Tag Archives: Herbie Hancock

For Denny Zeitlin’s 76th Birthday, An Uncut DownBeat Blindfold Test From 2005, My Liner Notes for the 2000 Release “As Long As There’s Music,” and Our Interview for that Liner Note

The magnificent pianist Denny Zeitlin turns 76 today. I first had an opportunity to encounter him whenwas asked to write the liner notes for his 2000 release (1997 recording) titled As Long As There’s Music, a trio date with Buster Williams and Carl Allen. Five years later, he agreed to sit with me for a DownBeat Blindfold Test. I’m posting Blindfold Test first, then the liner note, then our complete interview, in which Dr. Zeitlin offered a lot of interesting information about the Chicago scene in the ’50s, among other things.

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Denny Zeitlin Blindfold Test (Raw):

1.   Ben Waltzer, “The More I See You” (from ONE HUNDRED DREAMS AGO, Fresh Sounds, 2004) (Waltzer, piano; Matt Penman, bass; Gerald Cleaver, drums)

Immediately when that track starts, I get the feeling I’m in the hands of a really good bebop player. Really sinuous lines, great time feel, the group is very much together. Then it goes into a very interesting statement of the head. I’m trying to remember the name of that standard. Is it “The More I See You”? Really a very charming treatment of that. Then some very good, solid blowing with single lines, right hand lines that are always crackling and popping along, and the rhythm section is very much together. This pianist, at least on this cut, is using his left hand primarily as a comping instrument, and some very interesting ostinato figures begin to emerge towards the end of the piano solo, which get repeated at the very end, and it sort of transmutes into an Afro-Cuban vamp at the end, which is a very nice way to end this tune, with a kind of surprise chord at the end. Overall, it was really nice to listen this really crackling trio. It seems to me this pianist is somebody who has listened a lot to Bud Powell, and is probably in the next generation. This could be somebody like Kenny Barron or someone else of that ilk. I liked it a lot. 4 stars. [AFTER] I don’t know these cats, but they sound very good. Very solid. Very much out of that tradition.

2.   Eddie Higgins, “Someone To Watch Over Me” (from HAUNTED HEART, Venus, 1997) (Higgins, piano; Ray Drummond, bass; Ben Riley, drums)

That was the old standard, “Someone To Watch Over Me.” It begins with a quite dramatic rubato introduction. The pianist obviously has a very nice touch. He chooses to play this piece with a minimum amount of reharmonization, at least at the beginning of the cut, moves into a stride-like treatment, sort of more old style treatment of this tune, with bass and drums staying very much in the background but certainly supportive, and several choruses of working with the changes of the tune. Overall, there’s an elegant, relaxed feel about it. I enjoyed the nice, Tatumesque series of changes coming out of the final bridge before the last statement of the melody. I could tell as the piece was developing, particularly the improvisation, that this was a pianist who was holding himself back a little bit, which makes me think about the context of a recording or perhaps some restrictions placed by the record label.  I would give it 3½ stars. I’ll probably be embarrassed to find out who it is, but I don’t recognize the player. You don’t know sometimes how much a producer, for instance, really gets into a recording session, or how an overall thematic approach to an album concept does. What I remind myself, and I wish listeners would keep in mind is that when they hear a cut from an artist’s CD, they’re getting a snapshot of what that artist was thinking, feeling and doing at that time. It’s not necessarily a statement about who he or she is musically in some global way at all. It’s merely a snapshot. [AFTER] Well, I’ve always enjoyed Eddie’s playing very much, and I’ll give myself credit for recognizing the touch. That’s something I’ve always been most drawn to in Eddie’s playing, is the touch. [Any recollections of him from Chicago days?] Yes. Eddie was one of the players who was established on the scene when I first started to play back in the ‘50s. He was very encouraging to me and opened some doors in introducing me to people, and has always been a fan of my playing, and I’ve always really admired his playing very much. He’s wonderful behind singers, too. A marvelous accompanist.

3.  Robert Glasper, “Rise and Shine” (from CANVAS, Blue Note, 2005) (Glasper, piano, composer; Vicente Archer, bass; Damien Reid, drums)

Wow, I really loved that cut. It was quite a journey. A wonderful piano player with great command of the instrument, and time and shapes. I loved the tune and the arrangement and the overall feel of this trio. You get the sense that this is a trio that’s worked together a lot. Very integrated and very interactive, and I love the different time signatures and their way of working with it. The solo consistently built and was intriguing and swinging throughout. Initially, I felt quite confident it was Brad Mehldau, and then towards the end some of the developments and figures were things I’ve never heard Brad do. Which doesn’t mean that he doesn’t do them. Just the cuts I heard didn’t have some of those things, and the recorded bass sound was a little different to the way his trio usually sounds. But I thought this was a terrific cut. 5 stars. My best guess would be Brad Mehldau, but I have a hunch it’s somebody who’s listened to Brad a lot, maybe some younger cat or someone contemporaneous with him. [AFTER] I’ve heard his name, and I know he’s done an album for Blue Note. People are talking about it. I have not heard him play. Terrific, I think.

4.   Andrew Hill, “Malachi” (from TIME LINES, Blue Note, 2005) (Hill, piano, composer)

That’s a very atmospheric mood piece, with a very unusual use of the sustain pedal, creating clouds and then abrupt disappearance of them, and new sounds appearing. It was almost entirely in one mode, which certainly sustains the atmospheric mood, punctuated by unusual use of dynamics with adjacent notes sometimes quite different in intensity, and occasionally punctuated by this little three-note motif, and then at the very end finally shifting the mode into a minor ending. Interesting atmosphere. 3 stars. I have no idea who it is. It’s someone seemingly coming out of a rubato classical tradition. [Any sense of it coming out of someone’s sustained body of work over the years? An older player? A younger player?] I would say that this is an older player. This does not strike me as a younger player’s work. It sounds to me like somebody who is steeped in the classical tradition, certainly has an understanding of how modes and atmospheres work, and… I don’t know much more to say about that. [AFTER] I always enjoyed Andrew very much. He’s one of the players who was playing actively at the time I started playing in Chicago. He always had a very original, unusual concept. Now knowing that it’s Andrew, and I could rewind the tape in my head and understand how it would be him. But I’ve never heard him play a piece like that. I’ve always heard him play much more angular kinds of things, either with a trio or with larger groups. But he’s certainly one of the original players, a real force in the music.

5.   Chris Anderson-Charlie Haden, “Body and Soul” (from NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART, Naim, 1997) (Anderson, piano; Haden, bass)

That’s one of my favorite tunes on this planet. I seem to never get tired of playing it or hearing it. This was a very relaxed, languid reading of this piece with a pianist whom I certainly don’t recognize off the bat, accompanied by I believe Charlie Haden. If I’m correct about Charlie, I know he also loves “Body and Soul.” I think he even did a project once with a whole bunch of piano players or maybe other instrumentalists playing “Body and Soul.” I never heard the project, but he was always talking about doing it, and I’ll bet this well could be a cut from that project. I don’t recognize the pianist. I’d say it’s a pianist who was probably actively playing back in the ‘50s. It was very relaxed, and I enjoyed it. Clearly, they just got together and just played it. It was like they jammed on this tune, and it had a very relaxed feel. 4 stars. [AFTER] Is that right? Wow. It didn’t sound like Chris. Knowing now that it was Chris, I’d say a little bit of the halting aspect to the right hand lines reminds me of some of the searching way that Chris would go at it. But what doesn’t tip me off to Chris on this particular cut is that he usually had such unusual harmonic progressions and voicings that he would bring to a tune. This piece doesn’t strike me as what’s the hallmark of Chris Anderson’s really quite innovative approach to jazz voicing. [What was the nature of his influence on you, or someone like Herbie Hancock, people who came under his spell during the late ‘50s in Chicago?] He was a legend in Chicago. Bobby Cranshaw first told me that I had to hear this cat play. When I first heard him, it was wonderful to hear the unusual ways he would put voicings together. That’s really what I think his contribution was. He himself was profoundly influenced by Nelson Riddle. He was very interested in the effects of doubling notes and not doubling notes. He was often very careful not to double certain notes. I remember grabbing this guy and saying, “Chris, you’ve got to show me how you voice that chord,” and I’d be sitting there writing down stuff and trying to figure it out. A lot of players in Chicago were doing exactly the same thing, because he really had a lot to offer.

6.   Fred Hersch, “Bemsha Swing” (from THELONIOUS: FRED HERSCH PLAYS MONK, Nonesuch, 1997) (Hersch, piano; Thelonious Monk, composer)

That was an interesting approach to “Bemsha Swing.”  I feel an affinity for that tune, having just recorded it myself as a solo pianist, and it’s always so interesting to hear what other people do with it. This pianist took it in a very different direction, dealing with a lot of the fragments of the melody, and it was played in a very spare way. It sounded to me like someone who has quite a bit of a classical background. I liked the originality of some of the figurations and way of approaching the tune, which I thought breathed some freshness into this. 3½ stars. No idea who it might be offhand. [AFTER] I love Fred’s playing, and I wouldn’t have picked this one out. Monk is so marvelous, because not only was he unique in the universe, but his compositions are springboards for so many players and improvisers to take things into their own realm. I don’t think the idea is to be “faithful” to Monk (I don’t think he would have wanted that), but rather than you could use these pieces as wonderful launching pads. So I’m always interested to see what other players do with Monk, and I’ve always found his compositions to be really inspirational. I think I started playing some of his stuff in high school. I heard some of the Blue Note things that I liked. Another album that really appealed to me was called Nica’s Tempo, a Gigi Gryce album on Signal. Half the album was Monk, Gigi Gryce, Percy Heath and Art Blakey, and they had things like “Gallop’s Gallop” and “Brake’s Sake.” I loved those pieces, man. And I loved the early Blue Note stuff, which I heard in high school. [Did you have to figure out fingerings and ways to play them? Was that part of the pleasure, too?] Sure. You had to figure out how to negotiate them. But I guess in some ways, more even than physically playing his tunes was the inspiration his compositions and improvisations gave to me to be able to take my own work into different spaces. I think that’s generally been true of how I’ve assimilated music. It hasn’t been so much that I’ve wanted to play a lot of the pieces of other jazz musicians, although I do and I’ve recorded, but even more, their gift to me is what I can do, and then take it in terms of my own compositions and improvisations. The same thing is true with the influence of the classical composers on me when I was growing up. I was always drawn much more to the modern people. Initially I made a big leap all the way from Bach to the impressionists and beyond. In more recent years, I’ve sort of been drinking in the period in between with a great love for Rachmaninoff and Chopin and lots of other people. But I was tremendously drawn to Ravel and Bartok and Berg and people like that, and then, of course, George Russell, when I heard him in high school, knocked the top of my head off. [Were these things in the air in Chicago at all? Do you think that you and generational contemporaries were listening to similar music and affected by similar strains?] I don’t know. I don’t remember talking to people a lot about, for instance, what classical composers they were listening to. We would talk a lot about records that had come out or players we liked in the jazz genre. But I had come up studying classical music throughout grade school, and had always loved these more modern people. But again, I didn’t have a tremendous interest in keeping up a classical repertoire and performing classical pieces. I wanted to use that material in my own music. That’s always been the way I’ve been built. [I’m also interested in the common strains? A Chicago school of piano playing?] I’m trying to think. I don’t remember having conversations with Chicago pianists about classical music very much. I remember talking to Chris Anderson a bit when he was talking about Nelson Riddle. He certainly loved the Impressionists and the voicings of those players. But I don’t remember talking about Classical music with the Chicago cats.

7.   Craig Taborn, “Bodies We Came Out Of” (from LIGHT MADE LIGHTER, Thirsty Ear, 2001) (Taborn, piano; Chris Lightcap, bass; Gerald Cleaver, drums)

That was another piece that really takes you on a journey. I thought it had tremendous hypnotic drive to it, a very skilled pianist. I enjoy very much overlaying different time signatures against each other and asymmetric figures that crash through and drape over barlines, and this pianist enjoys doing that kind of thing, too, so I feel a kindred spirit with that. There was just a wonderful roiling feeling to it all the way through. The drummer was just terrific. Very enjoyable. 5 stars. Don’t know who that is, though. [AFTER] Don’t know him. Terrific pianist.

