, and yet the tiger within,” said Cinelu.  In 1996 he and Barron collaborated on Swamp Sally [Verve], a free-form electro-acoustic project on which Barron referenced an exhaustively global lexicon of strategies and attacks.
Swamp Sally is one of a string of Barron recordings since 1992 on which French producer Jean-Philippe Allard encouraged Barron—now a serial poll-winner and Grammy-nomintee, but then typecast as a bop-oriented sideman supreme—to allow his imagination to roam, and paved the way for him to assume his present stature as a distinguished jazz elder. These albums include a kaleidoscopic duo with violinist Regina Carter; two recitals of Barron’s Brazil-inflected compositions, including Canta Brasil, a 2002 encounter with Trio de Paz; and several venturesome quintets and sextets comprising diverse personnels and instrumental configurations, most recently Images, with vibraphonist Stefon Harris, flutist Anne Drummond, and drummer Kim Thompson, all young stars on the rise.
Barron infuses each of these recordings with a spirit of spontaneity, human warmth and dance-like grace that often eludes musicians who possess his surfeit of technique.
“Kenny knows how to play inside the drums, and make the drummer sound good,” says Danilo Perez, a keen student of Barron’s music. “He knows how to syncopate—how to jab behind the beat for a swing feel, and jab on top, pushing it just like a Latino. With the Brazilians, he plays the subdivisions pretty much in their style. He’s a master of knowing what to do at the right time, whomever he’s playing with.”
“I like music, and I like all of it,” Barron stated. “I don’t want to be put in any kind of pigeonhole, even though I’m sure I am. Ideally, in one set I can go through everything. One song might come out as straight bebop, the next may go outside or be Brazilian. You don’t know what it sounds like until it reveals itself, so to speak. I like not-knowing. That’s the fun. Let’s see where it goes. I don ‘t think I need to go to school and study Brazilian music for three or four years. I just need to LISTEN to it, and respond whatever way I can.
“As you get older, you start to give yourself permission to make a mistake. There’s another chorus coming! You can try it again. Whether you make it or not, you’ve got to reach. Very interesting things can develop through that process.”
* * * * * *
Barron bedrocks his predisposition for risk on a strong foundation in the jazz tradition, which he absorbed first hand as a Philadelphia teenager. “Bud Powell is at the core of what I do,” he said, citing Horace Silver, Ahmad Jamal, Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, and McCoy Tyner as other strong formative influences. At the top of Barron’s list, however, is Tommy Flanagan. The infatuation began in ninth grade, when a friend brought the 1956 Miles Davis-Sonny Rollins recording of “In Your Own Sweet Way,” on which Flanagan sidemanned, for their art class to paint to.
“I stopped painting,” Barron recalls. “It was so crystal clear, and the touch was so light, so delicate. I fell in love with Tommy’s playing right then and there. Nothing tugs on my heartstrings the way Tommy could.”
Within several years, on Bill Barron’s say-so, Philly’s finest were calling the youngster for cabaret gigs at Elks Clubs and Masonic Lodges, as well as some less savory venues. “I remember an after-hours place called the Northwest Club where I played with Jimmy Heath, Mickey Roker and (bassist) Arthur Harper,” says Barron, who recalls playing until 3, taking the last bus home, and waking up for 8 a.m. classes. “The rhythm section had to play a show, and there wasn’t always rehearsal. I played for singers, comedians, shake dancers and tap dancers—a lot of standards,  songs based on ‘I Got Rhythm’ and rhythm-and-blues. It taught me how to listen and helped me with musical language. It prepared me for New York, where I still had to do those kind of gigs. I didn’t start working at Birdland right away.”
In point of fact, Birdland was the site of Barron’s first New York gig—a Monday night in 1961 with his brother and Ted Curson. Not long after, he hit the majors on jobs with Roy Haynes, Lou Donaldson, and James Moody, In 1962, he married, moved to Brooklyn, and, on Moody’s recommendation, joined Dizzy Gillespie. His four-year stint with Gillespie kicked off a three-decade string of high-profile sideman jobs with Freddie Hubbard, Yusef Lateef, Ron Carter, and Stan Getz, all admirers of his consistent creativity and lyric gifts, and with Sphere, the Monk-inspired collective quartet he co-founded in 1982 with Riley, Charlie Rouse and Buster Williams. At Lateef’s urging, he earned a college degree, and took a position at Rutgers in 1973, where for the next thirty years he mentored young talent like David Sanchez and Terence Blanchard, repeating his high school ritual of making early morning classes after finishing the third set at Bradley’s a few hours before. He moonlighted extensively, working with top-shelfers like Moody, Bobby Hutcherson, Benny Carter and Frank Wess and playing duo in various New York piano rooms. He documented his point of view on an impressive series of albums for such independents as Muse, Xanadu, Enja, Reservoir, Candid, and Criss Cross between 1975 and 1991.
“Each bandleader I worked with had a different style,” Barron says. “For example, Dizzy’s band was very tight and precise. I learned to keep stuff in reserve, not play everything you know all the time. Yusef was looser, the music was freer; you could play out, as far as you wanted to go. Ron likes hills and valleys; I learned to use dynamics. Stan and I shared a love for lyricism. We fed each other. He was one person who could play a ballad and really make you cry.”
As documented on Bossas and Ballads: The Lost Sessions [Verve], a 1989 quartet session that was not released until 2003, Getz played Barron’s tunes—these included such present-day standards as “Sunflower,” “Voyage,” “Phantoms” and “What If?”—and related to him as a de facto co-leader. Still, Barron was not able to generate consequential interest in his own projects—around 1985 he Barron formed an incendiary quintet with Eddie Henderson, John Stubblefield, David Williams and Victor Lewis to play his compositions—until Getz died in 1991.
“For some reason, the industry was late getting to Kenny,” states Lewis, whom Getz employed throughout the ‘80s. “It was frustrating, because we were all active members of the jazz community, we felt the  group and Kenny’s writing were special, and we couldn’t understand why we never worked much. We did a tour of the West Coast, and Kenny took out a loan to pay the airfare, to try to promote us.”
Perhaps one reason for Barron’s tortoise-like breakthrough lies in his genial, understated personality, devoid of visible idiosyncracy. During his sextet week at Dizzy’s Room, for example, Barron functioned as the band pianist as much as a leader, comping enthusiastically for his youngish front line—youngbloods Jeremy Pelt on trumpet and Dayna Stephens on tenor saxophone next to veteran Vincent Herring—and soloing when they were through. “I have to give cues,” he chuckled. “So it’s easier that I take the last solo. I like to think of myself as a team player, so I’m less interested in myself sounding good as much as the group I’m with, whether as a leader or a sideperson.”
“Kenny has incredible ability, and yet he is never flashy about it,” says Cinelu. “Which I guess frustrates everybody but him. He has a special touch. It’s easier to get the message when you see a musician who has a lot of obvious charisma and an obvious routine—who is very visual, let’s say. Kenny is not that. Yet, his message passes. He’s one of the great jazz pianists.”
It’s interesting to compare the gradual arc of Barron’s  career to the rapid ascent of such generational contemporaries as Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, all Miles Davis alumni who broke ground as young men and then, inspired by Miles, established themselves as leaders by differentiating themselves from the jazz tradition. In contrast, after apprenticing with Gillespie, Barron—who enthusiastically abstracted form during tenures with Hubbard and Lateef—was never willing to shed mainstream values.
“Things evolve the way they should,” Barron says. “I don’t know what other choice I could have made. I was influenced by Herbie with Miles and on Blue Note, like Empyrean Isles and Maiden Voyage, not so much the electronic stuff. By Chick’s writing more than his playing; to me, Chick in the ‘60s was still sounding a lot like McCoy. But I didn’t know quite what to make out of Herbie. His stylistic influences were harder to pin down, other than some he shared with Bill Evans, like French Impressionism.”
“Kenny has a unique approach, a kind of blending of styles,” says Mulgrew Miller, Barron’s partner on a dozen or so duo concerts in recent years, following an initial mid-‘90s encounter at Bradley’s. “He’s rooted in the bop language but takes risks you don’t necessarily hear from people we call bop players. He wasn’t breaking down barriers like McCoy or Herbie, but he’s always trying to reach past his limitations, and he shares with those guys a command of the language of whatever area he’s dealing with.”
In a manner almost unique in 21st century jazz, Barron’s tonal personality encompasses the entire jazz timeline organically and unaffectedly. In the course of a set, he’ll stride with a percussive force and joie de vivre that would not sound out of place at a Harlem Renaissance rent party or a Roaring Twenties Park Avenue soiree. He channels the hard-boiled, warp speed attitude that marked the bustling 52nd Street bars and soulful uptown lounges where bebop flourished after World War Two, and the nuance and polish of the trios that entertained the bibulous mix of gray-flannel suits and tourists who patronized midtown’s upscale grills in the ‘50s. He’s au courant with the craftsmanship and sophistication of the American Songbook, and interprets  it without irony, on its own terms. The airy melodies and surging rhythms of Brazil and the Caribbean dapple his compositional palette, and he has an intimate relationship with the tropes of the Saturday night blues function and Sunday church ceremonial.
“I like Kenny’s touch,” adds Billy Taylor, a friend since Barron’s Gillespie days. “Whether he’s playing a bossa nova or wailing on something with guys playing Art Blakey kind of things behind him, he has the thing for that. To be able to change your touch that way is remarkable. He’s curious, so he’ll take a gig playing ballads. That gives him a chance to play beautiful songs that not everybody plays. Then he works with a group that’s straight-ahead with a soul thing happening, and he’ll go back to church with you. I used to hear him with groups that, quite honestly, were not up to what he was capable of doing at the time. He always found something in that group to take with him. That’s the mark of a first-rate artist.”
It’s also the mark of a pragmatist, a man with responsibilities. Barron intends to work as much as possible as he moves through his seventh decade. Although his stated intention after retiring from Rutgers in 2003 was to eschew teaching for practice and musical exploration, he soon received offers he could not refuse from the jazz departments of Manhattan School of Music and Juilliard, where he taught a total of 10 piano students privately during the 2004-05 school year.
“My daughter’s getting married, and I’ve got a wedding to pay for,” he says. What wouldn’t he do? “I’d probably hate playing Hawaiian music,” he responds, perhaps with tongue in cheek.
Has he always been a practical person?
“Practical? Do you think I’m practical?”
Well, yes. Married for 42 years, Barron is a musician who sustained creative edge while paying the bills and found a way, like Tommy Flanagan, to maximize his value as a performer in the world in which he functioned.
“I would be inclined to say it’s there,” he says. “Not that other people haven’t helped me. Yes, I’ve been able to function and be consistent. Work. Be married. Try to be in creative situations as much as possible. Whatever the word for that is, yeah, I am.”

[—30—]

* * * *

Kenny Barron (March 21, 2005):

TP:   First, the editor wants me to write about the different groups. When we spoke on the radio, you said that playing in different situations all the time, which is what you do on your records, keeps you fresh, keeps you thinking differently…

KENNY:   Oh, it does.

TP:   Have you ever done a three-week event like this, where you showcased a different sound over the course of an engagement.

KENNY:   Actually, I have. I did at the Vanguard twice. It was the same rhythm section every week, myself and Ben Riley and Buster Williams, and each week we used a different horn player. One week we used Vincent Herring, another week David Sanchez, I think Jesse Davis… It was fun.

TP:   But that’s a different proposition. These are three different…

KENNY:   Three totally different environments. True.

TP:   The first week with Mino Cinelu… You called the record Swamp Thing. This is a pan-Latin, pan-Brazilian…

KENNY:   Yeah, it’s a little bit of everything! Every two nights it’s going to change. The first two nights it’s myself, Mino Cinelu and John Patitucci. The next two nights John was unavailable, so George Mraz is going to play bass, myself Mino and Abdou M’Boop, the percussionist, who will also play kora. The last two nights will be George Mraz, Mino, myself and Romero Lubambo. That will have more of a Brazilian cast.

TP:   Have you played with Abdou M’Boop before?

KENNY:   No, I haven’t.

TP:   But you’ve played with Mino and Romero.

KENNY:   True. But I haven’t played M’Boop. He came by here and brought his kora, and it wasn’t quite what I expected it to be in terms of how it’s approached, so I have to rethink how it’s going to be used.  But he also plays talking drums, so he’ll be playing percussion as well. Kora is an interesting instrument, because once it’s tuned it has to stay in a particular key. It’s not a chromatic instrument, it’s diatonic, so you tune it to a particular scale and it stays there. If you tune it to B-flat, you can’t play in A-flat. He can retune it, but it’s a very time-consuming thing. He can’t do it between songs.

TP:   So you have to do the whole set in a particular key.

KENNY:   Well, the pieces that I’m going to use will all be in the same tonality. If it’s B-flat, it can also be G-minor, which is the relative minor of a B-flat. So it can be major and minor, but the notes will always be the same.

TP:   Keeping that interesting will be a challenge.

KENNY:   Very much so. There’s a way to do it. We ran over some stuff here.

TP:   That will be the one premiere of this week. Let’s discuss each of the people. Mino Cinelu  is one of the great pan-diaspora percussionists. He seems to have everything…

KENNY:   He can do almost anything. Well, he does. He does everything. He has some very interesting equipment. He has a wave drum, which produces all kinds of interesting sound effects and colors, and I’m sure he’ll use some of that. On the recording, we also did some all-acoustic stuff duo. We did a couple of concerts in Europe.

TP:   So you have a repertoire.

KENNY:   Yes, we have a repertoire. I don’t know that we’ll necessarily be doing… Since we have bass player, we’ll try to expand it. Because there was no bass player on the recording we did.

TP:   With Romero Lubambo, you had a project that had legs with Trio de Paz. But in this case, it’s George Mraz and Mino.

KENNY:   I’m sure we will do some Brazilian stuff, but we’ll do some other stuff as well.

TP:   You and Mino are the ones who are going to shift what you do to suit each environment.  This is an old question. But I’d assume that your involvement with pan-African rhythms goes back to playing with Dizzy.

KENNY:   To a certain extent, yes.

TP:   Did it precede it when you were in Philly?

KENNY:   Yes. Especially Latin music. More Latin music. This was before bossa-nova and Brazilian music. But Latin music was always popular in Philly when I was coming up.

TP:   Did you play Latin gigs?

KENNY:   I didn’t play that many, no. But I’d hear the records by people like Joe Loco and Machito, Perez Prado. I listened to that music a lot.

TP:   Was your peer group interested in it?

KENNY:    Not so much. It was something I liked to listen to.

TP:   How did it come to you?

KENNY:   I heard it on the radio, and said, “Wow, listen to that.” There weren’t stations so much that played it. But there was a jazz station that played it… I don’t know if you know Joe Loco.  He was Cuban, and he had a lot of hits on standards, but always with an acoustic kind of group, trio or whatever. As I got older, when I moved to New York, I started listening to Symphony Sid, who played a lot of Latin music. That’s when I really…

TP:   Did you go to the Palladium at all?

KENNY:   No, I never went to the Palladium. Again, just listening to the radio.

TP:   When you came to New York, it was an efflorescent period for Latin music.

KENNY:   Yes. I came in ‘61.

TP:   Did it give you the same feeling as jazz? Did it add something to your palette?

KENNY:   I think it added something.  I always found Latin music to be very joyful. There’s always dance… It sounds kind of corny, but it was happy, happy kind of stuff. It was fun.

TP:   That’s interesting, because it isn’t a quality that all your contemporaries embodied in their playing. Certainly, modern jazz of the early ‘60s in New York wasn’t so much about keeping a groove going.

KENNY:   No, certainly not. During that period, music started to really become concert music. It got to be THAT kind of thing. I was into that myself. I wanted to be SERIOUS. But that’s one of the elements that I think Monk had, was humor, a sense of fun, playfulness in the music. I think that’s often missing. We’re all so busy being serious, or trying to show that we’re not really enjoying it. That’s what I loved about Billy Higgins. Billy was always smiling. He loved what he did! And that joyfulness, it showed.

TP:   It came out in his sound, too.

KENNY:   Yeah, it came out in the music, and it kind of infected everybody in the bandstand and the audience.

TP:   Did you and Mino first play together on that 1995 project?

KENNY:   No, that was really the first time.  I first heard Mino in Nice with Miles. We had a mutual friend who kind of thought it might be interesting for us to play together. I started going over to his house, and just talk about music… We became really good friends, which we still are. His wife would fix these great meals, and we’d sit and talk about music, and he has all this great equipment. Consequently, a lot of the stuff on the recording we did in his music room. We also did stuff in the studio, where I overdubbed this or that.

TP:   You’ve been very bold in your aesthetic choices. You won’t ever let anyone put you in a bag. One recording you’ll do ballads with Charlie Haden. Another one is wild duos with Mino. Then you’re doing a new quintet with young players, with a flute up front, you’re doing your take on post-bop with the sextet, a duo with Regina… What you’re doing over three weeks characterizes the way you’ve presented yourself over the past 15 years, when you began to do records with serious production values.

KENNY:   I don’t want to do just one thing.  The thing is, I really like all kinds of music. I’d like to expand it even further, do some other things. Another project coming up, and I don’t know if it will come to New York, is I want to do some stuff with the Turtle Island String Quartet. We’ll do something in November, but right now I don’t think there are any concerts slated for New York. So that will be a challenge for me, to play in that kind of environment. I don‘t want to only do one thing. There’s too much to learn.

TP:   Certain people, when they go into Brazilian music or Latin things, deeply study the idiomatic nuances of each idiom. That’s not your approach.

KENNY:   No. I just listen to it, and I respond in whatever way I can, so it’s organic. I’m not Brazilian, so I can’t be Brazilian. But I love the music. So whatever I do, it’s going to be my personal take on it, so to speak.

TP:   But with a lot of people, there might be a quality of superficiality in addressing something without… It’s like someone playing bebop without knowing the changes. Your personality comes through. You always sound completely at home.

KENNY:   Yeah. I don’t know why. It just is. I think it’s because I love the music. I don ‘t think it’s necessary for me to go to school on it. I don’t think I need to go to school and study it for three or four years. I just need to LISTEN to it. That’s all that’s necessary, is to listen to it.

TP:   Was very Dizzy very much about breaking the stuff down for you in the early ‘60s

KENNY:   He didn’t do it for me. He was very helpful in terms of showing me voicings, harmony. But I saw him do some stuff with Rudy Collins, where he wanted a particular rhythm. So he told Rudy, “Do this with your right foot, do this with your left foot; play this with your right hand, that with your left hand; hit the cymbal here.”

TP:   Do you do that when you play with younger musicians?

KENNY:   I don’t like to do that. If I hire somebody, it’s for what they can bring. My idea about leading a band is to let people do what they do. That’s why you hired them.

TP:   With Romero, you told me that Trio de Paz played for a long time at the Coffee Shop on 16th & Union Square East. I don’t know if you made it a destination, or if it was by accident…

KENNY:   Well, the first time was totally by accident. My wife and I were there shopping at the green market, and we said, “Let’s go get something to eat.” We went in there, and there they were along with Duduka’s wife, Maucia(?), who was singing. Then it became a destination. So every Saturday we were in town, we went there to hear some music. Then we met them and became good friends, and eventually it turned into, “Boy, I’d sure like to play; let’s play something.” Then it turned into, “Let’s do a record.” It evolved that way. We did some tours and concerts. I’d like to do some other things with them, because I enjoy playing with them a lot.

TP:   It sounds like all these projects evolve organically out of your life as a musician…or your life in general.

KENNY: I think so. A lot of things just happen. If I hadn’t gone to the Coffee Shop, the whole thing would never have happened.

TP:   You would have heard about them eventually. But maybe not.

KENNY:   Yeah, or maybe not. You never know. But I would have missed a lot.

TP:   Have you played much with John Patitucci?

KENNY:   Only once, actually. But I love his playing. I have one of his records that I really love. It’s called Communion. The first time we played was actually on a recording with a singer, Cheryl Bentyne. I’ve always loved his playing. So I’m really looking forward to this.

TP:   You and George have played together, but not that much.

KENNY:   When I first started working with Stan, we played together. A couple of times, I’ve subbed for Hank Jones, and worked with George and Dennis Mackrell. But I haven’t played with George in a long time. Actually, on one of the very first gigs with the Ron Carter Quartet, Buster Williams wasn’t available, he was in California, so George made that. That was in the early ‘70s.

TP:   After Dizzy, you played a lot with Freddie Hubbard. Was that a fairly steady-working band?

KENNY:   It was a working band. We didn’t work as much as I’m sure Freddie would have liked, but yeah, it was okay. We didn’t do long tours. It was mostly around New York, working at Slug’s, and a place called La Boheme, which was at 61st and Broadway, and the Coronet in Brooklyn.

TP:   What else were you doing in New York after you left Dizzy?

KENNY:   One thing I did right after I left Dizzy was work with Stanley Turrentine at Minton’s for five or six weeks. The rhythm section was Herbie Lewis and Joe Dukes. That was great, working uptown in that kind of environment. Six weeks back-to-back.

TP:   Dizzy’s time at Minton’s was long gone.

KENNY:   He’d gone past that. Financially, he was past that. But when I left Dizzy, I more or less freelanced for a while, working with as many people as I could.

TP:   The thing with Ron Carter began in the early ‘70s? The mid ‘70s?

KENNY:   Probably the mid ‘70s. Before that was Yusef Lateef. We toured quite a bit, especially during the summer. Yusef was teaching at the time at Manhattan Community College. He actually got everybody in the band to start going to college. He encouraged everyone, “You should go back to school.” So I did. It was a two-year school, and I got an Associate’s Degree, and after that I went on to get a Bachelor’s Degree from Empire State College, which is part of the SUNY.  When I was going to Manhattan Community College, and we were going on the road, I would always tell my teachers, “I’m going on the road for three weeks; what material will you cover in that three weeks?” They were always pretty cool about telling me. I’d bring math. We had math, and I had never had this kind of math before in my life. When I came back, I was ahead of the class.

TP:   You didn’t allow yourself to be distracted.

KENNY:   No, I did the work. But I attribute that a great deal to Yusef’s personality, because that’s the way he was. He was very centered and very into doing what you have to do to make things work.

TP:   I’m sure the relationships between music and mathematics make the logic systems clearer.

KENNY:   You’d think so. But that didn’t necessarily happen.

TP:   Your involvement with Ron Carter was long-standing.

KENNY:   Yes. How that gig started, I was working at the Keystone Korner with Yusef, and Ron was in town and came by. That’s how that happened. It’s a question of being in the right place at the right time.

TP:   When did you first start to lead two- and three-horn ensembles? Your first record is ‘71, I think, forMuse.

KENNY:   There were no horns on that. It was basically trio. Sunset To Dawn. On one tune, by Freddie Waits, Warren Smith said, “Why don’t I play vibes on this.” So it’s a really fast Freddie Waits tune, “Alkefa.” “I’ll play vibes on this.” he was incredible. But there were no horns.

TP:   When did you start?

KENNY:   One of the first times was at a place in the Bronx, the Blue Morocco, where I used Bennie Maupin and Bill Hardman. It was the same rhythm section, with Freddie Waits and Herbie Lewis.

TP:   Was that because of the gig, or was something in you wanting to…

KENNY:   No, that was just a gig. But in terms of starting to write music and say, “Okay, I hear this for quintet,” probably happened first when I had the quintet with John Stubblefield. The ‘80s. Wallace Roney did the first record, What If.

TP:   Was that just percolating? A lot of pianists showcase their instrumentalism and wind up playing trio. But you’ve built up a large body of work for various ensembles.

KENNY:   I like being part of a team. One of the things I like is that I can write for it. I find it difficult to write things for trio. People do it all the time, but it’s more difficult for me. I have no idea why. But it’s easier for me to write things for horns. You can showcase harmony and movement and stuff like that. In that particular group, it started as part of a grant. I had applied for a grant to write some original music, so that was the band I chose.  I’d been knowing John for a long time, and Victor Lewis and Cecil McBee. I got the grant, and did a concert at what was then Carnegie Recital Hall, and they made a tape. It sounded so good I thought I’d like to record it, and I talked to Enja Records. That was the beginning.

TP:   Does a song like “What If” come out of your trio experience?

KENNY:   No, for the quintet. I really heard it for those particular people, for that group. When we first started playing as a group, the music at the time—live anyway—was going to the left. It was starting to go out. Which I loved!

TP:   That would be John’s propensity.

KENNY:   Yes.  But again, it was organic. Nobody said, “Well, let’s play out.” But it just started to move that way. One of our first gigs was a place called Joanna’s [18th Street]. We did a set, and played two tunes in an hour or something. But it never got boring, because the music went in so many different places. We had such a great time. When we did the record, there are considerations of time and length, so it didn’t…

TP:   But subsequently on your ensemble records, you added different flavors. Some had more of a pan-Caribbean-South American feel, some were more hardboppish…

KENNY:   Right. I didn’t set out and say, “Okay, this record is going to be bebop and this one…” It just happened.

TP:   I suppose it speaks to the fact, again, that you’ve assimilated so many musical languages. Is there ever an element where they’re competing for space within you? A bebop side competing with the lyric Brazilian side competing with the classic piano side… This is probably an absurd question. But I find the tonal personality you express so personal but also encompassing so many flavors. I’m sure it seems totally organic to you because you’re living it, but I want to see if we can pinpoint where it comes from.

KENNY:   I don’t know where it comes from. I don’t feel competition in terms of different styles or different idioms. Ideally for me, in one set of music, I can go through everything. What it is, I think each tune kind of carries itself. Each song is a development in itself. One song, if you play it, it may actually be straight bebop. That’s how it might come out. The next song may go out. Or the next song may be Brazilian. All in one set.

TP:   Do you know beforehand?

KENNY:   No, I don’t. It just happens. We may play a blues, especially with the group I have now with Anne and Kim Thompson, and it may go out! I kind of like that. I like not-knowing. That’s the fun for me. Let’s see where it goes.

TP:   Do you think of the different styles as different styles?

KENNY:   Probably not. There’s 12 notes.  There are only 12 notes. It’s just music.

TP:   What differentiates them?

KENNY:   It’s rhythm primarily that will make a difference. The way you approach the rhythm, and phrasing. If you’re playing bebop, for instance, there’s a certain kind of phrasing that works best. The attack. If you’re playing R&B, or if you’re playing some funk, there are certain kinds of voicings that won’t work so well. If the voicings are too sophisticated, they won’t work.

TP:   The sextet you’re bringing in the second week has a new tenor player, Dayna Stephens.

KENNY: I met Dayna in California at a clinic I did for a week at the Monk Institute at the University of Southern California. He’s one of the people who was there, and he really impressed me. When I was looking for a tenor player, I thought about him, but I didn’t know how to get in touch with him. Then somebody told me he had just moved to the New York area. I think everybody will be very surprised. He’s a very good player.

TP:   Everyone else you’ve played with…

KENNY:   Oh, yeah, for a long time. In different situations. Actually, I haven’t worked with Victor in quite a while.

TP:   New repertoire?

KENNY:   Some new stuff, and then some stuff that will be recalibrated or whatever.

TP:   Do you always recalibrate?

KENNY:   Not always.  But sometimes just having a new player will make that happen.

TP:   Benny Golson discusses the art dearth writing, trying to make three horns sound as big as possible. Is that a concern… Let’s put it this way. What are you trying to put forth on this sextet than the quintet?

KENNY:   In terms of instrumentation, the sound is heavier because it’s three horns. And harmonically, with three horns you can do more rhythmically and in the way you can use them. The different colors also that you can have from three horns. Dayna plays tenor and soprano…

TP:   Like most young guys.

KENNY:   Yes, like most young guys. Those are different colors that you can utilize. So for me, it’s about the harmonic movement that three horns allows you. Eddie is only doing two days, and Jeremy Pelt is doing the remainder.

The third week is the trio, what they call the Classic Trio. Ben wasn’t available, because he’s going to be in Europe with his Monk Legacy. Well, he does get back in the middle of the week. But I wanted someone close to Ben in style and age, and I called Grady Tate. Grady does this tour I do every other year in Japan called 100 Gold Fingers, and I’ve always enjoyed playing with him. He’s a very tasty, very sensitive drummer.

TP: What does the term “classic trio” mean to you?

KENNY:   I have no idea.

TP:   But does it mean something to you? Jazz? Classic?

KENNY:   It’s a trio.

TP:   Well, is it a trio that you play a certain type of repertoire and not another type of repertoire?

KENNY:   Well, that could be true. With a trio, I tend to play more standards and… Yes, that’s basically it.

TP:   Well, you probably have 800 tunes that you can draw from.

KENNY:   Yes. I remember we did this at Bradley’s one week with Ray and Ben, no repeats. [18 sets] I have to think about whether to do that again!  But it might be fun. Not repeat any songs. That means there won’t be any “arrangements.” You’re saying, “Oh, let’s do this song.”  But at the same time, I don’t want it to be a jam session.

TP:   So in a certain sense, the classic trio is closer than the other formats to being what that idealized notion of what jazz is supposed to be.  It’s this older material, but you’re approaching it in a totally spontaneous way.

KENNY:   Yes, a spontaneous way. So you won’t know what a song is going to sound like until it starts to reveal itself, so to speak. Again, that can be a lot of fun. Again, I don’t know if that’s what we’re going to do, but it’s a thought.

TP:   So you’re telling me that you don’t go into any performing situation with the whole arc of a performance planned out. There’s always room for openness.

KENNY:   Oh, yes.

TP:   There are general outlines or motifs, and every night you’re approaching it in a different manner.

KENNY:   Hopefully, I’d like that to happen. Almost nothing is planned, other than, “We’ll do this song.” But how the song evolves is up for grabs.

TP:   That doesn’t happen as often as the commonplaces about jazz would have you think it does, to actually approach a set with that attitude. It’s kind of risky in some ways, because you have to get the stuff out there, and a lot of people aren’t so interested in leaving themselves open that way.

KENNY:   I like that. When you reach for something, you have to say it’s okay if you don’t make it. But you’ve got to reach. We all have bad days.  But sometimes you have to reach for it and say, “Well, I didn’t make it.”

TP:   Is  that innate? Or did you learn to do it?

KENNY:   I think as you get older, you start to give yourself permission to make a mistake. Because there’s another chorus coming! So you can try it again. That’s one of the things that makes music interesting for listeners sometimes, is to hear someone reach for something, and maybe not making it, but trying it again. Sometimes very interesting things develop in that process.

TP:   One reason why you don’t hear much chance-taking is that young musicians go to school and study everything so thoroughly. That can be at odds with what we’re speaking about. Now, you’ve been an educator for thirty years. How do you address your students on this issue?

KENNY:   I put a lot of stress on being as creative and lyrical as you possibly can. I’m not big on transcribing solos. I never have been big on that.

TP:   Not even Bud Powell and Ahmad Jamal back in the day?

KENNY:   I said transcribing. I learned solos, but I learned them by rote. By hearing them and then playing them. A lot of people are into transcribing, but I find that when you transcribe solos, you only get involved with the notes. There’s a lot of other aspects to a person’s playing. So if I’m listening to Red Garland with Miles… When that record Round About Midnight came out, I knew all those Red Garland solos. I never wrote them down. But one the things that happens when you write them down is you only deal with the notes. If you learn it by rote, then okay, you get this person’s touch. It’s easier to emulate this person’s touch, phrasing, all of that.

TP:   So Red Garland was one of the guys you got into your body.

KENNY:   Yeah.

TP:   Who were some of the other people?

KENNY:   I used to listen to Horace Silver a lot. I’m talking about junior high school and high school. Tommy Flanagan, Wynton Kelly, Hank Jones. They were all different. Wynton had this feeling, and a harmonic concept that was unique. Red had this touch. Everybody had something different to offer.

TP:   You’ve paid some explicit homages to Bud Powell, with that piece “Bud-Like,” and “Madman” has certain qualities to it… It’s an area that you seem to have a fondness for.

KENNY:  Oh, I do. Probably that particular style is at my core. I think Bud is really at the core of what I do.

TP:   Did you ever meet him in Philly?

KENNY:   No. I got to meet him once, when he was not doing well.

TP:   Did you ever meet Monk?

KENNY:   No.  I saw him, but he was always such an awe-inspiring person that I would never go up and say anything.

TP:   Do you mean intimidating?

KENNY:   Yes. He was intimidating, actually. He was very big and… I had just come to New York, and… So I never went up to say anything…

TP:   [Ben Riley’s story] You’ve been in New York since 1961. Initially in the East Village.

KENNY:   I stayed next door to my brother, 314 E. 6th Street, where all the Indian restaurants are. It was a great block. A lot of musicians lived there. I stayed at Vishnu Wood’s place. The rent was something like $60 a month, and it was hard to make that. But it was just one room. Across the street was Lee Morgan, Tootie Heath and Spanky DeBrest, all Philadelphia people who had an apartment. Upstairs from where I lived, Pepper Adams and Elvin shared an apartment. Reggie Workman lived with Lee and Spanky, too. Ted Curson lived a couple of doors up from them.

TP:   A real Philly enclave on East 6th Street.

KENNY:   That’s right. I could walk to the Five Spot and the Jazz Gallery, which were owned by the same people. Coffee shops, like the Fat Black Pussycat, Café Wha, Café Bizarre, all in the West Village. There was so much music. I met Sonny Clark at the Five Spot. I heard Cecil play duo with Clifford Jarvis at the Café Wha?

TP:   What does living in New York have to do with your embrace of so many vehicles of self expression?

KENNY:   Well, I think because it’s all here. Music from everywhere is here in New York, and you can hear it all.  Just life in New York in general, especially during that time for me. I was young, and it was exciting, and all the people whose records I would buy, I could go hear them, I could talk to them, I could see them. Then other things as well. I really got into Latin music then, mostly due to radio. But I really got into it then. Everything is right here in New York.  Just the vibrancy of the city. It’s such a great city.

TP:   You’ve been in Brooklyn for how long?

KENNY:   Actually, I was in Manhattan only one year. I got married in ‘62, and I’ve been in Brooklyn ever since. The first place I lived was on St. Marks and Franklin, and then I moved to Prospect Place and Nostrand.

TP:   There was a fairly consequential scene going on in Brooklyn then.

KENNY:   Oh, there was a lot of music in Brooklyn. There was the Coronet, the Continental, and quite a few other places. There were also a lot of musicians. When I moved to Prospect Place, I discovered that Cedar Walton lived around the corner on Sterling Place. Freddie Hubbard and Louis Hayes lived around the corner in the same building on Park Place. Wynton Kelly lived around there on Lincoln Place. Cecil Payne lived nearby.  There were a lot of musicians.

TP:   Were the Brooklyn audiences different at all than the Harlem audiences?

KENNY:   I don’t think so. One of the things that was happening during that time is that the audiences for the music… If you went to the Coronet to hear music or to play, you would see the same people all the time. Neighborhood people came out to hear the music. That kind of stopped in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s.

