Tag Archives: Herlin Riley

For Billy Hart’s Birthday, an Unedited DownBeat Blindfold Test from 2007

Billy Hart, known to some as Jabali, is 73 years young today. I’ve appended below the full proceedings of a Blindfold Test he did with me six years. In 2012, Jazz Times gave me the opportunity to write a feature piece on the maestro; two years ago, I posted a review of his Steeplechase recording Sixty-Eight and included an excerpt from my liner notes for the 1997 Arabesque date, Oceans of Time.

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Billy Hart Blindfold Test:

1.  Jimmy Cobb, “Green Dolphin Street” (from WEST OF FIFTH, Chesky, 2006) (Hank Jones, piano; Christian McBride, bass; Jimmy Cobb, drums)

It’s somebody like me. I might even say Billy Drummond, who’s younger than me. But somebody that’s like me. It doesn’t seem like it’s Al Foster, and it doesn’t seem like Kenny Washington or someone like that. It’s more like Billy Drummond or that kind of player. It’s just the sound of it. For  me, it would be somebody who heard Tony Williams but also liked Vernell Fournier. Of course I like it, because I understand it. He’s playing in a way I would play. From the left hand, the  piano player sounds like a younger guy. When I say “younger guy” – ha-ha – I’m talking about somebody my age, like Hicks (though I don’t think it was Hicks) or Stanley Cowell (and I don’t think it was him) or Kenny Barron (but I’m sure it wasn’t Kenny Barron). Somebody in that vibe. The bass player had some chops. I’d be curious about who the bass player is. For the moment, I don’t recognize it. It was well done. It didn’t sound like they put a lot of time in it. It was just something that they could do, but it was well done. Everybody could play. When I say “Play,” it means they have a good traditional base, a good foundation. I liked everybody for that. 5 stars. Jimmy Cobb!! I should know Jimmy Cobb. That sounded a little light for Jimmy Cobb for me. Perhaps it’s the way it was miked. But then again, for certain kinds of those things, Jimmy Cobb is an influence. He influenced Tony Williams. Let me hear that again. No, I would have never guessed it was Jimmy Cobb. That’s not what he sounds like to me. A couple of the things that I thought somebody might have heard Tony Williams, now I think it’s the influence Jimmy Cobb had on Tony. I could have guessed Christian. [DRUMS PLAY FOURS] See, that’s obviously a Philly Joe influence which Jimmy Cobb has. But for what I know Jimmy Cobb to do, what I would recognize, I didn’t hear anything that’s… Nor Hank Jones. I would not have recognized him. I thought I would know Hank Jones’ sound. I made 6 records with him. I’m influenced by Jimmy Cobb! As much as I thought I knew Jimmy, I’ve got some more to listen to. Hank is phenomenal. That he can sound that modern. What made me think he was a modern guy is his left hand, and I know from playing with him that he’s got at least four generations of jazz vocabulary in him. He can do that in a tune.

2.  Andrew Cyrille-Anthony Braxton, “Water, Water, Water” (from Andrew Cyrille-Anthony Braxton, DUO PALINDROME 2002, Vol. 2, Intakt, 2002) (Cyrille, drums, composer; Braxton, alto saxophone)

Is that just one drummer? Yes? Ha! I don’t know who it is, but it’s interesting to talk about it. Somebody who can do what this guy is doing (by the way, of course I like this very much) would be Blackwell. But I’m thinking Blackwell, who is somebody who can do that, but then, a guy who liked Blackwell was a guy named Eddie Moore. After that, it’s a whole host of people, like Don Moye, who would do that. Maybe Andrew Cyrille. The saxophone sounds so familiar, like Roscoe Mitchell. 4 stars.Cyrille is an unsung hero for understanding and being enthusiastic for what I think is really a world music viewpoint, realizing the function of African- and Indian-related musics, before it got to be so academic. He’s one of the heros of that, as were, strangely enough, a lot of avant-garde players. I think of Milford Graves and Don Moye in that vibe also — world music intellects. That’s what I like about Blackwell, of course. I feel that same way about people like Bill Stewart and Jeff Ballard, too. They have a strong interest in and are very enthusiastic about world music, especially in terms of Indian and African traditional musics.

3.   Ari Hoenig, “Anthropology” (from INVERSATIONS, Dreyfus, 2006) (Hoenig, drums, Jean-Michel Pilc, piano; Johannes Weidenmuller, bass)

[FOUR BARS] [LAUGHS] Is that Ari Hoenig? I think of Ari with Kenny Werner and Jean-Michel Pilc. But of course, I know him to be already a huge influence on emerging drummers. He’s not really doing it on this piece, but he’s a guy who I think is approaching this world music, just more academically. He’s figuring it out. Because of that, there are a lot of people who can be influenced by him. What made me laugh is that I know that he, as well as Lewis Nash, likes to play the melodies of bebop tunes on the drums, which is very enjoyable for me. I love hearing drummers do that. Especially them, because they’ve spent time working it out. As a teacher, one of the first things I ask my students to do is to play “Anthropology” on the drums. Any student of mine who heard this would think it was one of my students that I had assigned that project to. Is Pilc playing piano? Man, I should know more about Pilc. It’s one of the contemporary guys that I think is approaching this music in a more academic way. In other words, they weren’t there, but they’ve received what I consider traditional information…what’s a better phrase… Classical music.It’s people like them who make classical music. [How do you mean that?] They’re part of the evolution of the music. That’s all. It’s obvious that they’ve studied the music and have tried to bring it forward, or naturally bring it forward just from their natural understanding of it. Pilc is French, he’s European, so he brings that to it. It’s not going to be James P. Johnson or Horace Silver, but he brings a contemporary… I think of it as a contemporary sound that’s influential in today’s music. 4½ stars. I think the music is important. Is the bassist Moutin? Weidenmuller? That’s interesting. Pilc with KennyWerner’s bass and drummer. That means that Ari and Weidenmuller have become a team.

4.  Herlin Riley, “Need Ja Help” (from CREAM OF THE CRESCENT, Criss-Cross, 2004) (Riley, drums, composer; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; Eric Lewis, piano; Reginald Veal, bass)

The first thing I notice is what I would consider an obvious Duke Ellington influence. Now, who besides Duke Ellington would have a Duke Ellington influence, besides everybody… Who that would be, I don’t know yet. Except I can’t think of Duke having a bass player like that. But then that brings up Mingus, too, but I don’t think that’s Mingus either. It’s not Duke, which makes me think it’s someone from the guys who play with Wynton like Herlin Riley and Wycliffe Gordon. Duke is a huge influence on these people. I love Duke Ellington, too. The drums make me think of Sonny Greer, especially that period of time when Sonny Greer was the drummer. It is Herlin and Wycliffe?  Who’s the bass player? Reginald Veal? He’s not playing with them any more, right. It means Ali Jackson could have been the drummer, too, but… Herlin is very recognizable for certain things. First of all, he’s a New Orleans drummer, and for me, all the New Orleans drummers have a special badge. They’re born with another understanding of the original jazz drum language. So Herlin not only is a great example of that, but he’s a great creative drummer, and how he uses his knowledge of the tradition is very inspiring to me. 4½ stars. The pianist was Eric Lewis: If you’d said Eric Reed or Marcus Roberts, I’d have expected, but Eric Lewis could go in there!

5.   Francisco Mela, “Parasuayo” (from MELAO, Nonesuch, 2006) (Mela, drums, voice; George Garzone, tenor saxophone; Nir Felder, electric guitar & effects; Leo Genovese, fender rhodes, keyboard; Peter Slavov, bass)

Hmm, there it is again; the New Orleans tradition of drumming, the funeral march and funeral dirge. Whoops! There’s some contemporary sounds around it. Whoops! So this is like Cuban tradition with contemporary… Oh! I mean, this is the age of academic… I wish I could think of a better word. Now my guess would be somebody like David Sanchez, someone who is interested in or has knowledge of the Cuban tradition or Afro-Caribbean tradition, but is a contemporary player at the same time. It’s the drummer’s record?! That opens it up. I’ve been hearing about this drummer who I haven’t heard play live yet, Francisco Mela. I’ve heard, first of all, he’s from Cuba, but also he’s been playing with Kenny Barron, and to me, to be able to play with Kenny Barron, you have to have a pretty good knowledge of the North American tradition, and if he’s from Cuba, it means he automatically has a knowledge of the Afro-Caribbean tradition. That makes me think he’s extraordinary. Not only that he’s extraordinary, but also if there’s an academic tradition coming out of North America, people like Ari Hoenig, then it’s also coming out of Cuba, because I’m also interested in Dafnis Prieto — who I would have guessed next — for the same reasons. The world is smaller now. You can almost not separate North America from South America any more, because the North Americans study the South American tradition, and obviously, the South Americans study the North American traditions. That’s the way I want to play! It is Mela? I was lucky again. I’d better to listen to him. Because he listens to me. He comes to my gigs. I never heard a Cuban drummer get that far away from the Cuban tradition. I can’t tell who the saxophone player is. George Garzone! Really. I thought I knew Garzone, too. It’s strange, because I picked Sanchez because I like that he plays so lyrically. That’s the reason why I wouldn’t have said Garzone, who I love. 5 stars. I went to one of my favorite Afro-Cuban drummers… When I teach, one of my first assignments, besides that “Anthropology” thing, is to study and learn the second line. Unless you’re from New Orleans, that’s one thing that most of us don’t get naturally. So their assignment is to study the second line. And the way I describe the second line, my rationalization for it is that the second line is the direct translation of African rhythm through the Afro-Caribbean to the invention of the drumset. So by you saying Idris, who is a New Orleans musician, it really sounds like… But that’s what I feel.

6.   Brian Blade, “The Midst of Chaos” (from Edward Simon, UNICITY, CamJazz, 2006) (Simon, piano, composer; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums)

So many of these things remind me of the way I would like to play. This could be…it could be… It could be me! But it isn’t, obviously. But obviously, it’s somebody who was influenced a lot by Tony Williams. So it could be any of a number of people between Bill Stewart and Billy Drummond. Whoever the drummer is, I like his touch very much. Whoever this is likes Roy Haynes, too. But so do I. It sounds so familiar; I’m thinking something will give it away. Wow, I really like the drummer. The pianist sounds Chick-influenced to me. Sounds like a great modern piano trio. 5 stars. Brian Blade! Whoa! I thought about Patitucci. I thought about Blade. But Blade is tricky, man. He’s a Louisiana drummer, and for me that’s close enough—he’s like a New Orleans drummer to me. But I think of him as more influenced…more of a… If you could be influenced by Elvin and Tony, I think of him as more influenced by Elvin, but here I heard more of a Tony influence. Again, it reminds me of me, of the way I want to play.  I have some students who loved him, early on. In fact, they had heard him with his band. I thought, man, this here’s one of the first cats besides Jeff Watts that obviously has put a band together that’s similar to a band that I would put together—if you think of my band with Kikoski and Mark Feldman and Dave Fiuczynski.  I asked him, “Man, what is it about Brian that you like so much?” He said, “It’s the way he influences the music. He influences the music the way you do, Billy.” Here I’m hearing it. I didn’t hear it so much before because I thought of him more as an Elvin influence. But here he sounds like the way I would play—if I could. It’s incredible that he can go that far in different spectrums.  I think of Lewis Nash as being able to go that far. But if you think of the way he plays on Norah Jones’ record or the way he plays Wayne’s music… I mean, I sort of thought I knew him. But this shows a side that I wasn’t that familiar with. I’m obviously extremely impressed with his musicality, as most people are.

7.  Joe Farnsworth, “The Lineup” (from One For All, THE LINEUP, Sharp-9, 2006) (Joe Farnsworth, drums; David Hazeltine, piano, composer; Steve Davis, trombone; Jim Rotondi, trumpet; Eric Alexander, tenor saxophone; John Webber, bass)

My first thought is somebody’s listened to the Art Blakey band when Freddie and Wayne were on it, and of course, my next thought is One For All—Farnsworth and those guys. Farnsworth is another guy that I think of as academic, but he’s chosen more the Billy Higgins, Philly Joe, Kenny Washington, and — something that I know personally about him — Jimmy Lovelace school of drumming, which of course, for me, is classical music in every sense. I mean, the highest level. It’s pristine. It has a sort of perfection. I mean, how can you talk about Higgins and not talk about perfection? Same thing for me about Jimmy Lovelace, whom most people don’t talk about. It’s Higgins, it’s Philly Joe, which is sort of…well, pristine is the… Poetry in motion. A beautiful touch. I have to love the piece because it reminds me of the music that I’m most familiar with. I grew up on this music. I grew up on Art Blakey. I grew up on Max Roach. I grew up on Philly Joe. I think it’s well-done. But of course, it’s not Art Blakey, as great as it is. And I don’t think it can get any better than they’re doing it unless it was Art Blakey.  4½ stars.    [Do you think it’s imitative?] You didn’t ask that question. [Well, I could.] When I say “academic,” that’s what I mean? Let’s not say imitative. Let’s call it interpretive. If you’ve still got a Count Basie Orchestra, if you’ve still got a Duke Ellington Orchestra, then you’ve got an Art Blakey Orchestra with Philly Joe and Billy Higgins sitting in. But it’s so well done, it’s so enjoyable to listen to, and it brings back fond memories. I know how they feel playing that. I know how I enjoy listening to it.

8.  Jack DeJohnette, “Seven Eleven” (from Chris Potter, UNSPOKEN, Concord, 1997) (Potter, tenor saxophone; John Scofield, guitar; Dave Holland, bass; DeJohnette, drums)

Now, for me, as much as I may not understand this, this is exciting to me. It sounds like a certain area of new music to me. Offhand, I don’t know who it is, but the saxophone player sounds like Chris Potter. So it would be whatever drummers play with him, whether it’s Clarence Penn or Nate Smith or Billy Kilson. It’s hard to say who it sounds like, though. I want to say Bill Stewart, but then, on the other hand, one of the things about Bill Stewart is that he sounds something like Jack DeJohnette to me, so then I hear Jack. Some of it sounds a lot like Jack to me, too. I can’t really hear the bass. But the drummer reminds me of Jack. I think of Jack like I think of Roy Haynes. Even though because he’s my age group, I can hypothesize his influences, but Jack to me sounds like Jack. So if this isn’t Jack, it’s somebody who sounds like Jack. The bass player is Dave Holland? Whoa! I should have known that. But I couldn’t hear that. But the first thing it sounds like to me is when Elvin was playing with John for Atlantic. It has that Atlantic drum sound. Whose record date is it? Chris? Is that Scofield? See, I know those guys! It’s interesting how much Bill Stewart has copped from Jack. Jack used to tell me, “Stewart, he’s a good little drummer.” [Not so easy to cop from Jack.] It sure isn’t. But Jack is Jack. I think I know some of his influences because they’re my influences, too. It’s again Tony and Elvin and Roy Haynes.  But for me, he’s one of the few cats who he is him. I’m sure Baby Dodds had influences. 5 stars. Man, I got a lot of records, a lot of CDs, and I don’t think you’ve played one record that I have. I read a lot of Blindfold Tests, and a lot of guys will say, ‘Yeah, that’s a record I have; oh, yeah, that’s so-and-so, I remember when I heard it.” You haven’t played anything I’ve heard before. Am I listening to the wrong things? You haven’t played one that I’ve heard.

9.  Brad Mehldau, “Granada” (from DAY IS DONE, Nonesuch, 2006) (Mehldau, piano; Larry Grenadier, bass; Jeff Ballard, drums)

I like this. I’m just trying to think of who it is. Again, so much of this stuff sounds like me! Isn’t that out? I’m at the age where I think everything sounds like me. Except, of course, that I know it’s not me. It’s the way I would like to play it, the way I would like to do it. In a lot of today’s so-called contemporary jazz, where you see a world music approach, or the influence of more cultures than just the American, then obviously, a lot of this kind of music is prevalent now. As a drummer, or musician, I call it straight-eighth or eighth-note music, or Latin-influenced or whatever. Now, who plays like that? The first thing that came to my mind, strangely enough, was Jeff Ballard. As I said, I can tell that he and Bill Stewart are students of African and Afro-Caribbean music. I can tell that they’re enthusiasts of it. It’s Ballard? That was a lucky guess. I don’t know what made me say it. There must be something that I recognize. I know that a lot of the people he plays with… It’s not even that. It’s him. The way he’s playing really sounds Spanish to me; it sounds like a guy playing a castanet or something. It sounds like he hears it that deeply. I know that he, like Ari Hoenig, seems to be a huge influence on younger drummers today—in a certain area. I know lately he’s been playing with Brad, but it doesn’t sound like Mehldau to me. It’s Mehldau? [LAUGHS] I’m still hearing Jorge Rossy, who was from Spain, play with Mehldau, so I have to hear this group some more. But I didn’t think of Brad when I was listening to the drums. It is Jeff, and he is an influence—4½ stars.

10.  Susie Ibarra, “Trane #1” (from SONGBIRD SUITE, Tzadik, 2002) (Ibarra, drums)

Tell me again that this is not… This can’t be ordinary listening. [No. But it’s somebody you might know.] Again, it’s something that I think I might have played or attempted to play like that. Especially that. It’s a way of choking the cymbal without really grabbing the cymbal; you put your hand on it but take it off real quick. You just place your hand on it for a fraction of a second. And I do that all the time. In fact, I have never heard anybody else do that but me. Unless, of course, that’s not what he’s doing. Now he actually is choking the cymbal, but before he wasn’t. But even all of that… I’d be interested to guess who I’m imitating! Let me listen to this again. You wouldn’t give me a drummer twice, right? [No.] Okay, so it’s not Cyrille. It’s bad, though. Now, this is the closest thing I’ve heard to something that I would try to do. I don’t use that cymbal. Blackwell used to use that cymbal—that you put it on the snare drum. I’ve heard Stewart do that do; he’ll put that gong-like cymbal on the snare drum and hit it, or on the tom-tom and hit it. I have no idea who it is, but I love it. I really like it. Joe Chambers? Who would think like that? Wow! The same guy playing the brushes, too? [Same drummer, yes.] That’s what sort of made me think of Joe Chambers. Whoever that is, is heavy. Not because I would do it, but I just like their mind, whoever it is, and just his ability as a drummer—the brushes, too. It’s funny, I can’t say if he’s young or old. He could be an older guy or he could be a younger guy. 5 stars. Susie Ibarra? Whoa!!! I’m in love with Susie Ibarra. I’ve just never heard her play the brushes like that. I know that she has a certain kind of technical facility that I did hear her do with the brushes, but I’d only her do it before with the sticks. When you talk about modern drummers, a lot of the groundbreaking, just for plain drumming, comes from the so-called avant-garde drummers… When people talk about “contemporary” this or “modern” that, that word for me means the stuff that comes from Milford, Rashied, Andrew Cyrille, Barry Altschul, Stu Martin, and then a new breed of that came along about 15-20 years ago with Jim Black and Tom Rainey and Gerald Cleaver, Hemingway. But of those drummers, Susie Ibarra is by far one of my favorite drummers to listen to, not only on the drums, but as a musician, too, some of her compositions. I was very impressed with that.