8.  Herbie Hancock, “Embraceable You” (from GERSHWIN’S WORLD, Verve, 2000) (Hancock, piano)

Boy, what a beautiful journey through “Embraceable You” that was. Gorgeous recording in terms of sound. The pianist has a beautiful touch. Now, these are the voicings that I would have expected from the Chris Anderson cut. If Chris were physically in better shape, I’d say this could be Chris, but he rarely was feeling physically well enough to be able to play at this technical level. As you know, he had ostogenesis imperfecta, and was always nursing injuries. It was amazing that he could play at all, given what he was dealing with. This was just a beautiful rendition, I thought. The rubato treatment. Beautiful and unusual reharmonizations throughout. Lovely surprises. You feel the pianist searching, taking his or her time with this piece. Going for not the easy answer. Some of the modulations I thought were heartbreakingly beautiful, and the improvisation using fragments of the melody rather than feeling that they had to be worked through in terms of the actual structure of the tune per se. Beautiful playing. 5 stars. I have no idea who it is. [AFTER] Herbie? Wow. Beautiful. It’s gorgeous, and I’ve been a big fan of Herbie’s playing over the years. We had only a nodding acquaintance in Chicago. We got to know each other better when I was out on the West Coast and he would come through with Miles. We used to get together and do four-handed duets on my piano, and we’ve enjoyed each other’s  work a lot through the years. I am hoping, if Columbia ever releases a CD of this concert that was done in honor of Conrad Silvert back in the ‘80s… Herbie and I did a two-piano duet on “Round Midnight” which I would love to see included. I thought it was something really special.

9.  The Bad Plus, “Flim” (from BLUNT OBJECT: LIVE IN TOKYO, Sony, 2004) (Ethan Iverson, piano; Reid Anderson, bass; Dave King, drums)

Certainly very different from anything you’ve played for me so far today. This is a melding of Pop and Rock and perhaps even Folk elements. Aspects of it remind me of the Bad Plus, but it doesn’t have the fire and the drive that I typically associate with their playing – at least that I’ve heard. It makes me wonder about a group that I haven’t yet heard, but I’ve heard about – whether this could be E.S.T.  Certainly the group was using these very simple motifs, and just laying them down very repetitive, I think trying to establish a hypnotic groove on those terms. It certainly seemed like it’s played by people who know how to play their instruments, and it’s just a question if one is drawn to this kind of thing. For my own personal taste, 3 stars. [AFTER] I thought it could have been screaming Europeans! I haven’t heard E.S.T. Do they sound like this at all? [They sound very Nordic – folk music, club beats, classical harmony] I heard them last year at IAJE, and I loved them. I thought what they did that night was terrific. But this didn’t have the balls.

10.  Edward Simon, “You’re My Everything, #1” (from SIMPLICITAS, Criss-Cross, 2004) (Simon, piano, composer; Avishai Cohen, bass; Adam Cruz, drums)

Nice treatment of an old standard, “You’re My Everything.” A pianist who obviously has a realized style, a very sumptuous, relaxed sound. Nice voicings. The whole group sounded very relaxed. There were some nice reharmonizations on the head. The bass player is terrific; took a couple of excellent choruses. Then the piano solo was interesting, had a great relaxed feel to it, some moments of nice right hand-left hand interaction. When they finally got into walking on this piece, there was a really good groove, and a very nice feel to it. I liked the way the head was approached at the end in a kind of loose way, and then they moved into this eighth-note vamp at the end which was very relaxed and had some interesting piano figures on it. Overall, a very satisfying cut. 4½ stars. [AFTER] Don’t know him. Never heard him. Nice player.

11.  Renee Rosnes, “Miyako” (from The Drummonds, PAS DE TROIS, TLE, 2002) (Rosnes, piano; Ray Drummond, bass; Billy Drummond drums; Wayne Shorter, composer)

That was “Miyako” from my favorite living composer, Wayne Shorter. A very nice treatment, verging into the more dramatic ways of approaching the piece. The pianist had very, very nice voicings and command of the instrument. A very graceful style. It sounded more like Herbie to me than anybody. I doubt you’d play two tracks from the same pianist in the same Blindfold Test, but it’s somebody who has certainly been very influenced by Herbie. The bass player sounded like he was influenced by Charlie Haden, but also played very well. I thought the whole feel of the piece was very satisfying. 4½ stars.

12.  Eldar Djangirov, “Maiden Voyage” (from ELDAR, Sony, 2004) (Djangirov, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Todd Strait, drums)

A furious, tumultuous version of “Maiden Voyage,”  played by a pianist who I think must be Eldar Djangirov. I’ve never heard his recordings, but I did hear him live last year at the IAJE Convention. He’s a young man with obviously prodigious talent and technique, and hopefully he’ll stay healthy and have all the exposure he needs that will nurture his talent, and that more and more what will emerge will be his true voice, his true center. Right now, I think he’s facing the problem that almost all young jazz players face, particularly if they’re as gifted as he is, of becoming an editor of one’s own materials. There’s a tendency to want to put everything into every piece that one can do and that one knows. There’s a gravitational pull to do that. It can be very seductive. I think time will tell, and with this kind of talent he’s got a brilliant future. 3 stars.

13.  Ahmad Jamal, “I’m Old Fashioned” (from AFTER FAJR, Dreyfuss, 2004) (Jamal, piano; James Cammack, bass; Idris Muhammad, drums)

That was Ahmad Jamal playing “I’m Old Fashioned,” or somebody who clones himself after Ahmad. I enjoyed it tremendously. I will assume it’s Ahmad, and so make comments about him and what I think his music has meant particularly to the whole trio tradition. Coming up in the ‘50s in Chicago I had a chance to hear him, and his use of space and the way of floating over the time and getting that kind of groove. The groove on that piece was very typical of the kind of groove that Vernell Fournier and Israel Crosby would get with him back in the ‘50s when he was playing these kinds of pieces. There was always this wonderful sense of drama and surprise in his playing. He, too, had been influenced by Chris Anderson and had gotten some very unusual ways of reharmonizing and voicing chords I think at least partly from Chris. He certainly is an original and has his own thing. It’s a pleasure to hear this. I’ll be embarrassed if it’s somebody cloning himself after Ahmad, but that I think is worth 5 stars.

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Liner Notes, Denny Zeitlin, As Long As There’s Music:

On As Long As There’s Music, pianist Denny Zeitlin, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Al Foster, who boast more than one hundred years of combined professional experience, embody the principle of the trio as an equilateral triangle.  Addressing a varied program of interesting Songbook and Jazz standards plus a few pungent originals, Zeitlin, guided by unerring melodic radar, ingeniously reimagines his material, reharmonizing and orchestrating with spontaneous elan, maintaining peak focus and flow throughout the recital, deploying towards unfailingly musical ends a prodigious technique that Marion McPartland, referring to a duet they played last year on her NPR “Piano Jazz” show, described as akin “to a tidal wave washing over me.”  Williams and Foster anticipate Zeitlin’s postulations, responding with laser quick precision, nuanced musicality and relentless swing; if you didn’t know that this was their first-ever encounter, you’d swear they’d shared bandstands for years.

Zeitlin is a psychiatrist with a large private practice in the Bay Area.  He also teaches at the University of California and lecture-demonstrates on the psychology of improvising.  So he can speak with some authority on the interpersonal dynamics of trio playing, of which this session might serve as a textbook.  “You always hope for a merger experience with your partners, which can be complicated in a trio,” he remarks.  “If things go extremely well, three people can feel that the music is just emanating from the stage — it’s hard even to know for sure who is playing what.  When my own personal creative forces are at their height, I have this feeling of merger.  I also have it when I’m doing my best work as a psychiatrist, a sense of inhabiting the world that my patients are talking about.

“If I had been a surgeon, I can’t imagine how I would infuse my three-thousandth appendectomy with new excitement.  As you do psychotherapy, as much as it’s true that you hear common themes in the human life cycle that endlessly repeat, every person’s experience and presentation of this is unique, so that it really never gets old.  In my psychiatric office, I am the accompanist.  I am trying to help the patient tell their story.  My function is to help them feel it’s safe to go into areas of their life they might not otherwise be able to investigate.  The role of accompanying another soloist on the bandstand is parallel.  The biggest difference is that I often solo for long periods of time on a stage, which I’m not doing in my office with patients.”

Now 62, Zeitlin is no stranger to jazz connoisseurs.  His five mid-’60s trio albums for Columbia won widespread acclaim, resulting in two first place finishes in the Downbeat Critics Poll.  He spent the ’70s focusing on a pioneering integration of jazz, electronics, classical and rock, culminating in the 1978 electronic-acoustic score for Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. He concertizes internationally, working with bass giants like David Friesen, Charlie Haden, and John Patitucci, appearing at one point or another with John Abercrombie, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Bobby Hutcherson, the Kronos Quartet, Pat Metheny, Tony Williams, and Paul Winter.

That said, most Zeitlin devotees probably don’t know much about his formative years, when he encountered the blend of cultural influences that shaped his sensibility.  It started at home, in Highland Park, a suburb north of Chicago. His mother, Rosalyn, was a speech pathologist and “fairly decent classical pianist,” while his father, Nathaniel, was a radiologist “who couldn’t read a note but could play the piano by ear.”  As he puts it, “I bilaterally had both fields — medicine and music — from day one, and always an atmosphere in the home that seemed to say people can follow their muse, that it doesn’t have to be either-or; from very early on I had a sense that I was going to be involved in some way in the two fields.”

Zeitlin remembers traversing the keyboard at 2 or 3; soon after he began “picking out little melodies and improvising.”  Formal instruction began at 7 or 8.  He recalls: “I always had a hunger for unusual sounds and combinations and dissonance.  I loved the Impressionists, particularly Ravel, and was tremendously excited by composers like Prokofiev, Bartok, Stravinsky and Berg.  I started to listen to jazz around eighth grade.  One night my music teacher brought to a lesson a recording of George Shearing playing ‘Summertime’ and I was knocked out.  Here was this guy who obviously had a Classical background and technique to burn, and what was this music he was playing?  I wanted to learn about this genre!  She began bringing Art Tatum albums over, and that was it.”

As a high school freshman Zeitlin formed a piano-guitar-drums trio called the Cool Tones for which he composed original music informed by the cutting edge of the zeitgeist.  He cites as early influences Bud Powell (“his power and angularity and originality spoke to me”), Billy Taylor (“he had consummate taste and such a beautiful touch; I was particularly drawn to the power of his ballad playing”), Lennie Tristano (“his harmonic conception and rhythmic subtleties with the line of a solo”), Dave Brubeck (“I thought he had his own thing and followed it with tremendous conviction”), and Thelonious Monk (“an utterly quirky genius full of endless surprise”).

Zeitlin began to partake of Chicago’s raucous jazz scene as soon as he could drive, hearing headliners and “resident greatness” at North Side institutions like Mr. Kelly’s and the French Poodle, hanging out in South Side rooms like the Beehive and the Stage Lounge until 4 or 5 in the morning.  By his senior year he was jamming with hardcore Windy City progressives, forming relationships that deepened as he pursued pre-med studies at the University of Illinois, in downstate Champaign, where Joe Farrell, Jack McDuff and Roger Kellaway were among the local talent.

“My parents knew I was utterly galvanized by this, that it was so deeply embedded in my psyche that it was important to encourage and allow this to happen,” Zeitlin explains.  “They had a tremendous amount of trust in me; that I wasn’t, for example, using drugs or having problems with alcohol, that I could be around that subculture without being involved in it.  And indeed, their trust was not misplaced.  I was able to take this opportunity of a priceless many-year informal apprenticeship in the music.  In those days there were no formal jazz schools.  This was the way one had to learn it.  I would collar somebody like Chris Anderson after the gig and say, ‘Man, sit down with me for a minute here; how did you voice such-and-such?’  By osmosis I tried to absorb as much of this art form as I could, and generally, I found musicians were gracious and willing to show me stuff and to give me a chance to play.”

By 1954, Zeitlin’s influences, as he puts it, “rapidly became non-pianistic.”  He honed in on Miles Davis’ “incredible sense of pulse and melodic elegance, never a wasted note, never a cliche, always pushing the edge.”  He was fascinated with the roles of drums and bass, particularly Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Percy Heath and Paul Chambers — he took up the instruments enough to do some gigging both in high school and college.  He analyzed the harmonic system John Coltrane was developing circa 1959-60, and analogizes the experience of hearing Coltrane as “like being shot out of a cannon, being at the center of a cyclone; I was tremendously drawn towards what some people have called his vertical chromaticism.”  He fell in love with the free improvisation aesthetic of the Ornette Coleman quartet; “I’d enjoyed free improvisation since I was 2 or 3 years, and here were guys making a whole life out of doing it in jazz.”

While Zeitlin attended medical school at Johns Hopkins, in Baltimore, he “had carte blanche, whenever I could sneak away, to come and sit in at the North End Lounge,” owned by the father of saxophonist Gary Bartz, where he played with musicians like the younger Bartz, trombonist Grachan Moncur and drummer Billy Hart.  In 1963, while attending Columbia University on a fellowship, he met composer-theorist George Russell — “We hung out, talked about music, played with each other; he was tremendously encouraging to me.”  During that time, Paul Winter, a Chicago acquaintance, “dragged me kicking and screaming to meet his producer, John Hammond.  I played a few tunes for John solo piano, and he startled me by saying, ‘Hey, I’d love for you to record; you can play whatever you want and use whomever you want.’”