TP:   Did that impart a different flavor to the way you played?

KENNY:   I don’t know if it added a different flavor.  But it was definitely inspirational.

TP:   For people in New York at the moment you arrived, you could hear the whole history of the music, people who effect the outer partials of what’s happening now, like Cecil or Ornette (whom you’ve played with), or you could hear Willie The Lion or Ellington or Coleman Hawkins. And you told me that you did.

KENNY:   Yes, I did. I remember working at the Vanguard playing with Freddie Hubbard, and we played opposite Coleman Hawkins for two weeks. Barry Harris was playing piano with him. I don’t remember who else was in the band, but I know Barry was there. That was amazing.

TP:   A lot of younger musicians in the ‘60s were perhaps not so embracing of the older forms, but it seems that even that is part of… On the Live At Bradley’s record you played Blue Skies and Sweet Lorraine, and a lot of tunes you’ll play with the trio are from that era.

KENNY:   Well, apart from bebop, I grew up listening to… Well, the first person I heard do Sweet Lorraine was Nat King Cole. And I loved it from that point. But it was a long time before I started actually playing it. But you have memories of these things, and you say, “Oh, I remember that song; let me start playing that.”
TP:   But someone born after your generation probably wouldn’t have heard Sweet Lorraine on a jukebox.

KENNY:   No, they wouldn’t have. Or Canadian Sunset. I remember hearing that on a jukebox.  Eddie Heywood. And Jug also recorded it.

TP:   Someone like me heard it because I went out looking for it. But it wouldn’t have been an organic part of my upbringing unless I was in an extremely specific house or environment.

KENNY:   Right, it was all around. You’d go into a luncheonette, and on the jukebox there you’d see John Coltrane, Blue Train or Moment’s Notice, or Ahmad Jamal, Poinciana. Any jukebox. In a luncheonette, a restaurant.

TP:   So those things come out in your sound.

KENNY:   Yes.  That stuff was all around. You’re exposed to it.  People who are younger have to search for the music. You have to look for it on the radio. You certainly don’t hear it on television…. Well, you didn’t hear it on television then either. But you have to look for it now.

Plus there were certain experiences, playing situations we were able to get as young players that aren’t available. They weren’t necessarily “jazz” gigs. I used to play dances a lot. We called them cabarets. You had to play standards. You had to play rhythm and blues. That’s what that really meant: I Got Rhythm and Blues. A lot of songs based on that. You had to play for singers. You’d have to play a show.  A singer would come up. “What key are you doing this in?” “I don’t know.” There wasn’t always a rehearsal. If you played, you’d also have to play for a comedian, tap dancers, stuff like this. You’d get to play all this…

TP:   You’d play a whole show. What was the club in Philly…

KENNY:   Oh, there were many clubs. Many. Sometimes they weren’t necessarily clubs…

TP:   The Masonic Lodge, the Elks…

KENNY:   Exactly. That kind of stuff. But I remember there was one club in particular in Philly that was called the Northwest Club. They had a lot of after-hours clubs. I remember working there one time with Jimmy Heath, Mickey Roker, and Arthur Harper was the bass player. But as part of the rhythm section, you had to also do this other stuff. You had to play with the singer and the comedian. That was just something you did.

TP:   That had to have been ‘59 or ‘60, if you did it with Jimmy. So you were 16 or 17.

KENNY:   Yes.

TP:   That prepared you for New York.

KENNY:   Yes.  There are certain kinds of experiences you had. You knew how to play for a show.  You knew what to do, how to end songs and things like that.

TP:   It’s a very rare musician under 45 who’s had had that experience. Although there are a few.

KENNY: There are some. But it’s rare.

TP:   What  did that do exactly?

KENNY:   Well, one thing, it taught you how to listen. It taught you how to listen, and then it helped you with the language. Musical language. It wasn’t enough just to know… Well, one thing is that you have to learn songs. We used to play for what was called shake dancers, kind of tame strip-teasers.  They would dance to Duke Ellington, Caravan… Exotic dancers. Jimmy Forrest, Night Train, a bump thing. Those are the kind of things you learn. It really prepared you to come to New York. Because it didn’t change that much once you got here. You still had to do those kind of gigs. You didn’t come here and start working at Birdland right away.

TP:   But you came here and soon started working with Dizzy.

KENNY:   Well, I came here in 1961 and started working with him in November 1962.  I graduated high school in ‘60, then I kind of laid around Philly, and came to New York in the Fall of ‘61. Then I got married in ‘62.

TP:   You grew up very young, didn’t you.

KENNY:   Well, I got married very young.

TP:   It wasn’t like a whole lot of time to “find yourself.” But maybe you did that later.

KENNY:   Well, still.

TP:   But a lot of people in that situation would take jazz as a job. You’re always very open-ended within the function stuff you do. You were a professional from 16-17-18. Music was a job, a livelihood from that age, and there are a lot of functions you have to play.  Some things must have felt rote to you. Some people would allow their imagination to be stifled in those situations, and many people have allowed their imaginations to be stifled. Others settle on one kind of sound and stayed with it—and evolved it, which is great. You’re not that way.

KENNY:   I think one of the things that helped was having an older brother who played, having friends… There was a drummer, for instance, named Jerry. I used to go over to his house. He always had the latest records. He built his own stereo system.  We would sit there and listen to the latest records. That’s the first time I heard Ornette, was over at his house. “Wow, what is that?!” So I’ve always been into listening and trying to hear new stuff.  Trying to do it, too.  That’s part of growing. I didn’t want to become stuck. I never did. I don’t know if you believe in astrology, but that’s part of being a Gemini. “Oh, let’s try this.” I think that’s part of it. Just being exposed to other things is is important.  When I came to New York, my brother Bill had been working with Cecil Taylor. He was really into avant-garde.  That was his thing. He loved that. He listened to Stockhausen and showed me 12-tone row music and stuff like that. It made me listen, too.

TP:   You did a tune, didn’t you, called Row House?

KENNY:   Yes, I did, which is a 12-tone row. So again, there’s always something to learn, something to try.

TP:   What was it like playing with Ornette?

KENNY:   It was different.

TP:   Has there ever been a situation that didn’t quite work?

KENNY:   I wouldn’t say that situation didn’t work. But there’s always hindsight. I wished I could have done this, wish I could have… But it came out okay. I was surprised that he called me. Because I think the whole idea was to recreate the group he had with Billy Higgins and Charlie Haden, who were both there, and Wallace Roney to take the place of Don Cherry. But one of his first groups had piano.

TP:   What I recall about the concert is that he took out his trumpet and played a chorus, and summed everything up in that chorus.

KENNY:   I enjoyed it. Probably even more memorable than the gig were the rehearsals, as he tried to explain his harmolodic concept. Which I never really got. So I just played.

TP:   Lee Konitz told me that Charlie Haden told him, “We really play changes.”

KENNY:   On some of the earlier things, the stuff is so melodic, it really sounds like they’re playing changes, or playing around changes. There’s some stuff there you can hear on The Shape Of Jazz To Come. That’s one of my favorites. Lonely Woman. You can hear harmonic structure in all of his pieces. It’s not just willy-nilly. They’re playing some stuff.

[—30—]

* * *

Kenny Barron (WKCR, September 2, 2004):

TP:    Sitting across from me, looking extremely cool and relaxed on this beautiful day, after a subway ride, is Kenny Barron. Next week, he enters the Village Vanguard with a sextet comprising Terrell Stafford, David Sanchez, Vincent Herring, Kiyoshi Kitagawa, and Ben Riley. On Wednesday, he starts his semester at Juilliard. On Thursday, he starts his semester at the Manhattan School of Music. So it will be like old times for Kenny Barron, who during the Bradley’s days, would leave at 3 in the morning, and go out to Rutgers the next day at 8 or so. You’ve been doing this for a long time.

KENNY: Yes, I have.  And as you get older, you get tired faster!

TP:    Well, there are no 3 in the morning sets any more.

KENNY: Not any more. Although I kind of miss it.

TP:    That’s the thing. You want to hang out late, but then in the morning you feel sort of happy that you didn’t do it. But several years ago, when you retired from Rutgers, I recall you saying, well, you wouldn’t be teaching any more. You were going to devote your time exclusively to music, and practice…

KENNY: I did say that, didn’t I.

TP:    What happened?

KENNY: Well, I got a call from Justin DiCioccio at Manhattan School of Music, saying, “We would like you to come and teach?” and I said, “I want this amount of money,” and he said, “okay.” And I only wanted a certain number of students…

TP:    And he said okay.

KENNY: Yeah.  So it’s been working out actually.

TP:    And at Juilliard as well.

KENNY: At Juilliard as well.  Well, I guess from the beginning, I’ve only had two piano students there. So this semester, starting this week, I’ll have four.

TP:    This show is not about education. But what sort of students do you have?  You’re not teaching them the basics.

KENNY: Oh, no. They could almost teach me. I mean, some of them are so incredible, especially in terms of technique, and they really understand the language very well. Actually, it’s fun to teach them. Because they really challenge me. They’re great students. A couple of them have won some competitions.

TP:    It’s a truism by now that, given advances in jazz pedagogy and education, that the technical level and proficiency of young musicians today…they start younger and younger, and they can do more and more. What things don’t they have?  What do they need to get?

KENNY: I guess the things they need to get, they’ll only get by living. Experience.  Experience and paying dues; as Ben Riley likes to say, “having their hearts broken.” So they’ll have some stories to tell. When you’re young and everything is fine, you don’t REALLY have any stories to tell.

TP:    You yourself were 18 when you moved to New York.

KENNY: Right.  In 1961.

TP:    You moved to the East Village, I think.

KENNY: Right.

TP:    Everyone was living on East 5th Street and 6th Street.

KENNY: East 6th Street I lived on.

TP:    You were working, and then joined up with Dizzy Gillespie and got your first college education on the road with Dizzy Gillespie. Subsequently, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, you went back to school and got a degree…

KENNY: I did.  I went to Manhattan Community College, and got an Associate’s Degree from there.  They had a program, part of the State University of New York, called Empire State College, and I got my B.A. from there.

TP:    I don’t want to put you in the position of looking back to the good old days. But just step back to those days a bit and discuss the climate then, and the attitudes of the musicians you were running with when you came here from Philly. What was percolating? What was in the air.

KENNY: Well, there was a lot. The block I lived on was the block where there are now a lot of Indian restaurants—Curry Row, they call it.  Sixth Street between 1st and 2nd Avenue. I lived at 314. I was staying with my brother for a while, and then I moved next door with a bass player named Vishnu Wood. Upstairs, for instance, lived Elvin Jones and Pepper Adams. They shared an apartment together. Across the street lived Lee Morgan and Tootie Heath, and a bass player from Philly who’s passed away named Spanky DeBrest, and Reggie Workman also, and two doors up from that lived Ted Curson. It was a great neighborhood. I could walk to the original Five Spot, which was on the Bowery, and the same guys, the Termini Brothers, also owned the Jazz Gallery on St. Marks. So I could walk to all those places. All the coffee shops. I first heard Cecil Taylor, for instance, at Café Wha in the Village.

TP:    On McDougal Street.

KENNY: Yes.  I heard him in that year, ‘61. I met Sonny Clark at the Five Spot. I first heard Kenny Dorham.

TP:    Was there a lot of collegiality? Were people supportive of each other?  Was there a sort of give-and-take?

KENNY: Oh, I think there was.  I would have to say yes. Especially among the musicians from Philadelphia.  There was always a kind of brotherhood, so to speak, among the musicians from Philly.

TP:    So even if someone was from Germantown and someone was from South Philly, once they get out of Philadelphia…

KENNY: Oh, yeah.  Well, even in Philly there wasn’t any kind of neighborhood rivalry.  You were a musician. You were one of the cats.

TP:    Prior to that, had you been working a fair amount on the Philly scene?

KENNY: Some. I was doing a lot of local stuff, and occasionally I would get to work in… When I was there, Philly had two major jazz clubs, the Showboat and Pep’s. At some point I got to work there. One of the highlights, I was still in high school, and I got to work there with Jimmy Heath and Lee Morgan and Tootie and Spanky DeBrest. I was thrilled to death.

TP:    This would have been shortly before you came to New York?

KENNY: Yes, shortly before.

TP:    I seem to recall you mentioning to me that while you were in high school, you’d play jam sessions, and catch the last bus home, and get home at 4 or 5 in the morning, and then go to school. I may be overstating the story…

KENNY: Well, not a jam session… But that is true. I would be out a little late, and my mother would be very upset!

TP:    I’m sure there are exceptions, but young musicians don’t have these kinds of experiences these days.  Again, not to get you embroiled into an “our generation had these things,” but do you see it as a different quality by which the information is processed when it’s processed in such a functional situation?

KENNY: I don’t know. I guess there’s something to be said for both. There’s something to be said for going through academia, and there’s something to be said for just learning it organically, through the streets. However you learn it, it’s great. But I guess one of the things when you learn it on the street, so to speak… For me, I think it really stays with you. You get more… This is hard to explain.  There’s more spirit involved. In school, sometimes you can over-intellectualize everything, and everything becomes about scales… It becomes too intellectual.

TP:    Philadelphia may be known as the City of Brotherly Love, but I gather that doesn’t necessarily apply to the attitude of audiences when you’re not doing things as you’re supposed to.

KENNY: Oh, no.  They’d let you know. You get embarrassed a few times, and you’ll work on your stuff.

TP:    What dicta did the older musicians tell you? Would people be quick to correct you on the spot?

KENNY: Well, yes, they would. If I was interfering with what everybody else was doing, yes, they would definitely be quick to point it out to me. But if it wasn’t too bad, they would wait til after the song was over or after the set was over, and pull me aside.  But generally speaking, they were very willing to share information and to let me know: “Voice this chord this way” or “These are the right changes here.”

TP:    So when you got to New York at 18, it was that, but on an everyday basis.

KENNY: On an everyday basis.  And you might say at a higher level, too, in terms of the musicians who were here in New York.  But it was more of the same, yes.

TP:    I apologize for bringing you back 43 years on the third question. So let’s step up to the present. Kenny Barron is performing at the Village Vanguard next week with his sextet. You’re one of many musicians of different generations who express themselves through different configurations. I think you have two-three forms of sextet; there’s one that’s sort of straight-ahead hardbop, another uses strings and flutes, a Brazilian-tinged group, there’s trios, duos, the quintet that you’re working with flute and vibes… Did this also happen organically?  How did it come about that you use so many modes of expression?

KENNY: I like different things.  That’s basically it. With the Brazilian project, for instance, I used to go to this place called the Coffee Shop. [Union Square & 16th]. That’s where I first met Duduka DaFonseca, Nilson Matta and Romero Lubambo. I just happened to be passing by, heard the music, went in, introduced myself, and we talked. Then I wound up going there every Saturday just to listen to them. Eventually, I said, “Wow, I sure would like to play with these guys,” and we figured out a way to make that happen. They were there for 12 years.

TP:    Were they doing a brunch gig?

KENNY: Yes, every Saturday afternoon.

TP:    But your exposure to Bossa Nova goes back to the American involvement in the idiom with Dizzy, who picked up on it fairly quickly.

KENNY: That’s true. Actually, the group that started me really listening to Brazilian music was Sergio Mendez, Brazil ‘65. I still have that vinyl record that I bought in 1965.
TP:    I’ll assume the group this week, to use the term in a totally generic way, a more straightahead, hardbop oriented thing.

KENNY: Yes, it is more straight-ahead.

TP:    The three horns…if you were around in 1990, you’d call them young lions, but now all are established tonal personalities on their instruments. David Sanchez has been on a few of your records.

KENNY: Yes. David actually was a student of mine at Rutgers. That’s when we met. I was there when he auditioned, and I remember how nervous he was. I don’t think he graduated. He left because he actually started working. I ran into him a couple of years later at the Village Gate. They used to do Monday nights where they’d invite a jazz artist with a Latin band, and I was playing with Eddie Palmieri, and happened to turn around, and David Sanchez was playing on the band.

Although he wasn’t my student, Terrell was a student at Rutgers University. Vincent I met a long time ago, and always loved his playing.

TP:    Kiyoshi Kitagawa has frequently played bass on your gigs.

KENNY: Yes, frequently. That started at times when Ray Drummond wasn’t available, and then Ben Riley actually told me about Kiyoshi. I love the way he plays.

TP:    You and Ben Riley go back a couple of minutes, too.

[MUSIC: “Um Beiju”; “Things Unseen”]

TP:    This was Kenny’s core quintet for about a decade. Eddie Henderson and John Stubblefield, KB, Ray Drummond, Victor Lewis, and Minu Cinelu… Perusing the recordings here, you’re the composer of all but two tunes on Spirit Song – 8 or 10. You’re the composer of all the tunes on Things Unseen from ‘95. On Images, the latest release, you composed 6 of the tunes. And your compositions comprise the preponderance of the material on many of your records. You’ve been composing for a long time, and some of your songs and little melodic hooks are part of the vocabulary now. You hear musicians quoting “What If,” for example. However—and I could be wrong about this—people don’t necessarily think of you first and foremost as a composer of the scope and breadth that you demonstrably are.

KENNY: Well, it’s funny, because I don’t think of myself as a composer. I write tunes. It’s a work in progress. I’m still working on trying to find things to write. I’d like to try to write something for a larger group.

TP:    Aren’t you being unnecesarily modest here? Do you mean that you don’t through-write? What to you is the difference between a tunesmith and a composer?

KENNY: Maybe what I mean is, the stuff I write isn’t terribly complicated. For a lot of people, it’s not a composition unless it’s difficult.  The stuff I write is really very simple. And sometimes that’s a good thing.

TP:    Do you write for personnel?

KENNY: Generally, if I’m writing for a particular project, then I’m writing for the people in the band who I’m going to be playing with. Not necessarily for the instrumentation, but for those particular people. I kind of know what they sound like, and I think I know what they’re capable of.

TP:    Since the ‘70s, when you first recorded for Muse, your tunes incorporate a lot of exotic scales, a lot of world rhythms—Brazilian, Latin and African rhythms. You have a rather broad template, which you’ve used for at least thirty years, and perhaps even going back to your days with Dizzy.

KENNY: I enjoy listening to all kinds of music. I enjoy trying to incorporate various aspects of different cultures into the music, as much as I’m able to.

TP:    Are you trying to find new material to improvise on?  Is the goal always to find something to take off from?

KENNY: As a jazz artist, I think ultimately it’s about improvising and having a vehicle for that.  But at the same time, I would also like to get more involved in through-composing, really writing a piece all the way through. I think it would be interesting to do.

TP:    Who are your models as a composer?  Among your contemporaries are some of the major people, and you worked with Dizzy Gillespie who codified bebop composition.

KENNY: Among my contemporaries, I love Wayne Shorter’s writing. Of course, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. That goes without saying. Some of those pieces they wrote, like Blood Count, Lush Life, they’re really incredible. Bud Powell, things like Glass Enclosure and Tempus Fugit.

TP:    For example, this week with the sextet… You occasionally recycle or reconfigure compositions, but not too often. Usually a Kenny Barron record presents a bunch of new pieces. Are there new things in the book for the sextet next week?

KENNY: Most of the things we’ve done before. I think we’re going to try two or three new things next week?

TP:    Are you a deadline-oriented composer, or is it a matter of when the spirit moves you?

KENNY: If you give me too much time, I won’t do it! If I have three months to write something, I’ll wait until the day before…or a week before. It’s really just a question of developing a certain kind of discipline, which I have yet to do; to just sit down and… I remember sitting down with the pianist Hassan in Philadelphia, who I’d known since I was a little kid, and he told me that he wrote a tune a day.  That’s 365 songs.

TP:    You must have at least 100 copyrighted.

KENNY: Maybe a few more than that.

TP:    You haven’t exactly been a slouch… Having spoken of composition, we’ll hear some blowing by Kenny on the piano, of which there are ample recorded documents.  This trio worked frequently at the time; you could hear them every 3 or 4 months at Bradley’s. Am I exaggerating?

KENNY: No, you’re not. We were there a lot.

TP:    It’s a one-hour recital of ten tunes, and it reflects the flavor of what your sets would be like. There are tuneful originals with nice rhythmic feels, there’s a couple of Monk, a couple of great standard songbook things, some soul tunes…

[MUSIC: Sweet Lorraine, Alter Ego]

TP:    Lemuria would have done when the trio did a no-repeat week; a week at Bradley’s without playing the same tune twice. That would be 18 sets. I think it happened around ‘91… Playing this music from Bradley’s: You worked there a lot with this trio. It was a real locus for New York’s piano community for about twenty years.

KENNY: I think the first time I worked there, they had a spinet piano. The first time I went there, I heard Bobby Timmons, who was there quite frequently, and eventually I started working there. But I loved working there.  The ambiance, and like you said, it was a really great hang. The last set sometimes would be full of musicians coming by from their gigs. I remember one really memorable night. I think Tommy was working there, and Carmen McRae was working at the Blue Note, and she came by after her set, and I think she played almost the whole last set at Bradley’s. She sat at the piano and sang and played. Only at Bradley’s could you catch something like that.

TP:    What does it do to a musical community to have a gathering place like that? There hasn’t been anything quite like Bradley’s since 1996.

KENNY: For me, I felt very much at home there. I think most of the musicians did.  It was like home.  You’d go in there, you knew everybody… I never had to order a drink!  Because the bartender knew what I drank. He just put it right in front of me.

TP:    So even if you wanted to change for that night, you still had to drink it.

KENNY: Yeah! [LAUGHS] I miss it. I really do miss it.

TP:    A more general question. Is there a New York piano school? Obviously, we’re not talking about people born in New York, because the majority of musicians who make their living here come here from someplace else.  But that being said, it seems that the overall sound you’d hear at Bradley’s from one week to the next and from year to year kind of crystallizes a New York approach to piano.  But it’s unclear in my mind specifically what that approach might be. So do you think of it that way, or is that a bit too general?

KENNY: It’s a little hard for me to think of a New York school of piano playing. As you mentioned, everybody comes here from somewhere else, and all those forces come into play. You’ve got people who come from Detroit, like Tommy and Hank and Barry Harris and Kirk Lightsey. But oddly enough, there is a Detroit sound. Especially with Tommy and Hank and Barry and Roland Hanna, those guys had a particular sound. I think whatever happens is just an amalgamation of everything that’s happening around the country. Because everything comes here; everybody comes here.

TP:    The last time you can really talk about an indigenous New York sound might be the ‘50s, when you have people directly coming out of the stride pianists, and Bud Powell and Walter Davis and Walter Bishop. When you got here in the early ‘60s, what were most of the piano players listening to? At the time, you got here is the same time Herbie Hancock got here, it’s the same time Chick Corea got here… I mean, roughly.

KENNY: Yes, it was around the same time.

TP:    Keith Jarrett got here then. You all arrive in New York with diverse influences, but coming out of the same things that were in the air.

KENNY: I’m trying to think of what I was listening to when I came to New York, the people I would seek out to listen to. For me, it was Tommy and Hank, even though they were rarely in New York during that time. I think they were always busy working, so I never got a chance to hear them live that much then. People like Sonny Clark. I used to listen to Erroll Garner. I never really got a chance to hear Bud, unfortunately. I heard him one time, and he was really not himself. So it was kind of sad for me to see. And Monk; I got to hear Monk.

TP:    As one of the founding members of Sphere, you played Monk’s music extensively in the ‘80s, after he died. Did you get to know Monk?

KENNY: No, I didn’t really get to know him. When I saw him a few times earlier on, I was very young, and I was so much in awe, I would not have approached him at all. Plus, he was a very awe-inspiring looking figure. He was a very big man. I’m a kid. I said, “Wow.”

TP:    You didn’t know what he might say to you.

KENNY: Right.  But I certainly did listen to him.

TP:    And being with Dizzy Gillespie, I suppose that would be a first-hand channel into the attitudes and tales of the music of the generation before you.

KENNY: Oh, sure.

TP:    Is that something you were very curious about at the time? I’m asking in this context. For a lot of younger musicians who didn’t have a chance to experience those lifeblood artists first-hand, didn’t get to see Monk, didn’t get to see Bud Powell, maybe didn’t get to Dizzy—didn’t even get to play in those bands, a lot of them. So for them, the notion of being around New York in 1961, you’d think of it as a kind of golden age. Here’s Coleman Hawkins.  Here’s Monk. You can hear almost the whole history of jazz on any given night in New York in 1961 or 1962 or 1963.

KENNY: That’s true.

TP:    Was it that way to you at that time?

KENNY: Yes, it was.  It was that way to me at that time. I got to hear, thankfully, a lot of people. I got to hear Willie The Lion Smith.  I got to work opposite… I was working with Freddie Hubbard at the Vanguard, and we worked opposite Coleman Hawkins for a week. We played opposite Cecil Taylor for a week. I heard some incredible music.  And I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of great people.

TP:    Have you always had a very open attitude to music? Looking at your discography in recent years, on the Bradley’s record you play “Everybody Loves My Baby But My Baby Don’t Love Nobody But Me,” a ‘20s Tin Pan Alley thing, which you play in the stride manner but in your own style.  Then with Minu Cinelu on the track we’re about to hear, you’re prerecording fragments of material, recording electric keyboard bass, using the latest technology. On another track, you explore intervals that you might associate with Cecil Taylor or Hassan. There’ s a lovely arrangement of Bud Powell’s “Hallucinations.” Really, your music and musical persona seems to encompass very comfortably the whole timeline of the music in a rather organic way.

KENNY: I listen to a lot of different kinds of music, and I love and appreciate a lot of different kinds of music. In terms of being open, I think I’ve always been that way. I’ve always listened to all kinds of stuff. I’ve always wanted to play as much as I could, all different kinds of music.

TP:    We have a set of duos by Kenny Barron with different people. First is “Mystere” with Mino Cinelu. A few words on how this recording was set up.

KENNY: We did a lot of stuff that you’d call preproduction, setting up certain things—in his living room actually.  He’s a whiz at the computer, so he’d add different things with the computer. I know nothing about that stuff, other than how to get my email. He did all of that.  Then in the studio, I opened up the acoustic piano on most of it. On my solos, he added other things electronically and altered the sound on certain things with the computer. So when I heard it back, it was totally different.  On quite a few tracks he altered the sound or added things to it. But on the track you’re about to play, we did some of the stuff in his living room, we came in and I overdubbed the piano solo, and I also played keyboard bass.

[KB-Cinelu, “Mystere”; KB-Regina Carter, Fragile; KB-Roy Haynes, “Madman”]

TP:    A set of duos concluded with a few signifying drumstrokes by Roy Haynes, concluding a piece called Madman, from Wanton Spirit. Was that your tune?

KENNY: It is a tune, actually. I’ve never done it live and never recorded it since then. But I think I will start doing it.

TP:    You played Sting’s “Fragile” in duo with Regina Carter.

KENNY: My wife was working at the time, and I went to pick her up, but she wasn’t quite ready, so I went to a bar next door in Soho. I was having a drink, and they were playing Sting singing this particular song. I thought it was so beautiful! So I asked the bartender who it was. I had no idea who Sting was. So I went out and bought the record, and to my surprise, I liked the entire record, but that particular piece, I really fell in love with.

TP:    In 1996, not too many people were working with computers to create the sounds you got on Swamp Sally. And we’ve heard a very diverse selection of music, many colors and scales and cultural reference. But almost all have been done for the same label and the same two producers—earlier for Jean-Philippe Allard, and more recently Daniel Richard, who produces you for French Universal, no longer issued in the States by Verve, but currently by Sunnyside. It seems to me that there might be some connection between having a steady, familiar relationship with a receptive producer and the venturesomeness of your output.

KENNY: Fortunately, they are two producers who I really appreciate. They’ve allowed me the maximum amount of freedom in terms of what I wanted to do. “Go ahead!” Interestingly enough, the CD with Roy Haynes and Charlie  Haden, Wanton Spirit, was actually a suggestion of Jean-Philipppe Allard. Because I never would have thought of it. He said, “What do you think about recording with Charlie Haden and Roy Haynes?” I said, “Wow, that could be… Yeah.” So that’s how that one came about.

TP:    Charlie Haden has a similar relationship with him, as does Randy Weston and Abbey Lincoln and Hank Jones and others. The ‘90s was a prolific, fertile for all of them in terms of albums. But a lot of musicians in your position, after more than forty years in the music business, an established bandleader for at least thirty of those years, and with a pedigree that includes Dizzy Gillespie, Ron Carter, Stan Getz during the ‘80s… For all of that, you seem very willing to make music with almost anything good that comes your way. It’s a very egoless type of… Of course, you have your ego. And I don’t want to throw around paeans to you here.  But there’s a sort of openness to new experience that seems to inform what you do.

KENNY: Oh, I do like to try new things, yes. They may not be NEW new, but they’ll be new for me. So in that sense there’s certainly a sense of adventure about it for me.

TP:    What underlies that?  Is it as simple as just trying to keep yourself fresh so as not to repeat?

KENNY: No, I think it really is curiosity. I’m not really concerned about becoming stale or anything like that. Now, I should be! But it’s really curiosity. I get inspired by a lot of different things. I’ll go out and hear one of the cats or one of the young women playing today, and I’ll get inspired. I’ll say, ”Wow, that was incredible.” So inspiration comes from a lot of different places, and it inspires you to try a lot of different things on your own.

TP:    Having seen you on nights-off or after a set going out to hear people, I know for a fact that you do check out a lot of music. In your quintet, everyone is under 35, and most of them are under 30.

KENNY: The two young ladies, Kim and Anne, are 23. Stefon Harris is just 30. Kiyoshi is older than you’d think. I was surprised when I found out how old he was.  But still, he’s younger than me.

TP:    What is the benefit to playing with so many people? Because your sound is very identifiable always within whatever context you’re in. I’m not really going to give you to someone on a Blindfold Test, let’s say.

KENNY: Well, what I get playing with all these different people is that they make me play differently. Playing with some straight-ahead, which I love to do, that makes me play one way. Playing with a good singer makes you play another way. Playing with young people who are really energetic, that energizes me. Playing with someone whose music is a little more esoteric puts me in another thing. I like to think of myself as a team player, so I’m less interested in myself sounding good as much as the group I’m with, whether it be as a leader or as a sideperson. Sounding good is more of my concern.

TP:    So if the group sounds good, you’re sounding good.

KENNY: Essentially, yes. That’s very true.

TP:    Is that innate? Did you learn it from someone?  A little bit of both?

KENNY: Maybe a little bit of both.  It’s a team effort.

TP:    Stepping back forty years ago, you were part of Dizzy Gillespie’s group, from 18 to 22. What’s the most important lesson you learned from that, apart from learning all those great tunes from the inside-out and hearing him every night, and the stage presentation and so on.

KENNY:   Well, those are among the things. I can’t say there’s any one thing that was more important than any other.  But it’s how to save yourself, by which I mean that you don’t give up everything all at once every night. You save some stuff.  Keep some stuff in reserve. One of the things I learned is not to play everything you know. That’s it. You don’t play everything you know all the time.

TP:    Why not?

KENNY: What for?

TP:    You played a lot with Ron Carter in the ‘70s. The group was popular, lots of recordings and bookings.

KENNY: That was a really great band, with two bass players; Ron played piccolo bass and Buster Williams the full-sized bass. Ben Riley was on drums. Ron is a really good bandleader, because he knows what he wants, and he knows how to TELL you what he wants and how to get it. One thing I learned from playing with Ron is dynamics, how to use dynamics. He’s very used to not playing at one level all the time—hills and valleys in music.

TP:    How about Stan Getz? Since he passed, some amazing recordings have come out of your collaboration.

KENNY: I guess the thing Stan and I had in common was a love for lyricism. I think we fed each other in that way.  I certainly learned a lot from hearing him. He was one person who could play a ballad and really make you cry.

TP:    Is there anyone during the time we could call your apprenticeship, which was a long one… You played steadily as a sideman for thirty years, though for a chunk of that time you were a leader. Is there anyone you wish you could have played with that you didn’t get to?

KENNY: Yes, a few people. Pre electronic days, I always wanted to play with Miles.  And Sonny Rollins is someone I always wanted to play with.

TP:    With Sonny, that could still happen.

KENNY: One never knows!

TP:    After you leave here, you have a rehearsal for next week. So will this be the first rehearsal for this band for this program?

KENNY: Yes.  And unfortunately, I don’t think everybody is going to be there.  People are still out of town. So we’ll muddle through.

TP:    You mentioned that you have three new pieces. Are you a stickler for rehearsal? Your bands always have a sound of elegance and casualness that makes me think that you might be working them really hard.

KENNY: No. I rehearse because it’s necessary.  But I don’t LIKE to rehearse.

TP:    The trios with Ben Riley and Ray Drummond, I’ll bet you didn’t rehearse.

KENNY: Oh, no, we rarely rehearsed.  And many of the arrangements are really just head arrangements. They evolved over the course of playing them over a period of time.

TP:    You said that your music is very simple, but it’s very distinct. What do you think is the hardest aspect of playing your compositions correctly?  Is it the phrasing?  Is there a certain attitude?

KENNY: I don’t know. Again, I don’t think it’s difficult, but if there’s anything, it’s playing with the right attitude. I certainly don’t think the music is terribly difficult. If it’s anything, I think it’s playing with the right attitude and the right feeling.

TP:    Another one of your tunes that’s gotten some broader play is New York Attitude. So maybe it’s the New York attitude. Not everyone has it.

KENNY: Could be.