11.   Victor Lewis, “Suspicion” (from Charles Tolliver, WITH LOVE, Blue Note, 2006) (Charles Tolliver, trumpet, composer; Victor Lewis, drums)

This is the trumpet player’s record? [Yes.] I have two impressions. The first impression, of course, is that it was some kind of Latin band, and I’m trying to think of that drummer who teaches at the New School… [It’s not Bobby Sanabria.] How’d you know that’s who I meant?  The next thing is the opposite of that, like say, Charles Tolliver. I know Victor Lewis played with him when I heard him at the IAJE. But I didn’t hear any music like this, and great as that music was, I didn’t hear THIS. It took me a minute to recognize him. It’s interesting to hear Victor. People ask me about Victor Lewis, and for years I would say, “If I ever had to recommend a sub for me…” In other words, if they said, “I want you to hire a sub, but I’m not going to tell you what the music is going to be like,” I would say Victor Lewis. Because his musical scope is similar to mine. Anything I would be interested in or try to do, I know Victor could do. Anything somebody would call me for, I think they could call Victor for. Victor is one of my all-time favorite drummers. I remember asking a recording engineer, just for recording clarity, who his favorite drummer was, and he had recorded everybody, and he said Victor Lewis. 5 stars, of course.

12.  Lewis Nash, “Tickle Toe” (from STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, M&I, 2005) (Nash, drums; Steve Nelson, vibraphone; Peter Washington, bass)

All the things you’ve played have been very enjoyable. You know how some people say, “I really didn’t like that at all.” You didn’t play one thing that I didn’t enjoy. I have ideas on this, but they’re so far-fetched… If the drum had no bottom head, I’d say Chico Hamilton or something. But it does have a bottom head. Even this sounds like me! Well, I mean, it’s something I would have played in this situation. So it just shows you, whoever I’m influenced by, a lot of other people are, too. He’s playing the form of the tune really well, or so it seems to me. It’s an older style of drumming by a modern guy. You sort of think of Zutty Singleton, Baby Dodds or Gene Krupa, even Sid Catlett, but there’s obviously a more contemporary drummer. He’s playing a calypso beat, which is interesting. It sounds like so many people… His sense of humor reminds me of Frankie Dunlap. There’s something about him that reminds me of Chico Hamilton. It’s somebody with some chops, though. 4 stars. Lewis is a student of the music. I should have been able to catch him. What threw me off is Nelson. Because he sounded so much like a Bags-influenced guy. I kept thinking it was back there, like somebody like Terry Gibbs or someone, and that made me think it might have been Mel Lewis, or even Ben Riley. Brilliant, man. He’s got a wide scope, too.

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Filed under Billy Hart, Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Drummer, Jazz Times

Matt Wilson’s Uncut Blindfold Test From Ten Years Ago

A day late for Matt Wilson’s birthday, but hopefully not a dollar short, here are the complete proceedings of a Blindfold Test that I conducted with Matt in 2001, at the offices of Palmetto Records.

 

 

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1.    Marcus Roberts, “What Is This Thing Called Love?” (from COLE AT MIDNIGHT, Columbia, 2001) (Roberts, piano; Jason Marsalis, drums; Thaddeus Expose, bass) – (4 stars)

This is great.  I really like it.  I don’t hear any hi-hat, so I think it might be Leon Parker.  But that’s not the only reason it might be Leon.  Just sort of the feeling.  But I heard this recording of this trio from San Francisco, and Jaz Sawyer was playing, but I don’t think it’s Jaz.  Oh, this is swinging.  It’s “What Is This Thing Called Love.”  That’s obvious!  The bass sound is great.  Is it Jacky?  The answer is no!  I like this, though.  I’m trying to feel…just by the sound of the piano player.  I like the environment.  They set up this nice environment, and they keep this nice vibe.  Also, there’s sort of this backwards Ahmad feel.  I don’t like to describe music usually in terms of somebody else, but it has that kind of left turn there.  I dig it. Great selection. It’s a newer recording. I know that.  I have to say it was Leon Parker.  No?  [Because there wasn’t the hi-hat?] Yes, but also just some feel things I heard that reminds me of Leon.  But just the great upbeat vibe.  Leon to me has that great sound on the upbeat, plus it has a great 1 and 3.  There’s this great feeling of the upbeat and downbeat.  It’s like nice balance. 4 stars. To me, the great thing about playing a standard is that it’s a barometer in a certain way.  That’s the great thing about playing them.  That’s why I love playing them.  It’s this way of seeing what someone can do with common material.  It’s like someone who wants to go see someone else play a role in an Arthur Miller play, for example, who wants to see Brian Dennehy’s interpretation or somebody like that. I think that’s really great, especially somebody knows the tune and can do something with it, and again, maintain a vibe.  It wasn’t like they were playing “What Is This Thing Called Love” to play over the changes of it.  They were really trying to play a thought, a shape of a composition. [AFTER] Wow.  I heard this trio live about three or four years ago at a festival, and the vibe wasn’t anything like this on the tunes that they were playing that night.  But I totally dig Jason’s playing.  When I heard him before in other instance and in this case… He’s got that great feel, obviously, but also it has a lot of depth.  I also like Jason’s playing on Los Hombres Calientes.  In fact, once, when we were playing the same festival at Lawrence University, Jason peeked his head in at my band, the wild band, and we were in the middle of some kind of freakout kind of tune, and he appeared to really dig it.  I know he’s into a lot of different things.

2.    Charles Earland, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” (from SLAMMIN’ & JAMMIN’, Savant, 1997) – (Charles Earland, organ; Bernard Purdie, drums; Carlos Garnett, ts; Melvin Sparks, g) – (3 stars)

This is a great old jazz tune!  I know there’s versions of this.  I’m trying to go by the sound.  I know the vibe of the drummer.  I can’t quite place him.  It’s definitely an older player because of the cymbal sound.  Also it has more of a 2 and 4 oriented vibe to it.  Nice.  Sort of a Grady Tate-esque vibe, in a certain way, but a little… [DRUM SOLO] This part is great.  Yeah!  I can almost always tell how generations are.  I know this is a different generation by how they’re playing swing.  Swing is changing.  But I can’t quite pinpoint who it is.  Could it be Louis Hayes?  It has that crispness and that nice sort of surge to it when he goes to swing, and his snare drum ability… I wouldn’t even venture to guess on the guitar player. Because people have done this one before (Jimmy did it, etc.), it seems to me like there’s other tunes that you could do this same… It seems a little recreative rather than creative.  But that’s cool.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  In this instance, the organ trio doing that tune with that vibe seems to me… I’ll give it 3 stars just because the feel was cool, especially from the drum end.  Whoever was playing there has a lot of depth.  Especially with the second-line, the march feel.  It made me wonder who it was, because they switched cymbals at certain spots, in the middle of the form. [AFTER] Wow!  The other thing that made me think it might be someone with more of a funkish… I knew it was not Idris.  I know Idris’ playing pretty well.  But in this case, Bernard, the cymbal sound was smaller.  I know he uses a smaller ride.  The swing in Bernard’s case has definitely… Jason has a great 1-and-3, and Bernard’s feeling is similar, but during the swing part it was a pretty heavy 2-and-4.  It’s a good connection with him and Charles.  “Deacon Blues” to me is one of the greatest drumbeats ever!  Anything he plays on with Steely Dan.  And I heard him play by himself once at this workshop, and just play that upbeat shuffle feel.  It was amazing.  I would like to have heard another cut of this record where he was playing a shuffle.  You can tell that his feeling comes less from the ride cymbal than from the bottom.  His ride cymbal was sort of less defined.  I knew it was an older drummer by the sound of the cymbal, but by the feeling of it, it was hard to tell.  But man, it was great.  Bernard rocks, man!

3.    Dafnis Prieto, “B. Smooth” (from John Benitez, DESCARGA IN NEW YORK, Khaon, 2001) (Prieto, d., composer; Luis Perdomo, el.p.; John Benitez, b) – (3 stars)

This kind of playing and this kind of music is something I really respect.  But years ago, out of survival, I realized I was never going to be able to play like this.  I just didn’t have this ability.  Sometimes I think you just have to realize things you can do and can’t do, and this kind of music or this style of approach with kicks in this sound is something I realized I was never going to be able to do!  I respect it, though.  It’s really great, and I dig it.  But I don’t hear this sound either for myself. I’m trying to figure out who it might be.  Is it my man Mark Walker? [It’s the drummer’s composition.] I had a feeling it might be.  I mean, it’s very Chick Corea influenced, especially the Electrik Band period, which when I was settling into hearing great acoustic drummers, Blackwell and Higgins — that’s when I was studying that stuff.  The tune has some very hip rhythmic concepts.  I hear stuff more from a melody concept always.  Even rhythms I hear as melodies, so sometimes the stuff becomes a little busy for me.  The sound is dry also. [AFTER] All those beats in there that I didn’t know existed!  I have respect for all people’s efforts, and again, like I said, there was a point in my life when I realized that this is something I didn’t have the capability of doing, or even feel I could even get close to.  So I went in a completely different direction, when my friends were sort of into this vibe in college.  But it’s funny how — fortunately and unfortunately, I guess — there are any number of people that this could be.  Because there’s people who have played in the Michel Camilo school of playing.  There’s Dave Weckl and there’s Joel Rosenblatt and people like that.  They’re all brilliant players. [You think it might be somebody in that area?] Yeah.  Am I totally wrong?  [First you have to give it stars.] 3 stars, just because the musicianship is so great. It’s hard for me to be a critic.  But if nothing stood out to be that unique to me in this vein.  I mean, if I heard the opening and then all of a sudden I heard it go in the middle to a completely different departure, then I would go, “Wow, this is a really…” It’s kind of like playing a standard again.  But this is the kind of thing where to me they sort of stay in that vein, and it’s hard to discern from other things I hear in this style of music.  Again, it’s more of a personal affinity.  I don’t really hear that sound perception.  But I’m curious to see who it is. [AFTER] Wow!  He’s a bad… If I heard him live, it might be a different vibe.  The recording, to me… I’ve been hearing a lot of great things about him, and unfortunately he came to town around the time that my boys were born, so I haven’t been able to get out.  I know he’s got so much together.  It’s nothing against the playing on the record per se.  Who else is playing?  Oh.  Again, I have to attribute it to my personal ignorance.  I’ve played with Luis, and I love Luis Perdomo.  I’ve called him to do my Arts and Crafts band.  Again, if I heard an acoustic version… Again, it’s my own prejudice.  It puts me into that feeling, and it’s hard for me to discern, because… Again, the playing was great and the composition was great, but nothing really… Probably if I heard the spectrum of the record, I’d understand it more.  I had a feeling for a second it might have been Luis, because it shifted differently than most people who play electric keyboards.  I want to hear Dafnis again.  Also, Benitez is someone I’ve always been fascinated by and have always wanted to play with.  I hope some day I can, because I would like to be part of that sound.

4.    Hank Jones, “Allen’s Alley” (from Ray Drummond, THE ESSENCE, DMP, 1990) (Jones, p.; Drummond, b; Billy Higgins, d) – (3-1/2 stars)

The cats are going for it!  Wow. [LAUGHS] Well, I like it when people improvise, drum-wise, over changes like that.  He or she plays over the bass, and that’s something I’m really into.  I like accompaniment, and I like hearing people play over that architecture with accompaniment. It got strange in a spot, but still it had a lot of feeling, and then when the person blew by themselves… But nothing stuck out to me, nothing overall that made me really get up from the seat.  It was a nice version of “Allen’s Alley,” but I’m not sure who it is.  Sound-wise, it’s hard for me to tell.  From the recording, it’s hard for me to tell who the drummer might be.  There were parts that felt amazing, and other parts didn’t feel so great to me.  3-1/2 stars.  The feeling I get is that this probably was one take, and they just did it and it felt great to them, which is what’s important. I get the overall feeling, and I’m not a very good analyzer.  Again, I’m curious to see who it is. [AFTER] You totally got me there!  I would never have thought it was Billy.  I’m not saying I’m an authority on any of these guys.  I felt I’ve checked out enough Billy Higgins… I didn’t know it was Ray, but I had a feeling it might be Hank.  Again, it might be more of just the recorded sound for me, from where I’m used to hearing Billy’s sound be.  But man, I’m such a Billy Higgins fan… I screwed up!!! But it was a real stumper.  Sound-wise, the way the hi-hat didn’t sound as much to me as Billy does usually.  It wasn’t a good representation of his sound. He’s one of my true heros.  But again, the overall feeling of the piece is what they were going for, so they probably heard it back and thought, “Man, that’s cool.”  That’s what I listen for in records, is that feeling of, hey, man, it’s a version, and it’s a great version at that time.  To me, Hank Jones is one of the reigning kings of the music still living.

In hindsight, you think you know something, then you’re not sure.  To me that’s also a great compliment, that I didn’t know somebody that I had checked out so much.  But I didn’t even hear the things I would identify… It’s great that I had heard something I didn’t know was him, and that makes me even more excited I think than if I got it.

5.    Donny McCaslin, “Mick Gee” (from SEEN FROM ABOVE, Arabesque, 2000) (McCaslin, ts; Jim Black, drums; Ben Monder, gtr; Scott Colley, bass) – (4-1/2 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] Jim Black. I’m not sure which band this is.  But I’m sure I’ll figure it out. [LAUGHS] This is great.  My man can shift on a dime!  I’ll probably be wrong!  It won’t be Jim.  No, it has to be.  If it’s not, I’m going to leave!  I’ve known Jim for so long, and he has a very identifiable concept.  To me, sound is the king in music.  When you can identify someone’s sound, like you hear Mel Lewis or you hear Elvin Jones. Also, turning on a dime, making these shifts, and he does it with such artistry.  That’s acoustic bass.  It sounded like it could be Chris Speed on tenor saxophone.  I like this piece a lot.  I like changes that grab your attention, not necessarily always for… This had a lot of episodes in it.  I call this episodic composition.  I sort of compose this way, too, where I think more about episodes.  And when you have great players like this who can make great transitions, or they all of a sudden… From the drum standpoint, that’s a real key to this kind of playing, that Jim does so well, and other guys like John Hollenbeck, Mike Sarin and Tom Rainey.  They’re able to negotiate the transitions so it can have that fluidity between sections that are really disjointed.  Or not.  That’s the other thing, that they made these shift sometimes, and they did it so it was a real surprise, almost as if it was edited.  Overall, I can tell that these dudes have checked out and are open to a lot of different kinds of music, and they’re trying to figure out ways to integrate this all into one sound.  They made a good sound together.  That’s what I was digging.  I heard it more really as one, which I thought was nice. The music was really meeting in the middle.  I liked it.  4-1/2 stars, because it was exciting.  Again, it had these mood shifts.  I don’t know how it falls in the rest of the record, but hearing that composition would intrigue me to see what they could do to border around that or what other kind of textures they could explore, and whatever kind of… But again, his identifiable sound is amazing. [AFTER] I was going to say Ben Monder, but I wasn’t sure about Scott’s thing.  That’s the record Donny did for Arabesque.  I’ve wanted to get it, but haven’t checked it out.  It’s fantastic. I know Donny’s sound quite a bit from playing with him and from past things, and this is totally different.  His vibe is so amazing.  All these guys have such a great, positive vibe.

6.    Edmond Hall, “Royal Garden Blues” (from THE BLUE NOTE JAZZMEN, Blue Note, 1944/1998) (Sid Catlett, d.; James P. Johnson, p; Ben Webster, ts; Sidney deParis, tp; Vic Dickenson, tb; Jimmy Shirley, g; John Simmons. b) – (4-1/2 stars)

[SINGS ALONG] Well, I know it’s “Royal Garden Blues.”  And I know it’s somebody who made the transition from traditional music to swing on the cymbal.  To me, that’s one of the most interesting things about jazz drumming that not a lot of people talk about, the people who were able to go from where it wasn’t much ride cymbal to where the ride cymbal is.  Because in the beginning he plays ride cymbal.  I love this music!  When I hear this stuff now, the collectiveness… It didn’t feel so separated.  It was really togetherness music, where they were there, creating that sound together.  To me, this is what really great improvisers do, is make that team feel.  I hear some hi-hat in there, too. [AFTER] The person I’ve been checking out lately in this vein is Zutty Singleton, but it’s not my man Zutty.  Zutty had this vibe… I was expecting the China cymbal.  But also the up feel…it had a more Chicago feel to it.  And the little breaks… Was it Gene Krupa?  The way those snare feels…those upbeats… [You’re on the right track.] Was it Davey Tough?  No.  It has a Chicago feeling to me because it was less Charleston oriented and more upbeat oriented.  4-1/2 stars.  I love collective improvising.  To me, the whole buzz of this music is the playing and hearing of it, and the feeling of people doing it together, more than, “Oh, this guy was great, the way he plays over this.  The feeling of a band.  This music in some ways can lend itself to that automatically.  But this was different to me.  These guys were really throwing it out there to each other.  You could tell their connectedness.  Again, one of the things that I think is interesting in the development that is not addressed as much are those guys that went from earlier jazz styles, even as far back as Papa Jo, that era of guys who went to the bigger cymbal.  When the cymbals got bigger and they went to that ride cymbal feel, that had to be a pretty radical change for all those guys.  And they did it so amazingly.  That’s what Dizzy Gillespie said about Davey Tough… He had one of the greatest time feels ever.  One of the things he thought might have gotten Davey sort of depressed is that he was not able to get that top cymbal feel the way the other guys did.  He had the ability to swing a band with a smaller cymbal, but the bigger cymbal vibe he didn’t get. [AFTER] There was a little something that didn’t make me want to say it was Sid, but I was pretty damn close!  The feeling from these guys is just the liquid sound.  It oozes out at you.  It doesn’t come at you in any sharp sort of way.  Music is making sound with somebody else. These guys made that sound together, and it sounds like this beautiful wave coming at you.  The thing I got from Sid is a big sound perspective. He was a big guy and he got a big sound, but it wasn’t loud.  I couldn’t tell; I didn’t hear him live.  But again, making a big sound with somebody to me is what master musicians do.  They make a great sound with somebody, and their sound will still be true…they make a great sound with whomever, they’re playing with.