Consider this complex matrix of experience as you listen to the assorted treasures — they’re primarily first takes — on As Long As There’s Music.  The title could serve as Zeitlin’s raison d’etre.  “I try to get to the piano every day,” he states, “not so much out of a sense of duty to the instrument, but that I am called to it.  Because I have played for so long, I have a certain technical base that endures even during periods where I’m not able to play as much as I would like.  I was never drawn to technical exercises.  I garnered new technical skills by pushing myself to play classical pieces somewhat beyond my current technical capability.  Now when I practice, I usually just improvise, sometimes with an ear towards possible composition.  Doing that keeps my fingers lubricated, and it nourishes my soul to be with music.  Every time I sit down at the keyboard I remind myself of how profoundly grateful I am to be able to play.”

The title track, which Zeitlin first heard on an early ’50s George Shearing quintet side, is a favorite of the bassist Charlie Haden, who Zeitlin met when the pianist arrived in the Bay Area in 1964 as an intern at San Francisco General Hospital.  Haden was on two of Zeitlin’s early Columbia LPs, and they recorded a duo version of the song on a 1983 ECM album.  On this version Zeitlin shifts the piece into waltz time, employs a bit of organic reharmonization, Foster articulates barely perceptible shifts in tempo and dynamics, Williams nudges the pulse along with subtle accents, and the trio rides out with a polyrhythmic dialogue on a sweet vamp.

Zeitlin notes: “The challenge of a standard is to be faithful to the original spirit of the piece, but find an approach that might breathe fresh life into it.  You can reshape it structurally, but most often you may want to reharmonize it, which can seduce you with its possibilities.  At its worst it becomes an exercise in how clever the musician can be.  Often, the tune gets lost, or becomes so cluttered that it becomes a logjam of material.  I try to keep those pitfalls in mind, but allow myself to see what new directions the tune might take.”

Zeitlin conceptualized “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and “The Man I Love” for a Gershwin concert celebration a few months before the session.  On the former, after the trio serenely states the head, Zeitlin plays solo piano with a bit of stride and a nod to Art Tatum, which cues an increasingly intense piano-drum duet, which leads to a double-time trio section that evokes the essence of Bud Powell.  After Buster Williams’ spot-on solo, they transition to the original medium-tempo head statement.

The latter tune, which concludes the album, opens with a brief free piano improvisation which sets a mood, before a rubato melody statement that brings in the trio, which springboards off a vivid vamp into ever-escalating improvisational adventures.

Is the consummately lyrical Zeitlin a lyrics man or is he inspired by a song’s musical content?   “It’s more of the latter,” Zeitlin responds.  “I know many musicians feel it’s crucial to know the lyric — almost ‘How could you not know it and play the tune?’  But in fact, most of these tunes are written music first, lyrics second, and my allegiance is to the composer.  Now, the lyrics of some tunes end up embedded in my psyche, and I find myself hearing fragments of them.  Certainly I hear a lot of Sinatra in my head when I hear any tune that he’s recorded because I’m so totally taken with him.  Favorite female vocalists whose lyrics stay with me over the years have been Sarah Vaughan, Jackie Cain and Elis Regina.”

Add to that list Billie Holiday, the inspiration for “For Heaven’s Sake,” which Zeitlin played for years in solo, duo and trio contexts, but never recorded.  His reharmonized interpretation, framing a delicate Buster Williams solo, evokes the inherent tenderness and yearning in the melody.

“There and Back,” the first of two Zeitlin originals, moves back and forth between walking jazz time and a straight-eighth, funky feel, while “Canyon” is a clever “minor blues-oid construction.”  “I’ve always perceived improvisation as being spontaneous composition,” says Zeitlin, whose best-known piece is “Quiet Now,” which Bill Evans recorded numerous times.  “I hope my improvising imparts a sense of a journey, a feeling of inevitability about how it proceeds, that it isn’t just a hodge-podge of possibilities or a pastiche of colors or novelty for its own sake.  I often think of my pieces as roadmaps that we can loosely follow to get from one destination to the other, with some interesting roadblocks and detour signs along the way that challenge me and the musicians.”

Zeitlin heard Barbra Streisand sing “I’m All Smiles” on her ’60s People album; the trio plays it straight in a relaxed version that brings out all the beauty of the melody.

“Cousin Mary” continues a long line of Zeitlin interpretations of John Coltrane’s “Atlantic period.”  Zeitlin reharmonizes the head and drives hard-edged right into the blues; he sounds like a playful dancer, deconstructing the harmonic structure with wit and imagination.

There’s an elegant reading of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Triste,” and a heart-on-the-sleeve version of “I Fall In Love Too Easily” that Zeitlin describes as “a real organic journey.”

The same could be said for the entirety of As Long As There’s Music.  “I organized the arrangements to explore different things we could do as a trio,” Zeitlin concludes.  “I was hoping to see how deep and how broad we could go in this weekend we were going to play together.  I felt there was some special chemistry here.”

* * * *

Denny Zeitlin (For As Long As There’s Music) – (9-16-00):

TP:    Let’s talk about the circumstances of this record.  You haven’t recorded with a trio for 10-11-12 years.  What’s the most common configuration in performance, solo, duo, trio?  Are they all equally…

ZEITLIN:  In some ways they are yes.  Over time they’ve been pretty balanced.  Rarely I’ll play in a larger context, maybe a quartet, but it’s typically more of a solo, duo or trio setting for me.

TP:    Perhaps you could state in a succinct way the different experience of performing in each media, how each creates a different space for you.

ZEITLIN:  The solo playing offers the unique challenge of having to create all the music oneself.  I’ve always thought of the piano as a symphonic instrument, so it gives me an opportunity and a challenge of trying to paint with all the colors of the orchestra as best I can, using the piano.  It also offers me complete freedom as to where I might take the form from moment to moment.  I don’t have to really be concerned by the forces that might be mobilized by the other musicians on the stage.  In some ways that’s a plus as a soloist.  Out there all by myself, I can take it wherever I would like.  On the other hand, you can argue that I miss out on all of the input that another or other musicians would give me.  So there’s always positives and negatives to these situations when you compare them to other possibilities.  But just in and of itself, the solo situation is a marvelous one for me in that I do get a chance to take the music wherever it might want to go from moment to moment, and that I have this kind of unique possibility for producing all of it myself.  In that setting, on a psychological level, the kind of emotional connection I’m making is to the music and to the spirit of the music, and then to the audience in the sense of reaching out with this music to I guess what Stravinsky used to talk about as “the hypothetical Other” — the perfect audience person.  And I’m hoping there’s at least a few of them out there in the actual audience.  I’m sending the music out there in the hopes that the people will try to reach out and meet the music halfway.  When that happens, it’s a very palpable experience for me, and at its very best I end up feeling like I’m just a conduit for the music, and that we’re all in the audience listening to what’s going on.

TP:    Now, the duo situation I would presume has a somewhat different dialoguing quality.

ZEITLIN:  It does.  And it still contains the complement of sending the music out and hoping for a merger experience with the audience.  But in the duo setting, I’m hoping for a merger experience with whomever is my musical partner up there.  Since typically it’s been bass, although I do duets with David  Grisman, and I’ve played duets in the past with Herbie Hancock, with John Abercrombie, with Marion McPartland… It’s the most transparent kind of group playing, as far as I can see.  With just two people up there, there is a tremendous kind of interpersonal nakedness, which at its best can lead to some very special music.  It doesn’t have the complexity, in some ways, of a trio, but in some ways it has more freedom in that there is maybe more opportunity to take the form in different directions from moment to moment, because there could be a greater possibility that two people will be in synch than three.  And particularly with bass and piano, with no drums, there is a lot of opportunity for a certain kind of subtlety and nuance to be heard that might otherwise be covered sometimes, at least, by drums, no matter how sensitive a drummer might be, and very subtle shifts in timbre can be heard and perceived.  So I think of the duo situation more like a kind of group chamber music of a sort. And it’s a very exciting form, and I’ve enjoyed that.  I’ve done a lot of duo playing over the last 15 years with David Friesen; we’ve recorded a number of albums together, and that’s been a very special experience.

In the trio it gets more complicated.  I think we still have the opportunity and obligation to attempt the merger with the audience, but now we’ve got three people…if things are going extremely well, three people who could somehow have a kind of merger experience where we all feel that the music is just emanating from the stage, but it’s hard to even know for sure who is playing what.  I think when my own personal creative forces are at their height, I have this feeling of merger.  I think it’s also true when I’m doing my best work as a psychiatrist.

TP:    That you have a sense of merger with the patient.

ZEITLIN:  Yes, with the patient and with the material, a sense of really inhabiting the world that they are talking about.  I am hoping to achieve some measure of that in the musical setting as well.

TP:    Hopefully what a writer would wish to achieve with his subject.  Empathy.

ZEITLIN:  It’s empathy and also the flow experience, that Mihalyihas Csikszent has written about.  He’s written about a dozen books, starting in 1976, about the flow experience.  What’s the essential fun in Fun, and what is it that particularly will call people to do activities that don’t seem to have tremendous external rewards.  He over a period of time delineated the characteristics of the flow experience, which are things like utter concentration without being aware that one is particularly concentrating, an altered sense of time, a sense of tremendous internal rightness about what’s going on, a process orientation rather than a content orientation, the merger experience with the activity and often ecstatic feelings about it.  Those are parts of the flow experience, maybe not an exhaustive list of the components of it.

TP:    Had you ever worked with this particular configuration before?

ZEITLIN:  This was a first time experience.  One rehearsal the day before.

TP:    You sound like to me like you’d been playing together for ten years.

ZEITLIN:  I thought there was a special rapport that immediately generated with these guys.  I had loved their music for years.  I first heard Al with Miles years ago, and I heard Buster even earlier when he was with Herbie, and I had always hoped that someday I might get a chance to do a project with them.  In fact, Todd asked me to do a little personal liner for the album, and I mention that.  I’ll send you those few paragraphs.  I go into it, that I’d always hoped to do a project with them.  So when this came along, when Todd called me about doing this trio album, I thought immediately of them, and I was delighted that they were available and it turned out that they were both familiar with my music and had liked it, so that we approached it all of us having a good vibe about what we’d heard earlier in each other’s music, and I think considerable excitement about what we might do together.  Sometimes studio sessions can sound fairly mundane or just workmanlike, or people get together and the music is good and whatever.  But I felt there was some special chemistry here.

TP:    You’ve done a lot of live recordings.

ZEITLIN:  Yes, and I generally prefer the live setting for a recording, because I think it helps get people into that flow experience, that the presence and challenge of an audience can pull more for that sort of merger experience and a higher level of excitement.  So a studio poses a challenge of can you tap into this somehow.  I thought all the ingredients were present in this setting.  This was Clinton Studio A.  I’d never played there before.  I thought the room had great feel.  It was one of the best Steinway Grands I’d ever performed on.  It was impeccably maintained.  It was as if I had sat down at the piano and played a few notes, and the piano said to me, “We can do anything you want.”  Sometimes one gets a personal sense of connection to an instrument.  It’s interesting that almost everyone else carries their instrument with them wherever they go, so they develop I’m sure a much more intense personal attachment and connection to the actual instrument.  I am at the mercy of what’s at every venue.  So there’s always some anxiety, despite reassurances, as to what I am going to run into, whether it’s a performance or a recording.  This just happened to be an almost miraculous Steinway, one of the top 3 or 4 pianos I’ve ever played in my life.  The studio had a whole cupboard full of almost antique treasures, of tube and Neumann microphones, which are just gorgeous.  They gave that wonderful warm sound to the piano.  It’s I think a really extraordinarily excellent piano-sonic recording.  And the way it was set up, the earphone mixes were excellent, so I could hear everybody.  And Todd is a wonderful guy to work with.  He was sensitive, he was helpful, but totally non-intrusive.

TP:    Here’s the way I want to approach the note.  It’s a program that refers to a very wide span of material, and it’s consistent with… I’m afraid I really don’t know your ’60s music or the electronic things you did in the ’70s, but it seems that in the last 15-20 years a lot of your performance has been about including the dynamics of your whole range of experience.

ZEITLIN:  Yes, I think that’s very true.

TP:    I would like to take you back a little bit into your influences in conceptualizing the sound of a piano trio.  I’d like you to talk about each of the tunes and the associations those tunes had for you, and a bit formally about how you approached those tunes.  And I would like to go into a little biographical detail about your formative years, which I haven’t read in any of these notes.  So let’s go back to the boilerplate things, and take it into something specific and informative about how it inflects on this record.  You started playing at an incredibly early age.