* * *

Kenny Barron Musician Show (WKCR, 2-13-91);

[MUSIC: K. Barron, "New York Attitude"]
Q:    [ETC.] Kenny is from Philadelphia.  I think that’s probably the first thing anybody should know.
KB:  Right.  From North Philadelphia.
Q:    Neighborhoods are pretty important in Philly.
KB:  Yeah.  Well, there’s North Philly, South Philly, West Philly.  They’re all different, too.
Q:    You’re from quite a musical family as well.
KB:  Yeah.  Well, Bill was the oldest.  There were five of us altogether.  Bill and myself are the only ones who became professional musicians, but everyone else played the piano, two sisters and another brother.  They all played the piano.
Q:    There was one in the house?
KB:  Yes.  There was always a piano there.  My mother played also, so she was kind of the one who inspired everybody to do that.
Q:    What kind of music was played in the house?
KB:  It was usually Jazz, Rhythm-and-Blues — primarily.  And Gospel Music on Sunday.
Q:    What were your folks into?  The big bands?
KB:  It was strange, because my folks…my parents didn’t really listen to the radio, or they didn’t seem to listen to music that often, other than my mother, who as I said, listened to Gospel Music on Sunday.  But my brothers and sisters listened to lots of different kinds of music.  At the time, they had some really great radio shows, Jazz radio shows in Philly.  As I got a little older, by junior high school I was also listening to, like, Doo-Wop groups and things like that.  So I listened to all kinds of music.
Q:    You were also studying European Classical Music.
KB:  Yes, I was studying Classical piano.  I did that from the age of 6 until I was 16.
Q:    Now, what was your first exposure to the world of Jazz in Philadelphia?  Did you sneak out when you were younger and go hear groups in the neighborhood, or was it through your brother?
KB:  Actually it was through my brother.  He had a fantastic collection of old 78′s, Charlie Parker and Fats Navarro, Dizzy, people like that.  So I used to hear those things all the time.  I can remember being very affected by one tune in particular; I’m talking about when I was maybe ten years old.  That was a piece called “Sippin’ At Bells.”  I always tried to find that piece and that record, and I couldn’t remember the record label.  Somehow or other, it really got to me.
Q:    Bud Powell was on that, yes?
KB:  I believe so.
Q:    Of course, I’m sure your brother must have been practicing around the house.
KB:  Oh yeah.
Q:    It must have always been there.
KB:  Yes, there was always music.  His friends would come by.  I’m sure you’ve heard of the pianist Hassan from Philly.  Well, he and Bill were very close, so he used to come by the house quite often, and they would spend hours playing and just talking together about music.  So I would be there listening and checking them out.
Q:    Do you have any particular reminiscences about Hassan? He didn’t have a lot of visibility outside of Philadelphia, and recorded only once, albeit with Max Roach.
KB:  One record, right.  That’s right.  He was unique as a pianist.  Eccentric.   He just had a very unique style.  Kind of Monkish.  Of course, at that time, when I was 9 or 10 years old, I knew nothing about Monk.  But he had, like I said, a very unique style.  Later on, I found out that one of his biggest influences was Elmo Hope, and not Thelonious Monk.
Q:    One of the compositions on that record, actually is dedicated to Elmo Hope, too.
KB:  That’s right.  Actually, I plagiarized a bass line from one of his compositions from The Incredible Hassan on one of my records.  I see you’re taken aback!  It’s funny, because only a few people knew it, and they were all people from Philadelphia!
Q:    I’ll bet.  Who were some of the other people on the Philadelphia scene who were important in the 1950′s, and particularly when you were beginning to emerge and find your way?
KB:  Well, there were people… There was a saxophonist, for instance, named Jimmy Oliver, who was very influential on the Philadelphia scene at the time.  Jimmy Heath.  I had a chance to work with Jimmy while I was still in high school.  Oh, and just the guys that I came up with; there are people who probably aren’t that well known outside of Philadelphia.  A bass player named Arthur Harper…
Q:    He played with J.J. Johnson…
KB:  Exactly.
Q:    I think he’s playing with Shirley Scott now.
KB:  Yeah, exactly.   He is playing in Philadelphia.  He moved back to Philadelphia, and he’s working there.  But he was one of the guys that I came up with who had a very big influence on me.  He was a fantastic bassist.  We used to play together a lot, and talk about music.
Sonny Fortune, we came up together.  So a lot of people were around during that time.
Q:    I guess you were a little young to remember Jimmy Heath’s big band…
KB:  Yes, that was a little before my time.  But I often heard of it, because Bill played in that big band, and I often heard him talk about it.  And there were some great people in it.  I think John Coltrane…
Q:    And Benny Golson…
KB:  Benny Golson, right.
Q:    [ETC.] Now, you’re on record as saying that the first record that really grabbed you was a Miles Davis session from 1956 with Sonny Rollins and Tommy Flanagan and…
KB:  Yeah.  Max. [sic: Art Taylor]
Q:    …you were really into Miles Davis at that time.  So we have a set of Miles from that period lined up for you…
KB:  [LAUGHS]
Q:    …by the miracle of radio.  Was this one of your brother’s records, or did you hear it on the radio?
KB:  No, actually what happened, I was in junior high school, and we had an art class, and the teacher used to encourage the students to bring in music to paint by, so to speak.  So a friend of mine, a drummer, who is now an English teacher actually, he brought in this record, Collectors Items.  The tune that they were playing that got me was ” In Your Own Sweet Way.”  I stopped painting, I was listening, and I was “Who is this?  Who is that?”  Because it was just so clear, so crystal clear, and the touch was so light,  delicate.  And I just fell in love with Tommy’s playing right then and there.
Q:    Well, we’re going to hear that in this set.  But we’re going to start with “All Of You” performed by the Miles Davis Quintet, with two other Philly legends, Red Garland and Philly Joe Jones, on the famous recording, Round About Midnight.
[MUSIC: Miles, "All of You," "In Your Own Sweet Way."]
KB:  When that record came out, it had such an impact on the Jazz scene that I was coming up with… One of the things that we could do, for instance… I mean, I knew everybody’s solo on every tune.
Q:    From the Round About Midnight record.
KB:  Yes, from that record.  I mean, I could do that as you were playing it then!  I mean, that didn’t make me unique, because everybody did that then.  I mean, that was one of the ways in which you learned about improvising, was just through trying to imitate and learn solos, and find out how they did it, what they did.  It was a great… It’s still a great learning tool, just to listen.
Q:    At about the age of 14 and 15, who were the people you were following?  Obviously Red Garland.
KB:  Yeah, Red Garland.  I also was listening to Horace Silver.  I think I may have been a little younger than that when he came out with Six Pieces of Silver.   For some reason, I remember at that particular time we didn’t have a record player in the house.  There was a luncheonette about five or six blocks from the house, and they had on their jukebox “Señor Blues” and “Enchantment.”  And I went up to this luncheonette every day to play that, play those two songs.  Then when I found out that the drummer, Louis Hayes, was 18, I mean, that really gave me a lot of inspiration.
Q:    There’s hope for me yet.
KB:  Yes. [LAUGHS]
Q:    You were also listening to Ahmad Jamal at this time.
KB:  Right.  The Live At the Pershing album came out at this time.  Well, maybe a little bit later.  But that was also very influential.  I remember I was laying in bed, getting ready to go to sleep, and I had the Jazz station on, and the tune they were playing was “Music, Music, Music.”  And again, it was “Who is that?”  It was just so hip.
Q:    Just encapsulate your impressions of Ahmad Jamal and Horace Silver, their contributions in retrospect, now that  you can look back at it.  They’re still doing it, actually.
KB:  Well, that’s right.  Still!  I heard Ahmad a couple of summers ago, and he’s still unbelievable.   Actually, I appreciate him even more now, now that I really know what he’s doing; not really know, but now that I kind of understand what he’s doing.
I think Ahmad is like the consummate trio player.  There’s just so much space and so many ideas and he’s so creative in a trio setting.  And his technique is…I mean, it’s unbelievable technique.  His touch… So he has it all happening for him.
Horace was also a very big influence on my playing.  He’s completely different from Ahmad.  Horace is a much more percussive player, and you know, a little more out of the  Bebop thing, but a great pianist and an unbelievable composer.  So just about every Horace Silver record that came out, I would go and buy it, or find somebody who had it so I could listen to it.   Because I was as fascinated by his compositions as I was by his playing.
Q:    As are many musicians still.
KB:  Yes.
Q:    I think he’s one of the most popular fake-book…
KB:  Yeah, that’s true.
Q:    Were you engaged in teenage combos at this time?  Were you working at all?
KB:  Not working as such.  But yeah, I did.  I had a little trio.  We used to perform in school functions and things like that.  It was fun, and it was, again, a great learning device.  While I was in high school I met Arthur Harper.  We  happened to be… I was studying bass at the time, and we happened to be studying with the same teacher.
Q:    Who was?
KB:  I don’t even remember his name.  He was a Classical teacher.  Mr. Eaney(?).  That was his name.  Wow.  He played with the Philadelphia Orchestra.  And I had my lesson at 10 o’clock, and Harper had his lesson at 11, so I would see him, you know, when… I never knew how good a bass player he was, and I guess he never knew that I played piano.  Until one day I happened to go to a jam session in West Philly.  I was playing bass, you know.  So one of the guys, we later became great friends (his name was Jimmy Vass, an alto player) but I had just met him this particular day.  He called “Cherokee.”  And obviously, I couldn’t make it!  [LAUGHS]
Q:    It wouldn’t seem obvious to us now.
KB:  I’m talking about on the bass, now.  I was playing bass.  Then I spotted Arthur Harper!  And I had a pleading look in my eyes.  He came up and rescued me, and I sat down and listened to him, and all I could say was “Wow!”  I mean, he was such a good bass player.  His time… He was incredible.
[MUSIC:  A. Jamal, "Music, Music, Music," "No Greater Love," H. Silver, "Señor Blues"]
Q:    Did you discover Bud Powell around the time you first heard Ahmad Jamal and Horace Silver?
KB:  Actually I discovered Bud later.
Q:    Later.
KB:  Yes.
Q:    Monk, too.
KB:  Monk, too — later.  I guess I was so taken with Ahmad and also with Tommy Flanagan that I kind of neglected to go to the source, so to speak, which was Bud Powell.  It’s hard not to come through him for almost any pianist.  It’s very difficult for any pianist who is playing today not to have come through him, to have been influenced by him, either directly or indirectly, one way or another.
[MUSIC: Bud Powell, "Glass Enclosure (1953)," "Hallucinations" (1950]
Q:    We’ll move now to music emanating from Philadelphia in the late 1950′s that Kenny was involved with in one way or another as a young musician.
KB:  Well, I met Jimmy Heath: I was still in high school when I met him.  He had done this first album for Riverside [The Thumper and Really Big], for kind of a small big band, and he organized a group in Philadelphia, kind of scaled it down.  So I had a chance to play with him, and play a lot of the music from that album — and it was really a lot of fun.  A couple of times he even used the big band.
Q:    I take it he heard about you through your brother.
KB:  Through Bill, right.  And also through another saxophonist in town by the name of Sam Reed, who I think had mentioned me to Jimmy.  He was very helpful, in terms of my career, even though he may not know it.  I remember one time Yusef Lateef came to Philly, had a matinee at the Showboat, Monday, 4 o’clock, and his pianist missed the flight.  So Jimmy gave him my number, and he called me, and I went and played the matinee — and that was it.  He paid me.  Then about three months later, just after I graduated from high school, I got a call from him to come to Detroit and work ten days in a place in Detroit called the Minor Key.  It was a great experience.  First time on an airplane, first time on the road.  It was a great experience.
Q:    And Detroit was quite a scene at that time.
KB:  Yes, it was.  Yes, it was.
Q:    Did you meet most of the people then residing in Detroit?
KB:  I met some, yeah.  I met some people.  The drummer was from Philadelphia, though: his name was Ronald Tucker.  The bassist was from Detroit, I think he lives here now, or he may be back in Detroit now: he was Ray McKinney, who comes from a very musical family.  That was a great ten days.  And the music that Yusef was doing at the time was really unusual.  So it was my first time experiencing that.
Q:    Of course he later became a big part of your career, some fifteen years later, which we’ll be hearing later on in the course of the Musicians Show.  The other material we’ll hear on this set is a Philly Joe Jones date from 1960 called Philly Joe’s Beat, which is your brother’s debut on record, more or less, a wonderful recording.
KB:  Yeah, it is.  It is.
Q:    It features a lot of the Miles Davis arrangements, and other things, done Philly Joe style.  Now, did you know Philly Joe Jones at this time, or was he too much out of town…?
KB:  Well, he wasn’t in Philadelphia that often except to work.  But again, I got a chance to work with him when he came through Philadelphia.  It was the same sort of situation.  He came through Philadelphia, and his pianist wasn’t able to make it.  So I got a chance to do I think four nights with him, along with Arthur Harper, my brother Bill was there, and trumpet player Michael Downs.  We did four nights at the Showboat in Philly.  Again, it was pretty much the same music that’s on this album, Philly Joe’s Beat.
[MUSIC: Jimmy Heath 10, "Big P" (1960); Philly Joe, "Salt Peanuts" (1960); J. Heath 10, "Nails" (1960)]
Q:    Kenny participated in all of this music in one way or another around the time that the material was recorded.
KB:  That’s true.  That’s very true.  I had a chance, again, to work with Philly Joe, where we played pretty much the same music, and I had a chance to work with Jimmy Heath during that time, and played a lot of the music that was on that Really Big album.
Q:    I’d say we’ve thoroughly covered the Philadelphia period.  Now we’re in 1962, and you’ve been to Detroit with Yusef Lateef for ten days, and done some other things.  But now you join Dizzy Gillespie, and that lasts four years and really brings your name out into the wider world of Jazz.
KB:  Yes.
Q:    How did Dizzy find out about you?
KB:  Again through a recommendation.  When I first moved to New York, I…
Q:    When was that?  When did you make the move?
KB:    I moved to New York in 1961.
Q:    Right out of high school?
KB:  Well, I graduated in ’60.  So I spent about a year around Philadelphia, and then I moved over here.
Q:    What induced you to come up?
KB:  Well, just the same thing that induces everybody.  Just to be around all these musicians and to be around all this music — and to learn, you know.
But anyway, when I first moved here, I moved next door to my brother on East Sixth Street, so I used to walk to the Five Spot a lot.  James Moody happened to be working there, and I sat in — and he hired me!  We did some gigs in Brooklyn, at the Blue Coronet in Brooklyn, and again at the Five Spot.
Anyway, about a year later, I ran into Moody on Broadway.  Moody had gone with Dizzy, and I ran into him on Broadway.  He said they were appearing at Birdland, and he said, “You know, Lalo Schifrin is leaving Dizzy; would you be interested?”  And I had just gotten married, and I needed a gig! [LAUGHS] You know?  Plus, I mean, that’s such an honor.  So I said of course I’d be interested.  So he said, “Well, come by Birdland.”  And I went by Birdland, and just talked to Dizzy.  You know, Dizzy had never heard me play, and he hired me.
Q:    Without hearing you play.
KB:  Without hearing me play.  Just on Moody’s recommendation.
Q:    Well, they have some history together.
KB:  Yes, they do! [LAUGHS]
Q:    Did you just go in cold?  You must have had a rehearsal or two.
KB:  No, actually we didn’t.  Right after Birdland, the first gig was in Cincinnati — and there was no time for rehearsal.  So I remember after checking into the hotel and going to the gig in a cab, Dizzy was running down these things to me, talking certain tunes down.  Then Chris White, who was the bassist at the time, and Rudy Collins, the drummer, they were also very helpful in pulling my coat to what was happening with each tune and… The gig wasn’t a whole week, I don’t think, maybe just a few days.  So we managed to get through it.  And by that time I felt a lot more comfortable, after playing it a few times.  So it worked out. [LAUGHS]
Q:    Apparently it did, because you did four years with Dizzy Gillespie.
KB:  Right.
Q:    A few words about Dizzy, and evaluating the experience.
KB:  Well, I mean, what can you say?  I think Dizzy’s a national treasure.  I mean, as a musician, as a human being, and his sense of humor — I mean, that’s real; that’s not just on stage.  I mean, that’s real.  He’s just a great human being, a great musician.  And I learned a lot musically, just being around him, how to save yourself… You know, one thing you do when you’re young is, you play everything; you try to play everything you know.  But that’s one of the things, listening to Dizzy, that you learn; you don’t have to do that all the time.  Save yourself for those difficult moments when you really have to do that.  And you don’t have to play everything you know at every moment.
Q:    Dynamics.
KB:  Exactly.  I think that’s one of the biggest things I learned from him.
Q:    You made several records with Dizzy, but we’re going to go back to a recording by the great big band of the 1940′s, and listen to a version of “Manteca”.
KB:  Well, this is actually one of the first things I heard.  I can remember hearing this on the radio, this big-band version of “Manteca.”  And again, I was…whoo, I loved it.  And I’ve never really liked big bands that much, but there were a couple of things that really got me, and this was one of them.
[MUSIC: Dizzy Big Band "Manteca" (1948); Monk (solo) "Blue Monk," "Ruby My Dear" (1971); Dizzy Big Band, "Round About Midnight" (1948)]
Q:    Dizzy Gillespie and Monk are two musicians Kenny has been associated with, although in very different ways.  The public associates you very much with Monk, I imagine, through your work with Sphere, and also from recording a lot of Monk’s tunes on your albums.  But you didn’t really get into Monk, you said, until rather late.
KB:  Yes, not until much later.  Towards the end of high school I really started listening a lot to Monk, and really began to appreciate his writing and his playing.  They are almost inseparable; they are so similar.  I mean, it’s very hard to imitate him, he’s such a strong stylist and so unique.
Q:    So what do you do?
KB:  Well, you play yourself playing Monk.  That’s the best you can do.  I mean, you can do it tongue-in-cheek…
Q:    I never got that impression from you, though, that you were ever doing Monk tongue-in-cheek.
KB:  Well, there are certain things you can allude to, you know, about his playing.  The humor in his playing, the use of dissonance, his touch, the percussive touch that he had.  So you can allude to those things just for flavor, but I don’t think that it would make sense to really imitate Monk.
Q:    Well, he really developed his own fingerings and his own personal language.
KB:  Yes, as you say, his technique was very personal.  I got to see him live only a few times, and just to watch him would amaze me, looking at his fingering, how he would execute. I mean, I’d think, “Is he actually going to pull this off?”  Of course, he always would.
Q:    Walking the tightrope.
KB:  Yeah, exactly.  It was just so unorthodox.  But I think his approach and the way he did things is part of the uniqueness of his music, what makes it all sound so special.
Q:    I guess “Round Midnight” was in Dizzy’s book when you were performing with him, because I know you recorded that with him on one of the Mercury albums.
KB:  Yes, it was.
Q:    [ETC.] Now we’ll take an interlude, and listen to some musical offerings by our host this evening, Kenny Barron, in quintet and trio format… [ETC.]  I wonder if you’d elaborate on your speculative title “What If?.”
KB:    Well, it’s like always looking ahead and trying to find problems, when there aren’t any.  “What if this  happens, and what if that happens?” rather than just go with what is happening.
[MUSIC: KB Quintet, "What If?", KB Trio, "The Courtship"]
Q:    Now we’ll get back to influences, and we’ll hear something by McCoy Tyner, who had a major impact on you.
KB:  Yes, he has.  Well, on almost all players younger than him.  I met McCoy when he was still living in Philly, and his playing was quite different then.  After he joined Trane, it just really changed, and just grew and grew and grew, so that he became a major influence himself.  But his playing when he was still in Philly was a little more beboppish, a little more bebop influenced.
Q:    He’s not really that much older than you.  There’s about a five years difference.
KB:  Yeah, something like that, five or six years.
Q:    Which means a lot then, but…
KB:  Well, at that time, at that time, at that stage, yeah, it can mean a lot.
Q:    Who was he working with in Philly?
KB:  Well, he used to work with people like Odean Pope, and also he used to work with, like, Lee Morgan and people like that.  Whenever someone would come in from New York… I remember one time Kenny Dorham came in, Kenny Dorham and Jimmy Heath, and the rhythm section was McCoy and Lex Humphries, and I can’t remember who the bassist was…it might have been Jimmy Garrison, I’m not sure.  This was at a little small club that didn’t last too long in Philadelphia, so whenever someone came through Philly, McCoy would always be the pianist.
Q:    Those are some high standards on the Philadelphia scene that you had to come up under.
KB:  Oh, yes.  That’s right.
Q:    You couldn’t be messing around in Philadelphia.
KB:  No.  And there were some other good pianists there that no one ever heard of, who still live there.
Q:    Well, now they’ll hear of them.
KB:  There was a guy there named John Ellis, another pianist named Omar Duncan.  Hen Gates, who some musicians may know, is from Philadelphia.  Some others…the names escape me right now.  But there are a lot of good musicians.
[MUSIC: McCoy, "Inception" (1962)-DEFECTIVE]
Q:    Coming up will be music by Freddie Hubbard and Yusef Lateef, and in each instance we’ll hear one of Kenny Barron’s compositions.  You joined Freddie Hubbard immediately after leaving Diz, or…?
KB:  No, it wasn’t immediately after, but maybe a year after I left Dizzy.  Freddie lived in the same neighborhood… Actually, at the time he lived around the corner from me in Brooklyn, and I started working with him.  It was a great experience, because it was totally different from working with Dizzy.  Things were very, very structured with Dizzy, but with Freddie it was a lot looser, and I was able to take a lot more chances, to be a little more adventurous.  It’s all part of the growing experience.
Q:    Which was very much in keeping with the times as well.
KB:  Exactly.  Exactly, because it was during the Sixties.  I went through several different bands with Freddie.  One was a sextet, with James Spaulding and Bennie Maupin, the late Frederick Waits, and a bassist who is now back in California, Herbie Lewis.  That was a really good band.  It was the kind of band that could shift gears.  It could play inside, outside.  Then we had another band called The Jazz Communicators, which never recorded, which was with Joe Henderson, Freddie, Louis Hayes, Herbie Lewis and myself.
Q:    Never recorded.
KB:  Never recorded.  So I’ve been through several different situations working with Freddie, and they were all great.
Q:    I can’t recollect whether you’re playing electric piano or piano on the track, but you did quite a bit of work on the electric piano over about a 10 or 12 year period.
KB:  Yeah, during that time I did quite a bit on the electric piano.
Q:    Why were people concentrating so much on the electric piano then?  Was it because clubs didn’t have pianos?  For experimentation?
KB:  No, that was primarily for recording.  I think what you have there was the very, very beginning of the fusion thing.  So a lot of record companies, when you recorded, wanted you to use electric piano to add other colors.  Because the fusion thing could go in several different directions.  It could be used kind of for more avant-garde kind of music…
Q:    Color, texture…
KB:  Yeah, texture and things like that.
Q:    Freeing things up.
KB:  Yeah.  And also it could be used percussively for more R&B kinds of things.  So a lot of companies wanted the pianists to use the electric pianos during that time.  I think one year I won a New Star Award or something from Downbeat, and I never had an electric piano.  I won the award on the electric piano, I mean; and I never owned one.  But I was using it a lot on recordings.  Not at my request, but the company’s request.
[MUSIC: Freddie, "The Black Angel" (1968); Yusef, "A Flower" (1976?)]
Q:    Now, Yusef Lateef was the first musician with whom you went out on the road, in 1960 or so, and you did five years with Yusef in the 1970′s.  How much was the group working then?
KB:  He was teaching himself at the time.  So we worked primarily during the summer.  We would either go to Europe or out West, a California tour, work our way out to California and back.  So for about four or five years that’s all we did.   And again, it was mostly during the summer, because he was teaching.  And during that time, everyone in the band also decided to go back to school, so everyone else was in school as well, studying.
Q:    That whole experience was very positive.
KB:  Yeah, he had a very positive influence.  Like I said, he influenced everyone to go back to school.  Well, he’s an amazing person.  He just has a very positive effect.  I was in one of his classes, actually, a harmony class.  I remember one of the projects, everyone had to write a large piece of music, so I wrote a string quartet.  He said, “Well, it’s nice that you wrote all this music.  How can we get to hear it?”  So everyone in the class put money together, and we hired musicians, and actually gave a concert to perform these pieces of music that we had written for our term projects.  And it really came out great.  But that’s the kind of person he was, who inspired you to do things like that.
Q:    Coming up we’ll hear the last issued record by Kenny Barron’s late brother, Bill Barron.  There’s one that’s ready for issue in the near future.  Your brother was the head of the Jazz Department at Wesleyan University at that time.
KB:  Yes..
Q:    You recorded with him on just about every record under his leadership, I think.
KB:  I believe so.  Just about every one.
Q:    You’ve mentioned, of course, your brother’s influence.  Just a few words about your older brother, Bill Barron.
KB:  Well, he was an incredible musician.  I don’t want to use the word “underrated,” but there it is, you know.  In terms of the public, I think he was.  I think musicians knew and respected his work, you know, as often I’ve heard… Especially people that he came up with.  People like Jimmy always spoke very well of Bill.   And he was a really good person, and very dedicated.  He was very dedicated to music.  I think he spent most of his waking hours involved with music one way or another, writing music, talking about music.  He was also a very good composer.  He had some unique ideas about composition, very different ideas, and it came through when he wrote.  He was just a great player and a great person.
[MUSIC: B. Barron, "This One's For Monk" (1990)]
Q:    A few words about the quintet working at the Village Vanguard this week.
KB:  Well, I could speak volumes about them.
Q;    Then we’ll do short stories.
KB:  On trumpet is Eddie Henderson, who I think is one of the finest trumpet players around today.  He’s obviously a very intelligent person; he’s a doctor…and a funny guy, too!
I guess what I love about everyone in the band is that when it’s time to work, they really hit very hard.
John Stubblefield is, you know, from Arkansas, so he’s got a certain kind of grittiness in his sound.  At the same time, he has that certain other kind of thing that maybe Wayne Shorter…
Q;    From that AACM background, there’s another…
KB:  Yeah, exactly.  And David’s background is West Indian, but he’s been here for a very long time, and he’s worked with almost everybody.  He’s a current mainstay with Cedar Walton’s European trio, the trio that he takes to Europe quite often, sometimes with the Timeless All-Stars.  He works a lot.  He’s dependable… I’m talking about in terms of music.  I can count on him to be there, and to be imaginative, good sound, good intonation, good time.
Now, I don’t know exactly what I can say about Victor Lewis.  I mean, Victor can function in practically in any kind of circumstance.  Whatever kind of music you want to play, he can do it for you, and do it well — and enjoy doing it.
Q:    And different every time.
KB:  Yeah, different every time.  One of the things about having this band, I don’t tell them what to play; I just let them bring whatever they have, their own thing to it, and it works out better that way for me.
Q:    [ETC., THEN MUSIC]
[MUSIC: Moody/KB, "Anthropology" (1972); KB Trio, "The Only One" (1990)]
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On Martial Solal’s 85th Birthday, a Downbeat Feature and Public Blindfold Test at Orvieto in 2009

A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to conduct a public Downbeat Blindfold Test with Martial Solal at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Orvieto, and to write a feature piece framed around the experience. On the occasion of Solal’s 85th birthday, I’m posting the article, and the raw transcripts of both the Blindfold Test and our subsequent conversation.

* * *

Martial Solal (Jason Edit):

On New Year’s Eve in Orvieto, Italy, Martial Solal, having just arrived in town, sat with his wife at a center table in the second-floor banquet room of Ristorante San Francisco, where a raucous cohort of musicians, personnel and guests of the Umbria Jazz Winter festival were eating, drinking and making merry. Solal quietly sipped mineral water and nibbled on his food. “It is difficult to dine here,” Solal said with a shrug, before departing to get his rest.

It seemed that the 81-year-old pianist would need it: His itinerary called for concerts on each of the first three days of 2009: a duo with Italian pianist Stefano Bollani, a solo recital and a duo with vibraphonist Joe Locke. On the duo encounters, Solal opted for dialogue, accommodating the personalities of the younger musicians. With Locke, who played torrents of notes, he comped and soloed sparingly but tellingly, switching at one point from a rubato meditation into Harlem stride, before a transition to another rhythmic figure. It was his fifth encounter with Bollani, who is apt to launch a musical joke at any moment, and Solal played along, indulging the younger artist in a round of “musical piano benches,” riposting with mischievous jokes of his own.

“Martial is humane,” Bollani said a few days later. “He could be my grandfather, but one good thing about jazz is that you do not feel the age difference. His humor is more snobbish, serious, French—or British. I always thought of him as a sort of Buster Keaton. His face tells you nothing, but the hands are doing something funny.

“We decided to improvise freely,” Bollani continued. “He always does something you don’t expect. But it’s easy for me to follow immediately an idea that he starts, not only because he’s a master, but I love the way he plays. He is the only piano player in the world who has no Bill Evans influence, and he has a huge knowledge of all the stride piano players—Art Tatum first of all, but also Teddy Wilson or Willie ‘the Lion’ Smith. But he doesn’t play them as a quotation. He plays thinking as Art Tatum was thinking, but in a modern way.”

In Orvieto, Solal clarified that he continues to acknowledge no technical limits in navigating the piano, playing with undiminished authority on the solo concert, as he does on the new Live At The Village Vanguard (Cam Jazz), recorded during an October 2007 engagement. He does not rely on patterns, but uses tabula rasa improvisation as a first principle, elaborating on the vocabulary of his predecessors—in addition to Tatum and Wilson, they include Earl Hines, Erroll Garner, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, not to mention Ravel and Debussy. He addresses forms as a soliloquizing philosopher plays with ideas; within the flow, you can hear him contemplate the possibilities of a single note, what happens when he transposes a line into a different octave, the relationship of an interval to a rhythmic structure. He deploys the songs played by his American antecedents as the raw materials to tell his stories, their content burnished by encyclopedic harmonic erudition, a lexicon of extended techniques and a multi-perspective sensibility not unlike that of a Cubist painter.

“It was incredible,” said pianist Helio Alves, in Orvieto for the week with Duduka Da Fonseca’s Samba Jazz Sextet. “He sat and played, as though he didn’t think about anything, but it was as though he’d written out everything in his head, so well-put-together and arranged, so much information. [His technique is incredible.] He’s an advanced classical player; he sounded like all the jazz players plus all the 20th-century composers. You could hear Bartók, Debussy—everything.”

Solal had expressed mild concern about how he would fare in fulfilling his other Orvieto obligation, a public “Blindfold Test” prior to the solo concert. “I will recognize nothing,” he said, adding that it might be difficult for him to state his opinions in English to an Italian audience. I assured him that a translator would be present, and that the point of the exercise was less correct identification of the musicians than responses that elaborated his esthetic. “I will come up with something,” he said.

As the event transpired at a time when no other concerts conflicted, many of the musicians performing at the festival were among the full house at Sala dei Quattrocento, an upstairs performance space in Palazzo del Popolo, a 13th century structure that served eight centuries ago as Orvieto’s meeting hall.

The leadoff track was “Where Are You,” a standard that Solal has recorded, performed by Ahmad Jamal (In Search Of, Dreyfus, 2002), who, like Solal, conceptualizes the piano as a virtual orchestra. Within two minutes, Solal made a dismissive “turn it off” gesture.

“I don’t know who is playing, and it’s not so important,” he said. “I had the feeling it is someone who played the piano well in the past, 20 years ago maybe, and stopped practicing since. He is trying to do things that he has in his mind, but his fingers can’t play it as he did before.”

Told it was Jamal, he elaborated. “He played beautifully 40 years ago. Each time I met him, I knew he did not practice. So he has the same story to tell, but he can’t express it. I must add that he is still a marvelous stylist. I always admire people who have a personal way to express music, and he is one of them. Now, this happens to many pianists who are getting old. They stop practicing at home—except me. For instance, maybe 40 years ago, I heard Earl Hines, who was a great pianist, and he couldn’t play any more. I was crying. They should do like me. Practice every morning. Except today.”

Solal likes to play both Duke Ellington’s songs and “Body And Soul,” so it seemed a good idea to offer Ellington’s trio meditation on the Johnny Green classic (Piano In The Foreground, Columbia, 1961).

“There is a TV channel called Euro News, and they have a wordless sequence called ‘No Comment,’” Solal stated after 90 seconds. “That’s what I would say about this record. It can be about 1,245 different pianists, but none I can name. I’m afraid now.”

Told it was Ellington, he said, “I still have no comment. I love Duke Ellington, but not this. This record was probably a Sunday morning before he shaved. I never heard Ellington like this, as a soloist. I’m surprised. I know that in America it’s normal to say, ‘This one is marvelous, that one is terrific’—everybody is beautiful. But in Europe we have the right to say, ‘I love Ellington, but this record is no good.’

Solal looked at me. “I think this gentleman hates me,” he said, “because he played for me two records by people I love, but not their better record.”

Since Solal continues to play duo with Lee Konitz, a partner in different contexts since they met in 1965, it seemed imperative to play him a collaboration of Konitz with Lennie Tristano—an energetic quintet version of Konitz’s “Subconscious-Lee” from a televised date from the Half Note in 1964, with Warne Marsh sharing the front line (Continuity, Jazz Records, 1964). It was an ill-advised selection.

“The drummer plays a little loud,” Solal said. “Is that Lee Konitz? It’s probably an old record. He played excellently then, but today he plays better—differently. I don’t know who the piano player was. European, French, American, Italian…”

“Italian-American.”

“So it’s not Cecil Taylor. It’s not Art Tatum. I have a long list of who they are not. Because of the noise of the rhythm section it’s difficult to judge the pianist. But this is not a record that I am going to buy when I go out.”

Told it was Tristano, Solal was not pleased. “You chose exactly the record where they are not at their top. I hope when you choose one of mine one day, you will ask me before. Lennie Tristano is one of the greatest stylists of the piano also. The four pianists you chose are each in their category alone, I could say. They are so themselves that you should recognize it on the first note. But I’m no good!”

Next up was Hank Jones performing Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight” (Bop Redux, Muse, 1978), another staple of Solal’s repertoire. “I know the melody—but I don’t know the words,” Solal joked. “When I first arrived in New York, they told me that in New York there were 8,000 piano players. This makes the exercise difficult. I am not sure if this is a pianist from New York.” He paused. “By the way, I wish that you would make me hear some non-American musicians, because they exist, too.”

The crowd applauded vigorously.

“No, I am not a political man,” Solal added. “But maybe this is one of them. It’s not Monk himself playing this. He has too much technique for Monk. He has not enough technique for Tatum. He is somewhere in the middle of different influences. There are so many excellent pianists in New York.”

It was time to showcase French pianist Jean-Michel Pilc romping through Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser” in kaleidoscopic fashion (New Dreams, Dreyfus, 2006).

“I’m sure I know him, but I can’t find the name,” Solal said. “I like the energy—the sense of jazz and energy and good feeling.”

Afterward, he said, “I almost thought Jean-Michel. He is too good to be French. This is the best record I’ve heard yet. This pianist is crazy, and that’s what I like in music—but with a good sense of jazz and feeling. I am happy this is Jean-Michel, because I like him. I like Duke Ellington, too. But as a pianist, Pilc is above.”

Solal has frequently played Dizzy Gillespie’s classic “A Night in Tunisia,” so next up was McCoy Tyner’s solo version (Jazz Roots, Telarc, 2000). Solal could not identify him. “I was thinking of Michel Petrucciani, but I don’t know. There are some good ideas and then mistakes in the approach, the way he approaches the piano.”

After the track ended he said, “I like McCoy Tyner, too. But he is better with his trio than alone. Almost every piano player in jazz wants to play alone, and it’s a difficult exercise. McCoy played a lot of concerts as a soloist, and sometimes it is fantastic when he is detaché, and sometimes he makes stupid … I mean, things not as good or interesting.”

Between 1957 and 1963, Solal, who held a long sinecure as house pianist at Club Saint-Germain in Paris, often played opposite Bud Powell. The next track was Powell’s third take of “Tea For Two” on a 1950 trio date with Ray Brown and Buddy Rich for Norman Granz. It is often regarded as Powell’s homage to Tatum, Solal’s other pianistic hero, who had recorded his own unparalleled inventions on the line a generation before.