7.    Steve Berrios-Joe Ford, “Bemsha Swing,” (from AND THEN SOME, Milestone, 1996) (Berrios, drumset, timpani; Joe Ford, ss) – (4-1/2 stars)

The timpani player is making those changes. It’s great.  Max plays timpani on the Riverside recording of “Bemsha Swing.” Whoa! Go, baby! [AFTER] That’s 4-1/2 stars.  Again, it’s a different perspective.  I’m trying to figure out who the soprano player was.  But whoever left that big space of sound there, man, that to me just made it.  That’s also something that Dewey does so great, and I think sometimes players… This is just a reference to the soprano player.  If you don’t feel something playing it, don’t play til you feel something.  And this person did that.  They waited.  At first I thought maybe it was a strange thing, but then I realized, wow, these people are really playing for that moment.  And whoever is playing drums (because I don’t know), I loved it because it’s pretty open over the bar line in a lot of ways.  I know it’s not, but it has this rough-and-tumble Paul Motianesque kind of vibe where it’s so playful.  The whole thing was very playful.  That’s what I really liked about it.  It wasn’t belabored, it wasn’t long, it was nice, precise… Not “precise,” because that’s a terrible word to use in music.  It said what it was going to say and they played this tune wonderfully.  Wow, that’s wonderfully. [And you have no idea who it is?] I don’t know why I shouldn’t… I was a percussion major in college.  I can play timpani! [Was it the same person playing timpani and drums?] I have a feeling it might be, because it sort of sounded like the drums and the soprano played first.  I don’t know how it was recorded. [AFTER] That’s amazing.  This is the kind of thing that I’m pretty intrigued by lately, is hearing people like Berrios and Benitez, because I feel sort of ignorant of their conceptions of playing. I’ve heard Steve so much, and the colors he can create… And his beat really swings.  You can tell he hears the drums as melody; he hears melody in rhythm.  That’s one reason why I was really drawn to this.  It has a warm feeling.  And he played it kind of wild.  It was pretty loose.  But the beat was still swinging.  The reason I compared it to Paul, which is a great compliment, is it had that sort of rooted…it had a lot of depth, but at the same time anything could happen.

8.    Misha Mengelberg, “Kneebus” (from FOUR IN ONE, Songlines, 2001) (Mengelberg, p; Dave Douglas, tp; Brad Jones, b; Han Bennink, drums) – (4-1/2 stars)

It’s Dave.  Is this the new record with Han and Dave and Brad Jones and Misha?  I had to get one in there!!  I love music that is moving together, but also if you sit and listen, you hear little worlds in it.  Misha has a great world… We did a triple bill last year at Cooper Union with Dave’s quartet and my band and Misha playing solo.  And he creates a zone.  All these guys — Misha, Dave, Han (especially Han) and Brad — have an ability to create worlds, to dialogue within what’s going on.  Sometimes, how music comes together in that way is that the dialogues just cross over. They just got through this masterfully.  One of the great things about Dave, other than just the obvious, is his ability… The roles are less defined.  He’s always just in the music, playing… Han sometimes can be a little over the top…which is cool, man.  The hell with it.  He’s living life.  What the hell! But he swings his ass off.  I think Brad is a good pairing with them. [MISHA SOLO] Whoa!  This feeling of music could only happen with everybody… Which is the true case of any of it.  But it’s carefree.  I don’t think they’re really worried about playing a 5-star record.  They’re just here to play this music.  It’s so for that moment.  It’s almost as if my daughter, who is 4, made music with three other 4-year-olds who all had the ability to make really great sounds on their instruments, they would make music that sounded like this.  To me, that’s the ultimate compliment, where it’s playful, it’s adventurous, but it has a lot of depth.  It’s not cute.  People might think that.  But it’s not.  It’s for real.  Definitely 4-1/2 stars, with an extra half-star for Brad.  You don’t hear bass playing with Han that much, and he’s really playing parallel with him.  It’s amazing.  Dave is one of the reasons I moved to New York.  He’s a real inspiration.  He’s always present, which is one of the main things I appreciate about him.  You can hear in Han within a little bit of time Sid Catlett and all these influences emerging from him.  Things are emerging from him all the time.  I like this. It’s quite not so… I love those Clusone records that they did.  That’s some of my favorite Han stuff.

9.    Steve Coleman, “3 Against 2” (from TRANSMIGRATION, DIW-Columbia, 1991) (Steve Coleman, as; Greg Osby, as; Marvin “Smitty” Smith, d; David Gilmore, g; Kenny Davis, b) – (4 stars)

Wow, I like that.  A twist!  Is it Reggie Washington on bass?  I love Reggie Washington.  It’s surprising rhythmically and texturally.  For a while, I was kind of feeling it would be cool if they went to a different section, but the more they do this cycle, the more I’m digging it!  Just keep cycling this thing and see where it can open up to.  Whoa!! Again, this is something that I knew I couldn’t do a long time ago.  But I totally dig it.  Man, this guy can play over a vamp!  Is it Gene Lake?  I know it’s Steve Coleman.  The percussion setup made me think it was maybe Smitty.  Is this one of those JMT re-releases?  I love to hear Smitty in this kind of vibe!  I listened to those M-BASE records in college, the ones that are being reissued on JMT, some with Smitty but some with Mark Johnson. 4 stars.  Again, it had surprises to it that made me… It’s almost like seeing a movie where you go, “Okay, when is it going to move on?” and then you realize that part of it is the cycle coming back again and coming back again… After a while, you go, “Oh, wow!”  For a while, I thought it would be cool not to go back to that break every time.  I wouldn’t even know how to analyze what that was, with that metric modulation stuff.  But then when Smitty played over the vamp… Again, it’s a departure from the sound concept that… The percussion stuff gave it away.  I kind of knew it was Smitty from the percussion setup.  He was a big influence on me from those records like “Seeds of Time,” where he used percussion stuff.  I think in Jim Black’s case, too, or Mike Sarin, that era of guys started to involve using percussion along with the drums, or different colors with the drumset per se… He was a big influence to all of us on that.  Wow, Smitty! “Tonight Show,” baby.

10.    Bill Carrothers-Bill Stewart, “Off Minor” (from DUETS WITH BILL STEWART, Dreyfus, 2001) – (Carrothers, p; Stewart, d) – (4 stars)

That’s Bill Stewart.  I can tell by the hi-hat lick at the end of the bridge.  Is this him with Carrothers?  I’m doing better!  Bill has a very identifiable sound.  Even though recording doesn’t… I hear a little bit different sound with Bill.  But I can tell by things he does, the way he negotiates sections of a tune, that it was him.  One of the things I really love about Bill Stewart is that he’s totally committed.  Whatever he plays, he’s totally committed.  He just goes for it!  Not that everybody else doesn’t.  But his sound is… He’s a good Midwesterner.  Yeah, this is great.  4-1/2 stars.  It doesn’t sound like a duo.  It doesn’t sound like they’re just playing duo to play duo.  They both have that sense of adventure, that sense of orchestration.  Again, the roles are less defined.  They’re just both playing… It’s almost like an orchestra.  It’s great.  All these guys we’ve been listening to, it’s borderless.  It’s just music.  I don’t think anybody would care if they played “I’m So Lonesome, I Could Cry” or a Monk tune or whatever.  They’re going to allow great music to happen with whatever is thrown out there. To me, that’s the sign.  I love that.  It’s warm.  This is a really warm-feeling recording.  He also has a great sense of drama that I love. It’s grounded, but it feels carefree.  It has fringes. I like that. It’s like the Western coats with the fringe on them.  That’s how I feel music should be.  The fringes can fly off the side along with being centered.

11.    Fred Anderson, “Hamid’s on Fire” (from ON THE RUN, Delmark, 2000) (Fred Anderson, ts; Hamid Drake, d; Tatsu Aoki, b) – (4 stars)

For a second, I thought it was Pheeroan Aklaff, but there are parts that make me think it’s not.  The feeling is great; I love the tenor player’s sound.  I feel I should cop this one, but I can’t throw a name out for some reason.  I’m dumb!  It’s powerful.  I like it. Whoever was playing drums definitely has that ability to sort of percolate freedom at the same time of maintaining this pretty deep groove.  Like, dance over the top of the stuff without it being… Like, swing is such a big picture, and they’ve obviously checked out… It’s also music that is seriously committed to that moment.  But you’ve got me.  4 stars. I’m trying to figure the tenor player; his sound is so familiar.  He sounds older to me.  I think they’re all older players. [AFTER] I’ve heard Hamid live and I’ve heard a few recordings, but he’s someone I’d like to check out more.  I said Pheeroan at first, but it seemed a little too melded-together.  I hear Pheeroan as a little cleaner, in a certain way.  I’m not real big on citing who someone has checked out, but in hindsight I can say Blackwell and Andrew Cyrille and that feeling.  Also you can tell he comes from a hand drumming feeling.  Also, there’s a Dennis Charles vibe in there, a little more over the top.  But I knew it wasn’t those guys by the sound of the drum itself.  The sound was looser.  Man, Hamid is great.

12.    Cyrus Chestnut, “Minor Funk” (from SOUL FOOD, Atlantic, 2001) (Cyrus Chestnut, p; Christian McBride, b.; Lewis Nash, d) – (4 stars)

Wow, that’s great!  Again, this is the kind of music that makes me take notice. The piano player is great.  Is it Nasheet Waits?  I love Nasheet, but from the bass drum sound, I didn’t think it was him.  The bass drum sound seems a little dead.  That’s why it’s a little hard for me to get.  Is it Lewis Nash?  Whoo!  I’ve checked him out a lot, and there’s a few things he did… He does a really cool thing.  His playing has a great horizontal feeling and a great vertical feeling. That’s one of my favorite things about him.  Also, he can negotiate these breaks so creatively.  I can also tell by his tom-tom sound a bit.  4 stars. When people play hits together, it can be a little laborious — it feels heavy.  They did it in such a way that it was warm-sounding.  It didn’t sound frantic.  Then, of course, when it opened up, it was great.  I’m trying to think who the piano player might be. [AFTER] Wow, that was really hip.  Both Lewis and Christian have the ability to hug a tune.  When you get hugged, you feel everything, but you also feel those arms around you.  You feel the whole picture.  That’s what Christian can do so well in music, again, that is both horizontal and vertical.  The head was about these hits.  I would never have gotten that this was Cyrus, but I love the sound he gets from the piano.

13.    Herlin Riley, “Blood Groove”  (from WATCH WHAT YOU’RE DOING, Criss Cross, 1999) – (Riley, drums; Rodney Whitaker, bass; Wycliffe Gordon, tb; Victor Goines, ss) – (4-1/2 stars)

The soprano player is great!  It’s moving all over the place.  I love that.  The drummer has a great sound.  He’s dancing, man.  This guy playing soprano is a great improviser.  It’s really expressive.  Talk about rhythmic feel, too.  Wow.  Everybody has a great sound.  I hate to speak like these are all in the same range, but they all give me that same sort of feeling of joy.  When this piece went to the second section, it lost that joyous feeling a bit.  The opening section, with the bass solo was amazing, and the trombone melody with the soprano fills was great.  The bridge sounded compositionally like, “well, we should do something.”  But to me, that didn’t really take away.  Because when it goes back to that vamp vibe, it’s so strong.  And the bass player is giving it that horizontal and vertical motion, that ability to sort of percolate ahead. It’s great.  4-1/2 stars. I’m trying to get it by the sound of the drums and percussion together, which makes it a little hard for me to know who it might be. Is it Adam Cruz? [AFTER] Wow!  I’ve played with Wycliffe a lot lately, but I haven’t heard him in this… And Victor Goines!!  That was really great.  We document this stuff for recording to capture a moment of expressiveness, and in this case, the groove not only is happening, Everyone’s sound and how it worked… I love the dialogue between Wycliffe and Victor.  I’ve never heard Victor live, but I’ve heard him with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra on television, and he blew me away.  I love playing with Wycliffe live; I’ve been playing with him a lot with Ted Nash.

It’s interesting that regions still produce a sound.  I’m from the Midwest, and I feel that in some ways Bill Stewart and I have a similar sound.  And Jason and Herlin, being from New Orleans, have a groove underneath that is different from everybody else. To me, the uniqueness of this music is still what makes it really interesting.  Hamid’s feel, when you know that he’s also a hand drummer and you can tell that feel.  Smitty’s feel of being able to play really swinging but also really happening funk; he has a roundness to his funk that straight funk players don’t have because he has that swing feel.  That’s one of the most interesting things to me, are those regional characteristics and the surprises.  Han Bennink’s feel from Europe, a totally different perspective than Lewis’s feeling with Cyrus.  Or Dafnis, from Cuba. It’s intriguing to hear someone like Steve Berrios or Bernard play in these different feels.  They’re still themselves.

I’d like to hear all of these again, not to recreate comments… Not that I have to know who they were, but just to get it out of the way so I can relax and check it out.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat

Herlin Riley: New Orleans Drummer, 1999 Interview

Following up on yesterday’s post of a 1986 interview with Edward Blackwell, rich in cultural implication, here’s a dialogue with drummer Herlin Riley, the nephew of Melvin Lastie, Blackwell’s close friend. Riley’s c.v. includes a five-year run with Ahmad Jamal, and 17 years (1988-2005) with Wynton Marsalis in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (as it was then named) and the Wynton Marsalis Septet. The conversations transpired as background for the liner notes that I wrote for Riley’s two excellent Criss-Cross recordings,Watch What You’re Doing (1999) and Cream of the Crescent (2005), the latter recorded just after Riley left his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra sinecure to pursue his own projects. I’ve combined the interviews below.

A griotic improviser who lived the tradition from the inside out in his formative years in New Orleans, Riley —in the manner of such New Orleans antecedents as Baby Dodds, Freddie Kohlman, Paul Barbarin, Smokey Jackson, Vernell Fournier,  Blackwell, and Idris Muhammad—is a drum scientist, one who has investigated all the sounds he can extract from the components of the drumkit and from vernacular percussion, and conjured fresh grooves, combinations, and modes of expression from a vocabulary that draws on second line, Meters-like funk, Afro-Cuban and Samba styles, Mardi Gras Indian chants, the odd-metered swing of James Black, 4/4 swing, the sanctified backbeat, and the blues.

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What is it about the culture of New Orleans that makes its drum styles and rhythmic signatures so distinctive?

RILEY:  Well, one thing, I think, during the time when jazz was being developed, New Orleans was a melting pot for different cultures.  There was the French culture, the African culture, the Spanish, some Portuguese, some Italian.  So with that, I think, and the stuff that was played in Congo Square, which was the only place where Africans could play their drums during slavery… I think what came out of those rhythms was a lot of bottom, which is the bass drum.  Even today, when we have second-lines and we have marching parades and that kind of thing, the bass drum is very prevalent in the music.  When you hear guys who come from New Orleans… I think a lot of that influence is the fact that there’s a dialogue with the bass drum and also the snare drum throughout the music…

A polyrhythmic dialogue?

RILEY:  Yeah, because they have a conversation.  It’s not necessarily the bass drum answers the snare drum with the same phrase.  It’s like it has a conversation.  The bass drum may have a question, and the snare drum will answer it. You extrapolate that to the trapset.  And even though it may be different styles of music, even if it’s swing or whatever, you can pretty much hear that undercurrent of dialogue between the snare drum and bass drum that’s happening all the time.

You come from a family that contained several generations of musicians and drummers.  Let’s talk first about the passing-down of information, and then tell me a bit about your family lineage in music.

RILEY:  Well, information is pretty much passed down as…it’s like a griot, you know.  Those guys who come and tell you stories about different music and different guys who played the music, but they also teach you about the styles.  For myself, the style was passed on to me pretty much by my grandfather, who was a drummer.  He played the drums, and he played in the homes with Louis Armstrong, like 1913; the boys who were locked up together in the homes.  His name was Frank Lastie.  I was raised pretty much by my grandparents, my grandmother and my grandfather.  My grandfather would sit me down at the table in the mornings with two butter knives or something, and he would beat out rhythms on the table, and he would challenge me to try to do them, and I would try to do the rhythms behind him.  Sometimes I would succeed and most times I would fail, and he would just laugh at me.  But the fact that I was being exposed to a particular style… Still til today, I go back and check out the influence he’s had on me, and it’s still prevalent in my playing.

Was he a working drummer, a working musician when he was raising you?

RILEY:  Well, he wasn’t a working musician.  He didn’t play the drums professionally.  He played pretty much in church.  I learned to play pretty much just in church.  And when he would get up from the drums in church, I would sit down and play behind him.  But his sons were also musicians — Melvin Lastie, David Lastie and Walter Lastie.  Now, Walter Lastie was a drummer; they called him Poppy(?).  He’s the one that actually turned me on to styles of bebop and more modern styles of playing.  How to hold a stick and how to use the rebound in a stick for speed and that kind of thing.  So he kind of taught me about the technique of playing and about the more modern styles.  You were also talking about some second-line stuff, but that came from my grandfather.  Then as I got older, I started checking out other drummers around New Orleans, like James Black or Paul Barbarin.

Say something specific about Paul Barbarin first, and then James Black, their style and relating it to New Orleans tradition.

RILEY:  Well, Paul Barbarin played pretty much the traditional New Orleans style; he plays a lot of snare drums and a lot of rolls, and he played some woodblock and choke cymbal kind of things, which is more the traditional New Orleans style playing.  He played with people like Louis Armstrong…

Well, he played with Luis Russell, who was an early big band, which would seem to relate to you in a certain way.  Applying that to a big band might be an interesting connection here.

RILEY:  Well, the big band thing is a whole nother… I didn’t look to Paul Barbarin for my influences in playing big band styles.  I listened to people like Sam Woodyard and Sonny Payne for that style of playing.  But going back to New Orleans, that’s pretty much the traditional influence.

But I listened to James Black also for the more modern influence.  James played in odd meters, like in 5/4, in 7/4 and that kind of stuff, and he played all these polyrhythmic things, like back in the ’60s…

Like the “Monkey Puzzle” record.

RILEY:  Yes, those kinds of things.  So I listened to James for the modern kind of influence.  But I wasn’t listening to him to be influenced by him.  I would go see him play and just be in awe of his playing.  I watched him for many years.  Once I was playing a gig when I… I used to play the trumpet as well, and I was a teenager and I was playing in the park where we would play and do these talent shows.  James Black happened to be in the neighborhood that particular day…

He played trumpet, too, didn’t he?