ZEITLIN:  I started when I was maybe 2 or 3 years old.  I do have memories of sitting on the lap of whichever parent was playing the piano, and putting my little hands on their hands and going along for the ride kinesthetically before I could even play a note.  I had a sense of what it was like to traverse a keyboard.  Then I started just picking out little melodies and improvising, and I think very wisely, my parents held off formal instruction, so that I think I was 7 or 8 before I really had a hunger to start studying music and learning how to read notes.  I was composing and improvising for some years by then.  They sensed that I just needed space and time to explore that.  It was I think a very important decision on their part.  My mother turned out to be my first music teacher.  She was a fairly decent classical pianist and also a speech pathologist, so she brought both medicine and music from her side.  And my father had a very good ear, couldn’t read a note but could play the piano by ear, and he was a radiologist.  So bilaterally I had both fields from day one, and always an atmosphere in the home that seemed to say that people can follow their muse, and it doesn’t have to be either-or.  I think from very early on I had a sense I was going to be involved in some way in the two fields.

TP:    Your first influences were classical, obviously.  When did you start to become aware of jazz?  And more specifically, when did you start to become aware of the notion that there were improvisers who articulated specific voices.  Improvisational personalities.  Let’s say the difference between Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk and George Shearing, presuming those are people who are part of your matrix.

ZEITLIN:  I think it was really in eighth grade that I started to listen to jazz and really notice jazz.  Certainly I had heard the music.  But prior to that I was studying Classical music, always drawn much more to 20th Century music and the Impressionist.  It’s as though I took a leap from Bach, whom I always loved, all the way to the Impressionists and beyond.  I always had a hunger for unusual sounds and combinations and dissonance, and tremendous excitedly by composers like Prokofiev and Bartok and Stravinsky and Berg.  I loved the Impressionists, particularly Ravel.  This music just really always touched my soul.

In eighth grade I remember my music teacher brought a little 10″ MGM LP to a music lesson one night, and the title of the album was You’re Hearing George Shearing.  I remember hearing that; the first piece I ever heard him play was “Summertime,” and I remember being just absolutely knocked out, that wow, here was this guy who obviously had a Classical background and technique to burn, and what was this music he was playing?  The rhythmic drive on that album with other instruments… Boy, I just wanted to learn about this genre.  So she began bringing other albums over, listening to Art Tatum, and then I was in…

TP:    You had a hip piano teacher.

ZEITLIN:  Oh, she was great.  She couldn’t play jazz, but she was absolutely wide-open to anything I wanted to do.  It was a great-great blessing.  When I got into my high school, in my freshman year there were a number of other fledgling jazz musicians, and I formed a trio with drums and guitar… I still remember.  We called ourselves the Cool-Tones!

TP:    This was around 1952 or so.

ZEITLIN:  This would be ’52.  I started listening to Bud Powell.  The first trio I ever heard live, in terms of a touring band, was the Billy Taylor Trio, and I remember being tremendously excited by what he was doing and touched by his music.  I felt he had consummate taste and such a beautiful touch.  I was particularly drawn to the beauty of his ballad playing, and I loved everything he did.  Bud Powell’s power and angularity and originality spoke to me.  Lennie Tristano’s harmonic conception and the subtleties of what he would do rhythmically with the line of a solo.  I really was drawn to that.  I liked Dave Brubeck a lot.  I thought he had his own thing, and really followed it with tremendous conviction.  I continued to listen to George Shearing.  Certainly Thelonious Monk I liked a lot.  Those were the very early pianistic influences.

TP:    So you were very much in tune with your zeitgeist of your time, in many ways.  This is what the cutting edge was in 1955-6-7.  And you grew up in the north suburbs?

ZEITLIN:  Yes, I grew up in Highland Park.

TP:    And when did you start partaking of music as beyond your immediate milieu.  You mentioned it briefly before, that at a certain point you started going into Chicago quite a bit, and specifically the South Side scene.

ZEITLIN:  I started going into the city to hear music when I was a freshman in high school, because I was tall and in a dark room I could pass.  But I didn’t actually start sitting in until I was a senior in high school or something like that.

TP:    So there’s the Beehive, the 63rd Street strip…

ZEITLIN:  Yes, the Stage Lounge I remember.  Then there were places like Mr. Kelly’s, the French Poodle…

TP:    How much hanging out did you do?  You did get into medical school eventually!

ZEITLIN:  I did, I did.  But in my spare time, I would just carve it out.  I was immersed in this music, listening to it, rehearsing, going to jam sessions, listening to great musicians.  And there was fortunately a tremendous amount of resident greatness in the Chicago area, as well as people who would come through, traveling headliners that I would get to see.  It was marvelous…

TP:    Were you paying attention to Ahmad Jamal during this time?

ZEITLIN:  Yes, I liked Ahmad very much.  I wouldn’t say he was as much of an early influence as these other people I mentioned.

TP:    There are a lot of orchestrative things you do within the dynamics of this record… Well, I guess his impact was so pervasive on the sound of contemporary piano trios…

ZEITLIN:  It’s sometimes hard to… You get immersed in a form, and you listen to dozens and dozens of players, and you get… To some degree, we’re influenced by everything we hear.  What you hope is that you integrate it in a way and that you have something personal to offer, that you develop a personal voice.

I had a chance fairly early on to play with some really fine players, like Bobby Cranshaw, the bassist, and Wilbur Ware, Walter Perkins, a great drummer, Ira Sullivan, a marvelous trumpeter and tenor player, Nicky Hill, Johnny Griffin.  Really excellent players.  So all through college I would come up, frequently on weekends, and go to jam sessions and play with these guys, play gigs… Also, there were very good players at the University of Illinois, where I was an undergrad.  Joe Farrell, whose real name was Firantello, was there, and we used to play together a lot.  Jack McDuff was living down there at the time, playing bass as well as organ, and Roger Kellaway was around.  He also played very good bass, as well as piano.  I feel everywhere I’ve gone since high school I’ve been fortunate to find excellent musical opportunities to keep the juices flowing while I was studying either premed or medicine.

The same thing happened when I went to Johns Hopkins Medical School in 1960.  Gary Bartz’s father had a jazz club called the North End Lounge in Baltimore.  I used to go sit in with Gary and some other great cats who… I remember a couple of times Grachan Moncur was down there, and Billy Hart was a resident drummer.  I had a carte blanche invitation, whenever I could sneak away from medical school, to come and sit in.  It was just great fun.

Then in 1963, I stumbled really into recording.  I’d had some inquiries and nibbles early on, and really had some resistance to the whole idea of making a record.  I’d heard so many stories from musicians about how record companies ripped them off, subverted their musical identities, etcetera, etc.  And I figured, “Look, I’m going to be a doctor; I love this music; I can keep it pure; I’ll just play; I don’t really care about particularly a public career.”  Then I was in New York on a fellowship at Columbia in 1963, and Paul Winter, who had been at Northwestern for a number of years and had heard me play and had always liked my playing, he had been recording for Columbia for a year or so, and he dragged me literally kicking and screaming to meet his producer, John Hammond.  I played a few tunes for John solo piano, and he just loved what I was doing, and startled me by saying, “Hey, I’d love for you to record; you can record whatever you want, you can use whomever you want” — carte blanche.

TP:    Was what you played within the tradition or in the framework of stretching out?

ZEITLIN:  Both.  John was a marvelous guy with tremendously broad tastes, and he was as good as his word.  He wanted me to get my feet wet with recording by being the featured pianist with Jeremy Steig on Jeremy’s first outing for the label, which was in 1963.  That was a lot of fun.  I remember that session as being a ball.  Ben Riley was on drums and Ben Tucker was on bass.  I thought the chemistry was great among the four of us.  Then what followed were four trio projects for Columbia over the next handful of years.  Out here in California I was able to hook up with Charlie Haden and Jerry Granelli, and we were a working trio for 2-1/2 years and did an album and a half together.  Then I played with some other cats in a trio, and we recorded most of the last album I did for Columbia, which was called Zeitgeist, actually my favorite of the whole series.  That came out in 1967.

By that time, I’d been listening to quite a bit of Rock-and-Roll and some of the avant-garde electronic music, and I was interested in a lot of what was happening in modern Classical music, and I was getting restless with what felt like the limitations of the acoustic piano sound.  I wanted to be able to bend notes, I wanted to be able to sustain notes like horns and guitar players could.  So I really withdrew from public performance for over a year or so, and tried to do some R&D as to what was available, and I hired engineers to build me sound modules…

TP:    Boy, were you in the right spot in 1968.

ZEITLIN:  Well, a lot was starting.  But this was before you could walk to your corner grocery and come back with a Moog synthesizer under your arm.  This was the era where you take wires and you patch together a sound, and it probably takes you five minutes to do the whole cascade, and then you get one note.  You don’t get two notes.

TP:    It’s fascinating because you’re in on it from the beginning.  It’s as though someone presents something to you, you work with it, then they present something else, you can work with that, and it’s all fresh and new and un-cliched.

ZEITLIN:  I’ve always been drawn to new ways of trying to express myself.  I am attracted to the idea of stretching.  I have never been an either-or type of person.  I’ve always been a both-and type of person.  I think you were quite correct when you talked about the breadth of what I try to do.  For me, there’s no reason why there have to be artificial boundaries between Classical music, Rock, Funk, Jazz, Folk music, Electronic music.  There’s no reason why one has to, in some a priori way, say that some are off-base for others.  There is material in all of those forms that called to me.  Why not try to have a musical palette to paint with that can use all those colors?  That’s what I’m drawn to.  So I was just excited at the prospect of what I could do with electronics.  So I got people to build the various things for me, and sound-altering devices and foot switches and pedals.  A lot of it was totally customized at that point.  Gradually I developed what looked like a 747 cockpit of six or seven keyboard instruments, along with the acoustic piano and miles of cords and banks of flip switches that were more complicated than a B-3 pedal box.  It would take 6 hours to tear this down from my studio at home, take it to a local gig and set it up, play the gig, and then another 6 hours to undo it.  And for several years I did this.  There was a ten-year period, from ’68 to ’78, when I really was involved in this electronic-acoustic integration of all of these forms.  I found musicians who were willing to go on that exploration with me.  People I played with predominantly during that period were George Marsh on drums and Mel Graves on bass.  That’s when I did Szyzgy and the album Expansion, which was the first album of this kind of music.  When I wanted to make a record of it and queried some record labels at the time, I got a lot of responses back saying, “Gee, Denny, honestly we love this music, but we don’t know how in the world we would market it.  We wouldn’t know what conduit to put it through marketing-wise.”  So I ended up starting my own label, called Double-Helix records, to even put this out, and I sold out the first pressing.  Then there was a local, very avant-garde label called 1750 Arch Records which expressed an interest in taking it over, and I was delighted.  Because being an administrator and packing up LPs is not my idea of a good time.  So they took over Expansion, and then I did Szyzgy for them and also a solo piano album of totally free improvisations called Soundings which was released in ’78.

’78 really marked a turning point for me again.  I had an opportunity, again just by luck, to score a major motion picture film…

TP:    The remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

ZEITLIN:  That’s right.  Philip Kaufman was a Chicago guy, and he had heard me play and had it in his head that some day he wanted me to do a jazz score for him.  So he called me in in ’78, I guess, or maybe it was late ’77, when he was in the process of getting ready to shoot this film, and asked me whether I would be interested in doing it.  It sounded great to me.  I love science fiction, and I’d always hoped some day I would get a chance to score a major film but figured it was really unlikely.  Because to get that, typically, you live in L.A., you pound on doors for ten years, then you’re given maybe a dozen first projects where the budget is for a kazoo and a harmonica, and maybe if you’re lucky and play enough political games, about five years later you’ll get to score a major film.  So all of a sudden this back door seemed to be opening, and I was very excited about it.  But then it looked like it wouldn’t happen, because Philip’s idea about the film shifted, and it looked like he was going to need an 20th century avant-garde symphonic score.  I had no established credentials for this.  So I had to convince him and his producer that I could do it, and I sold them on it.  And it took some selling.  It was one of the more exciting and challenging experiences I’ve ever had, to be able to write for a symphony orchestra, plus do all of this electronic stuff.  I had the prototype of the Prophet-10 voice synthesizer.  It hadn’t even been released for sale, I believe, at that point.  I remember it wouldn’t even stay in tune for more than about 10 or 15 minutes.  I had to turn it off, let it cool off, and then reboot it.  But for studio work I could use it.  And it had some marvelous capabilities.  I did small group stuff.  I had Eddie Henderson come in, and Mel Martin recorded some things with me.  So I had a chance to do virtually everything I loved to do, plus this whole new experience of writing for a symphony orchestra, and going down to L.A. and having this orchestra play, taking the 24-track tapes back to San Francisco and overdubbing on that, and going back to L.A.  It was an exhausting 10-week project.

TP:    At this point you’re 40 years old and you’re always a practicing psychiatrist.