“Is it Bud Powell?” he asked. “It is easy to recognize him, because he has almost one way to play. He was influenced by my favorite musician, Charlie Parker.”

Asked whether he came to know Powell well during their mutual proximity, Solal said, “Many nights he was asking me, ‘Bring me a beer, please.’ That’s about the conversation I had with him. When he came to Paris, he was already in bad shape. But I judge him on what he did before he came to Paris. He had a fantastic way to play chords, strongly and on the 10 fingers.”

Solal reached a crossroads in 1963, the last of his dozen years at Club Saint-Germain, which hired him one year after he moved from Algiers, Algeria, his hometown. He arrived at 22, a few months after Parker hit town for a jazz festival whose other participants included Miles Davis, Tadd Dameron and Sidney Bechet.

“Many people were playing like Bird then,” Solal recalled, referencing gigs with James Moody, who lived in Paris until 1953, and jam sessions with Gillespie. “Bebop is where it started with me and jazz. I listened deeply to Bud, but early I understood that to become unique, you can’t listen and copy. I had masters in my mind, but I wanted to know everyone and forget them, so I could turn my back and start to be myself.”

That Solal fully established his tonal personality during these years is evident on a pair of mid-’50s recordings for French Vogue—a crisp 1954 trio date with bassist Joe Benjamin and drummer Roy Haynes, and a 1956 solo recital on which he finds a way to synthesize the language of Tatum and Powell into his own argot. With his post-1957 rhythm section of drummer Kenny Clarke and bassist Pierre Michelot, he interacted with the likes of Konitz, Bechet, Don Byas, Lucky Thompson and, as Solal put it, “almost every musician, mostly American, coming on tour in Europe, who came to sit in with us.”
In this context, Solal found his identity outside of bebop, as “a child of middle jazz.” Ellington and Oscar Peterson heard him, and told Newport Jazz Festival impresario George Wein, who invited him to the 1963 edition. Solal crossed the Atlantic for the gig, then—booked by Joe Glaser, Louis Armstrong’s manager—settled into an extended gig at Manhattan’s Hickory House with bassist Teddy Kotick and drummer Paul Motian.

“Glaser wanted me to stay, and life became easy,” Solal said. “My first week in New York, I had my cabaret card, my union card. I had a personal problem, or I would have stayed. I would have become American. But I did the wrong thing. I left after four months. I promised to come back the next November. He had a contract with Japan, and then London House in Chicago. But I never showed up. He was angry. It was a mistake. Next year he called me again to go to Monterey Jazz Festival, and then I came maybe 12 or 15 times, but over 40 years.”

Over the years, Solal had developed his skills as a composer, recording a number of projects for Vogue, and in 1959 he was asked to write the score for Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (A Bout De Souffle), a film that had as radical an impact on cinema as Ornette Coleman’s Atlantic recordings of that same year had on jazz. Resigned to the fact that he would live in Europe, Solal continued scoring films until “the cinema didn’t call me any more. Jazz was finished. They were more interested in rock and songs and pop music.” Solal continued to gig as well, flirting with the freedom principle on a few occasions, but never moving too far away from his roots in “middle jazz.” Still, he remarked, “a child will grow disobedient.”

“From the beginning, jazz for me was American,” Solal maintained. “Even if in Europe now, they say there is a European jazz, this is not the point. I want to play jazz from the original, but with my conception; my ideas can be different, but I don’t want to turn my back to jazz. I am interested in harmony above everything. Harmony changed the sense of the line. The same line with different chords is not the same line any more.”

In cinema, Godard loved to make use of the jump-cut, a visual analogy to Solal’s penchant for making instant transitions in a piece. Or the notion of montage might apply to the way Solal, in an improvisation, references and plays with five or six different themes. But Solal did not incorporate cinema or other media into his musical aesthetic.

“Nothing could influence me,” Solal responded. “I was 32 when I did Bout De Souffle. It was a little late to have a new mind. We are influenced by everything around us. I get everything in my mind, and often I don’t know how I translate it.

“My wife is a painter, and I am interested in painting,” he continued. “But when I see a Renoir or a Rembrandt, I can’t say I am going to do this in music. I like some painters of this period, but I don’t like painting that’s very abstract. Like in my music, I like a mixture of modern and traditional. I don’t like art that forgets everything that happened before. When free-jazz came, I was not against free-jazz. I understood that the movement was necessary. But the best way is to use everything that exists. I have been interested in contemporary music for years, and I’ve played with different contemporary composers. But the past is necessary for the future.

The record by Bud Powell you played yesterday, when was it made?” Solal asked. “I have a record where he plays much stronger than that. I like to judge anyone on what he can do the best.”

Solal still works hard to meet that standard. “As a pianist he has no limits,” said Dado Moroni, the Italian pianist who played in Orvieto with Locke’s quartet. “He treats it like an athlete in training—to be in shape, you have to practice. That’s what he does. You can hear it in his touch, the clarity with which he executes his ideas.”

“Like every honest pianist,” Solal responded to Moroni’s observation, “not more. But if you want to be honest with the audience, you have to present yourself in the best possible condition.”

In describing the particulars of his regimen, Solal illuminated the world view that differentiates his tonal personality from such antecedents as Monk and Powell, who, according to testimony from Barry Harris and Walter Davis, Jr., practiced by immersing themselves in one song exhaustively over a six-to-eight-hour span.

“I never play a tune at home,” Solal said. “I should have done it maybe. If I play five choruses on ‘Stella By Starlight,’ I have enough for the day. I want to keep fresh for a concert. Everything has to be spontaneous.

“I must practice a minimum of 45 minutes, or I can’t play right,” he continued. “I practiced four or five hours a day when it was time to do it, between my 50s and 70. At home, I practice stupidly, like a student, to get my muscles in good shape. I play an exercise with the left hand and I improvise in the right hand. These things don’t go together. It’s a different key, different tempo. Half of me is playing the exercise, half of me is playing anything. That’s the way to independence of both hands.”

Solal pointed to his temple. “But the music is here,” he said. “I don’t want to lose anything, but I don’t want to improve again.”

The mention of Monk led to a discussion on technique. “Monk never lost technique,” Solal said. “He never had technique. If Monk one Monday morning woke up, went to the piano and played like Tatum, there is not Monk any more. He had his sound because of the lack of technique. So the lack of technique is not automatically bad. But to lose the technique is bad, because when you lose technique, you still play what you have in your mind. You will play the same thing, but you miss two notes of every three.

“But I have been influenced by Monk. The way he thinks about the music, not note-by-note, but the way he was free about certain rules of the music interested me a lot. I love anyone who has personality, a strong style, le passion d’etre.”

It’s complex to operate by “pure art” imperatives, as Solal does, and also sustain a career. He gives the audience familiar songs. “There is maybe too much information in my music for the audience,” Solal said. “If you want to love it, you should listen to one or two tunes at one time, then two tunes the day after. Some years ago, I was playing freely, no standards, and the public was not with me. I love standards, and also I want to prove that if you have enough imagination, you can make them new every day. I’m never tired of ‘Body And Soul’ and ‘Round Midnight,’ because you can put all the music in the history of music in it.

“That’s how it is in my trio,” he continued, referring to his unit with the Parisian twins Francois and Louis Moutin on bass and drums, respectively. “I can go anywhere, and I know that they will try to go in the same direction. Nothing is decided, except the melody we’ll use. We can stop, we can slow down, we can change key. Everything can happen with them.”

When Solal said “everything,” he meant it. “Including contemporary ideas, or conceptions of Stravinsky or Bartók, our greatest composers, is not a bad thing for jazz,” he said. “Jazz should include everything. But we must never forget the essential of jazz, which is a way to express the note, a conception of rhythm.

“I don’t wish for anything anymore—just to continue as long as possible. When I can’t move my fingers normally, I will stop. I would be too unhappy.”

* * *

Ahmad Jamal, “Where Are You” (from IN SEARCH OF, Dreyfuss, 2002) (Jamal, piano; James Cammack, bass; Idris Muhammad, drums

first of all, I must say that my French is excellent, my English is poor, and my Italian is awful, so I will try a little English—maybe you will understand it better. I hope so. In any case this gentleman in the red shirt will. As for this record, I really don’t know who is playing, and it’s not so important. What I can say, I had the feeling it is someone who had played well the piano in the past years, twenty years ago maybe, and he stopped practicing since. I mean, he is trying to do things that he has in his mind, but his fingers can’t play it as he did before. I don’t know. That’s my first answer. Now, to give a name to this, I can’t. But maybe this gentleman will help me.  I was going to tell it [Ahmad Jamal], but it’s exactly what I think. He played beautifully from 40 years ago. Each time I met him, I knew he did not practice. So he has the same story to tell, but he can’t express it. I guess he’s getting old. But I must add that he is still a marvelous stylist. I always admire people who have a personal way to express music, and he is one of them. Now, this happens to many pianist who are getting old. They stop practicing at home—except me, I mean. For instance, some maybe forty years ago or fifty years ago, I don’t know, when I was little like this, I heard Earl Hines. Earl Hines was a great pianist, and he was playing in Antibes Joan Les Pins, and I couldn’t believe it was… He couldn’t play any more. I was crying. So they should do like me. Practice every morning. Except today.

Duke Ellington, “Body and Soul” (from PIANO IN THE FOREGROUND, Columbia, 1961/2004) (Ellington, piano; Aaron Bell, bass; Sam Woodyard, drums)

[AFTER 1½ MINUTES] All right. There is a TV channel (I don’t know if you can catch it in Italy) which is called Euro News, and they have sequences with no words—they call it “No Comment.” That’s exactly what I would say about this record. I have nothing to say. No comment.  I really don’t know who it can be. It can be about twelve hundred and forty-five different pianists, but no one which I have a name. Who was it? I’m afraid now. [It was Duke Ellington. An album called Piano in the Foreground, and he played many standards on it.] I still have no comment. I love Duke Ellington, as everyone here I guess, but not this… This record was probably a Sunday morning before he shaved. I don’t know. [But you know, you can love someone and don’t like him one day or one minute. On this record, I don’t recognize him.  [TP: May I ask you when you first listened to Duke Ellington?] Well, I don’t know. Probably 29th of August, 1940, at 12. No, to be honest, I discovered Duke Ellington late in my life, probably when I was already 25 or more. But I never heard him like this, as a soloist. Honestly, I’m very surprised at what I heard. I know that in America it’s normal to say, “Oh, this one is marvelous, this one is excellent, that one is terrific”—everybody is beautiful. But I think in Europe we have the right to say, “I love Ellington, but this record is no good.” [SOAVE] I have another story about Duke Ellington. When I first met him in person, it was in New York in 1963. He came to the club in which I was playing, and after the set he comes to me and says, “Man, you are awful.” [owful] So I didn’t know exactly the sense of “awful” because in English you can say “awful”-good or “awful”-bad. So for one or two minutes, I was like this. So a friend of mine said “awful” meant “good.” I think this gentleman hates me, because he played for me already two records by people I love, but not their better record.

Chick Corea, “It Could Happen To You” (#8) (from SOLO PIANO: STANDARDS Stretch, 2000) (Corea, piano)

[AFTER 4 MINUTES] I am quite sure I am going to have zero again at this. For me, it could be a mixture of different people. I heard some Art Tatum things, I heard some Oscar Peterson, I heard a few bars of Bill Evans once in a while, but the ensemble I couldn’t be quite sure. I liked the performance. When it immediately started, I thought this is a good pianist. But I don’t know who it is. [[TP: It was Chick Corea.] If you don’t know the record you can’t find it. Because we can hear different influences—the ones I mentioned for sure. I have one record of him, only one, and not that one, so I couldn’t tell. I must say also that I am not listening to many records. I have at home hundreds of records, not yet opened. [Chick Corea, as Ahmad Jamal and Duke, is a wonderful musician. How can you say anything about them? But I have some feelings that I am here to express. [Also, Chick Corea can be quite himself. But in this record, I felt many influences.

Lennie Tristano, “Sub-Consciouslee” (from CONTINUITY, Jazz Records , 1964) (Tristano, piano, composer)

I don’t know the name of the drummer, but he plays a little loud for me. I’m not sure about Lee Konitz. Is that him? But it’s probably an old record. [TP: It’s an location recording, in a club.] From when? [1964] That’s what I said, “old.” He plays better today, differently. He played excellent already, of course, but now he’s become better. The sound is… Anyway, I don’t know who he was playing with, the piano player—I can’t give a name. A European, French, American, Italian… [Italian-American] Well, I have nothing against Italians. No, to the contrary, there are a lot of beautiful musicians in this country. [No, he was American.] Italian-American. So it’s not Cecil Taylor. It’s not Art Tatum. I have a long list of who they are not. [Did you like the pianist?] I’m not sure, really, because of the noise of the rhythm section it’s difficult to judge. But this is not a record that I am going to buy when I go out. [SOAVE] So? [Lennie Tristano] I think you chose exactly the record where they are not at their top. I think. I hope when you will choose one of mine one day, you will ask me before. Lennie Tristano is one of the greatest stylists of the piano also. The four pianists you choose are each in their category alone, I could say. They are so themselves that you should recognize it on the first note. But I tell you, I’m no good. [SOAVE] Who was the drummer, by the way? [Nick Stabulas] I don’t know him. [He played in the ‘50s with Phil Woods, with Konitz...] I think that probably was the time when drummers started to change the way they play. There was a time in the ‘60s when drums was not any more a rhythm section, but something more. On this record, they are something more. On this record, with this sound, I had the feeling that the drummer wanted to be more than a drummer, considering the time…the ‘60s. [SOAVE]

Hank Jones, “Round Midnight” (from BOP REDUX, Muse, 1978) (Jones, piano; George Duvivier, bass; Ben Riley, drums)

[AFTER 3 MINUTES] I know the melody. But I don’t know the words. Once more… When I first went to New York, when I arrived there, they told me that in New York there was 8,000 piano players. [SOAVE] So this makes the exercise very difficult. I am not sure if this is a pianist from New York. By the way, I wish that you would make me hear some musicians non-American, because they exist, too. [SOAVE] [APPLAUSE] No, I am not a political man. But maybe this one is one of them. Really, I have no idea. He is good. Of course. I am not sure until what point he is good. “Good” means nothing. “Hello, how are you?” That means nothing. “Good” is nothing. Excellent, the best, awful good, awful bad… Nuance. So about this one, I don’t know. It’s not Monk himself playing this. He has too much technique for Monk. He has not enough technique for Tatum. He is somewhere in the middle of different influences. I don’t know. In New York, there are so many excellent pianists. In America. In Europe also, but more in the States. So it could be…I could make a list—Paul Bley or… I know it’s not Bill Evans, for instance. It’s not Teddy Wilson. It’s not me. [Hank Jones] Ah, Hank Jones. Yeah, why not? Don’t tell anyone, but I maybe play with him as a duet next summer. I will be the youngest of the two. Hank Jones is 90 years old today, and he is still fantastic.

Jean-Michel Pilc, “Straight, No Chaser” (from NEW DREAMS, Dreyfus, 2006) (Pilc, piano; Thomas Bramerie, bass; Ari Hoenig, drums)

I’m sure I know him, but I can’t find the name. Anyway, I like the energy, the mise en place. The sense of jazz and energy and good feeling. But I don’t know. I couldn’t give a name yet. I’ll give it to you in five minutes. [Jean-Michel Pilc] I almost thought Jean-Michel… He is too good to be French, in my opinion. To me, until now…this is the best record I heard until now. This pianist is quite crazy. That’s what I like in music—sort of crazy. But with a good sense of jazz and feeling… [SOAVE] In one minute I am going to telephone him.  I am very happy this is Jean-Michel, because I like him. I like Duke Ellington, too. But as a pianist, Pilc is above. Has Jean Jean-Michel Pilc played in Orvieto yet? Then you should call him immediately. Do it now because he is not too expensive yet.

McCoy Tyner, “Night In Tunisia” (from JAZZ ROOTS, Telarc, 2000) (Tyner, piano; Dizzy Gillespie, composer)

I’m sorry I don’t know him. Once more. I had many names in my head, but to say one name is… I was thinking of Petrucciani for one minute. It’s not him. I don’t know. I really don’t know. Different names, but I’m sure it’s all wrong. [SOAVE] And the winner is? [TP: How did you like the performance?] well, there are some good sections and some mistakes in different sections. I mean, good ideas and then mistakes in the approach, the way they approach the piano. Sometimes he tried, sometimes too heavy… Well, it’s not excellent all the way along, but it’s good, of course. A good pianist. [McCoy Tyner] Well, I like McCoy Tyner, too. But I meant what I said. He is better with his trio than alone. Since a few years, almost every piano player in jazz wants to play alone, without the rhythm section, and it’s a very difficult exercise. McCoy played a lot of concerts as a soloist, and so many of them on TV, and I feel sometimes it is fantastic when he is detacheé, and sometimes he makes stupid…I mean, things not as good or interesting. There are too many differences between the bad and the good. But he is still one of the stylists. And I repeat, I like only musicians who have a personal way.

Bud Powell, “Tea for Two (Take 3)” (from THE GENIUS OF BUD POWELL, Verve, 1950/1988) (Powell, piano; Ray Brown, bass; Buddy Rich, drums)

Well, maybe I’ll have one point. Is it Bud Powell? Ah! Thank you. It is very easy to recognize him, because I would say he has almost one way to play. He always played his phrases the way he expressed… It’s very easy to find. It could be a compliment or the contrary, but in my mind, it’s really a compliment. He himself was very much influenced by my favorite musician, who was Charlie Parker. Bud Powell is excellente, of course. [SOAVE] [Bud Powell lived in Paris for many years. Did you get to know him?] Yes. Many nights he was asking me, “Bring me a beer, please.” That’s about the conversation I had with him. [SOAVE] When he came to Paris, he was already in bad shape, and he was drinking too much, of course. He had his wife behind him, but he was drinking beer and beer and beer. But I judge him on what he did before he came to Paris, and the first record was fantastic. [Did you listen to these records when they came out?] I have one of this that’s an earlier record. He has a fantastic way to play chords, so strongly and on the ten fingers together.

Jacky Terrason, “Parisian Thoroughfare” (from SMILE, Blue Note, 2002) (Terrason, piano; Sean Smith, bass; Eric Harland, drums; Bud Powell, composer)

I would say Brad Mehldau. No? He has a lot of things in common with him. Who can play like that? I don’t know. He’s a young pianist, though. Immediately after the melody, he started with something very, very interesting for a few bars. [SOAVE] Rhythmically it’s very interesting. I don’t know. Do you know it? Ah, Jacky Terrason. Jacky can be very good, too. [TP: You asked for non-Americans.] I am happy for you. You know how to choose a pianist without considering their nationality. But I must say that, as well as Jacky Terrason, Jean-Michel Pilc…they live in America. I am very glad to hear Jacky playing that way. I like him much better with a trio than a solo. I told you before, the solo is very difficult. Except for a very few, I think something is missing in their left hand.

* * *

Martial Solal (Jan 3, 2009–Orvieto):

TP:   Can we speak about things you’re doing now, what your professional activity is like. Is it somewhat like this weekend? You come to places and do solos, duos? Are you working within all the different areas you’ve done over the years.

SOLAL:   Well, the answer is very simple. I did what I did for all my life, trying to play different organization of concerts. Most of my concerts in the last few years are alone—solo concerts. But I still love to play with somebody else, of course, and mostly with my trio, and sometimes with people like Joe today, or Lee Konitz, who I played with many times this last year. Once in a while I write music, as I always did. My next record will be in March with a guitar player, Bireli Lagrene. We’re going to make a duo record, followed by some concerts in the year. That’s about all.

TP:   Do you still do orchestral projects? Write music for ensembles?

SOLAL:   Oh, you mean large orchestra?

TP:   Large ensembles of whatever size.

SOLAL:   well, not at the moment. I have a lot of music written already, which I record or not. But there is no project. My dream would be to play very often with a very large orchestra. The biggest orchestra I had under my hand was the National Orchestra of Radio France, plus my big band, which was a real nice combination. But the bigger the band is, the more difficult it is to make the things together. When we have a trio already, it is difficult to make a rehearsal. Imagine for 120 musicians! So it’s not what I have in projects for the next month at least. But who knows? For my next project, this is duet, guitar and piano, which I have never done before.

TP:   On your duo with Toots Thielemans, did he play guitar or harmonica?

SOLAL:   True, and I did a guitar with guitar and piano a long time ago, with Jimmy Raney. It was a nice meeting in Paris when we did that. I don’t know. I did everything, so I don’t wish anything more. Just continue as long as possible.

TP:   So whatever comes along, you’re prepared for it and… When you’re playing solo piano… You spoke about wanting an orchestra. You have such an orchestral approach to the piano, as though the piano itself were an orchestra, and you’re extracting all the sounds and colors. Is your conception of solo piano an orchestral conception?

SOLAL:   Well, in a way, yes. I think if I never had written music for big band, I would play differently on the piano. When I play alone, I am like an orchestra. In some phrases, to my mind, are for trumpet. Some should be played by saxophones. I am thinking like this. But not in details, but the concept is this. Music should be including everything. I play like if I was writing.

TP:   Around what time of your life did you start writing projects for bands that were larger than combos? I know there are things from the mid ‘50s on Vogue records.

SOLAL:   Yeah. That’s about the beginning. Well, a little earlier, I was playing in a sort of varieties band. We played different kinds of music. And once in a while, the bandleader let me write a piece for the band, so I learned that way, by myself. I never had a teacher to write music. So I lose some years just by trying and trying, and the first Vogue record, at that time I was ready to write. But before this, I tried and tried and tried.

TP:   Did you start writing before you moved to Paris, or were you still in Algiers?

SOLAL:   No-no, in Paris. In Algiers I didn’t do anything but play piano.

TP:   May I take you back a bit and ask you about your early years.

SOLAL:   Yes. But you know, I just wrote a book in which the whole beginning of my life is… Maybe I could send it to you. It’s in French, but maybe you can find somebody to…

TP:   I just have a few questions, and of course I can mention the book.

SOLAL:   Let me have your address, so I’ll mail you the book. The first part is my enfance…

TP:   Youth or adolescence… Let me see if I’m right in what I know about your background. Your parents were French, both of them…

SOLAL:   Yes.

TP:   …who lived in Algiers. Your mother sang opera?

SOLAL:   Singer. Yes.

TP:   What did your father do?

SOLAL:   Accountant.

TP:   And you’re half-Jewish?

SOLAL:   Whole.

TP: Both parents are Jewish.

SOLAL:   Sure.

TP:   And your mother taught you to play piano?

SOLAL:   Well, I think I decided myself. We had a piano at home… This is in the book. You will see it, too. But as soon as I could reach the keyboard, I was trying like this, repeating the music I was hearing, the melodies and things. Then I said, “I should have a teacher,” so they gave me a teacher.

TP:   You were studying classical music, and then you heard jazz. You were hearing Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller…

SOLAL:   Yeah, that’s much later. For ten years, I was just playing like a child, learning piano. Then I discover music… It will be easier if I send you the book. Everything will be detailed.

TP:   I understand. My question is how you found jazz. Who was playing you those records?

SOLAL:   That’s simple. With my parents, every Sunday we were going to a brasserie, a sort of café with music, with a band, and in this place was the only good musician in the city. He gave himself an American name, by the way. He called himself Lucky Starwea(?). When I heard him playing not jazz, but songs which everybody knew, with different notes…a little different, which to me gave the sense of freedom, a new possibility to change some notes of the famous melodies. So for me, it was something and I was very interested. I went to him, and said, “What are you doing? I would like to learn with you.” So he became my teacher, and maybe two years after I became his pianist, the piano player in his band. So he teach me what he could teach. What he had in his mind was records of… He was a saxophone player, first of all. Was Ben Webster, mostly Coleman Hawkins, and some records of Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson, and so-and-so. So with this side, I started to be interested in jazz.

TP:   Did people like Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter ever make it to Algiers when they lived in Europe in the ‘30s?

SOLAL:   No. Only one came while I was still there—Don Byas.

TP:   That was after the war.

SOLAL:   No, I don’t think so…

TP:   He came with the Don Redman Band after the war, in ‘46…

SOLAL:   Maybe right after the war. Or, in Algiers, the war for us was finished in ‘42, when the Americans and English landed there. So for us, it was something like the end of the war. So I don’t know when Don Byas, in ‘42 or ‘45. But around then.

TP:   But then you played with Don Byas… Oh, it was later.

SOLAL:   In Paris.

TP:   One other question about Algiers. Were you at all in touch with the Arab population, with the African aspect of culture in Algiers, or were you separated from it?

SOLAL:   Not much. Well, everybody was more friendly. There was no animosité…

BARBARA:   No antagonism.

SOLAL:   No antagonism.

BARBARA: Living separate.

SOLAL:   Each stayed in his corner, you see.

TP:   But I’m wondering if you were exposed at all to the culture? It was a colonial setting, which sometimes could be more like the homeland than the homeland, and sometimes people who grow up in those environments assimilate the native culture. I’m wondering if that happened to you as a young person in Algeria.

SOLAL:   I can’t say that. Because we have only one radio station. On this radio station was playing only songs, and once in a while a classical concert. Of course, I could hear some local music also, but it didn’t go in my mind, because I was not interested. From the beginning, I always liked classical music and jazz, and I am very sectaire…

BARBARA:   Strict.

SOLAL:   I won’t say, like, every music is good, every music is nice. No, to me, only two musics are interesting—classical and jazz. The rest goes here, it comes out here.

TP:   Who were the first classical composers that you played?

SOLAL:   Well, the one my teachers learned to me, the very first…maybe Bach or Chopin. But the moderne…my teacher didn’t know it, like Ravel, Debussy, and Stravinsky. This I learned by myself after. But from my teacher I just learned general music, mostly by Chopin, Bach, Mozart of course.

TP:   were you also interested in twelve-tone, Schoenberg…

SOLAL:   I was interested in this, but much later. At this time, nobody knew what it was. There, I mean. Oh my English is… Yesterday, I was much better than today, I guess.

TP:   Did you have piano heroes? When you were learning jazz, did you assimilate styles? I know you listened to Art Tatum, Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson. Did you try to play like them, or was it a different process?

SOLAL:   I don’t know exactly how I get to a certain personal way. But I had many influences when I was very young. The main influence was first Teddy Wilson and Fats Waller. Much later, I discovered Art Tatum, and I didn’t know Bud Powell at all—I discovered him when I was in Paris. The big discovery for me was the music of Charlie Parker, which I understood was a complete change in the atmosphere of jazz music. I am sure this is really a turn in my…

BARBARA:   A big turn, a big change.

SOLAL:   Of course, I started to like and be influenced by him, Bud Powell, and some others. But this was in the early ‘50s. I couldn’t spend my life by playing like these people. I was not the one who listened, who liked to listen and copy, listen and copy. I just wanted to know everyone and forget them, the most I could. So little by little, I started to be different, and different experiences with a lot of people…

TP:   I guess Charlie Parker got to Paris the year before you got there…

SOLAL:   Yes.

TP:   He got there in ‘49.

SOLAL:   Yes. I was not there yet.

TP:   But he made an impact. When you got there, I guess many people were talking about him.

SOLAL:   We had records. And many people were playing like him. For instance, I played sometimes with James Moody in the early ‘50s, who was more or less influenced by Parker. And I had the opportunity to play jam sessions with a lot of musicians, like Dizzy Gillespie, whom I played some concerts with, and other people coming from the new bebop way. That’s where it really started with me and jazz.

TP:   So you developed your vocabulary more through playing it than through listening to Bud Powell’s records and hearing…

SOLAL:   Well, for six months I had been trying to listen to Bud! But very early I understood that to become unique, you can’t copy too many people. You must have masters. I had masters in my mind. But I did what I could do to turn my back on them and start to be myself.

TP:   I just listened before coming over to two records you did in the ‘50s. One was the four trio sides with Joe Benjamin and Roy Haynes, which I guess Sarah Vaughan must have been in town, and they… [HE NODS], The second was your great solo record in ‘56, which, if you’ll allow me to compliment you, is amazing. You sound like no one else.

SOLAL: Yes. But to be honest, I think I was not ready to make a solo record in ‘56, but I did it because there was a lot of courager… At that time, in 1956, nobody was playing a lot in solo.

TP:   That year, Hank Jones did a solo record and George Shearing did one, and I prefer yours, because you take the language of Tatum and Bud Powell on its own terms and then do something with it. You really rise to the challenge. I’m glad I didn’t give it to you on the Blindfold Test, because you probably would have criticized it.

SOLAL:   [BARBARA TRANSLATES] [LAUGHS] I don’t know. I think I could recognize me. Even if I don’t listen to my records.

TP:   But does the way you play on those accurately reflect the way you were playing during the ‘50s?

SOLAL:   It was the beginning of something, yes. Well, from the beginning, I never wanted to be away from American jazz. For me, jazz was American jazz. Even if in Europe now, they say there is a European jazz, to me this is not the point. I want to play the jazz from the original, but with my conception, with my ideas which can be different—but I don’t want to turn my back to jazz. For me, jazz is important. The time is important. To play on the chords is important, because I am interested in harmony maybe more than… Above everything, harmony to me is important. I know some excellent musicians who play beautiful lines, but for them the harmony is not so important. For me it’s before everything, harmony. Why? Because harmony changed the sense of the line. The same line with different chords is not the same line any more. That’s very important.

TP:   At what point did you stop assimilating influences?  In other words, in the latter ‘50s were you listening to Bill Evans or to Ahmad Jamal, or to McCoy Tyner in the ‘60s, or people like this? Or were you on your way to creating your own path and not absorbing them into your style?

SOLAL:   [BARBARA TRANSLATES] I think I stopped the influences very early, from the early ‘50s. But who knows who influenced who? I can influence someone who don’t know me. For instance, someone who listened to me will give him something. But the main influence for me, as you will read in the book, is… [HESITATES, THEN BARBARA SAYS “Teddy Wilson.”] Teddy Wilson. Sorry, Teddy Wilson. But you know what? When I first played in New York, in the Hickory House, which was a bar, in front of me was Teddy Wilson. So we became sort of friends for a while.

TP:   I’m going to go there in a minute, because it seems that 1963 and 1964 were very important years for you. Before that, though, I’d like to ask about some of the people you played with in Paris and some of the recordings you did. First Kenny Clarke. You played a lot with him.

SOLAL:   I played years with him. Every night.

TP:   That must have done wonders for your rhythmic feeling.

SOLAL:   Yeah. Kenny helped me a lot with his very strict timing. That was important at that time. From the ‘50s, through ‘63, I played twelve years in a club, every night. Can you imagine? Almost every night. So I was playing with every musician (most of them were American, of course) coming on tour in Europe, and all of them were coming to sit in with us.

TP:   Was it always Club St. Germain?

SOLAL:   Club St. Germain, yes.

TP:   What was it like there? Was the piano any good?

SOLAL:   Yes, there was a long piano. It was very rare in a club to have a good piano. We had a Steinway, I think. A good piano. I can’t tell you how many people I played with, just from meeting… My first meeting with Lee Konitz was there. Because Lee was playing on the Stan Kenton band, and he came and sat in once, and we met for the first time there.

TP:   That had to be around 1953 or 1954, when he went out with Kenton.

SOLAL:   Yeah, I guess. Then we didn’t see each other for ten years, and when we meet for the second time, we decided to do something together, and we played hundreds of concerts, in Europe and America.

TP:   Anything more to say about Kenny Clarke?

SOLAL:   What more is there to say? I could say a lot of things. I mean, things that everybody knows. He was under the influence of drugs. Sometimes he was crazy. Once, when I did a tour in Italy, with a fantastic band, I must say, with Kenny Clarke and Lucky Thompson, in the middle of the tour he couldn’t move from his hotel, for instance. It was serious, this. And he died very young, of course. But his playing was, at that time, considered as very moderne. He was maybe one of the very first to use his left hand to play syncopated on the snare. Before this, everybody was playing either brushes or on the cymbals. He was using both. He didn’t have big technique, by the way. He was playing like jazz musician of that time. I mean, a gifted musician, but not people coming out from conservatory, which is like the rule now.

TP:   Where they can execute anything you give them. How about Lucky Thompson?

SOLAL:   Lucky was a good experience for me. Because he was a long time in Paris, many years, and the first day he came, I became his piano player. So we did many, many records… Well, it was not long-playing at that time. Two tunes was a record. So we were recording very often. He was an excellent composer. For me, he was sort of a different Don Byas, but the same direction. For me, that was moderne enough. Then I’ve been interested in contemporary music and the different experiences. So I am happy to have started with middle jazz. I always say I am a child of middle jazz. But a child will become disobedient.

TP:   Oedipus! You spoke a bit about Bud Powell in the blindfold test, with the anecdote that he had you bring him the beer.

SOLAL:   That was to make a joke. He was something else also. But at that time, he couldn’t play as well as before. So the only contact he had with people, not only with me, was, “Hello, give me a beer; pay me a beer.” He was not in good shape. He still could play, but not like before.

By the way, I want to ask the question. The record you played yesterday, when was it made?

TP:   1950. “Tea For Two.” It was 1950. This was the third take.

SOLAL:   It’s curious. I have some record of him where he plays much stronger, much better than that.

TP:   My fault again.

SOLAL:   Maybe so. To judge people, I like to judge anyone on what he can do the best. I am not going to judge Ahmad Jamal with this record of yesterday. I know him from the very early ‘50s. At that time, he had a perfect technique, he had a beautiful sound, a style. Now he doesn’t do any more, but on the contrary, now he’s never been more famous than now. Now he plays much less than before, and he is much more famous.

TP:   It seems to me that now you’re much more famous than…

SOLAL:   Well, with time, of course, people say, “Ok, Martial Solal, Martial Solal…” At the end, they know me. But with Ahmad Jamal, it’s different. Because he stayed a long time in Europe, and he became really a star, which he was not before. Ten years ago, he was not known.

TP:   He was famous in the ‘50s, when he sold a million records…

SOLAL:   Yes, but to be famous in the ‘50s is not like to be famous today. Things are different. Many festivals, many concerts. In the ‘50s there was no concerts! If you don’t play in a club, you have no work.

TP:   So for 12 years, you’re house pianist at Club Saint Germain, and in ‘63 you come to America for the first time with a lot of fanfare, a lot of publicity, and you stay for six months. A lot of American musicians heard you—there are stories that Duke Ellington heard you, Oscar Peterson, and so forth. Was it your aspiration at that to come to New York, to come to America?

SOLAL:   Oh, of course. For me, it was a dream. To be in New York was the thing that I should do in my life. I was not hoping that. And I received a telegram from George Wein, thinking, “It must be a mistake—not me.” But then I did… I mean, I should have stayed there. But my life was difficult at that time. I had to come back from New York.