RILEY:  He played trumpet, too, yes.  But this story is so ironic.  I’d heard about James, but this is before I saw him play.  I’d heard all these stories about him and what a phenomenal drummer he was and so forth.  Then one day we were playing at this talent show, and he comes on stage.  This guy’s playing the piano, and he’s playing all these bad changes and stuff, playing the blues and playing some of his own tunes.  I asked somebody, “Who is this guy playing the piano?”  They said, ‘Man, that’s James Black.  You don’t know who that is?  That’s James Black.”  I was flabbergasted, because I never expected him to play the piano as well as he did.  I guess the point I’m making is that he was a wonderful composer as well as being a great drummer.  James wrote some fine tunes.  So as I got older, I began to appreciate his talents more and more.

The Lasties were close to Blackwell, too, no?

RILEY:  Yes, they were close to Blackwell.  My uncle Melvin especially was good friends with Blackwell.  They hung out around New Orleans, and also when they got to New York they did gigs with Willie Bobo and Ornette Coleman, and they hung out with Don Cherry and did some stuff with him as well.  New Orleans is a very small place, so all the players, all the guys, all the musicians know each other.  It’s a good thing, because they have jam sessions, and there’s also an exchange of ideas and influences.  You don’t hardly find any kind of animosity or jealousy among the players down here.  People are always willing to exchange information.  I think that’s a healthy thing for music in general.

Let’s get some facts and figures.  You were born when?

RILEY:  I was born in New Orleans, February 15, 1957.

Your grandfather was giving you the butter knives when you were 3-4-5?

RILEY:  Yes, I was 3 years old.  Actually there was always drums in the house.  It was just there for me to play, and I learned to play because they were there.  I heard my uncles rehearsing in the house.  They had different bands that would come to my grandparents’ house and rehearse.  They would kind of roll my crib into the rehearsal room and let me check out the music, and it would keep me quiet.  So as I got old enough to walk and to handle things, they put sticks in my hands, and I was able to play.  I just innately learned how to play.

Did you have any formal teachers when you were young, apart from your uncle and…

RILEY:  I never had any formal training on the drum set.  I played the trumpet in high school.  What I would do… When I got to high school…by then I could play the drums.  I mean, I could handle myself a little bit.

On the trap drums.

RILEY:  On the trap drums.  When I got to high school and I played the trumpet, I would watch other drummers.  Every time we would take a break or something, I could go over to the other drummers about what they were doing, and they would show me stuff, like 5-stroke rolls, what a flam was, various paradiddles and so forth.  They would show me those things, and challenge me to do them with them.  Sometimes I could do it, sometimes I couldn’t.  But I was gathering information about the technical aspects of playing.

Were you playing functionally at that time?

RILEY:  I was playing in church all the time.

Trap drums and tambourine…

RILEY:  Not a lot of tambourine, but mostly trap drums.  From the time I was 5 years old on up, I was always playing… I went to church regularly.  I went to church like 2 or 3 times a week.  So I got a chance to play… Every time my grandfather would get up, I would sit down and play, and then as time went on, I got to play more and more, because I was growing and I was able to keep better time and that kind of thing.  So I could always play the drums.  But when I went to high school, I was playing trumpet in school, and drums was something I did that nobody in the school knew about.  They didn’t really know about that, until they saw me messing around with the other drummers or something.

Were you playing drums in brass bands, or were you a parade drummer?

RILEY:  No, I wasn’t doing that.  Well, I got a chance to do that when I was 14, and Danny Barker, who was a banjo player, had come back to New Orleans from New York, and he formed a band of younger musicians, of kids, playing traditional second-lines and New Orleans style music.  So I was fortunate enough to get a shot to play in a band.  I played in that band…

That was the Fairview Baptist Church band.

RILEY:  The Fairview Baptist Church Band.  Yes, it was.

Tell me about that experience, of meeting Danny Barker and meeting him.  Did he have a big impact on you?

RILEY:  Absolutely.  Well, Danny Barker had played with Lady Day, and Cab Calloway.  So I knew the legend of Danny Barker; it stuck out.  My uncle Melvin knew Danny Barker real well, and he came back to New Orleans and formed this band, he told Danny Barker that he had a nephew who played the trumpet, and Danny said, “Yeah, just bring him over here.”  He gave him an address where to bring me, I went over to where they were rehearsing, and I got a chance to play.  That was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life, because Danny always taught us how to… Even though we were playing music, he said, “Man, you play music, but you’ve got to play to people.  Because you’re not playing for yourself; you’ve got play music for the people.”  There were some other guys in the band, like Leroy Jones, who plays with Harry Connick, Lucien Barbarin, who’s also with Harry Connick, Wynton came through the band… At the time it was a good thing, because nobody else was doing that kind of thing.  All the music that was being played was pretty much being played by adults, and Danny’s coming down and organizing kids to participate in playing the music I thought was a good thing.

You’re talking about being trained in all this traditional music, but you’re much more than a traditional drummer.  You cover a history, a spectrum.  When did you start playing modern jazz?

RILEY:  Well, it was always there.  Just being in New Orleans, I got a chance to play with a lot of different type of musicians.  I got a chance to play with traditional guys, I got a chance to play with guys who were trying to stretch a little bit more.  I remember playing with guys like Ramsey McLean, who’s now a lyricist, but he was a bass player back then.  Harry Connick was also part of a band called Lifers, with Charmaine Neville.  I played in that group, and we had a chance to play… Well, Sam Rivers came down once and played with us, and it was like some free-form kind of stuff.  So I got a chance to play with him.  Then in ’75 I played with a Russian cat named Vladimir who had a Latin band.  I played in funk bands with some of the Neville guys.  So just because of being in New Orleans and New Orleans being a small city, I had a chance to play with all the guys who were playing different types of music.  Because there’s only a handful of drummers and a handful of bass players and so forth, so a handful of drummers and bass players covered a lot of different gigs.

Were you exposed at all to, say, Kidd Jordan or Alvin Fielder or Alvin Batiste?

RILEY:  Yes.  I went to school at Southern University in 1975, and Kidd was the director there at the time, and I played in that band.  Also, when I was in Carver High School, Alvin Batiste came from Southern University to do a Jazz Artist in Residence program.  The band was under the directorship of Miss Yvonne Bush.  One thing I can say about Miss Bush, she would always allow us to do other things.  If musicians wanted to play other instruments, she would always encourage you to do that.  If you wanted to write, she would always encourage you to do that as well.  But Alvin would come down, like, twice a week, and turn us on to things about jazz, how the rhythms in jazz work, and the blues scale, and let us improvise, and that kind of thing.  So I was definitely touched by Alvin Batiste as well as Kidd Jordan.  I also had a chance to play with Ellis Marsalis, even before I knew Wynton, in the Heritage Hall Jazz Band, which played trad style, but also leaned toward more kind of bebop styles, too.  So it would play trad styles, but would put modern harmonies on it and that kind of thing.

I heard a record by them with Freddie Kohlman on drums.

RILEY:  Yes, as a matter of fact, I replaced Freddie Kohlman in the band.  I came after he did.

So your experience is sort of perfectly suited for what you’re doing now.  The past is very vivid for you.  It’s not like some exotic artifact.  It’s a living entity.

RILEY:  Yes, it is.  It is a living entity, because I’m playing all these different things even now; all these different styles that I learned growing up, I’m having a chance to apply all of that stuff now in my playing.

When did you learn how to read music?  Was that in high school?

RILEY:  Yeah, I learned how to read from playing the trumpet, learning scales and so on.

Let’s talk about the course of your career, then.  From Southern University to Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

RILEY:  All right.  When I graduated out of high school, I played trumpet in a group that my uncle Walter (Papi) had put together.  I was 18 or so.  My uncle was playing the drums.  We did a gig somewhere in Florida with a 1950’s style Rock-and-Roll group called Vince Vance and the Valiants.  The drummer was leaving the group to go to law school or something, and they had a couple more gigs to do.  He asked my uncle if he would do the gig.  My uncle had family and couldn’t do it, so he recommended me to do them.  I went on the road and I played this gig with these guys, which was like 1950’s Rock-and-Roll, shuffles, and Duke of Earl, all that kind of stuff.  That was a real good experience for me at that time.  I wasn’t sure myself if I could play the drums on a gig.  I’d been playing in church and kind of practicing around, but I wasn’t sure myself if I could do it on a gig.  So I did it, I made the gig, the gig did well.

Right after that, I started getting calls to do more of these ’50s kind of gigs.  So I did a couple more of those in New Orleans, and I was still playing trumpet also.  One night, my Uncle David called and asked me if I could do a gig in a burlesque club on Bourbon Street.  He was at the street at Stratus(?) Club with Frogman Henry, and the 500 Club across the street was owned by the same people.  The 500 Club was a club that had strippers and novelty acts.

So you got to do the dinks for the strippers.

RILEY:  Yes.  Crash cymbal for kicking their leg, and when they’re shaking their butt you hit the tom-toms, and that kind of stuff.

You get into the dynamics of the kit.

RILEY:  Yes.  That’s very true.  It did get me into the dynamics of the kit, and to know how to use each part of the kit for certain effects.  I was playing trumpet on one night, subbing for a guy, and I would play drums on another night.  The gig ran seven nights a week, and the only way musicians could get off is if they had a sub.  So I was subbing for both guys on different nights.  Ironically, the trombone player and the drummer, who I was subbing for, both quit at the same time, so then they hired me as the permanent drummer because I knew the show.  I knew when the kicks were coming and I knew when they were going to shake their behind or whatever.  So I knew the show, and so they just hired another horn player to come in.  That’s when I began to play the drums really on a professional level, because I was doing it every night.  Time went on, and I did that for about two years…

You were going to school at the time?

RILEY:  Yes, I was going to Southern-New Orleans during the day and I would do that gig at night.

Were you a music major?

RILEY:  Yes, I was a music major.  That was kind of rough for me.  I was doing the gig, I was married with a daughter, trying to make a living…

And they stay open late in New Orleans.

RILEY:  Yes, they do.  I was working from 9 to until 2:45 in the morning, and I had to make sure I was out of there to catch the bus at 3 a.m., because if I missed the 3 o’clock bus I had to wait until the 4 o’clock bus came around.  So at quarter to 3, I was making sure I packed up and got my stuff out of there.  One thing about the show, it ran clockwork.  It was on time, to the second almost.  It was a drag to have to play that way every night, but come 2:45 I was glad it was.

And I guess later on that’s discipline that serves you well in some sense or another.

RILEY:  Absolutely.  Because after I left that show, I did a trio gig in a hotel lounge with Johnny Bashman, who played piano, but also was a tap dancer around Las Vegas and in New York.  He replaced Sammy Davis in a show called “Mr. Wonderful” and that kind of stuff, but he also played a lot of piano, boogie-woogie style.  So I played in a trio setting with him.  I learned a lot from that gig, because he taught me about tempos.  He would play real fast tempos, and he would play for long stretches of time. I learned a lot of things about texture with him, because he sang ballads, he sang show tunes like “Send In The Clowns.”  So I learned textures, and how to play soft, ballady kind of things behind a singer, in a trio… Because it’s a lounge; it’s a quiet kind of setting.  I also learned to play fast and soft playing with his group.

Now you’re how old?  Still in school?

RILEY:  No, I had left school by then. This is ’79-’80.  I didn’t get a degree; I left school.  So this is 1980, I leave Johnny Bashman’s group, and I leave and go play with Al Hirt’s group.  That was interesting.  Al was a phenomenal trumpet player.  Sometimes he would be great, but other times he would drink, and I don’t want to spew any venom on the cat, but then other sides of him would come out.  So that was a nice experience to do his gig, too.  He was legendary around New Orleans, and it was a good gig for me at the time.

It must have been the best-paying gig you’d had.

RILEY:  It was.  I mean, in New Orleans it was the best paying gig.  To be at home, and I was getting paid good with him at home.  So that was good at the time, and I appreciate that opportunity.  I did that for about a year, until about ’81.

Did that challenge you or stretch your concept in any way, or was it just what you knew?

RILEY:  No, it didn’t really… It was just a gig, pretty much.  But then I left his gig, and I played with a show called “One Mo’ Time.”

Directed by Vernell Bagneris.  I think I saw that show in New York.  Were you in it?

RILEY:  No, I didn’t do the Village Gate.  I didn’t do New York.  But I did New Orleans, and then they went to London in 1981, and I went with the show and stayed for six months just playing the show.  That was another great, great experience, because at the time I did that, I was playing 1920’s kind of music, which was nothing but snare drum, bass drum, floor tom and a crash cymbal, a choke cymbal thing.  It was good to do that, and also it was a show.  The show was a more upscale kind of show, with dialogue, and it was actually acting and that kind of thing…

It was theater.

RILEY:  It was theater.  Exactly.  It wasn’t burlesque.  It was theater.  So that was another kind of discipline to do that show, the discipline of playing that style of music, the discipline of being on stage and being somewhat in character.  I did that show for a couple of years.  In fact, that’s when I met Wynton.  In 1981, while I was doing that show…

He’s emerged.

RILEY:  He has emerged by then.  There’s a club in London called Ronnie Scott’s, and I was there for six months, so after the show, every night… My show would end at 10:30, and I could go to Ronnie Scott’s and catch the 11 o’clock show with guys coming in.  I got a chance…

So London was very nice experience for you.  Because you got to experience the world-class jazz music there.

RILEY:  Right.  I got to experience world-class jazz music, being in another part of the world, a whole nother culture.  And going to Ronnie Scott’s every night, I saw Betty Carter, I saw Art Blakey, I saw Dexter Gordon, I saw Panama Francis — just a host of different world-class musicians.

Who you had not had a chance to see in New Orleans.

RILEY:  Right, never had a chance to see in New Orleans, and I hadn’t been coming to New York enough to see these guys either.  So that was a good experience for me to be in London for that period of time.

How did Art Blakey impress you?

RILEY:  He was a MONSTER on the drums. That’s when I saw Wynton.  I was going to see Art Blakey… I knew Wynton was in the band, and when I met Wynton, he knew who I was, I knew who he was.  He knew who I was because I had played with his father and by my reputation a little bit in New Orleans.  And I knew who he was, because of course, everybody knows.  So from that time we met, man, he was just like a brother to me.  He took me in the back, he hugged me, he said, “Hey, this is my homie, man!”  We weren’t very close, but he embraced me that way, and he took me in the back and introduced me to Art Blakey and the rest of the guys in the band.  He looked out for me.  Then the next night, Branford came to the show and saw the show.  So that’s the birth of my relationship with Wynton.  So that was London for me.

Did you play with any of the English jazz musicians while you were over there, or was it exclusively “One mo’ Time”?

RILEY:  No, I got a chance to play with some English musicians.  I can’t remember their names.

Was it a trad thing, or more modernist?

RILEY:  I played some trad stuff.  But also, I was in London with Walter Payton, Nicholas Payton’s father, who was playing tuba in “One Mo’ Time.’  Now, he also played upright bass, which is what he really enjoys playing.

I hear he has an incredible instrument, too.

RILEY:  Yes, he does.  But Walter and I would go out trying to find out where cats were swinging and playing more modern styles.  There was this club called Tutty’s in London, and we would go there on Sunday afternoons when they had a 2 o’clock matinee, and we’d swing with those guys… At other times we’d try to find out where guys were playing.  If we had a chance… That was a regular spot for us to play.  They were playing more modern styles there.  But we’d also go into other places to try to play and hear other people.

So that’s London.  After I left London, I came back and I was in New Orleans, and I got a call from a guy in New Orleans about Ahmad Jamal.  This was ’82 or ’83.  Ahmad Jamal had come to town on a gig, and his drummer left the gig like in the middle of the week or something; his wife was having a baby, so he left the gig real abruptly.  So a friend of ours, Emery Thompson, a trumpet player called me, and asked me if I could make the gig with him.  They threw somebody else in to make the rest of the week, and he didn’t like him.  Ahmad was going the next week to Phoenix, Arizona, and he asked Emery Thompson, “Who’s a guy in town who can perhaps do my gig?”  He said, “I’ve got the perfect guy for you.”  So he recommended me.

Ahmad called me at about 7 in the morning… First Emery calls me and says that Ahmad Jamal wants me.  “Ahmad Jamal needs you, man.” I said, ‘Man, are you serious?  It’s 7 in the morning.  Don’t play any jokes on me, man.”  “No, I’m serious.  He really wants you to play in his band.  I’ll have him call you.”  So sure enough, about 10 minutes later, Ahmad Jamal calls me and says, “I’d really like to have you come out and play with me.”

He hadn’t heard you; this is just on the recommendation.

RILEY:  Just on the recommendation.  Emery Thompson is known as Omar Sharif.  He’s also a Muslim; that was the connection between he and Ahmad.  So he says, “Can you fly to Phoenix today?”  I said, “Today?  I don’t know.  I have some gigs; I have to get some subs.”  So to make a long story short, I got subs for all my gigs, and I was packed, and I was on the plane by 1 in the afternoon that same day.  I flew to Phoenix, met him — I didn’t know what he looked like.  I checked in the hotel.  Then we had to do a soundcheck, which was 30 minutes after I got there.

That was the rehearsal.

RILEY:  That was the rehearsal.  But it was so easy to do a soundcheck; it was so easy to work with Ahmad Jamal.  He sat down at the piano, and he didn’t say very much to me; just sat down, started playing, and just continued to play.  He would play, and then he would point at the bass player, the bass player would come in, then he’d point at the conga player, the conga player came in… In the meantime, he’s playing the cycle of the song around and around, three or four or five times.  Then he finally points to me and brings me in.  He didn’t tell them what to play.  I just listened to them play it.  And I found my pocket.  I tried to find my own little pocket…

Was his style something very easy for a New Orleans drummer to find a pocket?  Do you think he was influenced by a New Orleans conception of drumming?

RILEY:  Yes, absolutely I think so, because his number-one-selling hit was basically a New Orleans groove which was laid down by Vernell Fournier — “Poinciana.”

Which is now known as the Poinciana beat.  Where does it come from?

RILEY:  It comes from Second Line.  DING-DUM-DING, DINK-DE-DOOM, DINK-DE-DUH-DOOM.  DING.  DING.  DING.  DING.  DINK-DE-DUH-DOOM. That’s nothing but just a second line groove; that’s all it is.  So I would definitely say yes to that, because that’s the tune that pretty much put Ahmad on the map.  But the point is, I think it doesn’t matter if you’re from New Orleans or Timbuktu or wherever.  I think Ahmad Jamal has such a feeling and command of his instrument, and the spirit that he brings to the music, that if you just listen to what he’s playing, you can find a spot, man, because he leaves a lot of room for other people to play in.

Lately he’s been working a lot with Idris.

RILEY:  Yes.  So I definitely think he has an affection for New Orleans drummers.  He’s even mentioned it to me before.  He said that he’s worked with New Orleans drummers, and he’s enjoyed the experience of working with each one of us.