ZEITLIN:  Yeah.  I started my psychiatric practice in 1968, after finishing a three-year residency at the Langley-Porter Psychiatric Institute, which is part of the U.C. Medical Center in San Francisco.  I’ve been on the clinical faculty since ’68, teaching residents how to do various kinds of psychotherapy, and had a private practice.  So at this point, in ’78, I’m ten years out into practice, still teaching at the university, and having this marvelous opportunity to score this film.

TP:    Are you one of these people who needs 5 hours of sleep?

ZEITLIN:  Actually, if I can get 8, I’m delighted to get 8.  But I can get along, at least in short bursts, on less.  This was a particularly challenging period.  I remember I cut back on my practice 50% for five weeks, had a lot of advance planning so nobody got into any trouble, and I had coverage and everything.  But I do remember after this project was over, it had been very exciting, but so arduous.  I was working 18-19 hour days.  My wife would come down and literally peel me off the piano stool and deposit me in the hot tub to stretch out, put me to bed for a few hours, and I’d get up and do the thing again.  As exciting as it was, after all that, and then having to deal with the politics of Hollywood, which almost involved me having to sue the studio in order to get paid my money, I said to myself, “I’ve had my one experience, I’m very lucky, I’m going to quit while I’m ahead.”  I had some other offers, and I just shined them on.  I never wanted to do it again.

I was very grateful for the opportunity and very pleased that I was able to have a soundtrack album from it, but it did represent a turning point to me in that I wanted to get back to the purity of acoustic music, and I really haven’t done any major projects with electronics since.  I’ve just been focusing on the acoustic piano and acoustic situations.  What I found, to my pleasant surprise, was that all the years of playing other keyboards and dealing with electronic instruments and synthesizers had opened my ears in some way that I was able to get a lot more nuance out of the acoustic piano than ever before.  So that was an unexpected dividend.  A lot of people have had just the opposite experience, that playing multiple keyboards with different degrees of heaviness of touch, messes up their acoustic piano playing.  But I didn’t have this experience.  So since 1978, I’ve been focusing primarily on solo, duo and trio playing, with an occasional quartet of acoustic music basically.

TP:    It sounds that at a certain point you got very much into John Coltrane’s harmonic system circa 1959-60-61, and you also deal quite a bit with Ornette Coleman’s music.  Could you talk about the impact of that hypermodernism, if we can call it that, on you at the point when it was coming out?  Non-pianistic influences obviously.

ZEITLIN:  That’s a good question, because very rapidly, the major influences for me became non-pianistic.  I think most players start off with their major influences being on their own instrument, but they may then branch out.  Not inevitably, but I think it’s a natural tendency to broaden one’s horizons.  For me it really ended up that the major influences, if I had to look back, were non-pianistic influences.  Miles, Trane, Ornette, George Russell.  Those would be absolutely tops on my list.

Miles’ incredible sense of pulse and melodic elegance, never a wasted note, never a cliche, always pushing the edge.  I was tremendously drawn to him.

Coltrane, it was like being shot out of a cannon, listening to him.  He was totally ripping the fabric of jazz apart.  Sometimes I’d listen to him and feel like I was watching a terrier shake a rat.  It was incredibly exciting music.  It was like being at the center of a cyclone, listening to Trane in his exploratory earlier period, his harmonic period when he was developing what some people have called a kind of vertical chromaticism.  I was tremendously drawn to that.

George Russell’s writing and ways of thinking about music were tremendously important to me.  I never formally studied the Lydian chromatic concept of tonal organization.  But in 1963, when I was a resident at Columbia University for this fellowship (that’s when I met John Hammond), I also hung out with George, studied with him, and it was more a kind of mentorship.  We would hang out, talk about music, play with each other.  He was tremendously encouraging to me, and I think I could make a remark…

I think it’s often notable when people talk about their careers, that there are nodal points where the encouragement of a valued mentor or authority is extraordinarily helpful.  I remember three points in my career where this happened.  The first was Billy Taylor.  He came out to the house with his trio when I was probably a sophomore or freshman in high school, invited by my parents.  We had dinner, and my little fledgling trio played for them. [END OF SIDE] …[he said] there was no reason why I couldn’t do both of them, and talking about the hard life of a full-time working jazz musician.  So his encouragement was priceless.

Then I remember George’s encouragement in 1963, before I even began to record.  Then after I made my first trio album for Columbia, called Cathexis, I had read a Blindfold Test that Bill Evans had done for Downbeat where they played a track from Flute Fever, the first album I did with Jeremy Steig, and he was very complimentary about my playing.  So I figured, well, I’ll give Bill a call and I’ll see if he’s willing to listen to this record and give me a critique and see if he has any suggestions.  I went over and met him for the first time, found him utterly gracious, a gentle man, totally noncompetitive.  He was very secure in his music and didn’t have any trouble being generous to somebody else.  Basically what he told me was, “Look, I don’t have any suggestions other than just keep doing your thing — follow your music.”  That was extraordinarily helpful and encouraging to me at that point, too.

I think of those three guys at those points in my life as being very important moments.

TP:    Finally, the impact Ornette Coleman had on you at the time.

ZEITLIN:  When I first heard Ornette, I just loved that music.  I was in college at the time.  I think the first thing of his I heard was The Shape of Jazz To Come, and I just thought that was marvelous stuff.  I’d always enjoyed since I was 2 or 3 years old free improvisation!  So here were guys doing it in jazz and making a whole form, a whole life out of it.  I thought it was terrific. TP:    Is there anything within what I was talking about that you felt I neglected?

ZEITLIN:  I think we covered a lot of ground.  Just thinking in terms of all the parameters of what would be useful selfishly to me in a liner note, I would hope, though it’s always nice for an artist to imagine that everybody who will buy the album knows who he is, there hopefully will be some people who may hear me for the first time on the air, and say, “Gee, I’d like pick up that CD” and they get it… So if you would be willing to establish some of my credentials in context of the liner notes, the stuff that’s highlighted in the third paragraph of the bio.

TP:    Last night I did a search on you, and two things popped out.  One thing was a blindfold test that Leonard Feather did with Thelonious Monk.  Monk wasn’t listening to anything anyone was playing unless it was an interpretation of Monk, and at the end of the Blindfold Test he played him “Carole’s Garden.”  This was after Monk had pointedly gone to the toilet while Leonard Feather played an Oscar Peterson trio thing.  Monk was listening and said, “Yeah, that piano player knows what’s happening!  He’s a player!  He’s on a Bobby Timmons kick, and that can’t be bad.”  Then I noticed a Marion McPartland interview where she said your technique in playing was so fantastic when you duetted that she felt like a tidal wave was washing over her.  She’s a very gracious person, but not prone to compliments such as that.

How much time do you have now and how much need do you have now to practice?  Is technique something that’s innate in you from having played the piano for so long?  Do you have to practice a great deal to keep up your technique?  If so, how do you find the time to do that?

ZEITLIN:  I do try to get to the piano every day, not so much out of a sense of duty to the instrument, but I am just called to it.  I want to get my hands on the keyboard and I want to get into music.  Because I have played for so long, I have a certain technical base that endures even during periods where I’m not able to play as much as I would like.  I’ve never been drawn to the playing of technical exercises.  I think the way I build whatever technique I had initially was from always pushing myself to play classical pieces that were somewhat beyond my current technical capability, and the act of trying to get those pieces together helped me garner new technical skills.  Now when I go to play, usually I’m just going to improvise, or with an ear towards possible composition.  Very often when I play I just have a tape recorder rolling in case something comes up that I’ll want to refer to later.  I want to be free from the tyranny of having to remember everything I play in case I want to notate it later, and so the tape recorder takes care of that and I can let the music flow as best I can and just sort of get out of the way.  Doing that certainly keeps my fingers lubricated, and it really nourishes my soul just to be with music.  Every time I sit down at the keyboard I remind myself of how profoundly grateful I am to be able to play.  And I think that kind of attitude has also helped me at moments where I am in danger of being derailed by intrusive thoughts of some kind.  Let’s say getting ready to play a concert, and I’m on the road and begin to think about, “Gee, did I really make that plane reservation” or “Did I pack such-and-such?” or “What about my passport?”  I start getting bothered by this things.  I just gentle myself out of that by reminding myself of, in fact, how grateful I am to be able to play.  So it becomes kind of an internal mantra that I will invoke at times when I could be distracted.  This could even happen at a millisecond of playing, in the moment of improvisation.

I think it’s a challenge all improvisers face, is how do you stay in the zone?  It’s certainly a challenge that athletes face and write about.  I’ve played tennis for many years and follow the sport, so a lot of my observations of the parallels of sports and improvisation came from playing tennis and watching tennis and listening to tennis players in interviews talk about their game.  The challenge of staying in that flow experience, or, as Arthur Ashe put it, “being in the zone,” is a tremendous one.  And how do you wipe away your memory of the stupid shot you just dumped into the net at an important point in the match?  How do you make this next point absolutely new?  The same thing is in the line of improvisation.  If I stumble for a moment, if I find myself playing an alternate idea rather than what I was reaching for, am I going to get involved in some self-castigation or a burst of embarrassment, or will I allow myself simply to let it go and be in the moment for this next millisecond of play?  I have found at times just that gentle reminder of the gratitude of being with music has a tremendously therapeutic effect for me.  And I have found actually in my work with patients who are involved in the creative arts, particularly creative performance arts, that talking with them about that has been extremely helpful for the.  In my role as a psychiatrist, using that concept has turned out to be extremely helpful for them, because they end up actually thinking about that and using that, and it centers them in their work.

TP:    Tell me a bit about your practice.  You mentioned that a couple was cancelling… Do you do many different areas of therapy?

ZEITLIN:  Yes, I do.  I can tell you a little bit about what I don’t do.  I don’t do hospital psychiatry.  I don’t actively engage in psychological or psychiatric research.  I don’t have time for that, so I am engaged in a research group for the last 25 years that studies psychotherapy research.  I don’t work with very young children, and I don’t do any administrative psychiatry.  Long ago, I realized that if I wanted to be involved in a really organic, passionate way in two fields, I had to be realistic with myself about what aspects of those two careers I could involve myself in with the necessary dedication and intensity to get back and to be able to give what I wanted.  So I pared away these areas I just mentioned in psychiatry, and decided what I wanted to focus on was doing psychotherapy and teaching psychotherapy — that that’s where my heart really lies in the psychiatry field.  So what I do is focus on intensive outpatient psychotherapy, and work with individuals, couples, and people in groups.  On occasion in past years, I’ve worked with whole families, but I don’t do that any more.  I tend to work with people for more than a year at a time, some people for many years, if they’re really involved in in-depth explorations of their lives.  And I find it endlessly fascinating.  If I had been a surgeon, I can’t imagine what it would be like to do my three-thousandth appendectomy and to infuse it with new excitement.  But as much as it’s true that there are common themes that endlessly repeat in the human life cycle that one hears as you do this work, every person’s experience and presentation of this is unique, so that it really never gets old.  So every opportunity to sit down with a patient in my office again is a parallel opportunity for me to be grateful for the trust that this person is placing in me, grateful for the opportunity to try to understand another human being and to be helpful.

TP:    So it’s not so dissimilar from improvising.  There’s a set of forms that repeat in certain ways, but the context is infinitely different, as is the context and vibration… Not to stretch the theme too far.

ZEITLIN:  Well, I think that there are tremendous parallels.  We were talking yesterday about this merger experience and empathy, and that that and the whole idea of communication is a tremendous parallel between the two fields.  The idea of improvisation holds.  The main difference is that in my psychiatric office, I am the accompanist.  I am trying to help the patient solo in the best possible way they can, to tell their story.  At times it requires a little added embellishment, the addition of a semicolon or a couple of hyphens or placement of a period or a clarification or a sidebar.  That’s my function, is to help them feel that it’s as safe as possible to go into areas of their life that they might not otherwise be able to investigate.  When I’m accompanying another soloist on the bandstand, the role is really quite parallel.  The biggest difference is that there are times when I am soloing for long periods of time on a stage, and I’m not doing that in my office with patients.

TP:    Let’s run down the tunes one to ten.

ZEITLIN:  All right.  I haven’t given this any advance thought; this is right off the top of my head.

TP:    The title track would seem to be emblematic of your philosophy that music is a blessing.

ZEITLIN:  Yes, I thought it was an awfully nice tune to use for the title.  The first time I ever heard that tune was from George Shearing very early in my experience of beginning to learn how to play jazz.  I don’t remember what album it was that he played it with his quintet, but it was one of his early MGM albums.  I always loved the piece.  I’d never played it, except for a duo recording with Charlie haden for ECM in the early ’80s.  It was a piece that Charlie always loved, and we approached it as a vehicle for him to solo on. Then when I was getting material ready for this date, I said, gee, it really would be nice to revisit this piece in a trio context and really play on it.  It’s interesting, as many tunes as Buster Williams has played over the years (you can imagine, there’s virtually nothing he’s not heard), for some reason he had never heard this piece.  He was very intrigued getting into it, and then of course he played his ass off on it.