TP:   You said you were getting a divorce, you had a small child.

SOLAL:   Yes, things like that. I was not ready to leave Europe.

TP:   And you never did leave Europe.

SOLAL:   No.

TP:   It sounds like that’s a transitional moment for you. It seems as though up to that point you were ready to be an expatriate. Ever since, it’s as though you’ve made peace with… It’s as though after then, you reaffirmed your identity as someone of Europe, as someone of France… I’m not making myself very clear.

SOLAL:   [BARBARA TRANSLATES] The music has nothing to do with my stay in America or not. It’s only personal problem. If I had no problem, I would have stayed. I would have become American. That’s what my agent at that time, Joe Glaser, wanted. The first week in New York, I had my cabaret card, I had my syndicat…union—I had everything. He was a boilon.

TP:   He was connected.

SOLAL:   If he wanted me to stay, life became immediately easy for me. But I did the wrong thing. I left. I stayed four months, I guess, and I promised to come back the next November. He had a contract with Japan, and then in Chicago, London House, where every pianist was supposed to play—and I never came back, I never showed up. So he was very angry. But anyway, next year he called me again to go to Monterrey Jazz Festival, and then I come maybe 12 or 15 times, but in 40 years.

TP:   I was thinking of that because of your remark to me that I hadn’t played you any European players, and that the Europeans had something to say, too. That spurred to think about what I knew about your life, and it seemed that this decision to stay in Europe may have been a transitional moment. Were you thinking this way in 1964?

SOLAL:   I understand, but I want to be sure of everything. [BARBARA TRANSLATES] Yeah, I understand. I realized that it was a mistake, but I couldn’t change it.

TP:   But I’m returning to your comment yesterday that the European perspective has something to say also, because I was playing you only American players.

SOLAL:   It’s normal. Everybody does it. Don’t worry. But you didn’t do it. You played two French players. I think it’s a good idea. Now the situation is different. But for forty years, European jazz couldn’t have the same value as American jazz in the mind of the European audience. So it had been a difficult time for us to be considered as a musician, and not as a European musician. If you wanted some consideration… But even now, in the mind of many people, a good American musician is automatically better than a good French or European musician—except a very few. Maybe I am one of these. But in general, there is American… For instance, in France we have hundreds of festivals. You can watch a program—for one French there are ten Americans. I love American musicians. Don’t misunderstand me. I love America and American musicians. When I am in New York, I am like another… I am over-excited.

TP:   It’s very stimulating in New York.

SOLAL:   Yeah, stimulating. I know that the audience is a good audience, which we don’t have many here like that. That’s for sure. But only the audience here prefers…everywhere it’s the same… They prefer people coming from somewhere else. Anyway, it’s not only for jazz. It’s for cinema, for everything. Here I am in a good situation because I am not the local musician. I am coming from outside. So my situation here is good. You see what I mean. Coming from outside, it’s always better.

TP:   Do you play much in Paris?

SOLAL:   Not very often.

TP:   Because they would treat you as a local musician?

SOLAL:   No-no, I have an audience in Paris. I will play there in February and March. But my main occupation is outside, of course.

TP:   The ‘60s in Paris were turbulent.

SOLAL:   Do you mean in jazz?

TP:   I mean culturally.

SOLAL:   Still. Paris is a place for culture, of course.

TP:   But there were transitions. Breathless-A Bout de Souffle. Avant-garde cinema. Many developments. I’m wondering to what extent you were involved in some of these things, Avant-garde music. You were writing film scores, and many filmmakers were very forward-looking in their aesthetic. I’m wondering how those streams influenced the way you think about things.

SOLAL:   Movies, for instance, Jean-Luc Godard, A Bout de Souffle was my first big experience. At that time, I did realize that this movie was quite different from everything which had been done before. It was quite new in cinema.

TP:   Nouvelle Vague, it was called.

SOLAL:   It was part of Nouvelle Vague. I was lucky to make this score. After this one, I wrote about 40 different… But this one is the only one that people know, of course. After this, the cinema didn’t call me any more. There was a new interest. Not for jazz. Jazz was finished. They were interested more in rock and songs and pop music. So I started to write for symphonique. I wrote maybe 20 concertos—concertos for piano, of course, many of them, or for trumpet, for clarinet, for violin. I wrote a lot of music. But this music has been played a certain number of times, but not always.

TP:   You once made a remark that you thought the future of jazz was in composition. It was a very interesting comment.

SOLAL:   Yes, that’s what I thought when I said it. The story was not as I believed. People continued to improvise more than write. But I still think that when I said that writing is important. I am thinking of a very, very future. I mean, maybe two or three centuries from now. If nobody writes long pieces, important scores, jazz has the risk to die. I hope not. But I’ve always thought that it’s necessary for jazz to have long pieces.  So from my personal experience, in 1957 I start with a very long piece for my quartet, a 30-minute piece. Nobody did it before. But that was something very special. Then I write some long pieces, but never as long as that one.

TP: Did other art forms influence your aesthetic in music? Of course, maybe not consciously, and this may be exaggerating. But let’s say the idea of a connection of jumpcut in cinema, and the way you make instant transitions in interpreting a piece. Or the notion of montage, touching on and playing with five-six different themes in the course of a piece. Or visual art. Did aesethetics from those media have any impact on the way you think about playing?

SOLAL:   [TRANSLATES] I am going to try to say it in English. For myself, nothing could influence me. It was too late. Even Bout de Souffle, when I did it I was 32. It was a little late to have a new mind. And please, my mind was already full! No space for anything. But of course, we are influenced by everything. We cannot refuse. I am very interested by painting. My wife and her father are  painters. So I like very much painting. But when I see a Renoir or a Rembrandt, I can’t say I am going to do this in music. This has no meaning. But in a certain way, the atmosphere of the century you live in influences you. Whether you refuse or not, you are influenced. But to be influenced doesn’t mean to copy. I don’t copy. I am somebody who gets everything in his mind, and I don’t know how I translate it often. I can’t tell you.

TP:   I know that you read a great deal. There are stories of you practicing and reading a novel while you practice–the mechanics.

SOLAL:   I did for some years. Not any more.

TP:   What sort of things did you read?

SOLAL:   Everything.

TP:   Philosophy ever?

SOLAL:   No-no-no.

TP:   Nothing you had to think about.

SOLAL:   I was doing this only while I was working on exercises. I couldn’t play a Chopin Wedding… No. My mind has to be free to read. My fingers were not thinking.

TP:   I’m following up on the question about other aesthetic influences. I’m wondering if you were influenced by Sartre, Existentialism; or Surrealism; or these broader philosophical movements, particularly as a young man, when people fall under the sway?

SOLAL:   I would say no.

TP:   You are living existentialist philosophy as a jazz musician.

SOLAL:   I read a lot of things. Normally I read. But I am not very interested in Jean-Paul Sartre or… Honestly, I think I am against it. I am not crazy about this. But in art, it’s different. I like some painters of this period. But not the system to be very abstract.

TP:   You’re not interested in abstract art.

SOLAL:   Not really. Like in my music, I like a mixture of very modern and very traditional. I don’t like any art that forgets everything that happened before. Like when free jazz came, I was not against free jazz. I was against the idea of put everything away. Not Charlie Parker, not Louis Armstrong, this is zero. This I didn’t like. But I understood the movement. I understood it was necessary. But for me, the best way is to use everything which exists. I have been interested in contemporary music for years. I have played with different contemporary composers. But I don’t like people who refuse the past. I think the past is necessary for the future. That’s my idea.

TP:   Let me ask you about a few composers. Duke Ellington. When did you first listen to him? What was the effect of his music upon you?

SOLAL:   Very late. Art Tatum and Duke Ellington, two of my favorite musicians, I discovered them maybe in the middle ‘50s. Very late. Everything I knew was before was middle jazz. And  Erroll Garner, because he has a different approach to the piano. Really different. Yesterday, if you’d played a Garner, I would have said, “This is Erroll Garner.”

TP:   I apologize for that.

SOLAL:   [LAUGHS] But when you played the first one, for Ahmad Jamal, the first chord he played, I said, “This must be Ahmad Jamal.” But he lost so much of his technique. Then after that, I said, “Is it Ahmad Jamal or someone who plays like him?” So I didn’t say the name. I knew it was him. Because only he can do the beginning of the record, this beautiful, strong chord, very definitely… But I felt too many wrong notes. He couldn’t move his fingers. Like Monk, if you want. The way he touches the piano, nobody does it like this. But after, he is not a pianist any more.

TP:   But you like Monk the composer a great deal.

SOLAL:   I have been very influenced by Monk [Mohnk], more than people believe. I’m not so much influenced by “Round About Midnight.” This is a tune I played for all my life, because it’s a beautiful melody, and also a melody on which you can be very free. But the way he thinks about the music, not his music note-by-note, but the way he was free about certain rules of the music, this interested me a lot.

TP:   As a composer, though. Not as a pianist.

SOLAL:   No, of course. Every one of his compositions had something different than Cole Porter’s or even Charlie Parker’s music. It was different. I love anyone who has personality, a strong style, le passion d’etre.

TP:   Talking about Monk brings up a question about the nature of technique and the purposes towards which technique is directed.

SOLAL:   There is a difference in what I said yesterday. Monk never lost technique. He never had technique. That’s the difference. I was talking about Ahmad, who had technique, and who lost it because he didn’t practice.

TP:   Do you think that Monk is an effective interpreter of his own music?

SOLAL:   Il ne pas comprende.

TP:   Do you think that Monk plays his own music with the proper technique.

SOLAL:   With his proper technique, of course.

TP:   So it’s proper for his music.

SOLAL:   Well, I always said that if he had the Tatum technique, if Monk one Monday morning wakes up, goes to the piano, and plays like Tatum, there is not Monk any more. He has his sound because of the lack of technique. So the lack of technique is not automatically bad. But to lose the technique is bad, because when you lose the technique, what you play is still what you have in your mind. You will still play the same thing, but you missed two notes on the three, two notes every three notes.

TP:   You remarked yesterday that you practice every day—except for yesterday, of course.

SOLAL:   And I feel it already. I don’t feel very comfortable. Yesterday, I felt not like I wish.

TP:   How much do you practice now?

SOLAL:   Not much. Since the last ten years, I just practice enough to keep what I have. Before this I was practicing quite a lot. Not like classical pianists, say, eight years [ heures] a day. Never this. But my work was not studying musique. It was only sport, the sport part of the music, the exercise, when you play four hours of octave or scale or arpeggio, that’s a lot… That would represent a lot more than eight years [hours] just learning Bach or Mozart. I mean, about technique. You understand that? Am I clear now?

BARBARA:   You’re clear, but you said “years” instead of “hours.” You meant hours.

SOLAL:   Oh.

BARBARA:   It’s ok.

SOLAL:   Yeah, yeah. Eight hours… I mean, four hours of technique represents more than eight hours of just learning pieces by rote.

TP:   Do you also practice playing?

SOLAL:   Pardon?

TP:   Some of the black American musicians, Monk, Bud Powell, would talk about practicing playing. Walter Davis, Jr., told a story about Bud Powell, where he was a young kid and he would go to Bud Powell’s house, and Bud Powell was playing “Embraceable You.” He and his pals went out, did whatever they were doing, and when they came back 6 or 8 hours later, Bud Powell was still playing “Embraceable You.” Do you do that sort of thing with any of the tunes you play?

SOLAL:   No. I never play a tune at home. I should have done it maybe. [LAUGHS] Very rarely. If I play five choruses on “Stella By Starlight,” I have enough for the day.

TP:   that’s enough for you.

SOLAL:   No, I want to keep fresh for a concert. At home, I practice stupidly, like a student, to get my muscles in good shape. The music is here. [POINTS TO HEAD] I don’t have to play it.

TP:   So when you sit down at the piano, after you make the first sound, everything follows from that?

BARBARA:  [WHISPERS] Yes.

SOLAL:   Ah, yes. Every day I start the same way. I play an exercise with left hand and I improvise in right hand. These things don’t go together. It’s a different key, different tempo. Half of me is playing exercise, half of me is playing anything. Not music, but anything. That’s the way to independence of both hands.

TP:   I was noticing on one of the tunes with Joe Locke just now, I can’t remember which, you were playing a very rubato, then all of a sudden you went into a perfect Harlem stride, then another rhythmic figure, all instantaneously. Is that just spontaneous…

SOLAL:   Yes, of course.

TP:   You’re not thinking in the first minute of your performing something you’ll be doing in the fifth minute.

SOLAL:   No. Everything has to be spontaneous. Sometimes it could be a very bad idea also. But when you start something, you have to do it.

TP:   Do you listen to your recordings?

SOLAL:   Not much. I am never very happy when I listen to them. En Francais… I think my music should not be listened to in big quantity at one time. I think if you want to love my music, you take one of my records, you listen one or two tunes, and you forget it. The day after, two tunes. There is maybe too much information in it. I don’t know. But for someone… Of course, musicians know it. But for the audience, I mean, sometimes there is too much information.

TP:   I’d like to know about your relationship to audiences. It’s complex to be a pure artist, which you are, and also make a career, to earn a living doing it. It seems you’ve worked out a good strategy by addressing the type of tunes that you play and using the strategy you’ve stated of giving the audience a signpost, something to grab onto, by playing “Tea for Two” or “Body and Soul” or “Round Midnight” and treating them as you do.

SOLAL:   I hope I understood it quite right. When I play solo, I know the music that I play is not very easy. So I try to interest people by playing songs they know. For a while. Some years ago, I was playing very freely, no standards, and I understand that the public was not with me. It was too much… I always loved standards. I love standards, and also I want to prove that the good standards can be repeated for a century. If you have enough imagination, you can make it new every day. I’m never tired of “Body and Soul” and “Round Midnight,” because you can put all the music in the history of music in it.

TP:   You can play any idea you want.

SOLAL:   Anything. Sometimes I know I’m wrong, but if a stupid thing comes to my head, ok, I’ll do it. I don’t refuse when it’s a possible idea.

TP:   Did you ever use the popular song of France?

SOLAL:   Yes, of course.

TP:   Chansons or Piaf?

SOLAL:   Well, some time I wrote music from Piaf for a friend of mine, a trumpet player, with a string orchestra. So I wrote new arrangement from these stupid tunes. But I am not very interested by most of them. A very few of them are interesting enough to improvise on. Some of Charles Trenay, for instance, I play often, which is called “….(?)…. de Nos Amours”. Or “La Mer,” which is famous in America, from Charles Trenay. He’s older. Michel Legrand wrote beautiful songs, but not songs on which I feel comfortable to improvise. I don’t know why. Beautiful songs.

TP:   Some of Legrand’s songs are very sentimental.

SOLAL:   Yes. I don’t know why. It’s the same for American songs. Some interest very much musicians, and some other beautiful songs, I’ve never played it.

TP:   But a song like “Body and Soul,” is it a purely musical exercise, or are you also thinking of the lyric of “Body and Soul”?

SOLAL:   No. I don’t know the lyrics. I should. I know that Americans consider the lyric also. But this melody is so beautiful and the changes are so interesting that… No, I don’t know the lyrics.

TP:   How much do you play with the trio with Francois and Louis Moutin? How many years?

SOLAL:   It’s many years. With Francois, I think it’s maybe 12 years, at least, and with his brother maybe five years.

TP:   What qualities are you looking for the people who play with you in a trio?

SOLAL:   I’m looking for people who are very fast, who understand immediately what I do. So I feel very free when I play with those kinds of musicians, because I can go anywhere, and I know that they will be with me. They will never be against me. They will try to go in the same direction. That’s very important. Not much like Ahmad Jamal, for instance, where everything seems to be decided before. Seems—I’m not sure. But when I play in trio, nothing is decided, except the melody we’ll use. But it can go in any direction. We can stop, we can slow down, we can change key. Everything. For instance, I let the bass player make four bars of a solo, and then I come in when the solo is finished. Everything can happen with them.

TP:   Who else do you use in your trios?

SOLAL:   Now, since this last year… I have shifted sometimes, but very rarely. You probably don’t know them.

TP:   Have you ever in the last 20 years or so had combos, quartets, quintets, sextets?

SOLAL:   No. I still have my big band. You probably don’t know about that?

TP:   I have Dodecaband Plays Ellington.

SOLAL:   Oh, you have that one. You don’t have the next one with the smaller group with our daughter who sings in it.

TP:   No.

SOLAL:   Maybe I could send you this with the book. We play not very often, but they are really the best musicians in town. I wrote all the music. It’s not standard music. It’s original music.

TP:   In your view, over the last thirty years, what has the evolution of the jazz scene in Paris been like?

SOLAL: Well, there are many, many musicians. I think the level comes up at least technically, because the rule now is to go to conservatory first, to have a good technique, and then to be interested in jazz. So we have a lot of good musicians. But very few of them have a different concept, a new conception of music. But I could mention many…

TP:   What do you mean by a “new conception”?

SOLAL:   I mean new material at least. New songs, new… And some have different ideas of organizing the trio or medium-sized group. Like in America also, you have a lot of new musicians trying to not copy the past. This is normal. They literally are going everywhere.
TP:   there are a lot of African musicians in Paris.

SOLAL:   Well, but I’m not… I told you I’m only…

TP:   Classical and jazz.

SOLAL:   But I listen to everything. Because there is a channel called Mezzo, it’s the name of a channel, where they play every kind of music. I don’t like everything, but I listen… I know everything which exists, but I am not interested.

TP:   Well, you made that point yesterday, when you said you like music to be a little bit crazy. I think you were referring to Pilc.

SOLAL:   When I say somebody is crazy, it’s a good sign.

TP:   I’d like to ask you about another comment you made, which is that you want to bring to jazz the highest values of classical music.

SOLAL:   [TRANSLATED] My ambition is that jazz stays for centuries, so it has to be a serious music, not only music of junkies, but… That’s not exactly what I mean. We can be very serious about jazz music, because I think jazz can be very important. Including some ideas or some conceptions of Stravinsky or Bartok, our greatest composers, is not a bad thing for jazz. Jazz can eat everything and transform it into jazz. It’s a sort of stomach in which you put everything, and what’s going out is still nice music, and it still can be jazz. But we must never forget the essential of jazz, which is a certain way to express, to play the note, a certain conception of the rhythm. There are some specific notions of jazz which it’s necessary not to lose completely. If you want to add too many things in your mayonnaise, I don’t know. Too much oil on the mayonnaise, it gets to be a different thing.

TP:   Let me ask you a couple of personal questions. How did you meet, and how long have you been together?

SOLAL:   Forty years. We meet in a jazz club where I was not working but sitting in. When I had nothing to do, I was at this club, sitting in. The piano player was an American by the name of Art Simmons. He was playing there, and all the musicians were coming there after-hours, and by chance, my wife came with a friend of hers. That’s where we met.

TP:   That’s 1968, the year everyone was in the streets. A fateful year in Paris.

SOLAL:   We were so much in love that we didn’t care too much about it! Also, I had some concerts outside. I remember once we were in Brussels… The first concert I took my wife to with me was in Yugoslavia, and it was impossible to have to find a plane to go. So we go by car to Frankfurt, Germany, and from where we found a plane to go to the Zagreb airport.

TP:   So you got used to life on the road.

BARBARA:   [LAUGHS]

TP:   What neighborhood in Paris do you live in? Quelle arrondissement?

SOLAL:   Oh, since we are together, we’ve moved six times, I think, each time more west—because the west part of Paris is more beautiful, more trees, more green. So the first one was No.17; then No. 12 just at the border of Paris, Boulogne it’s called; then a little more to what’s become Ville D’Avres*(?)… It’s where… Who habiter a Ville D’Avres… Then from Ville D’Avres, we went to Bougivalles(?), and the last twenty years now it’s Chatou.

TP:   What kind of piano do you have?

SOLAL:   Well, since thirty years I have a…not Yamaha, but the other one…a Kawai(?). A small grand. I bought it new and I made it a special touch, very stiff. I have another piano which I had before, I kept it, but with very light keyboard, and each time I had to play a concert, if the piano was louder than mine, I was in a very bad situation. Since I have this piano, no piano resists to me any more. Because mine is more loud than anyone else!

BARBARA:   Not loud. Hard.

SOLAL:   Hard. I mean, hard. Forte. In French we say lourd maybe.

BARBARA:   Oui. Heavy.

SOLAL:   Stiff.

TP:   Resistance.

BARBARA:   Yes.

SOLAL:   When you press, you have to push more than with a light piano.

TP:   To prepare yourself.

SOLAL:     Yes. So I made it the way I wanted, so I need… By the way, I need maybe less time to work than with a lighter piano… Lighter?  Leger. Heavy? Light… You just look at it, it works by itself.

TP:   You said yesterday that many pianists as they get older, stop practicing. How do you stay motivated to do the things you do to keep you at the level you’re at?

SOLAL:   Heh-heh, I am not very motivated. The only motivation is that I am too hung up when I can’t play right. For me, a bad concert, it’s one week like this… I must practice a minimum of 45 minutes. I don’t need more than 45 minutes.

TP:   But you used to practice for four or eight hours…
SOLAL:   No, no.

BARBARA: No. Four maybe.

SOLAL:   I did it when it was time to do it, between my fifties and seventy. But since, the minimum to keep what I have… I don’t want to lose anything, but I don’t want to improve again.

TP:   Someone to whom I was speaking about you said the thought you approached piano almost like an athletic in training almost.

SOLAL:   Well, like every honest pianist. Not more. I don’t imagine a classical pianist not doing this. In jazz, some don’t do it. I mentioned some. But I think it’s not honest. If you want to be honest with the audience, you have to present yourself in the best possible condition. It’s no more than that.

TP:   Is there anything you haven’t done that you still would like to do?

SOLAL:   I’ve never been one hundred years. I’d like…

BARBARA:   [LAUGHS]

SOLAL:   To do things…

TP:   As long as you can play, I’d think.

BARBARA:   I want to keep you!

SOLAL: I think I did… I think maybe nobody…not many people on this planet did as many things… I’m not talking about the quality. I’m now talking about the quantity. I did 12 years of club, for instance. Do you know many people playing 12 years in a club? And writing score music. Method books. I wrote methods. Books to help people learn.

TP:   You wrote practice books.

SOLAL: Writing maybe 20 concerts, fully scored music, and playing concerts, and duets with a hundred people. It’s a lot.

TP:   I wasn’t suggesting that you have anything to prove. I only wondered whether in your mind was something…

SOLAL:   The only thing I want is to keep what I am able to do. I always say that I understand that if I can’t move my fingers normally, I would stop, because I would be too unhappy. People maybe will not notice it, but I’ll know it. The classical pianists say when you don’t practice for one day, nobody knows it; after two days, you know it; after one week, your wife knows it; and after one month, everybody knows it.

TP:   How did you keep your health during the years you played in the clubs? I’ve heard about the Paris bars, and you were around…

SOLAL:   Ask my wife. She cooks for me. That’s very important.

TP:   But she wasn’t there in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. It seems you stayed away from all the bad influences from the people you were around.

SOLAL:   That’s only a lucky… I have no merit…

BARBARA:   Merite…

SOLAL:   I have no glory of it. It’s not my fault. I mean, I was not interested in drugs. All my friends was drugs…almost all of them died at 50. So I have been very lucky not to be interested.

TP:   It didn’t interest you at all.

SOLAL:   No. I could say I smoked three times in my life—I mean, smoked hashish. But that was just to please my friends, not for me.

TP:   You have enough going on in your mind without…

SOLAL:   I have no… The pas de merit….

BARBARA:   It’s not his fault…

TP:   I know what you mean…

BARBARA:   It’s not a negative sense. It’s a positive sense.

SOLAL:   It’s just luck. Good luck I was not interested.

TP:   It seems you’ve really known who you are since you were very young, as though you envisioned something for yourself early on.

SOLAL:   Maybe. I don’t know. I think everything is a question of luck in my situation. The luck, first, to like music; the luck first not to be interested in drugs; the luck to find my wife. I don’t know. I have nothing positive coming from me. Everything I have is luck.

BARBARA:   Your character. You are so stick to…

SOLAL:   Oh, yeah. When I have an idea in my head, I keep it for years.

TP:   You’re stubborn.

SOLAL:   I am very… Yes. That’s a quality, but once more, it’s not… It’s luck.

TP:   Well, not everybody has talent. You had talent and nurtured it.

SOLAL:   If you’re  strong and tall, it’s not talent. It’s luck.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Martial Solal, Piano

Raw Copy of Benny Green’s Blindfold Test from Around 2000—He’s 49 Today

It’s the 49th birthday of Benny Green, one of my favorite pianists for many years. I’m appending below the unedited complete DownBeat Blindfold Test that he did with me more than a decade ago.

* * *

Benny Green Blindfold Test:

1.    James Weidman, “Bean and the Boys” (from ALL ABOUT TIME, Contour, 1999) (Weidman, piano; Ed Howard, bass; Marcus Baylor, drums) – (5 stars)

It sounded like Lewis Nash on drums. It wasn’t?  Wow!  Who is the drummer?  I was positive it was Lewis Nash, by the ride cymbal, the way he was comping on the snare, the way he coordinated his bass drum with his ride cymbal.  I’m actually surprised it’s not Lewis.  The song is a Coleman Hawkins melody called “Bean and The Boys,” which is based on “Lover, Come Back To Me.”  It was an original treatment with a Latin feel, and I enjoyed it.  I liked the way everyone was playing.  By the time of the last bridge, on the final melody chorus, the whole group really loosened up, and that was my favorite part of the song.  But I enjoyed the whole performance.  It felt like the three players were really comfortable with each other and trusted each other, and it was an honest performance.  I have no idea who the pianist was.  It was musical and had a good feel, but I have no idea who it was.  I’m personally not comfortable with the star system, but 5 stars.  It was an excellent performance. [AFTER] All respects to Marcus, who’s a great musician, but I thought he might have absorbed some things from Lewis.  Like, the very first bar coming out of the melody, the way he played the accent on 1 and 2 on both the ride cymbal and the bass drum, that’s like signature Lewis.  I guess that just goes to show, although I still think of Lewis (he’s just a few years older than I) as a young person, that he’s really having an influence on the current scene.  Obviously, I thought it was Lewis, and I’ve played with Lewis, so Marcus has absorbed from him.  And that’s good. It means he’s absorbing from one of the greatest of today.  I should have recognized Ed.  I’ve done a lot of playing with him.  He’s a great musician.

2.    George Cables, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” (from BY GEORGE: GEORGE CABLES PLAYS THE MUSIC OF GEORGE GERSHWIN, Contemporary, 1987) (Cables, piano; John Heard, bass; Ralph Penland, drums) – (5 stars)

I think it’s George Cables.  I love George’s playing.  I love his personality and it comes through in his playing.  He’s a very sweet and gentle soul, a very warm person, and clearly the man knows so much music and he utilizes all this knowledge just to paint a beautiful picture when he plays.  My father used to take me to see Dexter Gordon back in the mid-’70s, when George was his pianist.  We always knew George was going to be playing piano, because when
we would arrive at the venue, before the musicians came out on stage, there would be a phone book on the piano bench.  George used to use one; there probably weren’t so many adjustable benches back then.  That was a great reading of Gershwin’s melody, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” from “Porgy and Bess.”  I enjoyed the whole thing from start to finish.  don’t know who the bassist and drummer were, but it felt like everyone really worked together well.  They were very supportive of him. 5 stars. I thought it was gorgeous.  [AFTER] I’ve never had the pleasure of working with John, even though I’ve met him.  He’s a pro from way, way back, and I’ve always admired his work.  I have had the pleasure of playing with Ralph, especially quite a bit with Freddie Hubbard.  He has played with everyone who’s been alive in the course of his lifetime.  He’s worked with all of them, and it comes through in his playing. He’s a great listener, and his conception is wide open.

3.    Cedar Walton, “Latin America” (from LATIN TINGE, High Note, 2002) (Walton, piano; Cucho Martinez, bass; Ray Mantilla, percussion) (5 stars)

That was really hip.  The pianist had a beautiful touch, and by the pianistic language, it had to be one of two people, either the man whose language it is, Cedar Walton, or the man who’s the greatest practitioner of Cedar’s pianistic language, Mike LeDonne.  Ah, it’s the man himself.  Well, all respects to Mr. Walton.  Mike LeDonne has absorbed so much of his language, that one — at least this one — has to question sometimes which is which.  But it felt like the source, so if it was Michael, it would have been a great tribute to who he absorbed it from.  It’s really refreshing.  I enjoyed the instrumentation, using the congas instead of a drumset.  It’s nice sometimes to hear music played rhythmically without cymbals, like the opening credit music for the new movie “Catch Me If You Can.”  It’s nice on the ears.  Oh my gosh, Cedar is just one of the hippest ever.  The way he touches the piano is completely himself.  he has a lot of influence, as do all the masters, but also, as is the case with all the great masters of the music, all those influences serve the end of his own voice.  And when you hear him, you know who it is.  That piece was beautiful.  For many, many years, Cedar has been one of the hippest arrangers as well as pianists.  And everything he plays, when he’s improvising, when he’s comping, is an arrangement.  It paints a picture.  It tells a story.  He’s one of the finest of all time.  So tasteful, so musical.  It’s an infectious feeling.  Loved the tune.  It sounded like it could have been a standard.  Definitely 5 stars.

4.    George Shearing-Jim Hall, “Street Of Dreams” (from FIRST EDITION, Concord, 1981) (Shearing, piano; Hall, guitar) (5 stars)

I love this song, “Street of Dreams.”  It was a beautiful rendition.  A really telling moment in the performance for me was when the bassist dropped out during the guitar solo, and the pianist walked the bass line in his left hand.  Because the pianist’s time feel was so strong with that left hand, it was clearly someone who has done a lot of solo playing.  I know very few people that have that relaxed a time feeling when it comes to playing a bass line in their left hand.  So I’m going to take a wild guess at who it might have been, based on the fact that he played the bass line so well.  One of the only people I can think of who is that adept at playing a left-hand bass line is Dave McKenna. [By the way, there's no bass player.] I love it!  See, it felt like there was a bass throughout.  There again, an incredible left hand. I’m clueless as to who it was if it wasn’t Dave McKenna, but clearly someone who’s very masterful at using their left hand for time playing.  The guitarist’s sound was very familiar to me, but I was never able to pinpoint it.  To be honest, of the guitarists who are out there today, there’s only a small handful who I’m well aware of.  So it could have been someone who’s outside of my realm of familiarity.  But of the people I know of, the one it sounded closest to was Howard Alden. 5 stars. [AFTER] Well, that explains the left hand.  Yet I didn’t recognize George by the lines he played in his right hand at all.  Beautiful!  George has one of the finest touches, and it’s been that way throughout his career.  I would have especially recognized him when it comes to playing a solo ballad.  I’m a huge fan of his ballad work.  He’s really one of my favorites when it comes to playing solo unaccompanied ballads.  Honestly, I haven’t really investigated as much of his time playing as I have listened to him playing the ballads.  And Jim’s sound has gone through several stages of evolution over the years.  To be honest, I’d probably be more familiar hearing one of his older recordings sound-wise, like “The Bridge.”  But he’s a great master of music.  I’m always thankful to hear a good melody played with a good feeling like that.

5.    Roland Hanna, “Afternoon in Paris” (from MILANO, PARIS, NEW YORK: FINDING JOHN LEWIS, Venus, 2002) (Hanna, piano; George Mraz, bass; Lewis Nash, drums) (5 stars)

If that wasn’t Lewis Nash, then I don’t know what.  And I thought it was George Mraz on bass.  If it’s Lewis Nash and George Mraz, that would suggest that, since a lot of what I heard from the piano made me think of Tommy Flanagan, and that’s a Tommy Flanagan rhythm section, it wouldn’t be that far off to think it’s him.  But there some clusters in the left hand that weren’t Tommy’s. But it sounded like someone who had something in common, either had absorbed from Tommy, listened to him a lot, or maybe a fellow Detroit pianist.  None of the other Detroit pianists that I’m aware of ring true with who it could have been.  But there are definitely some Flanaganisms in the phrasing.  But moving on, it was a great tune, a jazz standard, John Lewis’ “Afternoon In Paris.”  I especially enjoyed a lot of what Lewis was doing behind the bass solo.  He played something of Philly Joe Jones’ during the bass’ first bridge, and then during the last eight of the bass solo he was listening so closely to what the pianist was doing.  They played some nice things together.  But gosh, I don’t have a clue who the pianist was. 5 stars. [AFTER] So it was a Detroit guy!  Well, they had so much in common.  Roland Hanna’s passing is a tremendous loss.  He knew so much music, plus he got such a beautiful sound from the instrument.  I remember going to see “Sophisticated Ladies” on Broadway when Roland Hanna was playing, and the feeling and sound he got from the piano… I remember thinking, “Well, this is probably the closest I’ll ever come to hearing Duke in person.”  He so captured that spirit. The solo piano record he made at Maybeck is a real gem.

Tommy Flanagan had such a wry sense of humor.  One of the first conversations I ever had with Tommy Flanagan, I told him that I thought I heard a kinship between he and a couple of other Detroit pianists, Hank Jones and Barry Harris.  And he sort of looked at me blankly, and said, “No, I wouldn’t say there’s anything to that.”  He was pulling my leg.  He had a great sense of humor.  That was a magnificent performance.

6.    McCoy Tyner, “Blues For Fatha” (from JAZZ ROOTS, Telarc, 2000) (Tyner, piano)  (5 stars)

I’m pretty sure that was my very first pianistic hero, McCoy Tyner.  By the time I was 13, I owned every McCoy Tyner record.  He was the first pianist I heard who I really wanted to play like.  It took me years to realize you can never learn to play like anybody else.  But he’s one of the few pianists who has such a distinctive voice that, in this case, you could tell who it was before he even finished that first chorus of blues. There’s very few people you can recognize in a very few notes like that.  I want to get this recording, because it’s beautiful to hear the way he gets dynamic contrast from the piano using the pedals, and he brings so much sound, so much color.  When I started playing with Art Blakey, one thing I didn’t realize until I was on the bandstand with him was that from the outside looking in, you’re aware of all the power, which is the case with McCoy Tyner; but when you’re actually up on the bandstand who has that much depth, you realize that part of what brings the effect of the power are the dynamics at play.  It’s not that everything is big or everything is loud, but there’s a lot of shape to the music.  It’s really beautiful to hear McCoy in a solo setting, and it’s so very exposed — all the beautiful color he’s able to bring from the instrument.  Any time I’ve ever heard McCoy Tyner play, any recording, any performance, there is never the slightest air in the expression that he’s thinking about record sales or what kind of review he’s going to get, or competing with someone.  It’s such a spiritual offering from McCoy. Every note he plays, he’s playing straight from his heart, and through this honest offering, you can understand that without even knowing the human being.  He allows you to feel who he is.  And I feel that’s the greatest thing that any musician has to offer, beyond technical ability or style, is to know who you are, away from the arena of music, and then to bring that to your music, as McCoy does. 5 stars.