So you were with Jamal for about five years.

RILEY:  Yeah, five years with Ahmad Jamal.  I would say Ahmad Jamal is like a matador on the bandstand.  He’s very calm, and he has command of everything around him on the bandstand.  He has a presence about himself.  When he hits the bandstand, the musicians, the audience, everybody just tunes in to what he has to say.  And he definitely has a lot to say on the piano.  It was very easy for me to go in and do that audition with him.  And after I did that audition, that very first time, he was like, “You’re hired.”  Well, we did the gig that night.  After the gig that night he came to me and asked, “Would you like to work in the group?”  I said “Sure, man.”  So he hired me on the spot.  But it was so easy to come in and play with him, because he has command of everything.  He gives signals for his music, and he’ll let you know when it’s time to go to the top of the tune, when it’s time to go to the bridge, or when it’s time to play the interlude or whatever.  So therefore, he can arrange his music on the spot each and every time, and it’s in a way that it can turn on a dime.  When he commands it, it can just shift and go to another thing.  So the music is very loose but also, because of him and his way, it’s very disciplined, too.

And for you, it must have been the total validation that you’re ready to play with anybody, any time, any place, anywhere.

RILEY:  Well, definitely working with Ahmad Jamal gave me a shot of confidence.  Because his music was challenging.  There was stuff in his music that I had never played, rhythms I’d never really faced before or dealt with before.  So that was definitely an educational experience, and working with him gave me a certain amount of confidence.

Were you aware of Vernell Fournier beforehand?

RILEY:  I was not really aware of him.  I had heard “Poinciana” before.  I sort of took him for granted.  Because that groove wasn’t foreign to me at all, aside from hearing the tune on jukeboxes and so forth.  Now, I knew who Ahmad Jamal was, but I knew him mostly by his more contemporary recordings.  But less the stuff he did in the ’50s.

Blackwell did a very specific study of African rhythms at a certain point, and he said it was very congruent with what he came up with in the culture of New Orleans.  Did you at any point do specific studies of African or Afro-Cuban rhythms, or were they just sort of inherent in the rhythms you learned coming up in New Orleans?

RILEY:  No, I didn’t study those types of rhythms that extensively.  The experience I had playing with the Latin band, the New Aquarians, in New Orleans, kind of helped me to identify some of those styles.  But I pretty much listened… I try to evoke the spirit of the rhythms as opposed to just playing specifically the exact rhythm or something that’s played.  I try to just capture the feeling of what it feels like in a particular space or place musically.

So you leave Jamal in ’87, and is that when you hook up with Wynton?

RILEY:  Shortly thereafter.  I did a small stint with a show called “Satchmo: America’s Musical Legend.”  Byron Stripling played Satchmo.  Anyway, I did that show for six or seven months.  I did a little acting in it as well, which was nice.  But then right after that, in ’88, I joined Wynton’s band, then a quintet with myself, Wynton, Reginald Veal, Marcus Roberts and Todd Williams.  Marcus had been with the band a year or two.  It was ironic, because I think it was my 31st birthday when he called me.  I always say it was the best birthday present I could have gotten, just a call from him to come play in his band.  Wynton had seen me play with Ahmad Jamal once, and I was surprised that he’d call me.  We talked about it later, and I think what influenced him to call me most was the fact that maybe a year before that I’d played at the Jazz & Heritage Festival with Ellis on a trio gig with Reginald Veal.  Wynton happened to be in town with his band, and he came and sat in with us, and he liked the feeling of myself and Reginald playing together.Then a year or two later, that’s when he called me, and he said it was from that experience… He’d kept it in mind; it just felt good for him.

So while you were with Jamal, you continued to play around New Orleans in a variety of situations.

RILEY:  Yeah.  When I would come off the road with Jamal, people would call me to do different types of gigs.  Ellis Marsalis would call me.  Teddy Riley would call me on gigs [no relation].  I would occasionally get a chance to do stuff with Danny Barker.  I would do stuff with Charmaine Neville.  I would play in my uncles’ R&B bands.

That wasn’t just the normal R&B band, was it.  They were kind of stretching forms, no?

RILEY:  They were stretching the forms in little ways.  But they still were playing blues, and they were playing like shuffles and slow kind of blues and that kind of stuff.  I would also get a chance occasionally to play with some Latin cats, like Hector Barrero, and some guys who play strictly Latin music…

Where the trapset has a strictly defined function within the percussion.

RILEY:  Exactly.  But I would still slide a little New Orleans inside it anyway, a little bass drum.

So what you’re doing is perfect for the concept Wynton was looking for with the septet, or first the quintet.  He’d been sort of stretching out on Modernism in the early part of the ’80s, and in this it seemed he wanted to put together a global way of looking at music historically.

RILEY:  Well, it wasn’t that.  It turned into that, because it just happened that Wynton… When I first joined his band, his music was like pushing and on the cutting edge of trying to expand the horizons of the music.  He wasn’t interested really in going back and capturing the history.  Well, I don’t think he was really interested in that at that particular time.  But he says to me that when myself and Reginald came into the band, he could suddenly hear it.  His music became clearer to him.  The music opened up in a certain way and became clearer.  When I first joined the band I’d heard all those records that Jeff Tain Watts had played on.  He plays with a lot of energy and a lot of rhythm and a lot of dialogue in his playing with the instruments, and I came into the band with that concept in mind as to how to approach Wynton’s music.  I thought about Tain going in, because that’s who I followed.  So I tried to apply that kind of influence and that kind of approach to playing.  It was okay, but it really wasn’t working, and finally, after about a year I began to find my own voice, and Wynton started really listening to my voice inside of the music.  Then the music took on another shape, he had different ideas about what to do with the music, and then the range of what he could do expanded.

Talk about what you think your voice was, and what it is that you think Wynton saw that he could do from hearing you.

RILEY:  When I came into the band, I didn’t play a lot of drums inside of the swing.  Tain played a lot of polyrhythms and stuff, and I didn’t play that way.  I tried to play that way at first, and it was okay, but it wasn’t me.  Then I started to play in a way that the solos was able to just speak out, and I would be more of a supportive…like a cushion under the soloist — with some interaction as well.  But I think they were able to hear more.  Then the fact that I was from New Orleans and I played second line stuff, he could hear… It was a different feeling.  I think I brought a different feeling to the band, a feeling of more groove and dance-oriented kind of rhythms.

So you became more and more comfortable with each other, because he works all the time, and you’re working all the time together, and I guess you just get that hand-in-pocket thing.

RILEY:  Yeah.  I mean, as you work and time goes on, things begin to develop and things begin to gel.  Everybody in the band… One thing we always stress in the band is that to be a jazz musician you have to have some humility and also some ego.  But those things have to balance.  I would say in working with Wynton, as many things as he’s accomplished, he still has a lot of humility.  I think humility allows you to grasp information and to hear other people.  So we’re always able to come together and hear each other, and in hearing each other we develop a specific sound.

As the septet evolved, it sort of dovetailed with the activities of the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra.  He’d bring in the information he was getting from that into the Septet, so Jelly Roll Morton arranging techniques come in, or the Monk things, Ellington things come in… It became a real global concept.  I really loved that septet.  You’re also playing at Jazz At Lincoln Center where you’re dealing with the whole history of the music from the inside-out.  Now, presuming that what I’m saying is basically correct within your framework… I’d like you to talk about how playing with the Jazz At Lincoln Center Big Band has affected your concept of the drums, or just you personally.

RILEY:  When I first got a chance to play with the Jazz At Lincoln Center Big Band, I got a chance to play with some of the older guys who actually played in Duke’s band.  I played with Norris Turney, Britt Woodman, Sir Roland Hanna was in the band, Joe Temperley (who is still in the band now), Marcus Belgrave, Joe Wilder, Jerry Dodgion.  All these guys were around, and some of them had actually played with Duke.  So when I got a chance to play in the band with these guys, it gave me a sense of… I really wanted to play the concept and I wanted to play it right, because I have all these guys who know what’s happening, and how it should feel and what the music should state.  So I approached the music with a certain amount of pride about learning…

The idiomatic…

RILEY:  That’s a good word, idiomatic.  I was really trying to understand what the guys had played in that style before me.  So I listened to Sam Woodyard, I listened to Sonny Greer; I would listen to those records, and I would try to capture the essence of that feeling of the music.  And every time I thought about them, and playing certain pieces, I would think about how people danced to the style, and try to evoke the mood of a particular piece.  That was with Duke’s stuff.  I think I approach all the musics like that.  We did a program on Monk.  We did a program on Louis Armstrong.  And with each artist that we’ve done, I’ve tried to go back and listen to their records, and understand the feeling and spirit of what their music is about.  That’s pretty much how I’ve approached it.

New Orleans seems to be the only place where a musician your age or younger could capture the experience that the musicians from previous generations had, because it was part of the culture.  You wouldn’t get that coming up in New York.  You wouldn’t get it coming up in Chicago.  You wouldn’t get it coming up in San Francisco particularly or Los Angeles or Detroit.  New Orleans because Bourbon Street and the Second Line and Modern jazz…the whole history is available to the young musician as a functional experience.

RILEY:  That’s very true, and I think a lot of it has to do with seeing guys in everyday kind of situations as opposed to just on the bandstand.  When you see a guy who plays the drums at night, and then you see him in the daytime, who’s maybe working on the car or something, or he’s maybe at a restaurant or somewhere just hanging out and having some red beans and rice or something, or shooting the breeze at a barber shop, this kind of stuff… When you see guys in a living kind of situation, then you can understand really about the feeling of why they play what they play, and kind of understand some of the influences.  So all those things are a part of it; it’s a part of why you play the way you play.  I remember seeing guys like Smokey Johnson at a supper or something… They would have like Saturday night fish fries or something, and you’d be in the back, man, and the guys would be eating some potato salad and some fried fish, and they’d be playing cards, and kind of just talking trash across the table to people…maybe not even musicians.  The whole picture of being there, and seeing all these kinds of things, the music that’s playing in the background, the smell of the fish that’s in the air, the smell of gumbo or something that’s in the air… All this stuff is a part of what makes me who I am, and having that experience.

Did you play with any of the piano players, like Booker or Professor Longhair or Tuts Washington?

RILEY:  Yeah.  I got a chance to play with Tuts Washington when I played in the burlesque club.  Also I’d play some gigs with him sometimes on the side, where it would just be like piano and drums.  I’d play just brushes and he’d play the piano.  I got a chance to play with him at that club.  I got a chance to play with Dave “Fatman” Williams at the same burlesque club.  Professor Longhair was good friends with my grandmother and grandfather, and he would come to my grandmother’s house.  There’s still a gash inside of the piano where he would play the piano and kick his foot to keep time.  He would play like this [KICKING RIGHT FOOT SIDEWAYS] all the time.  It would be the same spot.  There’s a spot on my grandmother’s piano where he would kick holes in it!  I also worked…even sometimes now I work with Dr. John.  I’ve recorded a couple of things with him.  So the New Orleans piano thing is very much part of… I’ve had a chance to do that, too.  I’ve had a chance to do a lot of different things, a lot of different styles of playing.

[In 2005, when we had our second conversation, Riley had just completed his final tour with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.]

RILEY:  Basically, it was time to leave. I need to let my own voice be spoken a little bit more. I want to play with other people and do some other things musically. It was a great experience. It was a great time. I got to play a lot of music. I got to learn about a lot of different aspects of playing music, and I got to experience some wonderful things, too. Just playing with the orchestra and being associated with the orchestra, my ability to teach and to do workshops and that kind of thing has grown. My playing has grown from that. But playing inside of a big band kept my playing very structured. Now I’m looking forward to doing other things, and playing in smaller groups, and being freer in my expression.

What are some things you feel weren’t being expressed within LCJO?

RILEY:   I was very expressive when I was playing. But from a personal standpoint, being locked inside of a big band structure  makes you stay inside a certain box, for lack of a better word. It keeps you confined to a certain style of play, whereas playing inside of smaller groups there’s much more freedom and flexibility and elasticity inside the  structure. That’s what I want to get to. I want more elasticity and flexibility and openness to my playing.

Now, the LCJO experience has definitely enhanced the musicianship of each and every one of us who played in it. The sheer experiences that we’ve shared. Being onstage with the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Phil, and going to London and playing with the London Orchestra, doing pieces like “All Rise” in those types of environments, and then turning around and playing with some Brazilian or some Cuban cats or some African cats, where you’re playing their music, the music of that culture. All those experiences have definitely enhanced our musicianship. Not only that, but just playing the book of the LCJO, which has about 200 pieces.

Didn’t you innovate a beat where you integrate the tambourine within the flow of the drumset?   Wynton used that a lot in the septet, like on the piece, “Sunflowers.

RILEY:   Exactly. Yes, I guess I did kind of innovate that. I grew up playing the drums in church, and watching people play in church—and I played the drums all the time. When I was in church and wasn’t playing the drums, if there was a tambourine sitting around that nobody was  playing, I would pick it up and start playing it. As I grew up, I started trying to find things I could do that would enhance the music, whatever it was. For instance, I also played washboard. I played washboard in the show One Mo’ Time, and I played bones, like two bones together…

Wynton had you doing those things in Blood On The Fields and other things, too.

RILEY:   One thing I loved about Wynton is that whatever you brought to the table, it was great, because it was all about the spirit of the music. I think that was a good thing. He said, “Man, whatever you got, whatever you bring that’s part of your set, we’ll use it.” So eventually we did. Even playing cowbells and that kind of stuff, man. I brought cowbells, I brought gongs, I brought all kinds of stuff on the bandstand. But the tambourine was one of those things I was able to incorporate and play grooves on inside the drumset…to play grooves with the bass drum and the hi-hat. I always use a tambourine that has a head on it, so that you can snap the head and get a more percussive sound, like the drum or something.

I think you’re a real scientist of the drums. You seem to have investigated all the sounds on all the different drums, and how to combine them, and in a very practical way.  I think the spirit of exploration is part of how you approach even the most mundane gigs. As you described the strip club gig, learning the dynamics of the trapset by doing that.  It seems to me to be a characteristic among  New Orleans drummers.

RILEY:   Another thing I think we all have in common is that we don’t hear the music in separate entities. It’s all one thing, and it’s all one groove. It’s just another type of groove. When you hear different music, I still incorporate it; I still say, “Well, it’s just another groove.” What you do is, you go in and find the nuances of that particular style or that particular groove, and you play inside of that nuance. So it’s not anything that’s really mystifying.

It’s not mystifying, but it seems very much to descend from the culture of the city and what you do as a working musician in New Orleans. Those opportunities present themselves naturally in the culture of New Orleans.

RILEY:   It’s very true. The culture here is very strong, and the drums are such a big part of the culture here. So it’s very natural for a drummer to be influenced in the way… It’s undeniable. It can’t be denied because the influence is so strong.

Are you the last generation of drummers who picked that stuff up? Do the younger drummers approach things like you, or were their early influences more the broader world? I don’t mean that you weren’t influenced by the broader world, but you came up watching people like Freddie Kohlman and Smokey Jackson, these people with deep roots in the culture? Is the next generation of drummers doing that, or have things changed?

RILEY:   A few of them. But no, I don’t think a lot of them do The ones who are serious, like Jason Marsalis or Adonis Rose, have gone and checked people out who played before them. I guess in a lot of ways they look at… I’m 48 years old. These guys are still around 30, so they look at people like myself or Johnny Vidacovich or Herman Ernest…now we have become the mentors.  So a lot of the guys aren’t as in tune to the history as perhaps I was, or some of the older guys or guys my age. But the history was still living at the time.

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Filed under Drummer, Interview, New Orleans

It’s Ahmad Jamal’s 81st Birthday

A few weeks ago, the unfortunate news went semi-viral that the U.S. government had blocked Ahmad Jamal, who turns 81 today, from receiving a $10,000 fee for a forthcoming  performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival, citing the bank transfer as “a donation to terrorism.” Apparently, he was being confused with Jamel al-Bedawi, a Yemeni wanted in connection with the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. It’s unclear whether the State Department or Department of Homeland Security has resolved the confusion

Jamal is, of course, a universal influence on the sound of hardcore mainstem jazz by dint of Miles Davis’ application of his strategies to his own rhythm section during the middle ’50s (Miles  recorded much of the repertoire of Jamal’s early ’50s Three Strings trio with guitarist Ray Crawford and bassist Israel Crosby, and assigned pianists Red Garland and Bill Evans to head to his steady gig with Crosby and drummer Vernell Fournier at Chicago’s Pershing Ballroom on 64th and Cottage Grove for first-hand observations of what he wanted them to do), and the subsequent assimilation of his syntax by the likes of McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Kenny Barron, Cedar Walton, Mulgrew Miller, Marcus Roberts, Eric Reed, and Bill Charlap, all of whom cite him as a seminal early influence. He’s of course evolved with age, broadening his concept, extending the forms, playing with an imaginative oomph and unfettered imagination.

As Jim Macnie put it in a cover story that ran in DownBeat last March, “All the signature Jamal elements are in place: the exquisite touch, the profound grace, the mercurial improv choices. Though they’ve been there for decades—certainly since he made his first big career splash with At The Pershing: But Not For Me, the 1958 powerhouse that rode the charts for more than two years—these days everything about his playing is a bit sharper, a touch more vivid, a smidge more fanciful.”

I had a chance to write my own Jamal profile for DownBeat  in 2003, when Dreyfuss released the wonderful trio date  In Search Of…Momentum. The piece incorporated a contemporaneous interview, but also drew heavily on Jamal’s remarks during a five-hour WKCR program in 1995 on which he presented his music and spoke about his life. I’ve posted the transcript of that encounter below, as well as interviews about Jamal with Harold Mabern, Herlin Riley, and Richard Davis

* * *

Ahmad Jamal Profile (WKCR, 2-5-95):

[MUSIC: “Poinciana” (1958); “Do Nothin’ Til You Hear From Me,” “Chelsea Bridge” (1994); “Acorn” (1992); “Foolish Ways” (1989); “Divertimento” (1989); “Blue Gardenia” (1992); “Never Let Me Go” (1994); “Rossiter Road” (1985); “Haitian Marketplace” (1964); “Night Mist Blues” (1961); “Music, Music, Music” (1961); “Too Late Now” (1961); “You Don’t Know What Love Is”; “Patterns,” “Dolphin Dance” (1970)]

I’d like to speak with you about your early years in music and your years coming up in Pittsburgh as a young pianist.  I gather you began playing piano very early, and had a facility for it that was quite immediately evident.