We had agreed there would be a little vamp at the end of this piece on a particular chord that we would use to just ride out the piece.  I remember this was just a first take, and we did it, and we got into I think this delicious end vamp where there’s all kinds of time being played simultaneously, and just being overlaid and going in and out of phase with each other, and I found it so delicious to play on.  When it was over, we looked at each other and said, “Well, we sure don’t need to play another take on this one.”

TP:    Was most of this record like that?

ZEITLIN:  Yes, that was very much the flavor of the project.

TP:    “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” has been done by numerous people, but what’s your association?

ZEITLIN:  Actually the pull to do that piece was really suggested a few months earlier, when I was asked to participate in a Gershwin concert celebration.  I sat down and thought about, well, if I’m going to do some Gershwin pieces, what would I really like to do.  So I began to approach that tune and “The Man I Love” at that point.  I always like, when I approach a standard, to accept it as a challenge to be faithful to the original spirit of the piece, but to allow myself to approach it in a way that might breathe some fresh life into it.  That often involves not only reshaping it a little bit structurally, but most often reharmonizing it.  I have felt often when musicians approach reharmonization, they can get seduced by possibilities, and at its worst it becomes an exercise in how clever the musician can be.  And often, the tune gets lost, or it becomes so cluttered with reharmonized material that it becomes almost a logjam of material.  So for myself, I try to keep those pitfalls in mind, but allow myself to just see where the tune might go in a new way.

In the case of this tune, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” I didn’t do an awful lot of reharmonization, and actually there’s relatively little.  What I did is really, in terms of the arrangement, move us through a lot of different approaches to the material.  We state the head, then I play some solo piano on it and allowed myself to cast a nod in Art Tatum’s direction, then at the end of the solo piano which involves a little bit of stride influenced material, to bring Al in for a piano-drum duet, which I’ve always loved to do with drummers, and which he got into just beautifully.  Then we bring in the whole trio.  When the bass comes in, another level of excitement is added, then we’re burning on the tune for a while, and Buster takes a great solo.  The arrangement has a kind of arch form, because as the more double-time part ends, we move back into the original approach of the head of the tune from the beginning.  So in a way, it does form a lot of arch.

TP:    I think I was thinking of that particular performance when I asked you about your experience with Ahmad Jamal’s music.

ZEITLIN:  I don’t really count Ahmad as one of my influences.

TP:    And I’m not going to try to make him one!

ZEITLIN:  But I would certainly underline the comment I made yesterday.  I’ve heard so many people, and I’ve tried to be as porous as I can, and take stuff in.  It’s one of the things I worry about when I write a new composition.  After I write it and start playing it, and it becomes familiar to me, then I start to say, “Unh-oh, where might I have inadvertently taken this from?”  I’ve talked to a lot of jazz composers who go through pangs of that and say, “Unh-oh!”  In a sense, nothing is totally original.  How could it be?  But you hope that you’ve had enough of an aesthetic filter and enough of your own voice has developed over the years that it really emerges as your own.

TP:    In your professional experience, you haven’t done very much playing for singers, have you?

ZEITLIN:  No, not an awful lot.  I don’t think I’ve ever recorded an album with a singer.  I did one album with a singer that hasn’t been released, a wonderful singer named Susie Stern who wrote the lyrics to “Quiet Now,” which is probably my most well-known composition, courtesy of Bill Evans, who just kept recording it and recording it!  It was so flattering that he never seemed to get tired of it.  He kept it in his repertoire for about 25 years.  So Susie finally wrote a lyric that I could accept for that tune, and I did an album with her where she sings, and it’s just beautiful.

TP:    I ask the question because so many pianists paid the rent by accompanying singers for long periods.  But you always seem to have had a trio thing going on for yourself and sustained it.

ZEITLIN:  Yes.  If I had been a full-time musician having to put bread on the table with it, I might have had to do a number of projects like that.  Maybe some of them I might not have liked.  But that is one of the privileges I’ve experienced because of having two careers, is that I’ve really never had to do anything musical that didn’t really call to me.  I’ve been very lucky that way.

TP:    You’ve been blessed in that way, too.  Another point in addressing the American Songbook.  Are you a lyrics man?  Are you thinking of lyrics, internalizing them, or is it more the abstract sound of the song?

ZEITLIN:  It’s more of the latter.  I’ve read a number of musicians who feel it’s somehow crucial to know the lyric, and almost “How could not and play the tune?”  But in fact, most of these tunes are written music first, lyrics second, and my allegiance is to the composer, really, not the lyricist, although certainly the lyrics of some tunes end up embedded in my psyche, and I do find myself hearing fragments of them.  Certainly I hear a lot of Sinatra in my head when I hear any of these tunes that he’s recorded because I’m so totally taken with him.

TP:    You’re a Sinatra man.

ZEITLIN:  I am a Sinatra man in terms of male vocalists.  I would say my favorite female vocalists over the years have been Sarah Vaughan, Jackie Cain and Elis Regina.  Those names pop into my head.  Probably an unusual trio of names to list together.

TP:    Billy Taylor said the same thing vis-a-vis lyrics.  Now let’s discuss “For Heaven’s Sake.”

ZEITLIN:  That’s a tune that I first heard Billie Holiday do, and I have to list her with those other three.  Of course, she’s in the top echelon for me.  That was my first experience with the piece.  I couldn’t right now tell you the lyric to that piece, but that’s where I first heard it.  That’s another tune that I reharmonized a bit, and I love to play it.  I’ve been playing it for years, played it as a solo, in duo situations, and in trios, but I don’t think I ever had a chance to record it before.  There were a number of occasions when it was on the roster of possibilities but somehow it didn’t get done.  So I was happy to get this take done with Buster and Al, and it had just the feeling I wanted.  The tenderness and yearning that’s somehow inherent in that melody and in the structure really comes through.

TP:    “There and Back” is your first of two compositions here.  It seems your two most famous compositions were recorded by the time you were 26 or 27, which would be “Quiet Now” and “Carole’s Garden.”  Is composition intertwined with the notion of improvising for you?  You mentioned that you composed some tunes back when you had the Cool Tones as a kid.

ZEITLIN:  Yes, I was composing literally at age 2 or 3.  It’s always been a part of my music, and I’ve always seen improvisation as spontaneous composition.  My hope, as part of my own personal aesthetic when I play, is that when I’m improvising there is a sense of a journey, that there is something organic about how it develops.  Ideally there would be almost a retrospective feeling of inevitability about how it had proceeded.  I don’t claim to reach that all the time, but that’s what I’m aiming at, I think, that it isn’t just a hodge-podge of possibilities or just a pastiche of colors or novelty for its own sake, but that there is something organic and a feeling of intentionality about it.

TP:    Is composing a systematic process for you, or is it more of the moment?

ZEITLIN:  Of the moment.  What happens usually is a few fragments or motifs will develop, and I’ll start working with them, and they’ll start building like crystals build in a solution.  There are rare occasions when something has just burst forth totally complete in some Mozartian fashion, but that’s rare for me.  I remember one tune that happened like that called “One Time Once,” which wrote itself as I was walking to a surgery lecture in medical school.  And there was a tune called “Brazilian Street Dance” which appeared all at once when I was working on a project for Paul Winter’s label, Living Music.  But what happens generally is that a section of a piece appears, or even a thematic idea that is like the beginning of crystallization or a seed from which a composition grows.

There’s basically two sections to “There and Now.”  The way we approach it once we’re improvising on it is that the A-section has more of a feeling of walking jazz time or more that kind of approach to it; the B-section has various kinds of funk or eighth-note/double-note feel on it.  I like the movement back and forth between those two feelings.  Harmonically the way it’s organized just happens to be a roadmap that appeals to me.  In many ways, I think of when I’m setting up pieces to be played by a group… I’m sort of setting up a roadmap that we can loosely follow to get from one destination to the other.  But there’s all kinds of possibilities for alternate routes, and I hope that they will be taken and I hope that I’ve set up some interesting roadblocks and detour signs along the way that will be challenging to myself and to my fellow musicians who are approaching the piece.  This piece has a number of opportunities like that, which I think brought out some interesting music.

TP:    I’m not familiar with “I’m All Smiles.”  Who wrote it?

ZEITLIN:  A guy named Leonard.  I think it was from a show.  I think the first time I seriously listened to that piece was on Barbra Streisand’s People album years ago for Columbia, which is my favorite album she’s ever done.  It had some fabulous arranging by Peter Mats(?).  It’s Streisand at her best.  It’s most free of the over-emotionality and stuff that she can fall prey to.  The purity of her voice and the feeling..it’s glorious.  And she sings this piece on it, and I’ve always loved it, and again, I was thinking about, “Well, what might I do for this album?”  I realized, “Well, I’ve never actually played that piece; why not get into it?”  So I did, and reharmonized it just a bit because the piece is so beautiful it doesn’t need much help.  We just approached it as a piece we could play and improvise on.  I think it unfolds in a very relaxed way.

TP:    Your “Cousin Mary” continues a line of Coltrane interpretations from that ’59-’60-’61 period of Coltrane.  I was listening to your solos on “Lazy Bird” and of “Fifth House,” which were real virtuoso turns, and I guess this one is very virtuosic, but a restrained, playful virtuosity, dancing through it and deconstructing it.  I was impressed with the ambiance of that interpretation.  Perhaps we can reprise some of your comments yesterday about your response to Coltrane.

ZEITLIN:  Well, I remember my response to the whole Giant Steps album when it first appeared; it was a pivotal album for me.  I was going away on a fishing trip where I wasn’t going to be near much of civilization for a while, and I actually went into a little record store that was near this fishing town.  I rebought the album and made a deal with the record store owner that I could park it with him, and that probably a couple of times in the next two or three weeks, while I was on this fishing trip, I would be needing to come in and hear it.  So that album was precious to me.  I’d played “Cousin Mary” before as a duo.  What I wanted to do again is certainly be respectful to Coltrane, but allow myself to experiment with the tune and its possibilities, so I did reharmonize the head, as you can hear.  Then we really approached it as a blues that you can do anything you want with, and this is what happened on that day.  There is quite a bit of deconstructing of the harmonic structure of the blues at various points in the improvisation.  I felt that Al and Buster were totally up for it.  We took it into some I thought rather unusual spaces that were very exciting and intriguing, and I thought that the overall rhythmic drive of the piece was never lost.  I liked trading sixes with Al; it just kind of happened, and worked out, I thought, very nicely.

“Triste” is a Jobim tune, a tune I first heard Elis Regina do in an album called Elis and Tom with Jobim playing and his arrangements.  I just love that album (it’s one of my all-time favorite Brazilian albums), and I love that piece.  I wanted a bossa-nova, and I’d never played this tune nor recorded it, and so we did it.  That tune I felt required no reharmonization from me.  We play it basically just as Jobim wrote it.

“Canyon” is a minor-bluesoid construction.  It has an unusual little melody the way it’s placed.  It’s a lot of fun to play.  I thought we just got into it and went on a journey with it.

“I Fall In Love Too Easily” is a ballad I’ve loved for many years.  I can’t remember who I first heard do it; I remember hearing Miles do it in the early ’60s.  But I had only started to play it in the last decade or so, in duo or trio formats.  I don’t believe I’d ever recorded it.  This is a ballad that’s full of all kinds of feelings, and I think we really took our time with it, and it unfolds and has this kind of organic feel in terms of how the improvisation developed which I am looking and striving for.  It also happened on the ballad “For Heaven’s Sake,” that there is a real organic journey.

TP:    Finally, “The Man I Love” which is iconic Gershwin.

ZEITLIN:  Again, I tried to organize this in terms of the arrangement in ways to explore different kinds of things we could do as a trio.  I was hoping to see how deep and how broad we could go in this weekend we were going to play together.  It starts with a brief free improvisation on the piano which sets up a mood, then the melody gets stated and the trio comes in and organizes around it.  There’s a big of reharmonization in the structure of the piece, and then there is a vamp figures quite prominently in this piece that serves as I think a very exciting springboard into improvisational overlays.  I get involved in doing this, and then eventually at the end of the piece a kind of climatic session where Al starts soloing over the vamp while Buster and I state it.  Then we ride out the piece on that vamp.

TP:    Is the program in the sequence you recorded it in?

ZEITLIN:  No.  I’d say that would be an extraordinarily rare event.  You  play the pieces, you see what you’ve been able to harvest, then you figure how it would be most listenable when put together.

TP:    And this is the path you’ve followed from your beginnings, a mix of interesting standards, some originals, and some of what are called jazz standards as well.

ZEITLIN:  That’s absolutely true.  I’ve always tended on these projects to program for maximum variety, to sort of reflect what I would do in a concert.