7.    Hank Jones, “Rockin’ In Rhythm” (from ROCKIN’ IN RHYTHM, Concord, 1977) (Jones, piano; Ray Brown, bass; Jimmie Smith, drums) (5 stars)

I hope I’m right about this one.  I’m pretty sure that’s from the record with Hank Jones and Ray Brown and Jimmie Smith.  Thank God.  I wouldn’t want to get those guys wrong.  What was interesting is that’s actually a record I own, and hadn’t listened to for a while, and I was listening from a whole different perspective, rather than from the onset putting it on, knowing who I was hearing.  So it was very interesting how I gradually actually realized who it was.  I wouldn’t have been able to recognize Jimmie Smith specifically, but once I thought it was Hank and Ray, I remembered that they’d played this.  First of all, Duke Ellington’s “Rockin’ In Rhythm” is such a great song.  Now I can remember having heard it when I originally listened to the record, and at the time I appreciated the authenticity with which Hank played Duke’s harmonies on the melody.  But I swear, I was listening from a whole different place this time.  It was very interesting.  I didn’t recognize Ray until he played his bass solo, and at the time he played the bass solo… When you’ve around someone that much… For four-and-a-half years he stood 2 feet away from my left ear.  So that’s a sound and feeling that’s entered my body.  So I thought, well, if this isn’t Ray Brown… It’s like when I heard Cedar Walton earlier and thought of Mike LeDonne.  I said, “Well, the greatest practitioner of Ray’s language is John Clayton, so it’s got to be one of these two guys.”  But I still wasn’t sure until I thought about it.  Then I thought, “Man, this just reeks of Ray Brown’s DNA, so it’s got to be him.”  Then I realized what record it is.

Anyway, it’s beautiful.  Actually, the first thing that reached me about the music was the drums.  Such a beautiful and relaxed quarter-note from Jimmie Smith, when he was playing on the hi-hat, when he played the ride cymbal.  Very rare to hear that, especially today.  This recording is about 25 years old now.  Beautiful music.  Again, with Hank Jones, I didn’t recognize him at first, but the pieces started to fit together.  And the first thing that reached me that made me think of Hank was his left hand — the voicings and the rhythmic placement, and the way he actually connects one chord to the next.  Hank is one of the greatest masters of the pedals in history, and he uses those pedals to get the widest palette of sound of different colors from the instrument I’ve ever heard, and also just to make connections smoothly.  In fact, to me, that’s what technique is, moreso than the ability to play fast.  Technique is the ability to play smoothly.  And Hank’s the greatest, as Oscar Peterson would attest. 5 stars.

8.    Donald Brown, “The Sequel” (from SEND ONE YOUR LOVE, Muse, 1992) (Brown, piano; Charnett Moffett, b; Louis Hayes, drums; Mulgrew Miller, composer) (5 stars)

The melody was so beautiful.  You know something that made this really pleasurable to listen to for me was the way the three musicians worked together.  It’s so refreshing to hear the pianist and drummer were not afraid to take a lot of chances.  The bassist supported them.  The bassist had their back all throughout.  So there were a lot of times when the time feel could have gone haywire potentially if the bassist had stopped supporting them.  But he didn’t.  He had their back throughout.  So it was really nice to hear the pianist and drummer really going for things, and you had the sense that they didn’t necessarily even know where it was going to lead, but they were playing as they felt in the moment, and that made the performance a joy to hear.  It felt like it was a bit of an adventure.  The melody seemed rather familiar, but I don’t know specifically what it was.  I’ve heard the melody before.  Sounds like a pianist could have written it, because of the orchestral nature.  The only person who would come to mind as a composer…it has a quality that reminds me of Ahmad Jamal, but I don’t know who actually wrote it. Help me out.  Oh, it’s Mulgrew’s song.  I didn’t recognize any of the players, but I enjoyed them. 5 stars.

9.    Herbie Hancock, “Embraceable You” (from GERSHWIN’S WORLD, Verve, 1998) (Hancock, piano)

Definitely Herbie.  That’s another one of the few pianists who has such a distinctive voice.  This is probably from the Gershwin album.  “Embraceable You.”  5 stars.  Beautiful song.  Herbie Hancock is someone I have to be very selective about going to hear in live performance, because if I have a show coming up in close proximity, he can give me nightmares.  What he does is so beautiful, yet for a pianist, it can be almost overwhelming to experience that in person — the expansiveness of Herbie’s imagination and just the freedom and abandon that he brings to his genius.  He puts so much thought and soul into every note he plays.  He’s a true inspiration to all of us.  He’s one of those rare individuals who comes along and opens music up for all the generations to come.  I’m very grateful for what he’s done for music.  It’s a rare treat to hear a solo piano performance from Herbie.  Boy, if I had any say in the matter, I’d love to hear him record an entire solo album sometime in the future, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that wish.  It would be so beautiful to listen to and learn from for all time.  He’s one of the geniuses in our midst.  We’ve lost so many great masters in the past few years, and it’s wonderful that we have Herbie Hancock with us.

10.    Teddy Wilson, “My Heart Stood Still” (from THREE LITTLE WORDS, Black & Blue, 1976) (Wilson, piano; Milt Hinton, bass; Oliver Jackson, drums) (5 stars)

That was beautiful!  I love that song, “My Heart Stood Still.”  I could tell it was an old-timer right off the bat, because clearly the pianist knew the melody so well.  He sounded like someone who grew up with the song, not someone who learned it after the fact; someone who grew up with the song as a pop tune during that generation.  Another way I could tell it was an older player is I felt so much life and humor in the performance.  Clearly, this is someone who has done a lot of living.  I’m not sure who it was.  The only element of vocabulary that I recognized was that it sounded like someone who enjoyed Teddy Wilson. But outside of that, I definitely don’t know who it was. The bass and drummer are great. The drummer is a master; he’s very responsible with the time at that bright tempo.  5 stars. [AFTER] Okay!  Well, I would say Teddy Wilson enjoys Teddy Wilson.  This must have been a later performance.  Teddy’s one of my favorites, but I haven’t listened to a lot of his later work.  I’ve mostly heard his earlier recordings.  He’s one of the people that really brought what had come before his generation pianistically into a more contemporary kind of focus through his use of subtlety and touch and pedaling.  Both Teddy Wilson and Nat Cole were largely influenced by Earl Fatha Hines, but each took that influence and personalized it, and became two of the formative voices of modern piano.  All the greats we know today, people like Hank Jones and Oscar Peterson, owe a great deal to Teddy Wilson along with Nat Cole and Art Tatum, for laying the foundations of modern jazz piano.

11.    Paul Bley, “Ida Lupino” (from PLAYS CARLA BLEY, Steeplechase, 1991) (Bley, piano; Marc Johnson, bass; Jeff Williams, drums; Carla Bley, composer) – (5 stars)

I enjoyed that.  That was a different kind of painting!  That’s a very pretty melody.  I’ve heard it before.  Is it a pop song? From the simplicity of the melody, it sounded like something that would have words to it — like it was a poem.  Gosh, I don’t know who wrote it.  “Ida Lupino”?   I’ve heard it before.  I don’t know who the musicians were.  The drummer had the most familiar sound of the three musicians.  But they worked together so well, I wonder how much discussion there was about an approach or direction to the song, or if they just let it happen.  There was this mood, this dark feeling from the very beginning, and they really stayed with it.  At first, it was a beautiful sort of suggestion of a sort of undefined mood.  But they stayed with that train of thought and let the idea sort of blossom throughout the whole performance. 5 stars because it was an honest performance. By “honest” I mean that I felt the humanity of the musicians coming through. It was lovely.

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Hank Jones (July 31, 1918 – May 16, 2010) — His 93rd Birthday Anniversary

It’s the 93rd birthday anniversary of the pianist Hank Jones, who died last May at 91.  His final years comprise a case study of a profile in courage — himself struggling with several illnesses, each of which might have felled a mere mortal, and living in somewhat reduced circumstances, he sustained a steady practice, performance, and recording schedule. While continuing to tour with his trio and do occasional solo performances, he also guest-starred in the duo function with Christian McBride and John Clayton, sidemanned extensively with Joe Lovano in an inspired quartet with drummers of stylistic proclivity ranging from Paul Motian to Lewis Nash, and also performed quite a bit in duo, both with Lovano (documented on the wonderful recording Kids: Live at Dizzy’s Club) and Roberta Gambarini (Lush Life).

Although Jones’ legacy will lie primarily in the hundred or so recordings he made after 1975, when he retired from an 16-year run as a first-call studio musician in New York City, he was an active professional from the thirties, and a New York mainstay from 1944.  A consummate professional in any function, he found intriguing ways to meld the new sounds of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie that were in the air when he got to 52nd Street with his own two-handed roots in Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, and Nat Cole. Unparalleled as an accompanist helping other people tell their stories, he had no inhibitions about expressing own narrative, replete with ingenious harmonic formulations, rhythmic displacements, and a pungent-yet-dry sense of humor.

I met Jones for the first time in 1994 during an hour-long encounter on WKCR — he was promoting a gig at Sweet Basil that week. Thirteen years later,  Jazziz assigned me to write a profile.  That piece comes first in the queue, followed by a transcript of the WKCR interview.

* * * *

Hank Jones Jazziz Piece (2007):

“What I do most are the rudimental things,” said Hank Jones, describing the practice regimen he continues to follow on a daily basis during his eighth decade as a professional musician.

“If you’re not able to move your fingers, you won’t be able to play anything,” Jones continued. “So I concentrate on scales and exercises, then I play tunes that I might have to play at some future time. I try to play my interpretation. Sometimes I change the harmony, hopefully for the better, but I never change the melody.”

Just back in New York from a performance with singer Roberta Gambarini at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and looking forward to a two-week post-Christmas tour of Japan, Jones, 89, who described himself as in “advanced rehab” from quadruple bypass heart  surgery at the end of 2006, spoke decidedly in the present tense. “It’s been rather quiet,” he said, referring to 2007, highlights of which included a week at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola with Joe Lovano to support Kids [Blue Note], their third album together, and, in early July, a four-night run before packed houses at Birdland with bassist John Patitucci and drummer Omar Hakim for a Japan-targeted CD.

“It was a different approach for me, but it was interesting,” Jones said of the latter unit, the latest in a three-decade run of “Great Jazz Trios,” usually assembled by Japanese producers for recording purposes. In previous iterations, he functioned in equilateral triangle fashion with young-enough-to-be-his-son bassists Ron Carter and Eddie Gomez and drummers Tony Williams, Al Foster, and Jack DeJohnette, as well as the slightly older Jimmy Cobb. It would be hard to imagine any of the latter four ever paying so little attention to dynamics as did Hakim, who seemed unable to shake the trappings of his fusion background, deploying a double snare drum setup and on-the-one eighth-note grooves that clashed with the laid-back swing that Jones favors. Unfazed, Jones navigated the terrain with characteristic aplomb and elegance.

“In a group like that, each individual is a stylist,” he explained. “Since my style is different than theirs, I try to bridge over whatever there is between us, and try to make a musical connection. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but hopefully it will work most of the time.” Without comparing the experiences, Jones segued to his four-year association with Lovano. “With Joe, I use almost the same approach,” he continued. “Joe is a consummate artist, and he plays a style that is like a picture in which the hues and colors are constantly changing. He compels you to use a full piano style, to use the left hand to provide the bass and the rhythm, which might be difficult if you’re not used to playing solo. He makes you think harder in order to play in his idiom.”

It is characteristic that Jones would embrace a situation that, as he puts it, “broadens my horizon,” and reference collective rather than individual imperatives when discussing his core principles. Famously the surviving older brother of the iconic trumpeter-composer-arranger Thad Jones and world historical drummer Elvin Jones, he himself is a key signpost in the evolution of jazz vocabulary, esteemed by his peer group since he arrived in New York in 1944 for a gig with trumpeter-blues singer Hot Lips Page at the Onyx Club on 52nd Street, where he applied himself to absorbing bop avatars Bud Powell, Al Haig, and Thelonious Monk—on one occasion, after the Onyx closed, Monk invited Jones to his apartment to and played for him, as Jones transcribed the notes, a new composition called “Monk’s Mood.” A first-caller on 52nd Street by 1946, when he began a long association with Coleman Hawkins, and worked as well with Billy Eckstine, Andy Kirk, and John Kirby, Jones began touring with Jazz at the Philharmonic the following year, sharing piano duties with Oscar Peterson, who credits him as a deep influence. He accompanied Ella Fitzgerald from 1948 to 1953, and spent the remainder of the ‘50s freelancing, recording with artists as diverse as Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Artie Shaw, Sonny Stitt, Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Benny Goodman, and his younger brothers.

From 1959 to 1975, Jones worked at CBS as a staff pianist, playing on Captain Kangaroo, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, and any other forum which required his services. In 1975, he retired, and launched the present phase of his career, as a solo artist, which he was conducting with unabated energy—among his recordings between 2004 and 2006 were the excellent trio sessions S’Wonderful [Sony], For My Father [Justin Time], and West of 5th [Chesky], and two quartet dates with Lovano (I’m All For You and Joyous Encounter [Blue Note]—until his recent involuntary hiatus.

“Hank is involved in every aspect of the piece,” says Lovano. “His rhythmic punctuations and voicings are free and spontaneous, and the feeling he plays with is so solid and beautiful that a certain flow happens that you feed off of. He never repeats voicings. As a duo, we spontaneously orchestrate, shape each tune as we go along. In the quartet, there’s a lot of counterpoint and clarity; his punctuations are always searching and swinging. He always feeds off the line you’re playing, and follows it in an almost telepathic way.

The results in all cases transcend era and style. Indeed, in a manner not unlike Coleman Hawkins, Jones  plays—and composes—with an attitude that embraces and encompasses all the idioms that comprise the language of jazz from the stridecentric 1930s, when he absorbed Fats Waller, Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, and Nat Cole, through the harmonic complexities of Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Several fellow pianists, each young enough to be Jones’ grandchild, are happy to testify to the truth of this assertion.

“I tell my advanced students to get Tiptoe Tapdance, his solo piano record from 1978, which for me is a textbook of contemporary solo piano playing,” says Geoff Keezer, who presented Jones’ compositions in piano duos with Chick Corea, Kenny Barron, Benny Green and Mulgrew Miller on the 2003 CD Sublime: Honoring The Music of Hank Jones [Telarc]. “Here’s this old-school stride-transitioning-into-bebop player playing harmonies that are as hip as anything that was ever done! His tunes are virtuoso pieces that stretch you to the limits of what you can do as an improviser.”

“If you compare what Hank Jones plays with Joe Lovano to what he played with anybody fifty years ago, it’s on a genius level of musicianship,” said Eric Reed. “I’m not talking about inventiveness or technique or style. I’m talking about pure musicianship. His pedal work is amazing, like he’s playing a player piano, and he understands harmony better than any living musician, as you can hear in the way he’s able to interpret and reinterpret songs. When you tell Hank Jones that a certain chord is C7, he’s not just thinking C7, but of the thousands of variations of C7 that can be played at any particular moment. Somebody—maybe me—needs to do a book of transcriptions of Hank’s changes and substitutions.”

“Hank contains subtleties upon subtleties,” says Bill Charlap, who had an opportunity to experience the Jones effect first hand on a two-piano version of Billy Strayhorn’s “Tonk” for Lush Life [Blue Note], from 2005. “Subtlety of touch, of inflection, in his rhythm, in his harmony. His music has layers upon layers. He’s uniquely put together the whole history of jazz piano playing. You hear the juncture of Teddy Wilson, Nat Cole and Bud Powell—but also it’s his own voice. He’s the premier living jazz pianist.”

Jones won’t cosign the assertion. “I can’t praise myself,” he said, asked about his quick breakthrough on the New York scene. “If anything, I had feelings of inadequacy. I didn’t think I was that great. All these guys who were in the JATP—Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young—were my idols. I was hoping that I could keep up with them.”

But asked to describe his stylistic first principles, he responds with characteristic logic. “I try to play a relaxed style,” he says. “It probably sounds less complicated than most. I try to play something that is understandable and still intelligent. I guess it has to be understandable to me as well. If there’s no harmonic or melodic or even rhythmic base, how can it fit together to form a composition that’s intelligible, that can be interpreted as music? I remember a sign in the Decca Records office many years ago, an Indian looking out over the horizon, saying, ‘Where is the melody?’ First you have to know what you’re playing. If you know that, you have a point of departure. If you don’t know it, what are you doing? You’re playing aimlessly. All improvisation is, is variations on a melody, variations on a theme.”

Jones referenced his 1959-1975 tenure as a staff pianist at CBS. “I played for a variety of performers—singers, instrumentalists—who all had different styles. You listen. You’d adjust to whatever style you’re playing at the time. If you’re listening to Charlie Parker, you don’t play his solos, but you play in that idiom. If it’s Monk, you try to do what he’s doing—but you may not be able to do it! I’ve been asked to play things in the style of Fats Waller or Teddy Wilson—I hope they never ask me to play anything in the Tatum style! You try to think like the performer. I try always to play something different, make the flow of ideas more continuous—in other words, make it more enjoyable, hopefully, for a listener…or two.”

He chuckled at his quip, then turned to his favorite subject, Art Tatum, with whom he spent quality time during 1944, when Jones, 25, in the process of working his way east from Pontiac, Michigan, his home-town, to New York City, got an engagement at an Italian restaurant in Buffalo, across town from Tatum, then in residence at a bar-and-grill called McVan’s.

“There are players who can play every note of Tatum’s solos exactly,” he noted. “But they didn’t create the solos. Tatum was a creative performer as well as a fantastic technical interpreter. Now, when you listen to his recordings, you’ll always hear the melody. He always identifies the composition. So my approach is: Play whatever you play, make it understandable, but don’t sacrifice anything in your technique, anything you would play that is individualistic to your style. Do what you think. If you play somebody else’s musical ideas, how can you identify yourself? As you grow older, you try to develop a consciousness, an identity, so that when someone hears you, hopefully they can say, ‘Oh, that’s Hank Jones’ or whoever you happen to be.”

[BREAK]

A child of the Great Depression, Jones understands how to balance his creative impulses with pragmatic necessities, a talent that served him well during his long studio tenure.

“In the studio you’re playing by formula, playing music that’s written and set before, so the atmosphere tends to repress what creativity you have,” he remarks. “But not completely. Basically, I consider myself to be a creative player. I like to play things I haven’t done before, paint musical pictures, so to speak. So I guess I overcame that period of repression, you might say.”

He’s applied such pragmatism to other aspects of the jazz life, too. He recalls a moment down south in the spring of 1945, in the middle of a six-week tour with Hot Lips Page and a 15-piece big band. “We did all the little one-horse towns down there,” Jones recalls. “Some places we played had one side of the building missing. There were pianos that you had to transpose on, because they were always out of tune.”

They were in the railroad depot, waiting for a train to bring them to the next town. “The trains came on the same level where the passengers boarded the train, and we were standing next to the tracks with our bags lined up alongside them,” he recalls. “A pickup truck came along and ran right over our bags! Oh, I was fuming. If I had been the type that, excuse the expression, blew their top, that’s when it would have happened.

“I was able to keep it in perspective, even at that age. ‘I’m down here to work,’ I said. ‘This goes with the territory.’ That wasn’t the only incident. I thought there was no point in making it worse; all I could do was get myself, or maybe somebody else, hurt or killed—at the time, they were lynching people down there. I thought the best way to get through it was to keep my temper, hold it, remember it. I’ve never forgotten. But I didn’t raise my hand. Am I a coward? No. Because of my Christian upbringing, I was taught not to fight, but there times when I’d have to defend myself, and I’ve fought people who were 15-20 pounds heavier than I am and had them on the ground. Martin Luther King proved that there’s always a better way to do it. In other words, you can kill them with kindness, let’s say.”
Jones does not wear his faith on his sleeve, but walks the walk in his predisposition to perform hymns and spirituals, as on Steal Away [Verve], his 1994 duo recording of such repertoire with Charlie Haden. Indeed, he regards them as almost a birthright. “As a very young child, I remember hearing hymns whenever my mother sat down to the piano and at church, and as I grew up they were instilled in my mind. I can’t say I know every one, but I would say that I know the majority of hymns that were hung in the church from memory. During my teens, I played for the junior choir and occasionally the senior choir, so I had a lot of experience that way.

“My father was the greatest influence on me,” he adds, referring to Henry Jones, Sr., a factory worker and Baptist church deacon who had, Jones recalls, “read the Bible from start to finish,” took it literally, and applied its principles to daily life. “He was a very moral person. He spent the better part of his life in church. He was on the Deacon Board and the Trustee Board, attended the prayer meetings—every function the church had, he was there. He didn’t believe in gambling. We couldn’t even play cards in the house. He worked hard, but he would get up very early in the morning and tend the garden, because he believed in having fresh vegetables.  He loved music, but he didn’t like it in the house.

“Once I was playing a dance in a little club in Pontiac on Saturday night, and after 12 o’clock midnight my father came down to the job and pulled me off the bandstand because I couldn’t play on Sunday. I had to leave. I wasn’t happy about it, but I didn’t protest too much. He’s being a father. It’s his call, not mine. The fact that he didn’t want me to perform on Sunday meant that he wanted to keep the Sunday holy—which it should be, I think. I got away from that in later years, but I always feel a tinge of regret, guilt that I didn’t follow his strictures. If I had lived the kind of life that my father had wished me to live all my life up to now, I think I would have been a much better person.”

Perhaps Jones inherited his father’s willpower—he did become a secular musician, and left home to do so, albeit at a relatively advanced age. In any event, it took great deal of strength to make that break, to hew to his own code of ethics in conducting his life, and to do so without engaging in self-destructive actions and retaining a non-judgmental attitude to others who did so engage.

Unlike his father, Jones, the great-grandson of African slaves, continues to ponder his true genealogical identity, a subject that was the subtext of his 1995 collaboration with a Malian unit headed by keyboardist Cheick-Tidiane Seck on the album Sarala [Verve]. “It’s the question of who am I, really,” he explains. “When we left Africa in bondage, what was our name there? I’m Henry Jones. My father was Henry Jones. But then, who was Henry Jones? Where did ‘Jones’ come from? Perhaps the former owner was of English descent. I think about this sometimes late at night, and I will never rest easy until I know this.”

Other fundamental issues claw at him as well. “What I regret most is that I didn’t play enough with Thad and Elvin,” he says. “We should have done 10 or 15 albums together, or been in the same group. Shoulda-coulda-woulda. Together, we would have made something good. And I wonder if I was true, let’s say, to my race. There were times when I wanted to join the civil rights movement and march, but I would have lost my job. I had a wife and stepdaughter, and I had to support them. With my temperament, something could have happened to me, because things were going on that I might not have been able to accept. Although my instincts were to do the proper thing, I repressed them.

“Perhaps music is a release. I don’t know. But I feel pain in a lot of ways. My wife, for instance, is in a nursing home. Alzheimer’s. She’s been there a year now. But you have to learn to live with pain. because that’s part of life. The pain that I feel from that experience in the South is DEEP. But then I say, ‘What can I do about it?’ All I can do is try to live my life in such a way that things like that might never happen again. Now, I’m not trying to set myself as some kind of model to live by. I have to do what I can. I can’t help somebody else. I can only help myself.”

But then there’s music, and Jones intends to continue to play it and to keep looking for the next step.”When you become satisfied with your playing, your creativity levels off and you don’t do anything,” he says. “That’s a bad place to be. I’ve never been there, and I never expect to. I was never the local phenom, although I suppose people thought of me as adequate. I hope, anyway. But I thought my playing could be improved by listening to other players, and I learned an awful lot from the time I first arrived in New York up til now.

“What I am trying to do is a life-long quest. I’ll never be able to play as well as I would LIKE to play. I always believed that  I can do better, and I’ll always try to do better, but I cannot predict that that will ever happen. I just hope it will.”

Hank Jones (WKCR, 12-28-94):

[MUSIC: Jones/Mraz/Elvin, "Ah, Henry" (1993) - Jones/ Drummond/Higgins, "What Am I Here For?" (1989); Jones/ Holland/Higgins, "Blood Count" (1989); Jones/Duvivier/ Dawson, "Azure" (1977); Jones (solo), "Do Nothing Til You Hear From Me," "Prelude To A Kiss" (1976); Jones/Brown/ Smith, "Rockin' In Rhythm" (1977) - Jones/Mraz/Elvin, "Ray-El" (1992)]

New Yorkers are used to hearing you in duos and trios and so forth, but you don’t often appear with a larger group in New York.  That’s been true for your recording career as well.

HJ:    That’s true, although when I recorded a lot for Savoy, sometimes the A&R man would put horns, soloists with the trio.  Basically, though, as you say, it was with the trio.  At Savoy it was all trio, except a few instances of maybe a trombone being added or maybe a trumpet being added.  But in New York most recently it’s always been trio.

How do you differ in approaching the quintet configuration as opposed to a trio?

HJ:    Well, usually with a trio you have bass, drums and piano, and you get to hear a lot more of each instrument.  With the quintet you don’t hear as much of the trio.  The trio becomes the rhythm section, and accompanies the horn soloists, which is what the basic function of the rhythm section is.  On the other hand, it’s more exciting, I believe, for audiences to hear the horns, and they seem to relate to horns quite well.

In this particular instance, we have two of the very best, and I don’t think there are any finer musicians anywhere than Tom Harrell, a trumpet player (and flugelhorn, by the way, and also cornet), and Ralph Moore.  Ralph is a young player with wonderful technique and wonderful imagination and ideas, and he executes very well.  Tom, of course, is just as close to a genius as you’d ever get.  His approach is sort of a laid-back approach, but he’s thoroughly familiar with the chord progressions and harmonic ideas — as is Ralph.  The two of them together work very well.  They have a very good blend, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to accomplish that with the tenor saxophone and trumpet.

Especially on the first night.

HJ:    Well, hopefully, even that will get better.  But I’m sure there were first night, let’s say, observations that people like yourself could make, because you’ve had many, many years of experience listening to groups in that context.  But I think that with this particular group, it can only get better.  It’s started rough, but it will get better, I’m sure.

George Mraz is on your most recent recording, Upon Reflection [Verve], and I’m sure you’re familiar with his work over the years as well.

HJ:    Oh, very, very much so.  When George first came to this country I guess maybe 15 or 20 years ago, I was so much impressed by his work.  I said, “George, where have you been all this time?”  George said that he’d lived in Europe, I think Czechoslovakia, and then he told me that he’d placed second in European competition in a previous year.  I said, “Well, if you placed second, who in the world placed first?” — and he said Niels Henning Orsted Pederson!  George is one of those very few bass players who seem to have done everything that it’s possible to do on a bass, and he does it with great regularity and consistency.

He’s a very supportive player, and yet he’s capable of great solo flights when his turn comes.

HJ:    Exactly.  He has wonderful ideas.  He’s a very creative bass player.  He has an excellent tone, and his technique is flawless.  In addition to all this, he has a great beat.  He’s a perfect bass player for any rhythm section.  And as a soloist as well, he’s just… He’s incomparable.

I guess you have one of the top-call drummers as well for this week, someone who is not so easy to get hold of any more, Lewis Nash.

HJ:    Lewis Nash is one of the most sought-after drummers, perhaps the most sought-after drummer in the business.  And understandably so, when you realize that he plays with such great imagination, his time is absolutely perfect, his solo ideas are clear, concise and always innovative and exciting.

I’ll tell you, this group is one of the most exciting groups, I think, ever.  It’s certainly one of the most exciting groups I’ve played with.  Every tune that you play is a new adventure, because you know that something different and something wonderful is going to happen, you know what I mean.  So there’s a layer of expectation on our parts, as well as hopefully the audience.

Well, that’s something I’d like to address with you, because as a fan of yours over the years, and one whose appreciation of your music grows over the years, the thing that strikes me most is the way you seem to approach material you’ve probably played, you know, 18,000 times, freshly, as though it were fresh each time.

HJ:    Well, I think the only way you can do that is in the context of the group that you’re playing with.  Usually that’s it.  In my case, for instance, although I’ve played many times in the trio format, usually it’s a different group each time — the personnel has been different.  I think that, in and of itself, gives you a fresh approach to the material that you’re playing — although you may have played it maybe not 18,000 times, but perhaps 17,000 times.

So it’s the intersecting of personalities.

HJ:    I think so, of personnel and styles and just whatever the relationship is between musicians who work together, perhaps for the first time, or the second or third time.  But there’s always something new, it seems, that you can relate to in a group like this.

Well, it’s a very democratic approach to the trio.  For instance, in some trios there, of course, the arrangements are pretty much worked out, although the musicians improvise and apply their imagination.  But it seems that in your trios there’s always room for fresh approaches and new discoveries.

HJ:    I think even that is based on the personnel.  If you know that you’re going to be working, let’s say, at Club XYZ, and your personnel is A, B, C and so forth, you think, then, in terms of what this particular group will be able to do in relation to what you do.  And sometimes you come up with new ways of approaching old problems, or old tunes, maybe changing some harmonies here and there, changing some progressions and so forth.  There’s always something that you can do to make it different and more interesting for the listener — as well as for the musicians who are playing with you.

Another thing that’s impressed me over the years is the breadth of your repertoire, which goes from Fats Waller and James P. Johnson to the most modern harmonic developments.

HJ:    Mmm-hmm.

I’d like to talk about how you develop repertoire, how you discover tunes, decide to use certain things, discard others, so forth and so on. [END OF TAPE SIDE]

HJ:    Again, it’s according to the personnel.  There’s a book, but you might add some original compositions if your group has people in it who are composers who write many tunes.  For instance, Ralph Moore wrote a tune called “Hopscotch” that we played that I had seen for the first time.  He is a very innovative writer, a very imaginative writer.  Tom Harrell also contributed a composition of his called “Because I Love You.”  I have written a couple of things.  I keep writing things.  Most musicians who are in this business, I think, always do a certain amount of writing, creative writing composition-wise.  So I think this all adds up, gives you sort of a different approach.  I’m sure it’s better for the listener to hear different material.

That was the approach of one the people you worked with early in your career, Coleman Hawkins, kept him fresh.

HJ:    Mmm.

I guess I’ll use the mention of his name as a segue to jump back from the end of 1994 to the beginning of your musical experiences, and your education on the piano.  Were you brought to it by your parents?  Was there a piano in your house?

HJ:    Always a piano.  And I, along with two older sisters, studied the piano, in Pontiac, Michigan, where we grew up.

What were your sisters’ names?

HJ:    My oldest sister’s name was Olive, and another younger sister was Melinda.  They both studied piano, along with myself.  We used to play two-piano duets, on the same piano, which is not the easiest thing in the world to do!  My oldest sister, Olive, was quite accomplished as a pianist.  She unfortunately had an accident skating on a lake, and she died at the age of 13.  But even at that age, she was quite a pianist.  My other sister, Melinda, was also a very fine pianist, although she apparently didn’t want to follow music as a career.

But there was always a piano in the house, and always music, and I guess that certainly must have had an influence on our decision, or certainly on my decision to try to go further with the piano.

According to my sources, you were born in Saginaw, Michigan…

HJ:    No.  As a matter of fact, I was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi.  Now, I grew up in Pontiac, Michigan.  But I worked a while in Saginaw! [LAUGHS]

I misread some material.  Did your parents bring you up from Mississippi at the end of World War One?

HJ:    When I was quite young, nine months of age, as a matter of fact, my folks moved to Pontiac from Vicksburg.  So I grew up in Pontiac.  My two older sisters and I were born in Vicksburg.  All the other members of the family — Thad, Elvin, Paul, Tom, Edith, Etta Mae — were born in Pontiac.

Vicksburg is Milt Hinton’s home town.

HJ:    So I understand.  And Milt always tells me that he knew my folks, even though I never heard of him.  Because as I said, we moved from Pontiac when I was nine months of age.

Were your parents musical?

HJ:    My father played guitar, and my mother played piano.  But neither one of them played professionally.  They just knew how to play the piano.  I don’t know whether they had studied or not, but they both were able to play well — so I assumed that they must have studied.  They never discussed that.  I don’t know whether you know this, by the way, but Elvin can play guitar.  Have you heard him play?

I haven’t, but I’ve heard that he plays wonderfully.

HJ:    It’s Blues guitar, you know.  Real down-home Blues.  Interesting.

You mentioned that your experiences just within the family led you to explore the piano further.  When did this start to manifest itself in working for pay?

HJ:    Well, I must tell you at this point that the “pay” [quote, unquote] was…if you say it was minimal, I think that’s an exaggeration. [LAUGHS]

It may not have seemed so at the time, though.

HJ:    Well, yes it did! [LAUGHS] Actually, we weren’t as concerned about that at that point.  I think all of us, and we were all about the same age, we were more concerned about producing something that could be called music.  I think that was our biggest concern.  We were all going through the learning process — as we are today.  By the way, this is something that never stops, Ted, at least in my case.  I mean, every outing, every set, every appearance, to me, is a learning experience, especially when you’re working with musicians of the caliber of Ralph Moore, Tom Harrell, people like this…

Bringing our attention back to this week.

HJ:    Of course, yes.  Lest we forget!

We won’t, I promise.  But moving back…

HJ:    Yes, okay!

I’m just curious about the type of gigs that an aspiring teenage pianist, or musician, would be doing in that area.

HJ:    Growing up in Pontiac, there were not an awful lot of places to play.  I grew up, though, in a period when Prohibition was still in effect, and the clubs, or beer gardens as they were called in those days, served 3.2 beer.  I suppose if you drank a barrel of it, you could probably get high, and some people did.  But those were the kind of places that were available to work in.  I used to work in places like that at a very early age.  In fact, my father objected very strenuously to that.  He was a very religious man.

How old were you?

HJ:    I was about 14 at the time, and still going to school.  It was kind of difficult to do.  But those were the places.  Whenever I worked with a band, I was always the youngest member of the band at that time.  The situation is somewhat reversed today!  Anyway, we worked in those types of places.  Also, we played school dances, parties and things like that…

What sort of music did you play?

HJ:    We played mostly stock arrangements.  These were published arrangements that were available in the music stores, and they were written by famous arrangers.  I remember Buck Clayton had written a number of them, Fletcher Henderson, Horace Henderson, all of the well-known arrangers of the day had written stock arrangements.  Duke Ellington had written some.  So that’s what we played.

Also we had musicians who were very good writers and arrangers who could arrange standard tunes of the day.  We had one fellow, Jimmy Parker, who was about the same age we were, but he was an excellent arranger, he played all the instruments in the band — one of those rare people who seemed to do everything well.  We played some of his things.  But most of the things that we played were stock arrangements.  The groups ranged in size anywhere from six pieces to twelve pieces.