AJ:    Well, Pittsburgh is a very interesting town, Ted.  You have a lot of players that are still there that are just as astonishing as the ones that have left.  We had Billy Strayhorn there, and I sold papers to his family when I was a kid, which was an experience in itself.  Erroll Garner, Dodo Marmarosa, who is long forgotten — we all went to the same high school.  Mary Lou Williams, same high school.

Which high school was that?

AJ:    Westinghouse.

Was there a great band teacher at Westinghouse High School?

AJ:    There was.  His name was Mr. Carl McVicker.  I think he lived to be 96 or 97.  I think he’s passed on now.  But to use the over-used word that Sue Clark comments on quite often, the legendary McVicker.  Yes, he was quite popular around there.

What was his manner like?

AJ:    Well, it was his approach.  He was quite innovative.  He had four ensembles, the Beginners Orchestra, the Junior Orchestra and the Senior Orchestra, and then he started the K-Dets(?).  It was unique, because this was the all-American Classical/Jazz band, and it was quite unusual for it to be in a high school at that time on such an organized basis.  He started the K-Dets(?) maybe around 1946, which is quite early on.  Now, of course, we have Berklee and all these institutions of higher learning that incorporate this music in their curriculum to say the least.  But I think it was very innovative, very unique on his part to start a Jazz clinical society in 1946.

I interrupted you when you were listing the musicians out of Pittsburgh.

Well, it’s so many.  You have Loren Maazel, you have Earl Wild, the exponent of Liszt, and Erroll Garner, as I mentioned before, Mary Lou Williams, Dodo Marmarosa, Kenny Clarke, Ray Brown, George Benson, Stanley Turrentine, Phyllis Hyman, Dakota Staton, Roy Eldridge, Art Blakey — and it goes on and on.

I’ve read that you first were put at a keyboard at the age of 3 or 4, and your ability became quickly apparent.

Yeah, I took a long time to decide.  I started playing at 3.  Earl started playing at 3, too.  It happens.  It’s very rare, but it happens.  I began with Mary Caldwell Dawson, one of the great teachers, when I was 7; I started studying with her at 7.

Were your parents musical?  Did they play?   Was there always music in the household?

Later on, much to my astonishment, I found out that my mother had approached the piano before we started coming — that was astonishing, because she never mentioned that to me.  But the whole family has the ability to play the instrument, and some of us do.  I have a first cousin who was down at the Blue Note the other night.  She plays very well.  She doesn’t play any more, but she plays very well.  So there’s music throughout the entire family.  And if they don’t play, they have a very thorough knowledge and insight into what music should be all about.

What sort of music would you be listening to in the family?  Were you listening to a wide range of music as a young guy?

Well, I was a collector as a youngster. Ted.  I used to send away for… You had to send away for records then.   So I have a lot of collectors’ items.  I have big band records that Erroll Garner was on that very few people know about.  Guild was the label.  He did some things with Boyd Raeburn and Georgie Auld.  We had to send away for things like “Salt Peanuts” when Dizzy and Bird first came out on those.  I was quite a collector, and so was my brother.  We collected everything, the big bands, particularly the sounds of Jimmie Lunceford and Basie, all the bands who used to come to the Savoy.  We had the Savoy Ballroom.  That’s when I first saw Diz, when Hen Gates was his pianist.  I don’t know if you remember the name Hen Gates.  Joe Harris, who’s another Pittsburgher, was playing drums — he’s a marvelous drummer.  So all those bands we went to see at the Savoy as well as the Stanley Theater, where I first saw Duke Ellington and Sonny Greer.  Which was a picture in itself, because Sonny was behind many, many percussion instruments.  “Ring Dem Bells” was one of the things Duke wrote for Sonny, I believe.

Many people have commented that the sight of the big bands as a spectacle was almost as inspiring as the sounds that emanated from them.

Well, that’s where I first heard Bud Powell, too.  Bud was playing with Cootie Williams at the Stanley Theater.

Speaking about Bud Powell, which pianists caught your ear early on?

Well, some were fairly formidable, to say the least.  I mean, there are some great players in the so-called Boogie-Woogie idiom, too.  James P. Johnson and Albert Ammons, forget about it; they were just incredible.  But the ones that I think I began to follow most widely were Art Tatum and Nat Cole, and of course, Erroll Garner was my biggest influence.

How did you go about assimilating these influences?

Well, you’re going to emulate.  You have to emulate different people until you develop your own path or your own pattern.  So you’re going to emulate all those great players, and see what they’re doing, analyze what they were doing.  Then you go to your sessions… We had these historical sessions in Pittsburgh, which unfortunately are  absent now for a lot of the younger players.  So you take these things off a record, and you apply them in the jam sessions, and eventually, if you’re lucky, if you’re blessed, you’ll find your own approach to these things — which is not easily come by.

Who were some of the players your age that participated in these sessions in Pittsburgh?

A great trumpeter who is Stanley Turrentine’s brother, Tommy Turrentine.  Tommy taught me my first flatted fifth chord.  He’s a great musician, Tommy.  In fact, I got Tommy a job with George Hudson’s band shortly thereafter, after I joined the band.  Joe Kennedy, the great violinist, was one of the prominent figures in the jam sessions.  There was the great guitarist Ray Crawford, who started out playing saxophone; he was one of the great saxophonists.  Joe Harris.  Ray Brown would come back, when he wasn’t on the road; he would come back and play, too.  Leroy Brown, the famous Leroy Brown in Pittsburgh.  Osie Taylor, a phenomenal saxophone player.  Sam Johnson, the great Sam Johnson, a pianist.  Cecil Brooks, who now has a son, Cecil Brooks, III.  Cecil was one of the great figures around 471, where the sessions took place.

Were these private sessions, or would people come from around the community and offer their input?

Well, it was a private club of musicians.  You had to be a member to get in.  But we also let the general public in if they said and spoke the right words!

Was this club affiliated with the union?

Yes, it was our 471 local.

Apart from that, were you out doing little or not so little gigs in the community for money as a teenager?

Yes, I was working in just about every setting possible.  I was working sometimes with Eddie Jefferson, who was a tap dancer then.  He wasn’t singing at the time.  I used to play for Eddie Jefferson on rare occasions.  In fact, Eddie used to come down to the club and participate in jam sessions, too.  And I was with all the big bands.  I did a lot of big band work in Pittsburgh.

Local big bands?

Will Hitchcock, Joe Westray, Jerry Elliott.

What type of chart would they be playing?  Were local arrangers doing it, or were they working with stocks, or the popular charts of the day?

50-50, Ted.  We had some great writers within Pittsburgh, so we had some stock charts, but we also had our own writer that would write as well.

I guess Billy Strayhorn had left a little before that time?

[LAUGHING] Yes.  We didn’t have Billy’s things!  Duke had those.  We had the stock arrangements of Billy’s by that time, I would suppose.

Then I had some very unusual settings where we would go.  Carl Otter, who was a great musician around Pittsburgh, his father was a great pianist, and Carl was one of the  saxophonists… We used to play jobs in Uniontown, just piano and tenor, no drums, no bass.  Can you imagine that, just piano and tenor.

Earl Hines in his autobiography mentions Wylie Avenue as the strip where he really picked up his information in the 1910’s and early Twenties.  What was the Pittsburgh Jazz scene like when you were in there as far as the older musicians, and what part of town was it located in?  Give us a sense of the ambiance in Pittsburgh.

Wylie has been replaced with the new sports center, the coliseum, the sports dome, whatever they call it.  It’s been replaced, and Wylie Avenue is no more, unfortunately.  They should never have torn down Local 471.  They should have kept the building (it’s a historical landmark), and moved it at least.  But that was lost, which was a tremendous loss.

Wylie Avenue was the place where we all gathered, the places that were around there were the Washington Club, where I first met Art Tatum.  I was 14 when Art came and played for us.

What was that experience like?

Well, it’s very difficult to describe an experience like that, [LAUGHS] a 14-year-old kid sitting and playing along with Art Tatum.  Of course, he played last!

Did he have any comments for you at that time?

I don’t know.  I was too in-awe to even get into that.  His quotes were mentioned later on in some of my press releases.  Someone found some quotes of his as a result of that, and put them in some subsequent press releases.

Then we had the Bamboolah Club, and we had Crawford’s Grill, which I’d imagine you’ve heard of.  Crawford’s Grill was the definitive place for players.  I, interesting enough, never worked Crawford’s Grill.  Then, of course, the capital, the dome of the capital, the Musicians Club.  To me that was the dome of the capital as far as music was concerned.

So you came up in some very tough company in Pittsburgh, very high standards.  How old were you when you began working regularly and taking home some money.

Too young.  I was 11 years old.  That’s too young.  I’d do algebra during intermission, between sets.  That’s too young.  I don’t recommend that.

Can you give us some descriptive sense of what you sounded like at the age of 11 or 12, in 1941 or 1942?

I sounded well enough… See, in my case, I had an aunt from North Carolina.  That was when publishing was publishing, and she used to send me sheets and sheets and sheets of music that was written before I was born.  So I sounded well enough during those years as a result of having all this great body of work that I drew from this sheet music, that I was working with guys 60 or 65 years old, and they were astounded because I knew all of these sounds.  That’s how I got so much work, or enough work to start buying my clothes instead of relying on my Mom and Pop to do it.

Were you improvising at that time?  Were you functioning as an improvising Jazz pianist?

Well, when I first started playing, I just played everything I heard, so I was improvising just like anyone else does who sits down, whether it’s Bach or Beethoven.  They’re all improvisers, too.  Improvisation is not confined to American Classical Jazz.  Anybody who sits down and starts doing innovative things is an improviser.  So I was doing it all my life.  I started doing that at 7, started writing charts at 10, and was quite at home with, as I said before, guys 60 or 65 who had been doing it for a long time — because I had this great body of work that I was drawing from.

You mentioned that you left Pittsburgh with the George Hudson Band.

George made me leave my happy home.  That’s where it started. George is also from Pittsburgh, but he transplanted to St. Louis, stayed in St. Louis, and is still there, if he’s still living.  Out of that band came Clark Terry, a great number of musicians.  Myself.  Ernie Wilkins, a great writer who used to write charts on the bus.  I can see Ernie right now writing charts on the bus.  He was a phenomenal writer.  He came out of that band, too.  Bill Atkins, one of the great, unheralded first saxophonists, possibly the top first man in the world.  Marshall Royal was another one, with Basie for many, many years, but Marshall was known — Bill wasn’t.  So George produced a lot of great musicians.

So you went out with him and wound up in Chicago, is how it went?

George sent for me.  He came through and heard me, I guess, at one of those historic jam sessions at the 471, and I got a call to come to Atlantic City.  I was 17 then.  I had my eighteenth birthday in Atlantic City.  So I stayed in Atlantic City all summer, and there I met Johnny Hartman — because Johnny had just started.  We worked for Billy Daniels, who was one of the so-called superstars at that time.  Butterbeans and Susie.  Ziggy Johnson had the chorus line; that’s another historic figure.  We had Jimmy Smith, the xylophone player who used to tap-dance on the xylophone — incredible.  He passed away in Chicago at the Pershing Hotel from tuberculosis.  Oh, it’s a line of people that were there.

We stayed for an entire season in Atlantic City, at the Club Harlem, which is now no more.  We would start at 8 o’clock at night, get out when the sun was coming up.  Louis Armstrong came through one time, and that’s where I met the famous Sid Catlett.  It was one of the thrills of my life, playing with Sid Catlett.  We had great times there.  Great times.

It seems like by the time you’re 18 or 19 and getting to Chicago, you’d had as much experience as some people get in sixty years!

Well, there are a few of us that have, I call it, embraced three eras of music.  A few of us have done that.  George Coleman, Thad Jones, Jamil Nasser, the late Phineas Newborn, Harold Mabern, and Miles Davis, as well as Gil Evans — because Gil was writing back then for Claude Thornhill.  Musicians who have embraced three eras are very fortunate, and their whole approach is different, because we were youngsters when the big bands were in vogue, we were still young when Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker came along, and we’re still around in the so-called Electronic Age.  So when you’re drawing from this great body of work, your approach is quite different.

[MUSIC:  “Raincheck” (1960); “Prelude To A Kiss” (1976); “Squatty Roo” (1958); “Don’t You Know I Care?” (1994)]

We were taking you from Pittsburgh to Chicago in our last conversational segment, and you were spending a season in Atlantic City with the George Hudson band.  From then to Chicago, what happened?

I left the band to go back to exploit with Joe Kennedy the possibilities of getting the Four Strings in gear and getting some work for the group that we had at the time.  The group was Joe Kennedy, Ray Kennedy, myself and Edgar Willis at that time (Peepers) was playing bass, one of Mary Lou Williams’ favorite bassists.  He passed away some time ago, two years ago.  He was the bassist with Ray Charles for a while, after he went to California.  So I left the band to go back to Pittsburgh, then we went back to Chicago with that group in 1948, called the Four Strings.

Did you have a gig?  Was it set up through a booking office or something?

We couldn’t get any work.  We had one job that came out of an office in Chicago, and that job was not in Chicago — it was in Dayton, Ohio or somewhere.  So that group broke up because we couldn’t get work.  Joe went back to teaching in Pittsburgh.  Out of that group came the Three Strings, because what was left was the guitarist, bass and piano.

Did that begin your concept of the orchestrational piano trio?

Well, you know, before the formation of the trio, I worked with Israel Crosby for a while.  He had a trio.  I worked with him at Jack’s Back Door at 59th and State.  I was doing maintenance work at Carson Pirie and Scott downtown for $32 a week, and I would work at Jack’s Back Door with Israel and Johnny Thompson.  I’m the only living member of that group.  That was another interesting combination, saxophone, piano and bass — no drums.

Von Freeman cites Johnny Thompson as having been an influence in the 1930’s.

Johnny was one of the great players.  In Chicago, you know, that was the age of saxophone.  Tom Archia went there, that’s where everyone went… That’s where Vernell was working.  You couldn’t get Vernell, because Vernell was sought after all over the place.  It took me a long time to get Vernell in the group.  So I was working odd jobs.  I couldn’t work every night anyway, because I hadn’t joined the union.  I hadn’t put my transfer in, or some crazy rule.  I worked with Von Freeman a bit.  I worked with another saxophonist called Claude McLin, that people don’t know about.  He was a great player, too.  Gene Ammons was around; he was the big boss.  And Tom Archia where Vernell was working.

So finally, I went into this steady job over the weekend with Israel — Israel Crosby, Johnny Thompson and myself.

Then I played solo at the Palm Tavern.  Once in a while, Ike Day would come in and play for me.  People don’t know Ike Day, except for a few like the late Buddy Rich and Papa Jo Jones, and people who are in that really essence of the core elite.  Well, Ike Day was one of the great drummers who never left Chicago for very long.  He used to help me in my single engagement at Jack’s Palm, the Palm Tavern.  Unfortunately, he passed away in untimely fashion.

So I worked single, and I worked trio with Israel, then I formed my own group in 1951.  That was quite some time after the Four Strings had disbanded, though.  In the interim, I had gone out with a group called the Caldwells, and Ray Bryant and I were the graduates of that particular college, working for those three singers, the Caldwells.  Ray and I were the pianists of record with the Caldwells.  Then I went back to Chicago and formed my trio in ’51 after working around for three years.

By this time the union had straightened out…

Not really.  A friend of mine, who was one of the great saxophone players, Eddie Johnson, heard me play, and he went to Harold Gray and said, “Look, I want him on my job,” and he’s got to get in the union.  That’s how I got in the union.  Harry Gray was the head of the union at that time.  A very tough man.  Very tough.

I gather when you met Von Freeman, was working weekends at the Pershing Hotel, which you became identified with in the 1950’s.  Describe the ambiance around the Pershing Ballroom a little bit, and also what was going on around the South Side’s booming Jazz community.

Well, Von was at the Circle Lounge.  He wasn’t at the Pershing when I met him.  I worked with Von at the Circle Lounge at 63rd and Cottage Grove.  The Pershing was at 64th and Cottage Grove.  It was one of the more sophisticated places on the South Side, along with Harry’s Show Lounge, which was the last time I saw Nat King Cole.  Nat came in and saw me there when I had a trio working in the front room.  We had graduated from the back room up to the front room at Harry’s.

Then we had the Hi-Hat Club, where Lester used to come, and Vernell and Israel were the musicians of record; they accompanied everyone that came through there.  That was quite a place, too, the Hi-Hat; I think it was on 63rd Street.

I went into the Pershing early-on, in 1951.  I asked for a job in there and didn’t get it; they didn’t hire me.  So I went somewhere else, and I came back in the Pershing later on, in 1958.  But the whole atmosphere there, Eddie Harris and I would be walking down the street, and there were great things happening there.  As I said before, Tom Archia, Willie Jones, and Willie Dixon.

Leonard Chess had just started his label.  He started it with five artists.  He started it with a little guy named Chuck Berry, some old masters by James Moody, some old masters by me, and Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley.  He had about five artists.  So the whole thing was one of great historical interest.  In fact, the place where he started is now a historical landmark in Chicago.  He owned the Macombo, where Tom Archia held court every night with Vernell and Willie Jones.  Leonard Chess owned that place.  So the atmosphere was really something when it came to saxophone at that time.  And of course, there were a great deal of venues to work, too, which are missing now.

Chris Anderson, of course, was playing with Von Freeman then, and he’s cited by many people who heard him at that time as having a very advanced concept for that time, and he seems to have had an impact on a number of

Chris has always been one of our favorites, along with Billy Wallace, who is a pianist that all the insiders know.  Billy is now playing a single up in Seattle.  But Chris had, and has always had a great harmonic concept, absolutely amazing, astounding.  And I have to get out and steal a few chords from you, Chris, as I mentioned before.  I haven’t seen Chris in a long time.

Of course, there was a bunch of greats around.  Chris. Bill Lee (the bassist, Spike Lee’s father).  Billy Wallace, who used to hold court quite often in Chicago.

The tracks we have cued up were recorded in 1951 and early 1952 for the Okeh label, with the trio of you, Ray Crawford, and Eddie Calhoun.  About three or four years after you cut these, Miles Davis then recorded most of these sides in his own way.  He always was very outspoken about his debt to your concept.  He had family in Chicago.  Did you know him at that time.  Do you recollect first meeting Miles Davis?

I knew Vernon quite well, Vernon Davis.  I met Vernon before I met Miles.  Vernon probably is still in Chicago.