TP:    You came up in Chicago at the same time as Andrew Hill, Herbie Hancock, [Eddie Harris], many of the people you mentioned.  I’m wondering if you see any particular Chicagoistic qualities in your approach to music.  People who came up then in Chicago talk about the ethos of Chicago musicians being individuality, that stamping your own sound and making your own statement was of paramount importance if you were going to be a respected musician in Chicago.  Apparently you were up 1960.  Your bio says you played professionally there, and the people you played with were individualists of the first order.  So the impact of Chicago on who you are as a musician.

ZEITLIN:  Not having grown up anywhere else, I can’t compare it!  As you say this, I flash back to remembering that there was a lot of value placed on somebody having their own thing.  There was a lot of respect; people would say, “Yeah, he’s got his own thing; he’s really doing something different; listen too that.”  That certainly is something I can recall.

TP:    But as far as forming your ideas, this sort of just happened.

ZEITLIN:  Yes.

TP:    As a teenager, once you started being able to drive is when you started going to clubs in Chicago?

ZEITLIN:  Yes, starting at age 15.

TP:    You’d go down Lake Shore Drive to 63rd Street and hit those clubs?

ZEITLIN:  Yes, and stay there til 4 or 5 in the morning and come home.

TP:    And go to school.

ZEITLIN:  Well, that was mostly on the weekends.

TP:    And your parents were fine with this?

ZEITLIN:  Well, they knew I was so utterly galvanized by this and that it was so deeply embedded in my psyche that it was important to just encourage and allow this to happen.  They had a tremendous amount of trust in me, that I wasn’t for example using drugs of any kind or having problems with alcohol,  and that I could be around a subculture like that without being involved in it.  And indeed, their trust was not misplaced, and I was trustworthy, and I was able to take this opportunity for this many-year informal apprenticeship in the music that was just priceless.  Because in those days there were no formal jazz schools.  This was the one had to learn it.  I spent hours and hours listening  to records and rehearsing with people in high school and with other people in Chicago, and then going and listening, and trying to get chances to sit in and get pointers from people, and collaring somebody after the gig and say, “Man, sit down with me for a minute here; how did you voice such-and-such?”  By osmosis trying to absorb as much of this art form as I could.

TP:    Did you check out Chris Anderson at all during this time?

ZEITLIN:  Yes, indeed.  That’s interesting.  Very few people even know about Chris.  But when I said I would collar somebody to show me a voicing, I was exactly thinking of a couple of experience I had with Chris where I said, “Chris, I’m not letting you go home.  You’ve got to sit down.  How did you voice this thing, man?”  He showed me some stuff.  I remember just a few remarks he made to me way-way back then that were very-very helpful.  He is an unsung hero, a wonderful musical mind, and everyone who was around in Chicago then knows of Chris and speaks of Chris.  Herbie Hancock talks of Chris, and Bobby Cranshaw remembers Chris fondly.  Chris is prototypic of the kind of musician I would try to collar.

TP:    So we could call him an influence.

ZEITLIN:  Yes, he was an early harmonic influence.

TP:    And perhaps a link between you and Herbie Hancock in some ways, as the two of you are roughly contemporaries.

ZEITLIN:  I never heard Herbie play until I heard him on record with Miles.  I never met him or heard him.  But we certainly grew up around the same period.

TP:    It’s fascinating to me.  You were very young and probably one of the few white kids who would be on that scene, and hanging with some people who had serious addiction problems, like Nicky Hill or Wilbur Ware or Wilbur Campbell.  I don’t know that most people who know you know much about Chicago, or how heavy the musical scene was in Chicago at that time.

ZEITLIN:  Again, having nothing to compare, all I can say is that I felt fortunate that there was so much going on and so much excitement that generally I found musicians so gracious and so willing to show me stuff and to give me a chance to play… I can’t say that it was always that way; there are instances where you try to talk your way into getting a chance to play at a jam session and it doesn’t happen because they don’t know you.  I certainly had experiences like that.  But overall, it was a very generous spirit in Chicago.  And also, I didn’t experience much Crow Jim flavor at all — only very rarely.  I got some of that in New York when I was sitting in at some places in 1963, when I was on a fellowship.  Got a little feeling of that and a little feeling of the ethnocentricity of New York.  But I didn’t feel that in Chicago growing up at all.  I didn’t feel racial tension at all!  I very often was the only white person in some of these clubs late at night, and I had no cause to feel like I was an intruder, that there was hostility coming my way or that I was in any kind of danger.  It just wasn’t happening.

The genesis of my two careers is the tremendous support I got from my parents, Nathaniel and Roslyn Zeitlin.  One anecdote I think will give you an idea of how supportive they were to me in both ways.  When I began to really get involved in eighth grade in high school and starting to play jazz, they would go to New York, where they typically would go every year because they loved theater, and they would go to all their shows, all their plays, and afterwards, even though neither had been a jazz fan at all prior to my interest, they would go to all the jazz clubs where all my heroes were playing, they would listen to their music, and they would get these players to jot down little notes to me on cocktail napkins!  I remember one from Marion McPartland, and one from George Shearing, and one from Billy Taylor on one occasion.

TP:    Bird?

ZEITLIN:  No, not Bird.  I only got to hear Bird play live once in my life, in a very unlikely context — playing in front of Stan Kenton’s orchestra.  He was looking very dissipated.  But it was a thrill just to hear him play.

[-30-]

 

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Filed under Blindfold Test, Chicago, Chris Anderson, Denny Zeitlin, DownBeat, Liner Notes

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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Filed under Bradley's, Dizzy Gillespie, DownBeat, Interview, Jimmy Heath, Kenny Barron, Mulgrew Miller, Piano, Tommy Flanagan, WKCR

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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Wayne Shorter is 78 Today — A “Jazziz” Profile from 2002

For Wayne Shorter’s 78th birthday, I’m offering a feature piece that I wrote about him for Jazziz in 2002, a year or so before the publication of Michelle Mercer’s excellent biography, Footprints. His amazing quartet with Danilo Perez, John Patitucci, and Brian Blade was then two years old—they continue to evolve and create some of the freshest music on the planet.

[Jim Macnie's posted a terrific interview with Wayne from a few years ago in which he talks about his relationship with John Coltrane.]

* * * * *

“With Miles, there was no music dogma going on. I can’t remember having ONE rehearsal — even when I joined him. Rehearsing, that’s a fertile time for the dogma to raise its ugly-ass head! What are you going to do with the unexpected? How can you rehearse the unexpected?”
— Wayne Shorter.

“When I was a kid,” Wayne Shorter recalls, “my mother would bring home big boxes of clay from Saturday shopping, and we’d jump right into it. Once we tried to make World War Two on our big round kitchen table. In Russia we painted the Red Army and the Blue Army. The American Army was all olive…well, almost brown. We filled up the kitchen sink with water, made submarines, made little people, and put them inside the submarines, which we placed on the bottom. Another time we tried to make the whole world out of clay — a one-dimensional circle with a globe. We had so much clay we could do land masses. If somebody came by and wanted me to do something, like go to the store for them, she’d say, ‘No, don’t bother him now; he’s in his room practicing. He’s drawing.’ Me or my brother. ‘Wayne and Alan, they’re in the imagination room.’”

That Shorter, pushing 70, continues to spend quality time in the imagination room was manifest on last year’s Footprints: Live [Verve], a free-spirited virtual concert culled from a 2001 tour with his working quartet: pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade. They provide Shorter an opportunity to navigate his music within a fully acoustic landscape for the first time since the 1960s, and help him vigorously deconstruct a set of iconic originals — “Footprints,” “JuJu,” “Go,” and “Sanctuary” — that, as Patitucci says, “everybody and their grandmother has performed live” — for the first time since the recording dates that produced them.

“We’re playing with the attitude that there is no such thing as a beginning or end,” Shorter declares. “To say of a piece of music, ‘Oh, that’s been done,’ is an illusion. It’s almost like saying that at 5 years old you’re so many feet high, and that’s it. You’re going to grow. You don’t feel yourself getting taller, but the process continues. I was working on ‘Vendiendo Alegria,’ which is a piece of music that Miles Davis gave me around 1965. He said, ‘Do something with this.’ I last saw Miles at the Hollywood Bowl before he passed away in 1991. The years passed, and the thought started to coalesce that maybe it’s time to start making some albums where everything is not based upon something original. I’ve got all the time in the world to go for those little subtleties that get ignored and are sometimes sold down the river for a knock-em-sock-em, drag ‘em out announcement in the name of innovation or in the name of, ‘Yeah, let’s have something fresh,’ and what’s glossed over and ignored is the lifeblood of what freshness means. What the hell is music for?”

On his 2003 release, Alegria/Joy, Shorter offers some thoughts on the matter. Addressing subjects as diverse as the Portuguese diaspora, English folksong, medieval choral music, Hollywood, and his own experience as a young man in Civil Rights Era America from a variety of angles, he sculpts elaborate fantasy worlds, creating musical lines that take on lives of their own, tracking them with logic and intuition to improvise intricate stories with a minimum of notes, projecting an emotional aura that transcends instrument and genre. Building on group-improvised tracks recorded in the fall of 2000 by the working quartet (replaced on several tunes by Brad Mehldau, Teri Lyne Carrington, and percussionist Alex Acuna), Shorter and producer-conductor Robert Sadin painstakingly layered on the details of Shorter’s vivid orchestrations, working with various configurations of brass, woodwinds, and strings.

It seems that Shorter embraced the notion of music as mutable narrative from the beginning. By his senior year of high school he was writing charts, and he studied composition at New York University between 1952 and 1956. During those years and a subsequent tour of duty in an Army band, he wrote a slew of tunes — among them “Nellie Bly,” “Ping Pong,” “Hammerhead,” and “Sincerely Diana” — that became established as hardbop AABA classics on his subsequent sideman recordings with Art Blakey and as a Blue Note solo leader. He also wrote an attenuated opera called “The Singing Lesson,” inspired by his observations of Italian gangs near the NYU campus in the southern part of Greenwich Village.

“I stopped around my second or third year, when ‘The Wild One’ came out,” Shorter recalls. “I heard that Leonard Bernstein was doing something called ‘West Side Story,’ and I thought, ‘Unh-oh, I’ll catch up to mine some other time’ — which could be now. I have all the remaining pages. I’m going to scrutinize the stuff, rework it, and bring it into its own. To me music is like working with clay. I don’t deify notes, and ‘Well, it’s got to be like when I started.’

“It’s not like ‘Don Giovanni.’ There’s going to be some swinging parts. Not just grooves, but go for it, and still maintain the story. Character actors. The content. The struggle of winning or losing. And a lot of color. Shapes. Obstacles. Obstacles take a musical shape, too. So the audience gets it all. Panoramic. Not just something with an acrobatic, ‘Nice solo, my man.’”

“Wayne has absorbed a lot of the undercurrent elements of classical music,” Sadin says. “It isn’t that he uses violins or oboes, although that can be significant. It’s the structural unfolding of his melodies. The length of Wayne’s things, the way they consistently avoid the usual blocky 8- and 16- measure form is distinct from the vast majority of jazz composition — especially in the era going up to him. His solos also tend to make a big arc and are often quite melodic. He is not content to play through chord changes. He’s working with larger ideas.”

The most recent documentation of Shorter’s increasingly elaborate corpus of original music is the 1995 album High Life, [Verve], a suite for octet and a 31-piece orchestra that, although intended, as Shorter puts it, “to raise the IQ of commercial music,” caught the attention of numerous creative musicians of the latter Baby Boom. But he’s spent the first years of the new millennium paring down and retrospecting, returning to the attitude of speculative improvising that marked his 1964-70 tenure with Miles Davis.

“Ever since he recorded things like ‘Water Babies,’ ‘Sweet Pea’ and ‘Capricorn’ both on his own records and with Miles in ’68 and ’69, Wayne always quoted his own music,” says composer-saxophonist Bob Belden, a Shorter devotee. “That’s when he started to send a message that all his melodies will always be in his book, and he can do with them whatever he wants. He doesn’t believe the dogma that once the 8 bars have been chiseled into stone, you can’t touch them.”

“Wayne’s tunes were always provocative,” says Herbie Hancock of the Miles Davis period. “They would open up passages for your own conception and how you might perform the tune on any given day. Which worked out perfectly for Miles’ band, because we were into reducing things to their skeletal nature, and then each night put the meat on the bones.”

“Miles was famous for changing people’s music around,” Shorter remarks. “Which was hip, though, because the way it was written was square and … bland, let’s put it that way. And Miles brought dimension to it. But when I wrote something, he said it had to stay like it is. Which told me it’s already on its way to being what he wanted. The notes gave him the information. He didn’t have to give information to the music.”