Playing around Pontiac.

HJ:    That’s right.  During that period we never actually left the Pontiac area.  Later on, of course, we did go out on tour.  I worked in a band in Lansing, Michigan, led by Benny Carew, a drummer, who had what they called a territory band.  They worked maybe certain areas of Ohio, Michigan, but never any further than that.  It was a good band.  At one time it had Wardell Gray, Lucky Thompson, Art House, a trumpet player who used to work with Woody Herman.  He had some good musicians in the band.

Was your first contact, let’s say, with Lucky Thompson or Wardell Gray, through this territory band?

HJ:    It was, yes.  That’s right.

Because they came up in Detroit.

HJ:    That’s right.  They were born and grew up in Detroit.  They both went to the same high school.  I forget the name of the high school, but they must have had an excellent music department there, because they produced musicians that were of professional quality just out of high school.  So it must have been a great school.

Anyway, Lucky and Wardell and others played in this band, Benny Carew.  We played many college dates in that area, in Lansing or Saginaw or Grand Rapids, Michigan.  We never played any dates in Pontiac, by the way.

Did the big bands come through Pontiac and its environs, or only Detroit?

HJ:    Surprisingly enough, big bands did come through Pontiac.  Rarely, infrequently, but… I remember very clearly Nat Cole, who was playing piano with his brother’s big band….

The Eddie Cole Big Band out of Chicago.

HJ:    That’s right.  They played a theater I think called the Rialto Theater in Pontiac.  It was my first experience of hearing a big band ever in person.  I remember that they did an arrangement of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and Nat Cole was the featured pianist.  He was very spectacular.  I remember on the release of “Sweet Georgia Brown” he did sort of a pinwheel effect.  He liked to play a lot of single-note lines, even then.

He was very influenced by Earl Hines, of course, being from Chicago.

HJ:    I think so.  A lot of people think that Earl Hines might be the forerunner of Bop, because he played a lot of single-finger lines.  That was his style.  And as you say, Nat Cole must have heard him and must have been influenced by him.

He recollected hanging out in the alley behind the Grand Terrace in Chicago in the 1930′s, and checking him out.

HJ:    Exactly.

But this brings me to a question, which is the formation of your aesthetic, the pianists you heard, how you began to assimilate styles.  The biographies say that you were mightily impressed by Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson and Fats Waller, the main subject of your recent recording, Handful Of Keys.  A few words about Fats Waller.

HJ:    Well, I remember very clearly hearing Fats Waller on the radio every morning when I was going to junior high school.  There were two radio stations, CKLW and KCLK; one of them was in Canada, in Windsor, and the other one was in Detroit.  They used to play many records of Fats Waller.  He always impressed me as a very rhythmic pianist, and he had a happy sound.  Another pianist who had that same kind of sound, but a different sound, was Erroll Garner.  Erroll Garner had that happy feeling.  When you listened to his music, you felt uplifted, generally.  It put you on a higher level of enjoyment.  Fats Waller had that.  And what a great way to start off the day!  Because before we left the house to go to school, we were listening to Fats Waller.

Duke Ellington gave me a different kind of feeling.  Of course, it was all big band.  But Duke, in spite of what some people might think, was an excellent pianist.  I guess when the band was playing, of course, he preferred to let the musicians in the band take the spotlight as far as solo  playing was concerned…

They were extensions of him anyway.

HJ:     Exactly.  I always liked Duke’s piano-playing style.  And his ideas, of course, were very innovative.  Although Duke, if he were here today, would tell you that Willie The Lion Smith influenced him quite a bit.  And when you listen to some of the Willie The Lion Smith piano solos (and I have some of them, by the way), you can hear the later Duke Ellington.  So Duke was greatly influenced in that respect.  I mean, everybody is.  That’s not unusual.  You have to have a role model.  And I’m sure that Willie was one of Duke’s role models.  The others were probably some other pianists that we don’t even know about…

Well, it’s very interesting how styles were disseminated even at a time when there was much less universal media from one part of the country to another, just because of the traveling life of musicians — and of course, from records.

HJ:    Yes, records.  There weren’t as many, but… Or just traveling musicians who would go from place to place.  Some people like to describe them as itinerant. I don’t.  [LAUGHS] Maybe they had to move from place to place because there was no work where they were, and so they were trying to find work.  I’m sure the basic reason for their travel was not that they loved it; it’s just they had to do it in order to survive.

But you mentioned Earl Hines.  Well, of course, Earl Hines was a single-line pianist.  That’s the best way to describe his playing.  He had a very good band in the 1930′s and early ’40s.  As a matter of fact, Sarah Vaughan used to sing in his band at one time.

She got her start in that band.

HJ:    That’s right.  And he had violins at one time, by the way.

Well, he had to take care of a whole show at the Grand Terrace in Chicago, so a lot of his repertoire had to be geared toward the dancers and the comedians, and deal with the whole range of entertainment.

HJ:    That’s right.

Art Tatum was in the Midwest quite a bit in the 1930′s.  He was from Toledo, Ohio.

HJ:    Yes, he was.  There was another pianist, Lannie Scott, who you may not have heard of (or maybe you have).  Lannie and Art used to work opposite each other in the same club, Val’s in the Alley in Toledo.  Then later on I met Lannie in Detroit.  As a matter of fact, I worked opposite Lannie Scott.  But they had similar styles.  Lannie had, you could say, a similar harmonic approach to playing that Art did, but Art, of course, was just more prolific.  He had flawless technique with both hands, just a never-ending flow of ideas, and tremendous energy.  Where it came from, I don’t know, because he was an ordinary-looking man.  He wasn’t a huge man.  He was on the small side.

But his playing is beyond description.  Everything that he does… You know, I listen to records that he made forty years ago, today, and I still hear things that I didn’t hear the first time I heard them.  When I first heard Art Tatum play, I said, “Aha.  Here are three guys playing the piano, and they want people to believe that only one person is playing the piano.  I won’t go for that.”  But of course, later I found out that there was only one person!  Of course, I had even more respect for him then.

But he was just a tremendous player.  Flawless.  Keys didn’t mean anything.  He could play in any key with the same technique.  Of course, he was blind.  He was legally blind, now.  He could see a little bit.  I’ve seen him play cards, pinochle, and he’d hold the cards up to eye level and then pull out a card, and so forth.  I was really amazed when I saw him do that, because I had thought he was totally blind.  He wasn’t totally blind.  Legally blind, which meant he’d lost maybe 75 or 80 percent of his sight.  But his playing certainly didn’t reflect that.  If anything, you might have thought he had four eyes and sixteen hands!

An octopus of the piano.

HJ:    Octopus, exactly!   A good way to describe it.

Now, Teddy Wilson was a very methodical pianist.  He had flawless technique.  I got a chance to hear him at greater length when he played with the Benny Goodman Trio, back when they were doing the Camel Hour on the radio.  Remember radio, the little box that used to sit…

Well, no, that I don’t remember.

HJ:    That’s right.  You’re much too young.  But this is how I first became aware of his playing.  By the way, Teddy used to travel in Michigan, in the area of Flint and Saginaw — I don’t think he ever came to Pontiac.  But he was widely known in that area.  People in Flint that I met later knew Teddy very well.  In fact, I think he lived in Flint for a time.  Flint is about forty miles north of Pontiac.

Teddy as a pianist was flawless.  Whatever he played was very clear, distinct, harmonically absolutely correct, and flawless.  His technique was flawless.  Now, I won’t say that he made the Benny Goodman Trio, but he certainly made it a viable group of musicians.  Because they were playing without a bass.  Teddy provided the bass, because he had this two-handed approach to piano, playing the Stride with the left-hand, and coordinating the right hand with the left hand to create a very fluent, flowing style.  He didn’t play with the huge, great volume of notes that Art Tatum played, but distinct and clear and very, very listenable.

Well, in analyzing these pianists, were you trying to, let’s say, copy solos or memorize solos, and apply those ideas to functional situations?

HJ:    I think most people do that to a certain extent.  When I first heard Teddy, and I tried to emulate his style… Actually there were folios that somebody had published of his piano work, and I played some of them until I got the style in my head, so to speak.  After that, then I would just try to play in that idiom.  I tried to do the same thing with Tatum, with no results whatsoever. [LAUGHS]

Well, some, some people might think.

HJ:    But I mean, with Tatum it was much, much more difficult to do.  There are pianists who specialize in that.  They might even play some of his solos.  But you see, the difference there is that Tatum was creating the solos, and somebody else is playing a solo that’s written out as if you were playing a Classical piece that was written.  There are pianists who can play any Classical piece.  There are pianists, perhaps, who could play any of the Tatum solos.  But again, they’re just playing something that’s already been created.

I’d like you to comment on some of your experiences as your professional career began to emerge, I guess, in the late 1930′s. It sounds like Benny Carew’s band was a springing-off point for you.

HJ:    Yes, I think it was, to a great extent.  Because I did spend a good deal of time in Lansing, which was where the band was based.

What was Benny Carew’s sound like as a drummer?

HJ:    Well, I think it may have been close to the Chick Webb sound, drummers of that period, of which Chick was a pretty good representative.  He had excellent time (I think that’s the first requirement of a drummer anyway), and he played very good solos.  He was a good bandleader.  He was a good leader in that he knew how to get the most out of his personnel, the people who played with him, Lucky and Wardell and others.  He knew how to organize a concert or a dance or whatever it was.  I think that the guys who played with the band liked him because he was affable; I never heard Benny raise his voice to anybody.  He was a nice guy to get along with.

A perfect leader.  He always stayed in the background, and always called tunes at the right tempo.  That’s an art, by the way, finding the right tempo for a tune.  Benny Goodman was very good at it.  Count Basie was very good at it, very good.  They always found the right tempo for a tune.  It’s not easy to do.  There are, let’s say, an endless variety of tempos that you can use, only one of which is right.

Not two, not three, there’s just one correct tempo?

HJ:    I think so, yes.

Well, between the late 1930′s and your recording debut in 1944 there were I’m sure many musical experiences.  Let’s talk about some of them.

HJ:    Not in the Thirties, really.  I didn’t even start… Well, I was playing around Pontiac in the late Thirties, playing in beer gardens where they served 3.2 beer.  But I started out when I left Pontiac, and came to Cleveland, Ohio, in about 1943.

So you were about 25 years old then.

HJ:    Just about, yes.  The ripe old age of 25.  I played with the Tommy Enoch Band.  We played in a nightclub in Cleveland called the Cedar Gardens.  This club had a show.  It was a rather small club, but it had a line of showgirls.  Sort of a miniature Cotton Club type of club.  By the way, one of the guys in that band was Cesar Dameron, who was the brother of Tadd Dameron — Tadd was from the Cleveland area.  It was a good band, and I spent maybe six or seven months then.  From there, I went to Buffalo, New York.

A natural progression, along the Great Lakes.

HJ:    Right, exactly.  And I swam all the way there. [LAUGHS]  It was, as you say, a natural progression.  Actually, I was really on my way to New York, because I had heard from Lucky Thompson, who was then working with Hot Lips Page in New York, that Hot Lips might be needing a pianist.  So that was in the back of my mind.  So I was sort of working my way down to the New York area.  I spent maybe a year in Buffalo, during which time I met Ray Brown, who was 17 years old at the time.  Ray was working with a band in Buffalo, I forget the name of the band; it might have been Jimmy Hinsley or one of those bands.  Anyway, he was working there in a club.  We would meet after we got off of work, I from my club called the Anchor Bar — I forget what his club was.  We’d meet and have a couple of glasses of whole milk.  Neither one of us drank liquor, so we drank milk.

One of the interesting things about being in Buffalo is that Art Tatum played in Buffalo quite often, and our night ended before his did.  So Ray and I would always go over and catch Art Tatum play his last set in Buffalo.  That was really my first experience of hearing Art in person.  I’d heard many of the records, but when I saw him in person and watched him play, I couldn’t believe that he was doing all of those things that I heard on the records — but he was, though!  Because he played effortlessly, just completely without effort, no conscious effort, no pyrotechnics.   He just sat there as if he was reading a paper.

What did Ray Brown sound like at the age of 17?

HJ:    Pretty much the way he sounds now, although his tone is much better today, of course.  He had just as much stamina and just as much energy then as he has today.  But his harmonic sense has improved over the years, as anyone’s will.  Don’t forget, he was only 17 at the time.  I was amazed at his ability at the age of 17.  You know, 17 is quite a young age to be playing at a professional level.  And he did that very well.

But the very short time that I spent there I think helped me a lot.  I got to listen to some great music from Art Tatum and others.

Then I finally came to New York, and Ray followed shortly thereafter, and I believe he started working with Dizzy Gillespie.  I introduced him to Dizzy, Dizzy needed a bass player, and I think he hired him on the spot just like that.

Well, now I’m going to have to ask several other questions, because you brought up…

HJ:    Okay! [LAUGHS]

First of all, in 1944 and 1945 the first recordings of what was called Bebop were emerging, although, of course, that had been in the air.

HJ:    Yes.

So I’d like to talk about your exposure to it.  Indeed, you were a major player in some of the early recordings.

HJ:    Perhaps.  Although I think there were others, like Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk and Al Haig who were in New York; by the time I arrived, they had already been there for several years.  For instance, Bud Powell and Al Haig alternated in the Dizzy Gillespie-Charlie Parker small band, the quintet…

Which you first saw when?

HJ:    When I first arrived in New York, about 1944.  They were working at the Three Deuces, and later they worked at the Spotlite, which was on 52nd Street, both clubs — which was called Swing Street at the time, you know.  There were many clubs along there.  That’s another story.  But these guys would go from one club to the other, just continuously.  I worked at the Onyx Club, which was on the other side of 52nd Street.

Anyway, Dizzy and Charlie played Bebop; it was described and understood as Bebop at the time.  A lot of musicians and a lot of people didn’t really understand it.  Many musicians didn’t understand it, and they rejected it more or less.  Of course, many listeners, lay people, didn’t understand it, because they knew it was something different.  But it was highly technical, it required a high degree of harmonic sense, and a high degree of technical facility in order to be played correctly, which both Charlie Parker and Dizzy had — and of course, to a great extent also, Bud Powell and Al Haig.  Max Roach was the drummer in the band, and he alternated with Stan Levey on drums.  The bass players were Gene Ramey or Curley Russell.  They were all in that same mental state.  They all played in the same idiom.  They thought alike.

What was your response, though?  Obviously, you had an affinity.

HJ:    It was quite different.  I had been listening to people like Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum and things, so my approach was from that standpoint.  Although I brought a two-handed approach to the style.  Later, actually, sort of to play in the idiom, I played less of my left hand and more of the right hand.  Usually if the pianist is playing it, it’s in conjunction with a bass player or a drummer, so it’s a trio or a duo format.  If it’s a duo format, and you’re playing with a bass, the bass then is responsible for the bass line, or the left hand, and the pianist is responsible for the right hand.

So in that context, I listened, and in my mind I was trying to relate how I could then adapt this style to my playing.  And certainly it didn’t happen overnight.  I think I have more of it now than I did then.  It took quite a while for me to finally figure out how to incorporate this style in my playing.  Perhaps I did it gradually… I don’t think you do it overnight.  It happens over a period of time.  I think you first have to think the style, and then you have to execute the style.  Well, it may take a while for that.

[ETC.]  In the next set of music we’ll explore some of Hank Jones’ performances of music from the period we’re discussing now, which is the mid-1940′s in New York City.  The first track is from a 1955 trio session for Savoy, the Hank Jones Trio featuring Wendell Marshall and a drummer with whom you worked frequently on these Savoy dates, the great Kenny Clarke.  Before we begin, just a few words about his attributes as a drummer and stylist.

HJ:    Well, Kenny was one of the very few drummers (and Elvin is another one) who was very proficient at the use of brushes.  It’s almost become a lost art.  By the way, Lewis Nash is also one of those very few drummers who do this well.  Kenny played the kind of drums that were particularly, I think, adaptable for pianists to play with.  He never really got in the way.  He never intruded, let’s say, into a pianist’s line of thinking.  So he was very good for a trio format, or even a quartet format.  I enjoyed working with Kenny very much, and also with Wendell Marshall.  Wendell had played with Duke Ellington for a time.  He was an excellent reader, of course, as was Kenny; most of the musicians were.  The two of them were just perfect for me to work with, because my style was compatible with what they were doing.  Kenny could sense maybe rhythmic patterns that you might play even before you’d play them, based on what you’d played previously, and I think Wendell could also do that.  That was a very interesting period working with guys like that at Savoy.  They did most of the work that I did at Savoy.  They were on most of the LPs.  They were called LPs in those days.

Were you also working outside as a unit, or was it strictly for the studio setup?

HJ:    Strictly for recording purposes.  We recorded at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio, which at that time was in his home in Hackensack, New Jersey.  I always say that that piano we used to record on was one piano in a hundred thousand.  It had that kind of tone.  All pianos are different, you know. This particular piano had a response and a feel and a tone and a sound that almost no other piano has.  I think it’s probably still being used.  It’s probably not as good as it was, but probably better than most.

[MUSIC: H. Jones/W. Marshall/K. Clarke, "Now's The Time" (1955); H. Jones/R. Mitchell, "I'll Remember April," H. Jones/T. Flanagan, "Au Privave" (1983); Thad Jones/Hank Jones/Mickey Roker, "Groovin' High" (1977); H. Jones (solo) "Round Midnight" (1991)]

That set brings up so many questions.  I think you have a very special affinity for Monk’s music.

HJ:    Well, Monk’s music is certainly distinctive.  That’s the most obvious thing about it.  Monk was the definitive stylist.  I mean, haven’t heard anybody that even approaches the style that Monk played.  Many pianists have tried to imitate that style, but so far I have not heard anybody who does it successfully.  And no matter what tune Monk would be playing, whether it was “Stardust” or “Body and Soul,” you would hear particularly the innovative and distinctive chords, the harmonizations and harmonic progressions that Monk used, which are totally different from any other pianist that ever played.  This is the most distinctive thing about him.

I liked his music.  I still love his music.  And I liked him as a person.  Because I think Monk was completely honest in his approach.

I got to hear Monk, maybe I was introduced to his music in perhaps the best way.  One night after I had finished work at the Onyx Club on 52nd Street, Monk invited me to come to his home and listen to him play his piano.  So we went to his home, and he played “Monk’s Mood.”  I didn’t know the song at the time, but he played it, and he asked me to write it as he played it.  So this was my introduction to Monk’s music.  This was my final exam, beginning and final exam!  But that was perhaps the best way to become acquainted with his style, his voicings, his harmonic voicings, his leading tones and his… Oh!  Everything was totally different.

He had his own style of fingering, actually, didn’t he, to…?

HJ:    I suppose he did, perhaps to accomplish the groupings, the clusters that he played.  I’m not sure about that, because I never really watched him play that much.  I certainly have listened to a lot of his music.  There is nothing like it.  It’s innovative, it’s interesting, it’s exciting, and harmonically stimulating.  You listen to his music, and you say, “Oh, yes, that’s right.  Why didn’t I think of that?”  It’s wonderful.

You chose Dizzy Gillespie’s arrangement of “Round Midnight” and played “Groovin’ High” on the previous track with your brother Thad and drummer Mickey Roker.  By the way, when Hank heard that performance of “Groovin’ High” initially, he said, “That’s Dizzy.”

HJ:    [LAUGHS]

You mentioned meeting Dizzy Gillespie when you got to New York.

HJ:    Yes, of course.  He was working with Charlie Parker on 52nd Street with the Dizzy Gillespie-Charlie Parker Quintet, which was perhaps the greatest quintet that was ever organized.

What did the quintet sound like in person?  I know that’s sort of a gratuitous question.  But I mean, it must have been stunning to hear a band like that in 1944, if the records are any… Of course, it’s stunning to this day!

HJ:    Of course.  At that time, it was equally stunning, and it had never been done before.  The group had a light sound.  Some people think of quintets as being heavy and ponderous, but this one was like… Dizzy played a very light, airy kind of style.  Charlie Parker was, of course, innovative in every sense.  His tone, which is I think something most musicians forget about… His tone was absolutely perfect.  A lot of saxophone players, particularly tenor players, don’t get a true tenor sound.  They sound more like altos.  In Charlie’s case, he sounded exactly like an alto should sound, and the tone was absolutely pure.  In addition to his fantastic ideas, his tone was just perfect, you know.  It’s what you expected to hear and what you did hear.

The group itself was just… Well, how could you describe it?  As I said, I don’t think there’s ever been another group like it, and perhaps there never will be.  I think that group was unique because they all thought the same way.  Dizzy and Charlie had the same approach.  They all played in the same idiom.  And everything dovetailed.  Everything fit.  There was nothing that was out of place.  I think that’s what made that group sound so good.

Of course, they had been in Earl Hines’ Band and with Billy Eckstine before this, and were able to work out their ideas together.  What were your first interactions with Dizzy Gillespie like?  Musically, he was, of course, famous for sharing information with other musicians and so forth.

HJ:    At a later date I did come in contact with Dizzy through his changes, through the tunes that he had written and so forth.  Sometimes you’d be playing a tune, and Dizzy would suggest a different progression or a different chord change that would certainly be different and perhaps a lot better than the one that you had previously played.  He had his own harmonic ideas, and his ideas about arranging were certainly circumspect.  The best example of that is that introduction on “Round About Midnight,” which is a classic!  As I’ve said, I’ve heard the tune played hundreds of times; I’ve never heard a better introduction than that one!  So his ideas musically were very sound and correct, absolutely correct.  And of course, Charlie Parker’s were, too.

They both thought alike.  You wouldn’t even… During those days, when I first came to New York, you didn’t think of one without thinking of the other.  Of course, they worked together in that same group, and even before that in Earl Hines’ band, and they formulated a lot of their ideas.  That’s interesting, too, because we talked a little bit before about Earl Hines’ style on the piano being a single-line approach.  So maybe that had something to do with their thinking, because they had both played with that band previously.  I didn’t know them prior to the 52nd Street period.  But maybe something that Earl played or something he said or suggested, or maybe some style of the band might have influenced their thinking towards Bebop, as it was called.

By the way, I’m really not happy with the term “Bebop.”  I am not even happy with the term “Jazz,” for that matter.

Why is that?

HJ:    Because I don’t think it accurately describes it.  You see, the term “Jazz” is really an offshoot of a term that was spelled “jass,” and it referred to music that was played in bawdy houses, you know, back in Chicago and in those days, you know.  The word “Jazz” came from that.  So the connotation is almost disrespectful in that sense.  To label an entire class of music as “Jazz” that sprung from a label that was less than respectful seems a little bit disingenuous to me…

Do you think the word still has that connotation?

HJ:    I don’t think so.  I think it’s grown from there.  But that’s in the back of my mind.  When I think of it, I think of the early beginnings of it, and I think somebody should have come up with a better name.  Well, they didn’t, so we’re stuck with the term “jazz,” for  better or worse.  But it doesn’t have to mean that, of course.

Well, your talking about the origins of the word “Jazz” made me think about your association with Coleman Hawkins, who was around from just about the beginnings of its recorded origins, and who kept fresh and current with what was happening really all through his career.  What were your first encounters with Hawk like?  I know you recorded with him maybe in ’46 or ’47?

HJ:    My first contact with Coleman Hawkins was on a JATP tour in 1947.  He was with that tour, as well as Lester Young, Flip Phillips, and Joe Harris.  Later on, back in New York, I played with his group.  He was working at the Spotlite, with a group that included J.J. Johnson, Max Roach, and Curly Russell, the bass player, and myself.  Did I mention Miles Davis?

Not yet.

HJ:    Miles also was a member of that group.  It was a very good group.  We did, oh, maybe a month or two at the Spotlite.  We also played in Philadelphia with that same group.  Later, Fats Navarro became the trumpet player…

And he recorded with the group for RCA.

HJ:    That’s right, yes.  It was a great period.  I learned a lot during that period.  How could you fail to learn, playing with people like that?

Well, what was Coleman Hawkins’ approach to new repertoire?  If he was hiring people like Miles Davis and J.J. Johnson, was he encouraging them to bring in music?

HJ:    Well, what I think he did was, he listened to their styles.  He liked their approach and he liked the kind of music they were playing.  So he wanted to play the same kind of thing.  His mind was always open to new ideas.  I think that’s the key.  You mentioned that he always stayed fresh.  That’s the only way you can do that.  You have to keep an open mind to various styles that perhaps might be at variance with your own style.  If you think it can enhance your own playing, then you adopt that portion of it that you think might be beneficial.  I think that’s what Coleman Hawkins did.  Maybe not consciously, or maybe consciously.  Either way, it worked for him.  I think that’s a great way for anybody to approach this kind of music.

You know, improvisation is just that.  It’s a new way of doing something perhaps different from the previous way of doing it.  You improvise.  You substitute.  You play a variation here or there.  And that’s the essence of improvisation anyway, a variation of a melody or theme.  But this is what Coleman did.  His ideas were always fresh, because he was constantly groping, searching for new ways to express an idea, new ways to develop a theme, new ways to approach the overall melodic content.

By the way, Coleman Hawkins was a great ballad player, in addition to being a great Jazz player.  There is a difference.  They’re related somewhat.  But you can be a great ballad player without being a great Jazz player.  But at the same time, you can be a great Jazz player without being able to play ballads well.  So the two are different.

Being able to do both is…

HJ:    Yes, then that’s the epitome, isn’t it?

I’d say that holds true for Mr. Jones as well.  I know your time is short, but I’d be remiss, having you here and not asking you about your two younger brothers, who both achieved such heights on their instrument.  I’ll ask you about Thad Jones first, who was closer to you in age, and I’d imagine you spent more time together coming up.

HJ:     Well, Thad was very innovative in his thinking and his writing.

What were his early influences on the trumpet?  Can you illuminate his musical thinking for us a little bit?

HJ:    Well, Thad loved the Duke Ellington band.  So I believe that he probably listened to Rex Stewart, Cootie Williams, and just… You know, you can be influenced on an instrument without listening to somebody play that particular instrument.  He was influenced by Duke’s writing, for instance, and the overall style of the band, all of the players — Johnny Hodges, for a while Ben Webster, of course, was in that band.  You can be influenced by their approach without being influenced by, in Thad’s case, any trumpet players.  Cootie Williams and Rex Stewart were there, I don’t know who else was on trumpet, maybe Ray Nance, who was a good player, but not in the same sense that a Dizzy Gillespie or a Miles Davis or a Fats Navarro was.  But those were his early influences, I’m sure.

They all had very specialized sounds, very distinctive sounds.  They had singular identities within the band.

HJ:    Yes, that’s true.  I think Duke picked his men for that very characteristic, and he could blend them… He knew each one’s capabilities and characteristics, and that’s how he wrote.  He wrote for the band.  That’s why his arrangements always sounded different and innovative, because they were a perfect fit with the musicians who were to play them.  I think that’s one reason for his great success.

And he adapted his classic arrangements to fit the new personnel of his later bands as well.

HJ:    Exactly.

But getting back to your brother, Thad, when did it become evident that music would be his future?  Did he always have a facility for the trumpet?

HJ:    You know, his first trumpet, or his first horn (actually it was a cornet), was given to him by his uncle, Bill Jones, who played cornet and trumpet.

Bill Jones would have been on your father’s side.

HJ:    Yes, he was my father’s youngest brother, as a matter of fact.  Bill was a cornet and trumpet player.  And I think Thad, of course, just took the horn and went from there.  He never stopped, never looked back.  Thad never had a great deal of formal training as a trumpet player, as a horn player.

Or as a writer, I gather.

HJ:    Or as a writer either.  This ability that he had was completely natural, influenced of course, by people like Duke and other great arrangers of that period. But what came out of it was, of course, completely original as far as Thad was concerned.  Because he did things that are still being copied, and that’s a true mark of greatness — I mean, to be imitated.  Isn’t the phrase, “Imitation is the greatest form of flattery?”  You ask any arranger, anywhere in the world about Thad’s arrangements, or anybody who’s played any of Thad’s arrangements, and they’ll say… I was speaking to Slide Hampton just recently, who is a great arranger on his own, and he says that Thad is one of the greatest innovators to come along in our time.  When a guy like that says that (and I don’t think he was saying it for my benefit either), you have to put some stock in what he’s saying.  I believe that, because I was always prejudiced about Thad’s ability!  I think other people appreciate his ability as well, though.

Did you work together as youngsters, or was he a little too young, and by the time he came of age you were on the road?

HJ:    By the time he and Elvin and people like Tommy Flanagan and some other people in Detroit were working at this…

Billy Mitchell, Kenny Burrell…

HJ:    Right.  I had already gone to New York.  I was doing tours with JATP at that time, and I had already played in New York.  So I was there several years before they arrived on the scene.  In fact, I mentioned Thad’s name and Elvin’s name to Leonard Feather in that first book that he wrote, and I think that’s how a lot of people probably became aware that there were two other brothers that played whose last name were Jones.

Finally, I wanted to ask you about your youngest brother…is Elvin the youngest?

HJ:    Elvin is the youngest, yes.

He’s been one of the great innovators on the drums for over thirty years now.  That’s as an innovator.  He’s been a great drummer for longer than that.

HJ:    Mmm-hmm.

I know that being nine years younger than you, you may have been less in touch with him as a youngster.  But do recollect whether his musical facility immediately evident as well?

HJ:    I think so.  I noticed it, of course, right away.  Then Elvin spent some time in the Air Force band.  He did a lot of traveling all over the country with one of the Air Force bands.  He was based in Ohio, near Columbus; Lockborn, I think it was.  He got a lot of playing time there, as you will in a Service band, you know!  There again, Elvin never really had a great deal of formal training on the drums, certainly not to the extent that my two older sisters and I had a certain amount of formal training, and lessons and so forth.  But it didn’t seem to matter.  I think both Elvin and Thad have this great, great natural ability.  I’m sure that formal training would have enhanced it, but it couldn’t have made it much better.  I don’t think it would have increased their creativity any more, let’s say.

I don’t think this is something you can learn.  You can’t learn creativity, you can’t learn the natural ability to think ahead and create ideas.  You can learn the mechanics of how to write.  You can do counterpoint music on the paper.   But actually, that’s the end result of the creativity.  The creativity starts before that.  When you put notes on paper, you’ve already thought of it.  Right?  So in order to put something down, you must have created it in your mind, at least, ahead of time.  So I think that’s what Thad and Elvin had that no amount of formal training could have taught them, I don’t believe.

Finally, I’d like to conclude my questions with what may seem like a rather general or maybe unanswerable question.  You’ve spoken several times about the sounds of each individual piano, the organic nature of the instrument.  I’d like you to conclude with some observations on sound and the role of sound in musical creation.

HJ:    Well, as it applies to piano, the ability to alter the sound of the piano is extremely limited.  Piano is not a wind instrument or a stringed instrument that you can affect the sound by manipulating the hand or controlling the breath or this sort of thing.  Piano is basically a percussion instrument, so you approach it from the percussion point of view.  If the instrument is responsive, all you can do, then, is to play within the confines of your own approach to the piano, that is, your fingers, your arm-drop… You can control the volume of the piano to a certain extent, but not the actual tone.  The tone itself has to be in the piano to begin with.  In a piano similar to the one that Rudy Van Gelder used to have in his studio, if it’s that kind of piano, then the piano is producing the tone.  The pianist is a part of the process, but the tone is already there.  All he has to do then is to release it from the piano by controlling the force of his arm-drop or his fingers, and so forth.  The fingers are actually the last point in the process; it starts from the shoulder and so forth.

But on the other instruments, the wind instruments, they can materially affect the sound, because they have control with their lips, with the breath and so forth.

It’s an extension of the body, or the voice.

HJ:    Yes.  With piano, the only extension of the body that has any effect on the tone is the arm — the upper arm, the forearm, the hand, and then finally the fingers.  The fingers are the end product that starts with the arm.  So you can control the volume or the percussive effect with your arm, but you cannot do anything about the tone itself.

But a lot of people say, “Well, that pianist produces a great tone.”  Well, actually, the pianist doesn’t create a tone!  Because the ability to create a tone on the piano is extremely small.

But I guess the room for variation of manipulation of sound is as infinite as the personalities who think to put the fingers in those certain places.

HJ:    You can use a lighter touch, you see.  I think people confuse tone with touch.  Yes, the touch is variable, and that’s controlled by the arm and the pressure and so forth.  But not the tone, you know.

Well, Hank Jones has played on probably 22,000 different pianos or so in his career….

HJ:    Actually, 23,000.

[MUSIC: H. Jones (solo) "Ain't Misbehavin'"; H. Jones/Benny Carter, "People Time", H. Jones (solo), "Sweet Lorraine"]

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Filed under Article, Hank Jones, Interview, Jazziz, Piano, WKCR

Raw Copy of A Late ’90s Blindfold Test with Ken Peplowski on his 52nd Birthday

Via Larry Appelbaum’s indefatigable birthday notifications to his  Facebook “friends,” I see that Ken Peplowski, the great clarinetist (tenor saxophone, too), hits 52 today. I conducted one of my first Downbeat Blindfold Tests with Ken — I think this was in 1998, maybe 1999.

1.    Sidney Bechet, “Blue Horizon (from “Hot Jazz on Blue Note,” Blue Note, 1996/rec. 1944).  Sidney Bechet, clarinet; Art Hodes, piano; Pops Foster, bass; Manzie Johnson, drums.

PEPLOWSKI:  [Immediately] Sidney Bechet, “Blue Horizon.”  From the first note you can identify his sound.  It’s that big vibrato and that big woody sound.  He had that unique clarinet style, and as distinctive of a clarinet sound as his clarinet playing.

TP:    Is he someone who influenced you at all in your approach?

PEPLOWSKI:  He didn’t influence me by the sound.  It’s a little bit much, to be honest, sometimes.  But his intensity kind of influenced me, and the way he plays ballads and the way he plays this Blues, for example, with just 100% feeling.  Also his rhythmic drive and his unbelievable technique.  He’s an example of a guy who had a lot of technique and knew when not to use it.  This solo is a really funky, real blues-oriented solo, and yet he could turn around and play a great technical tour de force on “China Boy” or something like that.  This is a classic record.  This would be 5 stars, no question.  It’s a perfect example of playing for yourself in a recording situation as opposed to playing for posterity, when you worry about every single note.  These guys are so relaxed, and it’s flowing, and obviously, whatever happens, happens.  There’s a lesson to be learned now.  There’s too much value put on perfection.
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2.    Artie Shaw, “Dancing On The Ceiling”  (from The Last Recordings of Artie Shaw,” MusicMasters, 1992/rec. 1954) Artie Shaw, clarinet; Hank Jones, piano; Joe Puma, guitar; Tommy Potter, bass; Irv Kluger, drums.