But everybody came to the Pershing.  Billie Holiday came there with her chihuahua dog, Art Tatum used to come through there, Lena Horne — everyone came to the Pershing.  Sammy Davis was there the night before he lost his eye.  And I guess that’s where Miles first heard me.  What happened, there’s a man named Cadillac Bob who built the place downstairs, beneath the lounge, and he used to bring artists such as Miles there.  That’s where I first saw a teenager named Paul Chambers, and I was astounded that he was on the bandstand at his age.  And Miles I think was introduced as a result of him working downstairs and coming  up to the Pershing.

Eddie Harris, in a show we did last year, said he used to play on your off-nights at the Pershing, and he’d double on piano, and Charles Stepney, who played vibes, would take over on piano and he would play saxophone.  He also said that for a while Billie Holiday took a financial interest in a club that was based in one of the rooms at the Pershing that was called Budland.

Yeah, Budland.  That’s correct.  That’s downstairs, that’s right.  That’s the one that Cadillac Bob built.  Later McKie Fitzhugh had a place down the street where John Coltrane used to work, and McCoy used to work on the spinet pianos there!  I remember that, too!  Terrible pianos.

Describe the layout of the Pershing a little bit.  I believe there were three venues located in that hotel, the dance hall, the upstairs lounge and the basement.  Is that right?

Well, they had the Pershing Ballroom, the ballroom where they had the dances.  Those I never attended because I was busy working downstairs, but they did have fairly big names come in there.  But I never went upstairs.  C.B. Atkins was around.  He was one of the husbands of Sarah Vaughn.  C.B. used to come in and out of there, upstairs I guess in the ballroom, and he would tell me what was going on upstairs.  But I never attended.

The Pershing was one big, massive, circular bar.  The bar was the entire room.  It was a big room.  The stage was adequate.  It was high.  It was the place, at that time when we went in there, where everyone came.  That was the place where everyone came.  Downstairs was Budland, as you just reminded me, was the other venue.  So there were three.  There was Budland downstairs, and the Pershing Lounge, and upstairs the ballroom.

I guess a few years before you came to Chicago, Earl Hines, whose geographic path you followed, owned a spot down there called El Grotto, and Joe Louis I believe had an interest in that place as well.

Yes, I knew the El Grotto.  Again, I didn’t go to the El Grotto much.  But I do remember the El Grotto.

Was Earl Hines someone who had an impact on you coming up?  Were you very aware of him as a young pianist in Pittsburgh, his legacy and his presence in Pittsburgh?

Oh, sure.  Earl was a great, great player, and a great band, and great records.  So you had to listen to Earl Hines.  I was a collector of Earl Hines’ records.

The big band that had played at the Grand Terrace.

Sure.

We’ll give Ahmad Jamal another break and hear these seminal sides from the early 1950’s on Okeh.  I don’t know how many exactly we’ll hear, but we’ll begin with “Ahmad’s Blues,” one of Ahmad’s many famous compositions, recorded May 5, 1952 — Ray Crawford, on guitar, Eddie Calhoun on bass.

[MUSIC:  Jamal/Crawford/Calhoun, “Ahmad’s Blues”, “Surrey With the Fringe On Top”, “Billy Boy” (1951-1952); Jamal/Crawford/Crosby, “Autumn Leaves”; “New Rhumba” (1955)]

I’d like to speak with you about bass players, because the bass plays such an essential role in your conception of the trio, and you’ve worked with such superb bass players.  Eddie Calhoun, Richard Davis had one of his early gigs with you in Chicago, Israel Crosby, Jamil Nasser, and onward and forward.  Would you discuss your ideas on what a bassist needs to do performing in your group?

Well, the bass essentially, Ted, has to be an extension of your left hand, as Al McKibbon was in the case of George Shearing, and as Israel was and as Jamil was when he was working with me.  So that’s what the role of a great bassist is as he or she relates to the pianist.  And I’ve also sought those bassists who had sensitive ears, who had the ability to hear.  Because I myself am drawing from a great body of work (having explained before that my aunt sent me sheets and sheets of music), so you have to have a man who has the ability to have this perception of what  you’re doing when it comes to pulling these compositions of years and years ago, as well as the present things that we do.

How much input do you have into the lines that the bass player comes up with, apart of course from being the pianist and the main soloist?

AJ:    Most of the bass lines I myself have done.  The rare exception was the bass line that Israel played on “Autumn Leaves.”  That was his bass line, which has been widely used.  So most of the bass lines I have developed myself, because I have a thing for that.  I love bass lines.  So most of the things, 99 percent of the things, I write.

You’ve mentioned that you worked with Israel Crosby before you even recorded, and then subsequently he joined your band…the year I have in my mind is 1954.  I’d like you to say a few words about Israel Crosby for the audience, what made him so distinctive as a bass player, and your own personal relationship.

AJ:    Well, as I said before, I worked with Israel before he worked with me.  I joined his trio with the late Johnny Thompson, and worked at Jack’s Back Door for maybe a year.   It was a very interesting job.  We played everything, all kinds of tunes.  It was great.

It was a while before I could get Israel, because Israel was working a lot with Benny Goodman and Buster Bennett around Chicago, and it was difficult for me to get Vernell as well as Israel.  So finally I got Israel into the group, and we stayed together for around eight years, Vernell, Israel and myself. First of all, the incredible thing about Israel is that he used a K-bass.  He didn’t have a Tyrolean bass (I think that’s what James Cammack is using now; he just bought one) or a German bass or some of these fabulous instruments that you see various bassists with.  He just had a K-bass.  It was phenomenal how Israel could get this kind of action, this kind of sound, this kind of penetration out of a K-bass.  But he did.

And of course, the remarkable thing about Israel is that he was a master of intonation.  His intonation was flawless, just absolutely flawless.  And a tremendous ear.  Again, here’s a man that knew many, many, many compositions.  He knew all the tunes.  You couldn’t play a tune he didn’t know.  He was just a phenomenal bassist in the fullest sense of the word.

And I guess a very ingenious musician as well, because performing with you, the other musicians have to fill in a lot of space and come up with counterpoint and dialogue.  In a show we did a few years ago, Junior Mance was commenting that Israel Crosby always came up with ingenious ideas that blended with the most perfect taste.

Well, the classic line that Israel created (and Todd Coolman, who is another great bassist, and I often talk about it with him, has written these things down that Israel did) is his line on “But Not For Me.”  That’s a classic Israel Crosby line, as well as the things he was doing on “Poinciana.”

You mentioned how difficult it was to get Vernell Fournier into the group because he was so busy.  I’d like again for you to say a few words about his very special qualities as your drummer for eight years, and then for a little bit after in the mid-Sixties.

Here again, I’ve had three great drummers from New Orleans.  The New Orleans atmosphere down there produces this type of talent.  I had Vernell Fournier, and Herlin Riley, who left my group and went with Wynton Marsalis, and now Idris Muhammad.  They all have that great New Orleans background, that great magic that only can come from New Orleans.  They all have that approach to music.  And when you visit New Orleans and you are down there, and you explore these beginnings and whence it comes, you realize what they have that many other drummers don’t have.

That’s a tantalizing comment.  Can we explore that a little bit?  What is it about the New Orleans beat that’s so special to you?

AJ:    Well, historically I don’t know it as well as Idris does or Vernell does.  But when you talk about New Orleans, you talk about the funerals that are conducted and the way they are conducted, where the drummers participate to a large extent, to say the least, and the French Quarter — and it goes on and on and on.

Vernell is one of the great brush players of all time.  Tremendous approach to drums tonally, and one of the great innovators.  What he’s done on “Poinciana,” if he could have copywritten that, he could build a bank.  Many of the things you hear that drummers do, whether it’s Maurice White or whether it’s in some Rock groups, some of that stuff came from Mister Vernell Fournier.  But it’s very difficult to keep from being plagiarized when you’re playing in the context that he played in.  The thing that he did on “Poinciana,” for example, one of the most widely imitated rhythms in the world.

In fact, it’s called the ‘Poinciana Beat,’ isn’t it, by drummers?

Of course!

Which brings up another aspect of your playing, which is the extensive use, and often within the same piece, of different time signatures and different rhythmic approaches to music.

That’s the Pittsburgh influence.  We have a little influence in Pittsburgh, too.  We have some things that happened there as well.  As I said before, I’m drawing from three eras of music.  I have had more influences than pianists.  Ben Webster was a big influence upon me.  The big bands were a big influence upon me.  So I think orchestrally.  I’ve always thought orchestrally.  That’s the way I approach my group, whether it’s a duo, a trio, a quintet or whatever it is — it’s my orchestra.  And with an orchestra, you have to have, or at least I like to have a variety of things going, rhythmically and melodically and harmonically.  It’s part of my training.

Let me bring you back to the Ben Webster influence.  He’s the only non-pianist you’ve mentioned so far…

Well, Roy Eldridge influenced me, too, on trumpet.  I play some of Roy’s things!  Lucky Thompson influenced me.  Don Byas was one of my biggest influences.  It goes on and on and on.  These things you incorporate, and they stay in the inner recesses of your mind, and they become a part of your conscious playing.

Well, the trio became immensely popular at the time of the release of the album Live At The Pershing, although of course, you had established yourself prominently in Chicago by that time.  Let’s talk about the events leading up to the immense popularity of your trio and of your concept, and the tremendous exposure the band now had.  Of course, you were well-known to the musicians’ community, but now the broader public and international public came to know your work.

Well, first of all, it’s almost impossible for an instrumentalist to have a breakthrough.  It was no meteoric rise in our case.  I had been recording for seven years, and the group I had was far too subtle to continue working in the various venues, because guitar and bass sometimes are lost in the bigger venues — so I went to drums as a result.  It wasn’t an overnight thing.  I mean, I had worked long and hard to try and get a group together, and I went in as artist-in-residence in Chicago.  After working here in New York, I decided to go and stay at home.  Home then was Chicago.  So the thing that happened in Chicago was very, very rare.  There’s only a few of us that have that kind of breakthrough who are instrumentalists.  The singers get the hit records.  We instrumentalists don’t.  It doesn’t happen very often.  Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Miles, Dave Brubeck, and then you begin to think who else.  But there haven’t been too many hit records instrumentally.  Ours stayed on the charts for eight weeks, which is very, very unusual.

[MUSIC: Jamal/Crosby/Fournier, “I’ll Take Romance/My Funny Valentine” (1961); (w/J. Nasser) “This Terrible Planet” (1965); “April In Paris” (1961); “Love For Sale” (1958), “All Of You” (1958); “Cherokee” (1958)]

Tell me about your nightclub, the Alhambra.  You said you had 43 employees.  It was a very ambitious venture.

43 too many.  Yeah, it was quite a venture, and one I got away from.  Interesting club.  I had Jackie Cain and Roy Kral there as well.

You had a non-alcohol policy, I gather.

Yes.  I had one of the great oud players (and one of the great bassists, too) while I was working for George Wein up in Hyannisport, at the other Birdland up there.  I had Abdul-Malik.  The late Abdul-Malik played an engagement there for me as well.

We’ve covered a short space of time in your musical career.  What have I not mentioned that you would like to express for the radio audience?

Well, there are so many things to mention, Ted.  But wWe didn’t mention the concert with Duke at Carnegie Hall, the 25th Anniversary of Charlie Parker with Strings.  I think I’m the only one around from that concert that we did with Duke.  Of course, I worked with Duke on a number of occasions, and shared the bill with him at Basin Street West also.

Your new [1995] release is dedicated primarily to Ellington and Strayhorn.  It’s called I Remember Duke, Hoagy and Strayhorn, and there are versions of “I’ve Got It Bad” and “In A Sentimental Mood,” “Don’t You Know I Care”, “do Nothing Til You Hear From Me”, “Chelsea Bridge”, and also “Prelude To A Kiss.”  You mentioned earlier seeing the Ellington band at the Stanley Theater and seeing Sonny Greer for the first time. Do you remember your favorite recordings by the  Ellington band of that era?

“Cottontail” was one of my favorites.  That’s a classic recording of Ben Webster’s.

Did you get to see the band that had Jimmy Blanton in it in person?

No, I never saw that band.

When did you first start going out, by the way?

My sister took me to the theaters when I was around 7.

What are your early memories of seeing big bands?

Quite impressed, you know.  That’s when I first heard Cootie Williams.  As I said, he had Bud Powell in the band then.  And seeing Count Basie come into the Savoy, and seeing Diz.  Very, very good for a young musician, to say the least.

But we have to also talk about some of the great bassists I’ve had.  That’s one thing I didn’t expand upon.  I’ve had some tremendous bassists.  At the beginning with Tommy Sewell out of Pittsburgh, and then Eddie Calhoun, who passed away.  After that, Israel.  Jamil Nasser was with me for many, many years.  He’s one of the bassists, coming here with one of the great players of all time, Phineas Newborn.  Jamil came to New York with Phineas, so Jamil had a tremendous association with a great pianist.  So he was with me for a number of years.

Not to speak about… I’ve had some great drummers.  I had Wyatt Ruether.  Papa Jo Jones also worked with me.

I had Richard Davis after he left Cozy Eccleston.  That was the second job he had when he joined me.  I had both the Pates, Johnny Pate and his son Donald Pate.  It goes on and on.  A great bassist, Mike Taylor, out of Pittsburgh.  But I’ve had some tremendous players.  But we’ll have to talk about that when I have time.

One more question: On the relation between technique and improvising.

AJ:    Technique is extremely important.  I’m amazed at some of the young players out here now.  They have tremendous techniques.  They are power technicians, and they’re doing tremendous things.  But technique without the ability to tell the story is meaningless.  You have to tell a story.  Art Tatum had tremendous technique, incomparable technique. There are very few parallels to Art Tatum, or to a Phineas Newborn.  But they also told a story.

Technique is something that is invaluable for any musician, and I respect it tremendously.  But I also respect the ability to tell a story.

[MUSIC:  Jamal/Coolman/Gordon Lane, “Dreamy” (1980); w/ Strings, “Bellows” (1989); “Tranquility” (1968); “Manhattan Reflections” (1968); “I Remember Hoagy” (1994); “Skylark” (1994); “Round Midnight” (1985)]

[-30-]

On various WKCR Musician Shows over the years, the following pianists presented these tracks by Ahmad Jamal:

Mulgrew Miller : “Dolphin Dance,” “Poinciana” (1971)

K. Barron: “Music, Music, Music,” “There is No Greater Love” [“Live At the Pershing was 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. 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.”

Cedar Walton: “Haitian Marketplace”

James Williams: “Patterns”, (“Night Mist Blues”)

Cyrus Chestnut: “You Don’t Know What Love Is”

John Hicks: “Rossiter Road,” “Too Late Now,” “I’ll Take Romance/My Funny Valentine”

Junior Mance: “Raincheck,” “Poinciana

In a 2008 piece for the now dormant webzine http://www.jazz.com, pianist Eric Reed selected a dozen Jamal favorites.

Here are  interview excerpts in which several of Jamal’s contemporaries, bandmates, and fellow pianists remark upon his qualities.

Richard Davis:

RD:   But the first time I got a job which was more than local, in a sense, was a guy who lived in Chicago at the time, who had come from Pittsburgh — that was Ahmad Jamal.   This must have been 1952.

Q:    So it was in the early group before he started using a drummer?  Was that in the guitar-bass phase of the group?

RD:    Yeah.  He had Eddie Calhoun…

Q:    He had Ray Crawford on guitar?

RD:    Yeah.  Ray Crawford on guitar, and then there was another guy on the guitar — I can’t remember his name now either!  Then there was Ahmad, and I was playing bass, of course.  Ahmad had a tune which required me to play maraccas while I was playing the bass; I had to learn to do that with him, so he’d get this effect.  And then Ray Crawford would thump on the strings and make it sound like a conga drum.  It was a fantastic thing.  And Ahmad had a sound and a concept that was just unbelievable.  And of course, he attracted all of the guys coming in traveling to the club to hear him play, and it was always jam-packed.  It was the first time I was with what you might call a consistent professional successful group.

Q:    Was he working steadily with, like, several-week engagements at a time?  And what clubs was he playing in Chicago?

RD:    He would work at the Pershing Lounge, which was in the Pershing Hotel, oh, six weeks at a time, or more even.

Q:    There were several levels to that club, weren’t there?  There were like two or three different venues within that hotel…

RD:    Well, the ballroom.  See, the ballroom is where all the great traveling artists would come through.  Like Lester Young; I remember seeing Lester Young.  And several people would come.  Charlie Parker… They’d all work in the ballroom.  And the lounge was the place…I think that’s when first heard Eddie South, the violinist.  I can’t remember all the groups that worked there, but I remember being there with Ahmad.  And it was a classy kind of a  joint.  You know, there was a nice stage presentation, a lot of room on the stage, storage of the instruments — you know, it was very pleasant.

Q:    Good piano.

RD:    Good piano, yeah. It was a good thing for me to be with Ahmad.  The one thing I’ll never forget him telling me at a rehearsal, he said, “Who is your favorite piano player?”  And I said, “Oscar Peterson.”  You know, who else?   And he said, “You want to know who my favorite bass player is?”  I said, “Tell me.”  I thought he was going to say Ray Brown or somebody.  He said, “You are.”  I said, “Me?”  He said, “Yeah, because you’re here with me.”  I said, “God, what a lesson!”  I was the number-one bass player for him because he was confronted me being with him.  That was a real booster.

Herlin Riley:

TP:    You went out on the road with him in ’82?

HERLIN RILEY:  From ’82 to ’87.

TP:    Go over how he heard about you.

HERLIN RILEY:  Ahmad Jamal happened to be in New Orleans at a place called The Blue Room, which is the Fairmont Hotel.  There was a trumpet player in the house band there named Omar Sharif — Emory Thompson was his Christian name — who Ahmad knew.  Ahmad needed a drummer, because the guy who’d been playing drums with him left him in New Orleans, and he’d hired some guys in New Orleans who didn’t work out.  Ahmad was going to Phoenix, and he asked Omar if he knew somebody who could do his gig, and Omar recommended me, and called me to tell me.  Then I got a call from Ahmad about 7:30 in the morning. “May I speak to Herlin Riley?” “This is he.” “This is Ahmad Jamal.  I understand you’re an excellent drummer, and I need someone to work with me in Phoenix. Can you do it?”  Of course, I accepted, and I got some other guys to do my gigs around town.  We went to Phoenix, we did a soundcheck, and we hit.  We hit the same night.  I was familiar with his music, but I hadn’t met him.  So we played, and after the set he offered me the gig.  I happily accepted.

TP:    When we spoke for the liner note, you said the soundcheck was the rehearsal, and it was very easy to work with him.  He sat down at the piano, started playing, and continued to play.  He pointed to the bass player, who came in; he pointed to the conga player, who came in; he played the cycle of the song around and around 3-4-5 times, then pointed to you and brought you in.  He didn’t tell you what to play; you just heard them, and found your pocket.  Let’s talk about the dynamics of playing drums with him.