“The first thing Wayne did for Miles, ‘ESP,’ defines the band’s sound,” says Belden. “Where is the melody? Where is the shape? Where is the form? What’s the bass part? What is the true anchor of the song? Well, there isn’t any. It’s the ambiguity. There’s also a level of hipness, the mystery, elegance and sophistication that has yet to be captured by anybody else since Miles in the mid-’60s. You hear it in lines like ‘Dolores’ and ‘Orbits,’ the shading between the major and the minor chord. Also, these guys were all playing the same breath; there were no mistakes. They would discover things at the moment they discovered them, rather than pre-planning it, like most records are made today.”

Although they piggyback their explorations on a much more elaborately rendered set of raw materials than the Miles Davis Quintet operated with in the ’60s, Shorter’s current quartet operates by similar imperatives.

“Wayne brings in highly composed and orchestrated pieces, and we go through them until the form is cemented in everybody’s mind,” said Patitucci a year ago. “Then invariably, he’ll say, ‘Okay, that’s what it is; now I want to delve into it and break it apart and put it back together.’ He wants it new every time — to be expansive, to dwell on the various aspects of the piece at will. You could say the one rule is that there are no rules.”

It takes courage to go out there together and be vulnerable,” Shorter says.  “But John, Danilo, and Brian have the foundation. You take your knapsack, your best stuff that you know, and that’s like a flashlight into the darkness. This band is roll-up-your-sleeves. To them the detail and complexity and orchestration and chance-taking means an adventure, not an experiment. That adventure means facing obstacles and overcoming them, turning poison to medicine. Confronting something. Something some people are leery of or stay away from. Everybody’s life has a dominant something, a self-burden that stops us from doing things. It can appear as a place or a thing or a person — a schoolteacher … a wife. Then you get divorced, and you say, ‘Ah, I got it!’ and then you marry again, but it’s the same wife with a different face. Then you get to a point where you’re flying! People haven’t flown yet. Don’t worry. We’re all going to fly.”

BREAK

A practicing Buddhist since 1973, Shorter focuses on his Tao, and it seems impossible for him not to frame his discourse in metaphoric koans. He was amused — “You don’t want to get philosophical!” — at my lugubrious efforts to steer our conversations away from the aura of “all that is solid melts into air” and onto solid ground. But although jokes about Shorter’s “weirdness” are legion in jazz circles, there is never a moment when he does not, as the cliches go, know precisely what time it is or land squarely on the one. He knows about labor and sacrifice. The tension between speculation and pragmatism, freedom and form, the high and the low, is a consistent trope in his conversation and a defining characteristic of his life and musical activity.

“He went from the most concrete descriptions to the most blindingly allegorical, sometimes within a short space of time,” Sadin says about their collaboration. Hancock elaborates with a story. “When Wayne has to communicate something important and be lucid in a more general way, he is all of that,” he says. “But even after Wayne had been playing with us for a while with Miles, I often couldn’t follow what he was saying. I just figured, ‘Well, Wayne’s a little out there.’ One day I decided: ‘I’ve got to find out whether this guy is a genius or just a little crazy!’ We had a few days off, and I decided to hang out with him until it was clear to me. So we hung out all night, had something to drink, and I went along with the conversation, and figured out a little more about how to listen and follow and play the games. And my conclusion was, ‘Yup, he’s a genius!’

“Wayne is a moviegoer. It’s his nature to be into drama, and his compositions have always reflected that. The world is his stage. The flow of his conversation is very much like the flow of his music. Instead of detailing every step, he jumps from here to there, and then makes another jump. The details aren’t so necessary to fill in. If anything, Wayne wants to stimulate your creativity to fill in those details, to give a deeper sense of what he wants to impart.”

“I had a world I could go into,” Shorter recalls of his childhood. “It was a combination of things — listening to the radio, comic books, going to the movies, and reading my first book all the way through (Water Babies, by Charles Kingsley) when I was 13. I used my imagination to put it all together. Sometimes my mother would say, ‘Call some nice church girl and take her to a movie.’ But I thought I was weird. I was the lone wolf. I didn’t have time for a girlfriend. Instead, I came home from the movies and wrote my first and only comic book, called ‘Other Worlds.’ I always say I’m writing music for films that will never be made — that no one has the courage to make.”

When Shorter’s grandmother presented him with a clarinet for his fifteenth birthday, the prospect of conjuring epic stories with sound was eminently appealing. “What was filtering through all the while was the background music, what used to be called programmatic music and then got changed to tone poems and soundtracks,” he states. “And the music that provoked further curiosity and investigation and taking action came from horror films and science fiction — Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolfman. It seems like whoever did those didn’t have anybody looking over their shoulder, looking for a hit. I heard bebop and the classic saxophone music on the radio, and I listened every Saturday to a classical program called ‘New Ideas In Music.’ I heard Toscanini conduct his last concert on the radio. I listened to a lot of people. Then I said, ‘This is what I’d like to do, and let me see if I can surprise myself; if I can surprise myself, then I can surprise the world.’”

Shorter heeded the prevailing post-war black culture ethos that individuality is every bit as important as learning the scales and chords. “My mother used to talk about Lena Horne,” he says. “She said, ‘She’s not a singer’s singer, but she knows how to put over that song.’ I filed away that sentence, and its meaning played itself out in other areas. The talk then was, ‘Hey, man, you can be yourself; be original.’ Work on that tone, work on this, work on that. Nobody said, ‘Work on life.’ Except my parents. My parents were hip. Period. Hip to the idea of excellence and giving 100 percent to whatever it is that you do. My mother didn’t go past freshman year of high school, but she was very aware of everything. She always read the newspaper, and she was hip to the nuances of insurance policies. She didn’t take geometry, but she helped my brother with geometry by using the logic of what was going on.”

Bebop was at its apogee, and Shorter’s learning curve was rapid. He got the fundamentals in the solid music program at Newark’s Arts High School and heard Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Kenton, Lester Young and Charlie Parker with strings at Newark’s Adams Theater. He joined a 9-piece teenage band fronted by one Jackie Bland, who, Shorter recounts, didn’t read music, ‘but had the look,” and knew many of Gillespie’s arrangements by ear. “I sat with the trumpet player, and at dances when we did Dizzy’s ‘Things To Come,’ I’d blare out the trumpet part on the clarinet,” Shorter says. “We’d sound almost like three trumpets if we stayed right in the microphone loud. People said, ‘How do you dance to that stuff?’”

After Jackie Bland left, the band named itself The Groove. “We would play before three or four people acting like they’re dancing, and get $1.50 at the end of the night,” Shorter continues. “Then a guy at the YMCA named Mr. Lazar wanted us to play the Saturday night dances there, and taught us to read music. I had been taking clarinet lessons for a year, so the notes were running through me. He brought out ‘Things To Come,’ and we would stay on the first two measures all afternoon until we reached the point where we were playing it as an ensemble. Then we did things like ‘One Bass Hit,’ ‘Godchild,’ ‘Jeru,’ and ‘Israel’. Then we became rebels, and we’d rehearse on our own and do things like ‘’Round Midnight’ or ‘Weird Lullaby,’ the Babs Gonzalez song.

“Word got around that there was this crazy band. The other band in Newark played the Terrace Room and the cotillions and all that. Their hair was coiffed, they had rust-colored jackets with powder-blue pants, and they looked [i]good[i], man. They read music. They made some money. Most of them went to Barringer High School. We called them the Pretty Boy Band. So someone proposed for us to have a playoff, a contest at the Court Street YMCA. It was packed with people. They were playing on a balcony and we were down on the floor. They played ‘Harlem Nocturne’ and we played ‘Ool-Ya-Koo’ or ‘Cool Breeze.’ They played an arrangement of Gershwin’s ‘American In Paris.’ We played ‘Emanon.’ They played something else, and we played ‘Now Is the Time.’ We let them know that we were from some other place. My brother was in the band, too, and he carried his alto sax in a shopping bag and played with his gloves on. It was nice weather, but we came in wearing galoshes and wrinkled clothes. We didn’t have any music stands, so we took two sets of chairs, sat in one, turned the other around to face us, and put up newspapers, like we were reading the newspaper and playing ‘Manteca.’ We went back and forth, back and forth, and at the end, they rated by applause. We won.”

After graduating high school, Shorter got a job as a stock clerk at the Singer Sewing Machines factory in Elizabeth, N.J., where he spent a year wheeling bobbins from one department to the other.

“I didn’t play much that year,” he says. “In fact, the saxophone literally stayed under the bed. But just before the College Entrance Exam, I started to write stuff that we played at dances. My group broke up after a while. The Korean War was going on, and some guys went into the Army. Somewhere in the middle of my first year at NYU, the bandleader of that other band called, and I joined them. They made more money than we did, sometimes $28 per man on the weekend. I wrote 28 arrangements for that band. Once we were invited to play at the Palladium. Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez — or maybe Perez Prado — were there; Celia Cruz was dancing; Mongo Santamaria and Guataca, the percussionist, were playing; and we played something I wrote called ‘The Midget Mambo,’ meaning the small mambo, a toy mambo. I wasn’t trying to encroach on ‘I came from Puerto Rico myself’ and so on. But I liked it. We knew Dizzy and Chano Pozo got their stuff from Africa and mixed it. And when we grew up, mambo and cha-cha were big. You couldn’t get a date if you couldn’t dance the cha-cha. No girl would go to the movies with you. They said, ‘Can you dance?’”

Through his decade with Art Blakey and Miles Davis, Shorter would continue to answer that question in the affirmative. “Wayne’s body of work with Blakey is phenomenal,” Belden says. “His tunes captured that real African-American funk element Blakey embodied, and were still harmonically interesting and captivating harmonically. They represent a sort of hip detachment. And they make a point. They tell you about something. When he joins Miles Davis, his playing becomes much more open, a completely unique, original language — harmonically, articulation-wise, phrasing — that’s not based on anything preceding it.”

“What Miles was doing had a philosophical lean,” Shorter says. “His bands had the freshness that comes with unfamiliarity — always having a bunch of originals, records loaded with firsts. The newness and surprise supplied the drive. Different apples and oranges forming a garden that everyone wanted to be in. That all-encompassing edge of this solar system, and wanting to go into the darkness to see what the other solar system is like.”

BREAK

Seven years after losing his wife, Ana Maria, in the mysterious crash of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island, and 18 years after the death of their daughter Iska, Shorter has remarried and resettled in Florida from California, his home for 30 years. Fortified by his practice of Buddhism and the ministrations of his new wife, Carolina, he seems refreshed and vigorous, able to channel the spirit that animated his efflorescent first four decades.

“I would say that Wayne’s quartet is the focal point for a new development in jazz,” says Hancock. “Openness is very much a quality, although that wouldn’t distinguish it from many other bands. But another quality is that they depend on trust — in themselves and in each other—in their playing. Creating music for the moment. Being in the moment. Whatever they play sounds like that moment.

“But it couldn’t have happened any time but now. What exudes from Wayne includes all his past experiences — including losing his wife — and him being whatever he is at the moment. What he and the band are doing puts value to everything that happened in his life, including what immediately appears to be negative. I don’t want to take away from the talent of the individuals who play with him. Not all the ideas come directly from Wayne. But although he allows the other musicians so much latitude, his life force presence is very strong, and it helps to bring out all their talent. I’m sure Danilo never played like this before. Brian Blade, too. Whatever they did before prepared them to be able to do this.”

“For composers, it’s almost a decree that the chamber orchestra and string quartet are the height of individualism,” Shorter says, referring both to the content of his new album and the aesthetic that his quartet exemplifies. “Composers like Gabriel Faure wrote things like stories — complex but in color — that let you go away on a trip. The musicians leave their egos at the door. There’s companionship and exchange, and you don’t have one job. You have something to say, someone disagrees, the line you play saves the second violinist over there, then he or she comes and saves your ass!”

“Wayne is a profoundly secular musician,” says Sadin. “He spent much of his life playing in clubs and concert halls. But music as a cultural force rather than product or entertainment is very deep in him, just as the great 19th-century composers — who certainly wanted to make a living and so on — felt they were embodying a cultural mission.”

Which perhaps is why Shorter responded to his personal tragedy with an ode to joy. “I think we’re on an eternal journey, and when we go through the exit doors, it doesn’t mean the journey is done,” he says. “No one can convince me that if you don’t see someone, they’ve been taken away, that they’re gone. Everything can be a work in progress, just like our lives, and I want to support that up to the last moment of this three-dimensional existence. I want the music to reflect the true nature of the journey of life, with its tragedies and joys, and the ability to transcend what is temporary in tragedy, and also temporary in joy, but eternal in enlightenment, which casts out fear, doubt, and all the other teeter-totter stuff that people allow themselves to be victims of.”

Shorter halts his discourse. “I’m getting into some heavy stuff here,” he says with a twinkle in his voice. “But heavy is light to me. I’m going to be 70, and it seems like everything is getting lighter and lighter. Everything that I’m saying seems like it takes a long route. And I’m finding out more and more that the long way is the shortest way.”

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