PEPLOWSKI:  I could be fooled right now.  It could be Artie Shaw doing his Bop thing.  It could be Buddy deFranco and it could possibly be Tony Scott.

TP:    You’re very warm.

PEPLOWSKI:  Hank Jones.  The light touch gave him away. [PAUSE] I know it’s not Artie because there’s some things he does that sound like a saxophone player playing the clarinet.  In other words, it’s not completely a Classical kind of clarinet sound.  It’s like Jimmy Giuffre. [PAUSE]

Well, I guess my first instinct was correct.  At first I said this sounds like it could be Artie or Buddy.  It’s very interesting playing, but overall I think it misses the boat.  There’s something that bothers me about certain clarinetists when they play this kind of music, more Bop-influenced.  All of a sudden they lose their tone.  Like, Artie is loosening up in places… He’s doing saxophonic things that don’t really work well on the clarinet.  That’s why, as we listened to it later, I thought this is a guy who sounds more like a saxophone player.  I think Benny did some of this, too.  When they tried to play this kind of music, instead of just doing it their own way, they tried to adjust their sound and some of their phrasing to this new style instead of just interpreting it through their own method.  So I think it’s a valiant effort, but to be quite honest, I prefer his earlier stuff.  so that would be about a 3½, I think.
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3.    Barney Bigard, “Clarinet Lament,” (from Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, Fargo, ND 1940, Stash, 1990/rec.1940)

PEPLOWSKI:  No question that that’s Barney Bigard with Duke’s band.  Another guy that you can pick out immediately. [PAUSE] Barney Bigard to me is one of the greats of the clarinet.  In fact, between him and Jimmy Hamilton, that covered a lot of jazz history on the clarinet.  That has to be a 5-star thing.  I think that was Barney’s finest period, too.  He played so inspired, and Duke wrote some great stuff for him, and he’s one of the greatest.  He’s so great that I don’t think he is a big influence on people because he’s so unique, that to try to take things from him, you wind up sounding like him.  So he stands alone.
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4.    Jimmy Hamilton, “Bluebird of Delhi” (from “Far East Suite-Special Mix,” RCA, 1995/rec.1966).  The Duke Ellington Orchestra.

PEPLOWSKI:  [IMMEDIATELY] “Far East Suite,” “Bluebird of Delhi.” From the introduction.  This record was a major thing for me when I was growing up.  Jimmy Hamilton, from the first time I heard him, I thought, “This is the direction I want to go.”  He combines the best of the classical clarinet approach with the improvisatory approach.   He could have played in an orchestra, yet he could swing like nobody else.  Plus, that’s got to be 5 stars for the record itself.  “The Far East Suite” is some of the best writing of Strayhorn (mostly) and Ellington.  It’s such a great example of how to write for specific soloists, and has some of the most beautiful clarinet writing.  I love that.  I listened to that over and over and over when I first heard it, and I would recommend it to anybody. [PAUSE] Also, I love the way the ensemble comes in and Jimmy Hamilton answers them.  There was a lot of Duke writing in that fashion for Jimmy.  And he had such great instinctive ears that he knew when to play and when not to play.  He complements the band and they complement him.  It’s beautiful.
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5.    Benny Goodman, “Shirley Steps Out” (from “Undercurrent Blues,” Capitol Jazz, 1995/rec.1947) with Alan Hendrickson, guitar; Mel Powell, piano, Red Norvo, vibes.

PEPLOWSKI:  As soon as they started improvising, I knew it was Benny.  This is one of his Bop experiments.  It’s pretty interesting.  It sounds like a guitarist who was influenced by Charlie, but I don’t think it is.  [VIBES SOLO] Who is this?  Is that Johnny White?

TP:    It’s Red Norvo.

PEPLOWSKI:  Red Norvo, wow. [PIANO] That sounds like Teddy.

TP:    Mel Powell.

PEPLOWSKI:  What is this record?  Is this a Commodore?

TP:    Capitol.

PEPLOWSKI:  It’s very nice.  This to me is a little more successful in this vein than what Artie was attempting.  Because Benny plays closer to himself… It still sounds like him.  It’s very nice.  That was a nice record.  I was surprised.  I don’t remember hearing that.  I’m sure I’ve got it, but I have to confess, I overlooked that period myself.  It was nice.  I’d give it 4 stars.  It was really refreshing.  It’s nice to hear Benny play some different material, too.

TP:    Do you find Benny’s style stays integral through all of his improvising?  Is that characteristic, that he keeps his sound through any situation?

PEPLOWSKI:  Pretty much, yeah.  Critics love to write about his double-lip embouchure period, and he allegedly changed and all this stuff.  But you could pretty much recognize him all the time.  When we first heard the head, then I was thinking this could obviously be Buddy De Franco.  But as soon as he started playing, the way he gets around the horn, that’s Benny.  First of all, there’s only a few people who sound like they really play it like a clarinet and not like a double, as opposed to if you heard somebody like Jimmy Giuffre.  I love the way he plays, I love the way Lester Young played, but they’re still saxophone players.  And Benny does some distinctly clarinet things that could only lend themselves to that instrument.  That was nice.
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6.    Jimmy Giuffre, “Conversations With A Goose” (from “Conversations With A Goose,” Soul Note, 1996), Giuffre, clarinet; Paul Bley, piano; Steve Swallow, electric bass.

PEPLOWSKI:  It sounds like Barney Bigard on acid! [AFTER A WHILE] I have no idea.  Who is this?

TP:    It’s Jimmy Giuffre, Paul Bley and Steve Swallow.  Do you see any changes in his playing from the earlier things they did?

PEPLOWSKI:  Well, if anything, I think he’s into even more of a kind of primitive approach.  Actually, to be quite honest, it was more interesting to me what the piano was doing and the bass player, because they had a certain groove going on.  But that may be partly due to the way it’s recorded.  It kind of bothers me.  It sounds like the microphones are thrust right inside the piano, we’re hearing the piano so clear and loud, and the clarinet is kind of off in the distance a little bit in the mix.  So automatically, psychologically, he doesn’t feel like part of the ensemble.  It’s interesting.  Obviously, he’s heading into an ever more free zone than he ever was.

TP:    Is this music that’s appealed to you?

PEPLOWSKI:  I like the idea.  Sometimes I like the idea more than the execution, and this would be an example of that.  Obviously, it’s kind of a crap shoot when you’re just playing freely like this, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.  This time it was kind of interesting, he got into some different sounds and things, but it was a little bit rambling for me.  I’d give that 2½ stars.  I don’t know if I’d listen to that over and over.
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7.    Bill Easley, “Come Sunday” (from “Wind Inventions,” Sunnyside, 1988) Easley, clarinet; James Williams, piano; Rufus Reid, bass, Tony Reedus, drums.

PEPLOWSKI:  Obviously, I know “Come Sunday” by Duke Ellington.  The clarinet has a little bit of a New Orleans type of approach, whether he’s from there or not.  Actually, he sounds a little bit like Barney Bigard in his sound.  But I don’t know who it is yet. The piano player is a little heavy-handed for me on this song.  He sounds a little bit like he’s playing with hammers instead of fingers. [THE SONG GOES INTO UP-TEMPO]
I really don’t know who it is, but they’ve got a very beautiful clarinet sound.  It’s a little curious to me to play this song like this.  Why not use anything else as a vehicle for improvisation.

TP:    Well, the interpretation could be the jubilation of…

PEPLOWSKI:  I know.  But sometimes it seems a little arbitrary, like “Gee, let’s pick this song and jazz it up.”  But it’s interesting.  The clarinet player sounds nice.  I have no idea who it is. [PAUSE] It bothers me that when you listen to the rhythm section improvising, the bassist is way ahead of the drummer… It’s not a very good rhythm section.  They sound kind of heavy-handed and definitely not together.  So I feel a little bad for the clarinet player.

TP:    It didn’t seem to faze him much.

PEPLOWSKI:  No.  He’s got a very even sound and even phrasing.  I would give it 3½, I think, because I like his playing, but I’m not completely happy with the overall performance. [PAUSE] One last comment.  Beautiful sound.  Beautiful clarinet approach.  I just wasn’t really nuts about the overall record, but he’s a great player.
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8.    Alvin Batiste, “Banjo Noir” (from “Late,” Columbia, rec. 1993), with Fred Sanders, piano; Elton Heron, bass; Herman Jackson, drums.

PEPLOWSKI:  It’s a very nice record.  Whoever this is knows how to write for the instrument.  It’s a nice groove.  He’s playing a lot of stuff that comes right out of clarinet etudes.  I know this guy has studied the clarinet.  Nice, interesting tune.  Good groove.  Beautiful sound.  He’s a little bit controlled.  I wish he would open up a little bit more even during this.  I don’t know who it is.

TP:    Do you hear any particular lineage in clarinet improvising style?

PEPLOWSKI:  On this guy?  I don’t know where he comes from.  Also, this kind of recording is a little sterile for me — the recording itself.  Even if everybody was in the same room, whatever the engineer did, they sound like they were isolated and then remixed by him.  There’s a little bit too much of an upfront quality of every single instrument.  Especially when you want to have a nice groove like this, it should sound more like a band playing together instead of being able to pick out each individual instrument.  That’s not the fault of the musicians.  It’s the fault of the way it was recorded. [PAUSE]

This is after you told me who it is.  I am pleasantly surprised.  When you asked me did I detect any influence, I definitely didn’t detect any New Orleans influence in there.  A beautiful clarinet player.  I’ve heard a few things of his.  That was very nice record.  I’d give it 4 stars.
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9.    David Krakauer, “Africa Bulgar,” (from “Klezmer Madness,” Tzadik, 1995) with Michael Alpert, accordion; Dave Licht, drums.

PEPLOWSKI:  I asked first if that was Ivo Papasov.  It’s got that quality to it, but we’ll see what happens. [PAUSE] As he got into it, I realized this is more a Yiddish kind of a groove. [TEMPO CHANGE] This is just a wild guess, because I haven’t heard any of this stuff.  Is this Don Byron? [TP:  No.] [LATER] PEPLOWSKI:  I don’t really know who it is.  That was nice.  I’m not familiar with a lot of the klezmer guys.  I love Dave Tarras, the old school, and this has a lot of those elements.  It’s nice dance music, it’s kind of fun…

TP:    He was very influenced by Dave Tarras.

PEPLOWSKI:  Oh.  It’s nothing earth-shaking, but it’s fun music and…

TP:    You used to play this…well, Greek music.
PEPLOWSKI:  I used to play this and polka music.  I used to play Polish polka music.  It’s interesting to me that this music is so popular now, and people have overlooked that music, which is also a great showcase for the clarinet.  I think if I put a polka band together and did a gig at the Knitting Factory, we’d be as popular as anything.  I’m not trying to take away from this music because it’s great stuff, and it’s music for the masses.  But if you put a little bit of an ironic twist on it and work at a hip club, all of a sudden everybody starts paying attention.

TP:    Now, in their defense, that’s just one tune of a whole program of very different pieces.

PEPLOWSKI:  I know.  It’s a strange time for music, because… I bet I could do that.  If I’d put a polka band together and we dressed up in funny suits and worked at the Knitting Factory, and did exactly what I did in Cleveland when I was playing weddings, people would think, “Gee, this is the hippest music I can imagine.”  But if that’s a way for people to discover this stuff, that’s great because it is valid music and it’s great music.

TP:    This is the Millennium.  Marketing is everything.

PEPLOWSKI:  We’ve reached that stage where we’re just looking back at everything that’s happened and drawing from all these different sources.

TP:    How many stars?

PEPLOWSKI:  I would give it 3 stars.  I liked it, but I could listen to a hundred of those records — this doesn’t stand out, in other words.  I wish he might have played with a little bit more passion in some places and used more of the entire range of the clarinet.  He kind of stayed in one little area.  But I applaud him for what he’s trying to do, and I can hear the Dave Tarras thing.
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10.    John Carter, “Encounter” (from “Comin’ On,” Hat Art, 1988) Carter, clarinet; Bobby Bradford, cornet; Don Preston, synthesizer; Richard Davis, bass; Andrew Cyrille, drums.

PEPLOWSKI:  I like this very much.  The writing sounds a little bit influenced by Miles, and I love the use of electronics as pure sound sometimes instead of trying to imitate another instrument. It’s pretty refreshing. [PAUSE]

John Carter.  Guessed it.  As soon as he started doing the upper register thing, I knew it was him. [PAUSE]

As most stars as I can give, 5-6, whatever.  This is very refreshing music to me.  I think it’s completely not pretentious.  It’s fresh, it’s exciting, interesting writing and playing, and the use of electronics is really well done and really integrated into the ensemble.  It’s really great. [PAUSE] The thing that strikes me is that it really sounds like a band playing together.  This is the way music is supposed to be.  And John Carter is completely unbridled.  It’s really open.  I have a feeling that he does exactly what he wants to do, and he doesn’t have any limits to what he’s trying to achieve.  It’s great.  I think his music is as important, maybe more so, than Ornette’s music as far as this kind of thing.  The writing is as interesting, and I just love the way they use the electronics.  It’s really free and open, and yet at the same time it’s got a structure to it, and everybody is listening and reacting to each other.

TP:    Talk about his clarinet style.  Is he an innovative clarinet player?

PEPLOWSKI:  He’s innovative in the sense that he does on the clarinet what people like Ornette and maybe Eric Dolphy did on the saxophone.  He kind of plays completely free and open… You know, a lot of clarinet players sound a little bit too controlled.  It’s part of the nature of the instrument.  You’re taught from the beginning that you have to play with this rigid embouchure, and the ideal sound on the clarinet is this wooden, kind of round sound, and as soon as you start fluctuating from that, the tone kind of goes.  The technique is a little bit difficult.  So it’s refreshing to hear somebody that’s gone past some of those restrictions.  The only way I can describe is he’s a completely open player, which on the clarinet is kind of rare to hear.

11.    Don Byron, “St. Louis Blues” (from “Bug Music,” Nonesuch, 1996).  Byron, clarinet; Steve Wilson, alto saxophone; Kenny Davis, bass; Billy Hart, drums.

PEPLOWSKI:  It sounds like Dan Block, but I’m not sure that it is.  In the beginning there was almost a klezmer kind of influence.  It was nice.  The band sounds good and tight.  Again, the recording quality bothers me.  It’s so sterile-sounding.  It’s this close, miking, separated sound of everything that kind of takes away a lot from the feel to me.  It really bothers me on more modern recordings.

TP:    Anything else about the clarinet player?

PEPLOWSKI:  He sounded nice.  There’s nothing distinctive there that I could pick him out?

TP:    Did he sound like he was in the bag of any of the older clarinet players?

PEPLOWSKI:  I can’t identify him.

TP:    It’s Don Byron.

PEPLOWSKI:  Don Byron.  Wow.  It’s a nice surprise.  It was good.  Like I say, there’s nothing there that would draw me and say I’ve got to go out and buy this record, but it was a nice record.  3 stars.
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12.    Buddy DeFranco, “I Got Rhythm” (from “Buddy DeFranco and Oscar Peterson Play George Gershwin,” Verve, 1998/rec.1954) DeFranco, clarinet; Peterson, piano; Russell Garcia, arranger & conductor.

PEPLOWSKI:  An interesting thing is, I recorded this song with almost the same groove and the same tempo, and I haven’t heard this record.  That’s not Buddy, is it? [TP:  Yes.] It’s beautiful.  He’s one of the innovators.  Here’s an example of a great recording technique, too.  It sounds like the band is playing with a groove, they’re playing together.  It’s almost like in the late ’50s-early ’60s they really perfected the style of recording this kind of music, and ever since they’ve been trying to mess with it.  This is the way it would sound if you were standing this far away from a band playing.  This is the way it’s supposed to be.  Instead of the middle of an orchestra.

Obviously, Buddy came from a combination of Benny and Artie, but he forged his own style, and he’s got a unique sound and approach. And he was an innovator.  He turned a lot of people’s heads.  Because he was the only guy at this time who was playing real more Modern-influenced music.  And it’s a great combination to me of kind of Bop-influenced lines and real pretty phrasing.  It’s wonderful. This is 5 stars.  I love it.
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13.    Pee Wee Russell, “Wailin’ D.A. Blues” (from “Pee Wee Russell: Jazz Original,” 1997/rec. 1944) Russell, clarinet; Jess Stacy, piano; Sid Weiss, bass; George Wettling, drums.

PEPLOWSKI:  Pee Wee.  From the first note.  A complete original.  I love him.  Mister Soulful.  Strangely enough, in the very early records, he did have a lot more technique — in the real early days.  But he just kind of threw everything out.  In his own way, as strange as it seems, he’s like the Thelonious Monk of the clarinet.  He pared everything down to real basics.  But obviously, he understands… He’s not simple player or a primitive player.  He understands all the harmonic ideas that are going on around him.  Like, he strips his own playing down to just the basics.  He’s a very intelligent player in my mind, with a lot of soul.  It’s great.  I would have to give that 5 stars.

TP:    Can you pinpoint this in time.

PEPLOWSKI:  Just from the sound of the recording, I would guess it’s got to be somewhere in the mid to late 1940′s.
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PEPLOWSKI:  There were some pleasant surprises in there; some eye-openers.  There does seem to be a little bit of a resurgence in the clarinet, and there are some people trying different things with it, which is refreshing.  My only general comments about that stuff is it’s nice to hear people try to break the preconceived boundaries of what the clarinet is supposed to be…

[ETC.]

The Bobby Bradford-John Carter was definitely the best thing I heard, because it’s the most refreshing.  Frankly, sometimes I get bored just hearing the same things over and over.  Sometimes you get the feeling that it’s all been played, and then you hear something like that, and you realize there’s life yet in music.  It’s an eye-opener.

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Blindfold Test: Paul Motian About Ten Years Ago

It’s been a thrill to get to know Paul Motian — who ends his MJQ Tribute week at the Village Vanguard tonight –  a little bit over the last 12-13 years.  He joined me on numerous occasions while I was at WKCR, and I’ve written three pieces about him — a long DownBeat feature in 2001,  a verbatim WKCR interview on  the now-defunct jazz.com website, and the blindfold test that I’ll paste below. We did this in the Carmine Street apartment of a friend of Paul’s (I could kill myself for not remembering his name right now, as he’s a nice, extremely knowledgeable guy and facilitated the encounter). This is the raw, unexpurgated pre-edit copy.

* * * * *

Paul Motian Blindfold Test:

1.    Keith Jarrett-Peacock-deJohnette, “Hallucinations”,  Whisper Not, (ECM, 2000) – (5 stars)

I’m familiar with all the players.  I don’t know who it is.  It’s not Bud Powell, obviously. …For a minute, I thought it was Keith Jarrett. [JARRETT GRUNTS] Okay, it’s Keith.  I know who the drummer is, but I can’t… I could guess and say it’s Keith’s current trio, with Jack DeJohnette and Peacock.  Five stars.  They sounded nice, man.  Good players.  Taking care of business.  I haven’t heard Keith play in that style since I don’t know when.  So for a minute I was thinking that maybe it’s a really early Keith Jarrett record from when he was going to Berklee in Boston or something.  I did think that.  I met him when he was playing… Tony Scott called me up.  He said, “Hey, man, I’ve got a gig for you at the Dom,” which was on 8th Street.  I went down there with him and Keith was playing piano.  That’s when I met him.  I said, “Wow, the piano player is great.  Who’s that?”  He said, “Keith Jarrett.  I just discovered him.” [LAUGHS] Henry Grimes was playing bass.  And I played with him that night.  That’s when I met him.  But I thought that might be early because… Well, it took me a minute to recognize DeJohnette. [What didn't you recognize?] Sort of his style of playing and not the sound.  From what I heard from the sound, I didn’t know who it was.  It sounded familiar, but I didn’t know who it was. [Maybe he wasn't playing his drums.] Could have been.  I’m pretty much going to give five stars to everybody.  I think everybody sounds great.  Why not? [But if you don't think something sounds great, it would devalue the stuff to which you give five stars.] Okay, that’s all right.  If I don’t give something 5 stars, does that mean I have go and buy the record?

2.    Paul Bley, “Ida Lupino”, Plays Carla Bley (Steeplechase, 1991) [Bley, piano; Marc Johnson, bass; Jeff Williams, drums] – (5 stars)

[AFTER A FEW NOTES OF IMPROV]  That’s Paul Bley.  I wish I knew who the bass player was.  That’s “Ida Lupino.”  Paul Bley, five stars, man.  Why not?  He sounds great.  I don’t think it’s me on drums, but it could be!  I don’t know if I can get the bassist.  Charlie Haden and I played with Paul Bley in  Montreal.  I’m wondering if this is that!  Those ain’t my cymbals. [You played with the bass player.] [AFTER] Wow.  Man, I left Bill Evans to play with Paul Bley.  And when he heard about that, he was very happy.  At that time, there was a lot happening.  I’m talking about 1964.  There was a lot going on in New York.  The music was changing, there was some interesting stuff, and things were heading out into the future.  And I felt like I was stuck with Bill and that it wasn’t happening with Bill out in California.  So I just quit.  I left the poor guy out there.  What a drag I was.  I left the guy on the road like that.  My friend, my closest friend and companion and musician. [But you had to go.] Yeah, I wasn’t happy.  I came back and got into stuff with Paul Bley. [Can you  say what it is about Paul Bley that makes you recognize him quickly?  Is it his touch?]  Well, it’s everything.  It’s the sound.  Mostly sound, I guess.  Style, touch, everything.  [So you knew it was Jack DeJohnette because of his style, but with Paul here you knew...] No, I was more sure about it being Paul than I was sure about it being Jack.

3.    Scott Colley, “Segment”, …subliminal (Criss-Cross 1997) [Colley, bass; Bill Stewart, drums; Chris Potter, tenor sax; Bill Carrothers, piano) -  (5 stars)

[ON DRUM SOLO] Nice drums, whoever it is.  I like it.  I like it a lot.  It’s 5 stars.  But I don’t know who it is. [You have no idea who the tenor player is?] No.  The first two or three notes I said, “Gee, maybe it’s Joe Lovano, but it’s not.  I feel like I should know who they all are.  But I don’t. [LAUGHS] I like the tune.  What’s that tune called? ["Segment."] Oh.  I think I played that tune. [LAUGHS] [Yes, with Geri Allen and Charlie Haden.] No wonder.  Wow.  Nice. Nice sound, the drums and everything. [AFTER] Potter?  No kidding.  That sounded really good.  Very together.  Nice sound.  I liked the sound on the drums, the way they’re tuned.  I liked it.

4.    Joey Baron, “Slow Charleston”, We’ll Soon Find Out (Intuition, 1999) [Baron, drums, composer; Arthur Blythe, alto sax; Bill Frisell, guitar; Ron Carter, bass] – (5 stars)

I have no idea who this is, but I still want to give this five stars.  They’re all playing, they’re good musicians, and it’s great! [LAUGHS]  Nice groove. [Any idea who the guitar player is?] No.  I like it, though. [AFTER] I didn’t know Frisell could do that.  He played with me for twenty years.  I didn’t know he could do that.  See, I don’t know if I would ever recognize Joey anyway.  It’s good for me to find out stuff about these guys.  I can put it to good use!  I haven’t heard Arthur Blythe much at all.

5.    Warne Marsh, “Victory Ball”, Star Highs (Criss Cross, 1982) [Marsh, tenor saxophone; Mel Lewis, drums; Hank Jones, piano; George Mraz, bass] – (5 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] Warne Marsh.  There was one particular night at the Half Note playing with Lennie Tristano, with Warne playing… He played some shit that night that was incredible!  I’ll never forget it.  That record came out a few years ago.  Tuesday night was Lennie’s night off, and we played with no piano player or a substitute piano player, and that night it was Bill. [Any idea who the piano player is?] The way the piano player was comping, for a minute I said, “maybe it’s Lennie Tristano,” but it’s not.  Everybody sounds so good!  It’s great.  I have a feeling the piano player is going to surprise me.  Five stars.  I should know who the drummer is, but I don’t. [AFTER] Wow.  I am surprised at Hank Jones.  He usually plays with more space.  It was a great experience playing with Lennie Tristano.  I had a great time.  It was a period in my life when I was playing with a lot of people, and that was a little different than what I was used to doing, and it was very enjoyable, man.  I was playing almost every night.

6.    Satoko Fujii, “Then I Met You” , Toward, “To West” (Enja, 2000) [Fujii, piano, composer; Jim Black, drums; Mark Dresser, bass] – (5 stars)

It’s worth five stars just because of all the study the bass player had to do.  There are more players playing now than when I got to New York, and at a good level.  What I’m trying to say is that the music I listened to in the ’50s and stuff came from that time, and you listened to Prez and Bird and Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday and Max and Clifford Brown and Bud Powell.  I could recognize any of that in a second.  Now there are so many players and so many good ones.  One thing that’s… I heard a few things in the piano sound that I know it’s a digital recording, which kind of bugs me.  I still hear that kind of tingy thing… I’m almost 99% sure I can tell when it’s a digital recording or whether it’s a CD, or whether it’s an analog recording from an old LP.  I mean, there’s a solo Monk record I bought when CDs first came out.  I played it once and threw it away, man.  It sounded like an electric piano.  Five stars.  One time I was playing at the Village Vanguard with Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro, and we were playing opposite Stiller and Meara.  Stiller came up to me afterwards and said, “You guys are really brave with the music you’re playing, that you would get out in front of an audience and play that music.  There’s a lot of heart in that, and you’re really brave to be doing that.  I feel that’s five stars for these guys, with what they’re doing and where they want to take the music. [AFTER] I’ve never heard of her.  I love what they’re trying to do.

7.    Ornette Coleman, “Word For Bird”,  In All Languages (Harmolodic-Verve, 1987) [Coleman, alto sax, composer; Billy Higgins, drums; Charlie Haden, bass; Don Cherry, tp.] – (5 stars)

Ornette.  Sounds like Charlie on bass.  Blackwell on drums.  Oh.  Higgins, I guess.  Well, Charlie for sure!  Couldn’t miss that.  That’s not Cherry either, is it?  It sounds like he’s playing the trumpet!  It’s not that tiny pocket trumpet sound.   It sounds like a regular trumpet.  Now that I’ve stopped and thought about it and listened, it’s Cherry, all right.  Five stars.  More if there are any.

8.    Lee Konitz, “Movin’ Around” , Very Cool (Verve 1957) [Shadow Wilson, drums, Konitz, as, Don Ferrara, tp, composer;  Sal Mosca, piano; Peter Ind, bass]  – (5 stars)

[I want you to get the drummer on this.] [LAUGHS] I recognize the beat. [SHRUGS] Lee Konitz.  It’s got to have 5 stars right there.  It’s always great when a drummer can play the cymbal and just from the feel of the beat make music out of it.   With the trumpeter, I hear something like that, I hear a specific note, and I see a person’s face that I recognize, but I don’t know who it is! [LAUGHS] That means that I know who it is…but I don’t. [LAUGHS] The style is recognizable.  It’s beautiful.  I KNOW that drummer.  Can I guess?  how about the piano player being Sal Mosca?   Oh, Jesus.  Is the drummer Nick Stabulas, by any chance? [AFTER] Wow!  I hung out with Shadow, but… [LAUGHS] No wonder there was so much music in just playing the cymbal!  You dig? [LAUGHS] That’s great.  That means the trumpet player might be Tony Fruscella, someone like that.  Someone like Don…what was his name… [It's Don Ferrara.] Yeah, so there you go.  I don’t think I ever played with Don Ferrara.  Is the bass player Peter Ind?  So it’s an older record.  Shadow was one of my favorite drummers, and to hear him play now after so many years and to see all the music that he played, just playing a cymbal!  Shadow was a motherfucker.  20 stars.  Shadow Wilson.  Shit.  That’s Shadow Wilson on that Count Basie record, “Queer Street,” where he plays that 4-bar introduction.

9.    Billy Hart, “Mindreader”, Oceans of Time (Arabesque, 1996) – (5 stars) [Hart, drums; Santi DeBriano, bass, composer; Chris Potter, tenor saxophone; John Stubblefield, tenor saxophone; Mark Feldman, violin; David Fiuczynski, guitar; Dave Kikoski, piano]

The piano and drums sound like they’re in tune with each other.  I’ll try to take a guess and say that bass player is Mraz. [It's the drummer's record.] Yeah, I figured that out.  I didn’t say anything, but… He’s the one who’s out front.  Whoever did the composition and arrangement, it’s great.  It reminds me of back in the ’60s when we were doing stuff with Jazz Composers Orchestra.  This sounds like it could be something that came out of that.  But this is more complicated somehow, more written stuff.  There’s a lot of people involved, and it’s very good.  So who’s the drummer?  Nice drum sound.  Nice tunings.  Very melodic.  Nice ideas.  He deserves some credit, man, a big organization like that.  There are a lot of good drummers out there now.  I don’t know who it is. [This drummer is close to your generation.] He sounds like he’s been around the block a few times! [LAUGHS] [AFTER] I would never recognize any of that.  The vibe is great.  The record is great.  Good for Billy.  Five stars for sure.  Look at all the work that went into that.  That was great.

10.    Danilo Perez, “Panama Libre”, Motherland (Verve 2000) [Perez, piano; Brian Blade, drums, Kurt Rosenwinkel, guitar; John Patitucci, bass] – (5 stars)

If the drummer isn’t Max Roach, Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Philly Joe, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, I’m not going to know them.  Five stars just because of the way they’re fucking with the time.  It’s not Pat Metheny, is it?  He sounds familiar, too! [Well, there's 2 degrees of separation of everybody in jazz with you.] I like people who play with dynamics.  You don’t hear it very much!  Another reason for five stars.  I think I’ve played with this guitar player too.  Are you sure I hired them?  Another thing about drums… I don’t know who the drummer is, but on recordings, did you notice how Billy Hart was so much in front, and now this guy is mixed so far back?  I guess I’m not going to get this either.  It sounds so familiar, man! [AFTER] Kurt Rosenwinkel keeps improving.  He started with me ten years ago, and now he’s out there on his own, he’s got his own band and everything.  He’s writing nice stuff and playing better.  I recorded with Danilo Perez way back, but I wouldn’t recognize him.  But that’s why the guitar player sounded so familiar.  I should have known that sound.  I said that sound was so familiar!

11.    Joe Lovano-Gonzalo Rubalcaba, “Ugly Beauty”, Flying Colors (Blue Note, 1997) -  (5 stars) [Lovano, tenor saxophone; Rubalcaba, piano; Monk, composer]

Someone said that this was the only waltz that Monk ever wrote.  Okay, let’s figure out who this is.  Okay, Lovano. [But you've also played and recorded with the pianist.] Oh, Gonzalo.  I recognized Lovano.  But when I was in England recently on tour with an English band, and I walked into the club to set up, and they were playing a CD, and I heard the saxophone and I heard it for two or three notes, and I said, “That’s Lovano.”  The engineer said, “No, it’s not.”  I said, “Oh yes, it is.”  “No, it’s not.”  “Oh, yes, it is.”  And it wasn’t.  I don’t know if I would have recognized Gonzalo except for the fact that I knew Joe had done a duo record with him.  Man, five stars.  Are you kidding?  Everything’s going to be five stars.  I can’t renege now.  Joe’s great, man.  So’s Gonzalo.  They sound nice together.

12.    Joanne Brackeen, “Tico, Tico”, Pink Elephant Magic (Arkadia, 1998) [Brackeen, piano; Horacio 'El Negro' Hernandez, drums; John Patitucci, bass] – (5 stars)

“Tico, Tico” in 5/4 time.  Five-four, five stars!  No idea who the drummer is.  Maybe I should listen a little bit! [AFTER] That was interesting.  They deserve five stars for sure.  Was it Al Foster?  I’m just guessing. [Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez.] I’ve never heard of him.

13.    Ralph Peterson, “Skippy”, Fotet Plays Monk (Evidence, 1997) [Peterson, drums; Steve Wilson, soprano sax; Brian Carrott, vibes; Belden Bullock, bass] – (5 stars)

“Skippy” by Thelonious Monk.  I was going to say Steve Lacy, but no, it’s not his sound.  Five stars just for playing a Monk tune! [AFTER] I would never have known them.  The treatment was okay.  It seemed like they just went straight-ahead and played the tune.  That’s a hard tune, man.  Even anybody to attempt that tune deserves five stars, for Chrissake.  Steve Lacy says all you have to do is know how to play “Tea For Two” and you can play “Skippy,” but I don’t believe him.  I said, “Man, ‘Skippy,’ that’s a hard tune.”  He said, ‘Well, it’s ‘Tea for Two.’”  I tried to sing “Tea For Two” along with it, but… [LAUGHS]

14.    Bud Powell-Oscar Pettiford-Kenny Clarke, “Salt Peanuts”, The Complete Essen Jazz Festival Concert (Black Lion, 1960) [start with 3:46 left] – (5 stars)

That’s “Salt Peanuts” and it was a nice drum solo, but I don’t know who the players are. [You played with one of them.] You keep saying that!  I guess it wasn’t the drummer.  It probably was the bass player.  I don’t know the piano player.  I guess because of the live recording, the sound wasn’t as great as it could have been. [Play "Blues In The Closet."] This is the same piano player?  Almost sounds like Oscar Pettiford.  I played with him in 1957 at Small’s Paradise for a couple of weeks.  I went down south with him with his big band to Florida and Virginia.  1957, man!  Wow, that was something else.  Mostly black cats; Dick Katz was playing piano and Dave Amram was in the band.  Jesus, maybe it is Bud Powell.  Is it?  So it’s a later Bud Powell.  The drummer is Kenny Clarke.  That’s the same people as on “Salt Peanuts”?  That’s not really Kenny Clarke’s drum sound. [Maybe it wasn't his drums] It didn’t sound like it.  It sounded kind of dead.  Max Roach got a lot from Kenny Clarke.  All those cats got shit from Sid Catlett, too.  He was a motherfucker, Sid Catlett.  Five stars.  Oscar Pettiford, man!  After I was playing with Oscar, he split and went to Europe and was playing there, and I got a telegram from his wife saying “Oscar sent me a telegram and said I should call you and get in touch with you, and you should go right away to Baden-Baden, Germany, and play with Oscar.”  I was playing with Lennie Tristano at the Half Note.  I couldn’t get up and leave.  There was no plane ticket!  But he liked me.  I was quite honored.  People said, “You played with OP?  Man, he’s death on drummers.  How are you doing that?”  I had at the time 7A drumsticks.  After one set one time, Oscar came over and looked at my drumstick and started bending it.  He said, “Man, what the fuck kind of stick is that?  Go get you some sticks!”

I think it’s great that there’s really quite a few good young players on the scene now.  It’s quite encouraging.  I think it’s good for jazz.  There may be a lot of them around.  It’s great.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Drummer, Paul Motian, Vibraphone