HERLIN RILEY:  The things I said are still true.  Playing with him was an enriching experience.  Ahmad’s music is organic, and the fact that he can arrange it on the spot… Because everything is cued.  The music has a structure it has a form, but he gives you hand signal to direct you inside of the form with the music.  It tells you if you’re playing the top of the head section, the A-section or whatever, then he’ll give you another cue for the bridge, then he’ll give you another cue for the interlude.  So if he wants you to repeat any of those three cycles, he can just give you the same cue to repeat it over and over. Then when he gives you the next cue to go to the next part of the tune, you go there.  So the music is constantly being shaped and arranged on the spot, which makes it very organic and very rich.

Also, Ahmad Jamal can be very percussive in his playing, so we often had a lot of rhythmic and percussive interaction.  We would play off of each other.  He always does that. I’ve found myself very much at home playing with him.  If I was to play with him now, it would be the same.

TP:    He obviously has an affinity for New Orleans drummers.

HERLIN RILEY:  I think one thing about New Orleans drummers is the fact that most of us grew up within the street band and parade band traditions, and the bass drum is very prevalent inside of that.  It’s just like the music of the early ’20s.  It comes from the bottom-up.  New Orleans drummers play the drums from the bottom up, from the bass drum up, as opposed to a lot of other guys who perhaps play from the cymbals down.  I think Ahmad is one that likes the groove.  And when you hear most music that has a solid groove on it, it comes from the bottom up.  He really likes playing grooves [vamps].  I think he just has an affinity for the nuances that New Orleans drummers bring him; that is, incorporating the bass drum inside of the grooves.

TP:    So you think he just hears that sound as part of the orchestra in his head.

HERLIN RILEY:  That’s what I think. He didn’t talk to me about it, but I just know from working with him that he likes the groove!  When he stands up, he’ll watch you play, and kind of clap his hands and get inside the groove.  It’s kind of unexplainable, but it’s something I’ve found I’ve been able to identify from working with him over the years.

TP:    You said that in working with him, you dealt with rhythms you’d never faced or dealt with before.  Can you be specific about the rhythmic signatures he likes to work with and the ways he works with them that are unique?

HERLIN RILEY:  For instance, he would play sometimes a tune in 6/8, and we’d get into the 6/8 feeling, and inside that 6/8 feel he would impose a regular 4/4 meter over the top of that, so you’re playing two different meters at the same time.  I had never experienced anybody who had that kind of rhythmic control, to really be able to go back and forth seamlessly between the two.  Because it’s two different ways of thinking.  But I could hear him doing that. It would be two different rhythms going on at the same time, and I had never experienced that.  Also, I remembering playing a tune with him that Jack DeJohnette wrote called “Ebony,” and inside of the cycle of the tune there was a 3/8 bar.  So you go 1 2 3 4, 1-2-3 1-2-3-4… It wasn’t music that was counted out to me like that.  It was something that he played, and later on I came to understand what it was.  But he just played it, and then I had to just kind of figure it out and play inside of it.  Later, as I started working with him and he started introducing those kind of 3/8s and 7/8s and 5/8 kind of rhythms inside of the music, then I could see it from an academic standpoint.  But when I first started working with Ahmad, it’s stuff that was just played, and you had to react and find your place inside of that.  As opposed to actually knowing what it was, you had to instinctively know what it was and go with your instincts.

TP:    And your instincts were sufficiently honed by playing in the range New Orleans contexts to be prepared.

HERLIN RILEY:  Yes, being in New Orleans, I was prepared.  I had a lot of experience I could call on.  New Orleans is a small community, but there were a lot of things going on musically in the late ’70s and the early ’80s, a lot of styles of music.  I got a chance to play in Latin bands, bands that were playing a lot of free jazz, and even got a chance to play in vaudeville, burlesque… I played for strippers, then later I played in “One Mo Time.”

TP:    From what you say, it seems Ahmad Jamal has had a big influence on the rhythmic content of contemporary jazz.  Whether it’s direct or indirect, a lot of things he’s done have filtered into the contemporary mainstream.

HERLIN RILEY:  I would think so.  But a lot of that stuff is unspoken, because Ahmad Jamal is not one of the most in-your-face jazz figures who is out here.  He hasn’t had the same kind of recognition as people like Miles Davis or Dizzy or even Monk at this point. Most jazz musicians know who he is, but the general public, when you mention his name, they’re like, “Who?”

TP:    Do you think he’s a little taken for granted by the jazz public?

HERLIN RILEY:  I think the Jazz Establishment has shied away from him, especially early on in his career, especially the fact that he changed his name, became a Muslim at a time when it was very unfashionable.  My personal feeling is that he’s had to endure some backlash from that.

TP:    True, but he was quite successful in the ’50s… And he doesn’t want to take any stuff from anybody business-wise.  But he was never the type of bandleader who would instruct you how to play your parts.  It would be a general feel, and whoever you are becomes the interpretation of it.

HERLIN RILEY:  Yes.  I think that’s one of Ahmad’s great assets.  He understands and he can hear musicians, and hear that musician’s voice for what it is.  Either it’s something that he can work with or it’s something he can’t work with.  If it’s something that he can work with, then he’ll let you really be yourself and let you speak your musical voice as it may be.  Now, sometimes he gives you subtle directions in the music.  He used to tell me, “Don’t fill in every time the phrase comes around; you don’t have to play a fill.”  He’s always directing the volume and dynamics inside of the music. But really, he’s just shaping whatever is already there; whatever talent you already have, he knows how to shape it, but just let it grow and be better.  But he doesn’t disturb it in trying to have you change your direction or change who you are musically speaking.

Harold Mabern:

TP:    You seem so well positioned to put Ahmad Jamal in perspective.  You’ve heard play since when?

HAROLD MABERN:  1954 in Chicago.  Frank Strozier and I graduated from high school together in 1954, and moved to Chicago.  Booker Little graduated in ’55, and he followed us there.  George Coleman came in ’55 or ’56.  I hung out a lot with Booker and Frank, because they went to the conservatory, and we used to practice together at the YMCA.  Booker Little was the one who turned us on to Ahmad Jamal.  He’d gone out one night to hang out, and we asked him, “Where did you go last night?”  He said he went to see Ahmad Jamal.  We didn’t know who Ahmad was, but Booker knew, and he said that he’d heard one of the greatest pianists in his lifetime.  Booker played a little piano, too; not solo, but he knew a lot about it, having been around Phineas Newborn.  After that, the Pershing became our hangout night after night.  But we also heard Ahmad at the Kit-Kat Club with Ray Crawford and Israel.

TP:    You probably heard him with Ray Crawford and Israel Crosby first.  Because I think Ray Crawford left in ’55, and the Pershing began in late ’55.  Was what he was playing when you first heard him similar to what’s on the earlier recordings?

HAROLD MABERN:  The way he sounds on records is the same as it sounded in person. There was no difference.  It was all great.

TP:    But usually, before an audience, people will stretch out, or it’s more experimental, or chance comes into the equation…

HAROLD MABERN:  I see what you mean.  Well, he stretched out then, but naturally not as much as he does now.  Because he is constantly evolving.  It’s that way with all of us; you get to the point where you take more chances, you don’t play it safe.  But he did stretch out, but it was more of a format situation.  Now he’s really stretching out.  But at the time I’d heard him, I’d never heard that kind of approach before.

TP:    Describe what was unique about his approach.

HAROLD MABERN:  Well, I have to put Bill Lee into it, because he also told me about Ahmad.  The fascinating thing to me — after being around Phineas, with the technical aspect; which was great, and is still great, with the touch and the sound — was the sound that Ahmad was getting then.  After being around Bill Lee, I became attracted to his chords; I’d never heard chords played that way.  That’s when Bill Lee told me about Chris Anderson, Billy Wallace and Ahmad Jamal.  So then when I heard ahmad, it was the sound and the chordal approach.  I couldn’t believe it.  I said, “Wow, how can that piano sound that way?”  That’s the only I can exlpain it, is his overall sound.  We’ve had a lot of great pianists, with great sounds and touches.  But there’s something about his approach…the sound he got that was unbelievable.

TP:    Did you see it as an extension of the great piano trios of the ’40s and early ’50s, like Nat Cole and George Shearing…

HAROLD MABERN:  Well, Nat Cole especially was one of his main influences, with the guitar and bass.  But one of his main influences, as I’m sure he spoke about, was Errol Garner.  They grew up together.  If you match up any record by Erroll Garner and any record by Ahmad, from an orchestral standpoint, you say, “Wow, there it is right there.”  But it was a lot like Nat Cole in the touch, the sensitivity of what he played, the chord voicings…

TP:    And probably a more progressive conception of harmony.

HAROLD MABERN:  Exactly.

TP:    So he was incorporating bebop, Bud Powell’s language onto the trio as a logical extension.

HAROLD MABERN:  Right, with Art Tatum touch… I call it Franz Liszt touch.  I tell my students that it’s the touch that produces the sound.  A lot of pianists might have equal technique, but it’s the touch and the sound they get out of it — like a Chopin touch or a Liszt touch.  That’s the way Ahmad and Art Tatum are.

TP:    Well, he played Liszt when he was 11.

HAROLD MABERN:  That’s exactly right.  So all that produces the sound.  I would say the format of Nat Cole and Erroll Garner formulated his overall concept.  Then he just got beyond that and took it further, to the point where his stuff is so awesome… But it’s undescribable.  You have to hear it, and then all you say is “Wow, gee-whiz…”

TP:    Well, he has that amazing control.

HAROLD MABERN:  Total control.

TP:    In the ’50s, would he do things like work with different time signatures in one piece?

HAROLD MABERN:  I didn’t see him do that myself until he got to New York City. Which was another thing I thought was hip.  I said, “Wow, why didn’t I think of something like that?”  But that made me think of something he said once, that everybody needs to be directed or have a director, even if you play by yourself — because you have to direct or conduct yourself.  But that time thing, that thing with the hand signs, I’m pretty sure I saw him do that when he came to New York City.  And naturally, his buddy, Monty Alexander, has taken that… See, he has a special relationship with all of his piano friend, and I consider him to be a friend as well as my mentor.

TP:    He seems to have very warm relationships.  As he puts it, he’s been grown-up since he was a kid, and he takes his responsibilities very seriously.

HAROLD MABERN:  To show that that’s true, I have a picture on my wall where Ahmad was playing one of these Elk type clubs, a junior lodge in Pittsburgh, and he was like a little kid sitting with all the older kids.  So I can see that he’s been a responsible human being for a long time.  People always said he used a lot of space; he’d rather call it discipline.  To have that kind of discipline and patience… He has really done his homework

But again, the overall thing about him, besides his touch and control… I’ve always said that if Ahmad Jamal’s time was the brakes on a car, you would never have an accident.  His time is impeccable.  He will play a run and stop on a dime.  And the way he is able to play in those different time signatures like 5/4 and 7/4… He is a master at that.  It’s really unbelievable.  He is not playing cliches.  He is playing music.  Mulgrew Miller said, “man, I have a hard time playing in 5/4.”  But Ahmad can play with no problem in any of those weird time signatures.  He’s what you call a super-duper genius in every sense of the word.

TP:    So you actually were able to see the trio live from the beginning.

HAROLD MABERN:  As I said, I saw him with Ray Crawford and Israel at the Kit Kat Club, which was a real small club on 63rd Street.  It was real small, and man, the people were packed in there like sardines.  Then when they moved to the Pershing, naturally, that being a larger club, we were able to stretch out.  We also started working there on Monday mornings with the MJT+3, and Israel Crosby would come to sit in with us on Mondays.  That became our home away from home.  Ahmad would work the night, we would the breakfast party on Monday mornings.

TP:    That would be ’57-’58-’59, but you’d been seeing him since ’55. I guess his first drummer was Walter Perkins, and then Vernell.  Was the trio extremely popular in Chicago?

HAROLD MABERN:  All the piano players in Chicago, including Ahmad and Herbie, had their own individual sounds.  But there were three groups in Chicago that had hit records — the Ahmad Jamal Trio, the Ramsey Lewis Trio and the MJT+3.  We all had our different audiences…

TP:    Herbie Hancock said that one thing that marked the Chicago pianists was that they were interested in reharmonization, parallel to and before Bill evans, and that Chris Anderson was responsible for a lot of it, and that Ahmad had his fingerprint on all of it.  Did Chris have an impact on Ahmad?

HAROLD MABERN:  I’m sure they did on each other.  To tell the truth, I really can’t say for sure.  They both have great love and respect for each other.  Chris went to Wendell Phillips High School, because Nat Cole went there.  Chris wanted to go there to be around Nat Cole. But I’m sure Ahmad had an effect on him, too.  I always tell the story that Billy Wallace said, “I got this piano player, and I got this piano player; I almost got Ahmad.”  When I tell that to Ahmad, he laughs.  To this day, he said, “I almost got Ahmad.”  In other words, he lets it be known that Ahmad is still the king.

TP:    And you feel he started to stretch out once he left Chicago and moved to New York.

HAROLD MABERN:  When he left Chicago and moved to New York, that’s when he started to really stretch out.  He had all these little basslines [SINGS REFRAIN].  You hear them and say, “Well, that reminds me of something McCoy Tyner…” Well, he influenced McCoy Tyner.  We know how he influenced Miles and the whole group, to the point where Miles told all the piano players to say, “Play like Ahmad.” Which was fine with me.  In fact, Miles used to make them… It was mandatory that when Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly left their gig, they all had to come to the Pershing.  Ahmad was almost like an assignment.  That’s where we met Miles and Cannonball.  So when Ahmad got to New York, that’s when he really started opening up, and his stuff grew in all sorts of ways. Compositions so modern… I was talking to James Cammack, who played with us Monday night at Smoke, and we were talking about the different compositions and how many tunes Ahmad has in his book, and we were talking about “Bellows” and what a hip tune that is!  That tune sounds like it was written a few minutes ago.  I’d say he probably wrote it in the late ’70s or early ’80s when he was with 20th Century.  That’s when he recorded Diana Ross’ “Touch Me In The Morning.”  We both love pop music.  Most pianists don’t fool with that. But Ahmad and I have never had a problem with putting music in a category.  If it’s good… I always say that we bump heads, because he’ll record a tune that’s kind of off the beaten track, and it’s a tune I’ve been thinking of recording.

TP:    Let’s touch on some of the dynamics of what happened when he started to stretch out.  You talked about the extended basslines.

HAROLD MABERN:  Right.  The extended basslines, and then he did… Well, he could go from the basic II-V-I sound in his right hand to the modal sound, the things you hear McCoy doing.  He just explores the whole piano.  And in doing all that, he never loses his originality.  Again, it’s because of what he plays, the way he plays it, and his touch.  He can play a modal type line, but you always know it’s Ahmad, and it’s mainly because of the touch.

TP:    Why do you think he has such an affinity for New Orleans drummers?

HAROLD MABERN:  If I had to sum it up:  The beat.  When you think about that beat Vernell put on “Poinciana,” David Lee and Ed Blackwell played it… It tends to come from the marching band things. [street beats]

TP:    But he’s from Pittsburgh, where Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey and Joe Harris are from, which is a different way of approaching time.

HAROLD MABERN:  True.  But I think it’s that the New Orleans beat comes from the street and it swings.  And once he heard what Vernell played on “Poinciana,” that opened the trio up to do other things that advanced his musical goals.  It’s hard to explain it beyond that.  You’ll know it when you hear it, and say, “Wow, what is that?”

TP:    He did very radical things on albums like Extensions and Naked City Theme, with “Haitian Marketplace.”  Let’s talk about his last 10-15 years, which seems a particularly fruitful period, primarily acoustic, a lot of recording, a lot of new compositions, framing his sound in many contexts — playing Ellington-Strayhorn repertoire, doing septets, live recordings, bringing in George Coleman and Donald Byrd and Stanley Turrentine, bringing in percussionists like Manolo Badrena, extracting a maximum of color.  But how do you observe is progression since the latter ’80s?

HAROLD MABERN:  Not to be redundant or repetitive, but the way I see it is that he’s constantly evolving.  He has never disappointed me.  Never is a big word, but he has never disappointed me.  Every time I go to hear him, I am always learning something.  When I leave, I’m totally inspired.  Todd Barkan told me that Cedar said that Ahmad Jamal gets his complete attention.  When I go to hear Ahmad, I don’t want to go…even if it’s another musician… If you’re going to talk, go to another table.  Because Ahmad is the kind of musician who, when they say, “Ladies and gentlemen, Ahmad Jamal,” before he even sits down, he’s hit three-chords that’s a masterpiece.  Before he even sits on the stool, he’s played a three-chord masterpiece, then he throws up his hands to give a signal, and from that point on it’s… I don’t know anybody like him.  It’s very hard to explain.

He’s really too deep for some people.  A lot of musicians can’t handle it. As George Coleman said, a lot of piano players don’t come around because it’s too much piano to handle.  They can’t handle it by themselves.  But I’ve always been one to understand and appreciate genius.

TP:    So he’s a total original.

HAROLD MABERN:  Totally original.  I can think of three other pianists who are original like that.  One is Erroll Garner, one is Phineas Newborn, one is Thelonious Monk.  Then there’s Ahmad Jamal.  I’ve listened to them all, but what Ahmad has done and continues to do… The main thing is just his sound!  I mean, it’s the sound, his knowledge of chords, his compositions, his touch, the way he orchestrates from the bottom of the piano to the top.  Or the way he’ll play a ballad, where he keeps going back to the bridge and each time it’s totally different.  He’s just a very special and blessed human being.

Tommy Flanagan:

Ahmad Jamal’s concept is orchestral.  He has a wide knowledge of the keyboard, and he uses all of the keyboard all of the time.  He’s very rhythmic and very dynamic; that’s his trademark.  But he has a well-defined trio style, as did Erroll Garner.  Tatum had another kind of style.  I guess he used his rhythm section just, hmm, to give pause between his notes.  He had so much to play, he never could stop himself.  But there is another style of playing, and Nat Cole certainly had a beautiful soft side to his trio playing.  Bud Powell brought another dynamic into trio style playing.  There are really a lot of models out there to listen to.

Mulgrew Miller:

Ahmad Jamal is a very unique player.  He’s sort of in a class by himself, because he was of no particular school, but yet all of the areas and eras of the music are represented in his playing, all of the Modern approaches and…you know, the whole history of the piano is there.  Yet, he’s so individual and his style and his approach and his conception is so unique.   He is so deserving of the highest merit in the tradition and history of jazz pianists. He keeps encompassing all of the innovations that come along.  That’s why he’s such a remarkable artist.

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