Tag Archives: Jazziz

A Group of Pieces on Robert Glasper: A Jazziz Feature From 2013; a Jazz.Com Interview from 2009; A Downbeat Blindfold Test, circa 2008; A Short Downbeat Piece in 2005; and the Liner Note for His First Record in 2002

 

Robert Glaser Jazziz Feature, Nov. 2013

In late September, Robert Glasper, his appetite restored after coming home from China the week before with stomach flu, tucked into a plate of South African-style wings at Madiba, a restaurant in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Fort Greene.

“I met T-Pain last week at a party,” Glasper remarked offhandedly after making inroads into his plate. He excused himself to look at drawings of angry monsters by his 4-year-old son, Riley, sitting beside him. “You draw so good, Boogie!” Glasper said, punctuating his praise with a kiss and fist bump. Resuming, he pinpointed his encounter with the twice-Grammy-awarded rapper in Shanghai, where — after an eight-day run in Japan that concluded at the Tokyo Blue Note — the Robert Glasper Experiment had performed on a program with singer-emcee Mos Def, for whom, during the past decade, Glasper has frequently served as music director.

“Mos Def told him, ‘I’m about to do an album with my man, Robert; it has a lot of hip-hop and jazz influence,’” Glasper said. “T-Pain was like, ‘I would love to be part of that. Please take me out of this R&B-hip-hop game.’”

Whether that proposed collaboration will happen is unclear. But if it does, T-Pain will join a cohort of high-profile performers looking for a piece of the sui generis sound that the Experiment revealed on Black Radio, which, upon its February 2012 release, debuted at No. 4 on Billboard’s “Hip-Hop and R&B” chart, No. 1 on its “Jazz” chart and No. 10 on its “Overall Albums” chart. The disc went on to earn a 2013 Grammy for Best R&B album, and has sold, to date, 200,000 units. As the flow unfolds over the course of a leisurely hour, ranging from hip-hop to pop to R&B to straight-up soul, the Experiment — pianist and keyboarist Glasper; singer (through a vocoder) and alto saxophonist Casey Benjamin, electric bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Chris Dave — complements hit-makers Erykah Badu, Mint Condition vocalist Stokley Williams, Lupe Fiasco and Musiq Soulchild, along with “underground soul heroes” (Glasper’s phrase) like Mos Def, Ledesi, Lalah Hathaway, Meshell Ndegeocello and Bilal Oliver. RGE’s idiomatic backgrounds and creative interjections impart the feeling of a cohesive body of work rather than a cobbled-together collection of tracks.

“I expected Black Radio to be an underground sensation, without getting much mainstream attention,” Glasper said. “But from the beginning, it did things I wasn’t expecting. We self-promoted big-time, doing Twitter and Facebook while we were making it, and people got excited. I think it’s another cycle for R&B, the epitome of crossing over hip-hop and jazz. Since you can only pick one slot for the Grammy, I put everything in R&B; I felt the R&B community understood it better than a lot of the jazz people.

“Remember when the neo-soul movement got big around ’99 or 2000, when D’Angelo’s Voodoo and Common’s Like Water for Chocolate and Bilal came out, and everybody was like, ‘Whoa, what’s happening?’ This is like a second coming of that wave — maybe a little different. That wave signified an opening to do music that didn’t sound factory-made or cookie-cutterish. In that era, being a real musician was cool and good, and you got a lot of work. The music felt good, and you could talk about more than one or two subjects. Since we won the Grammy, I think it’s opened the doors for many artists.”

Riley’s stomach hurt, and Glasper persuaded him to rest his head on Papa’s shoulder. As he dozed, Glasper discussed the recently released Black Radio 2 (Blue Note), whose participants include Brandy, Anthony Hamilton, Norah Jones, Jill Scott, Faith Evans, Common and Snoop Dogg. “My goal was to not make the same album twice, especially when everyone was wondering how I’d beat the first Black Radio,” he said. “So I decided to do just an R&B-soul album, less jazz-infused, not as loose. On the first record, I didn’t think at all. We just played and did it, and it became what it was. Here I did more thinking and processing and figuring things out.”

Although the feel on Black Radio 2 is less freewheeling, the playing is vivid and alive. Glasper wrote songs for each vocalist, sometimes collaborating with professional songwriters, sometimes eliciting lyrics from the singers. “I wanted either to put them in a place they’ve never been, or bring them back to their early stuff that everyone loves,” he said. The latter imperative was operative on the insouciant “Calls,” on which Glasper created for Jill Scott — whose forthcoming album he produced — “her sound when she first came out.” As examples of the former, the leader offers “Let It Ride,” on which label mate Norah Jones renders the lyric with an intense, growly purr before murmuring wordlessly over Glasper’s whirling piano figures, and “What Are We Doing,” which frames Brandy with stripped-down Rhodes-bass-drums instrumentation that Glasper describes as “a progressive, D’Angelo Voodoo vibe.”

Closer to the informality of Black Radio is “I Stand Alone,” which begins with original verses by Common — a Glasper employer and collaborator since the late ’90s — and ends with a paean to individualism delivered by sociologist Michael Eric Dyson. A few hours before recording that track, a guest-free RGE cut a version of Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day,” vocoder-crooned by Benjamin. A friend of Withers who was present connected the songwriter and Glasper on his cell phone for a brief conversation.

“When Common arrived, we played him ‘I Stand Alone,’” Glasper recalled. “He walked around, rhyming from scratch, but midway through the second verse he got writer’s block. We were chillin’ in the kitchen, and Bill Withers walked in. He talked to us for about three hours. We recorded everything. Common used some of his lines to finish his rhyme.”

At this point, Riley declared he was feeling better. “I’m going to draw,” he said, asking for a piece of paper. “Now we’re talking,” Glasper answered, delivering another kiss and fist bump before offering a back story for “Persevere,” with Snoop Dogg, Lupe Fiasco and Luke James. His friend Terrace Martin, the rapper-producer, “called to say Snoop loved Black Radio and wanted to talk to me,” Glasper said. “When I went to L.A., Terrace took me to a rehearsal, and Snoop and I talked about jazz for an hour. So I hit him up to be on Black Radio 2.

“Terrace got Snoop involved in a record Quincy Jones is doing with Clark Terry. They got in a private jet and went to Clark’s house in Arkansas. They hook up this equipment by Clark’s bedside, and Clark and Snoop Dogg are scatting, trading on the blues. I’ve seen the footage with my own eyes.”

[BREAK]

Toward the end of the Experiment’s set at the Detroit Jazz Festival on Labor Day, Wallace Roney — who had hired Glasper for a 2005 tour, soon after he’d signed with Blue Note — sat in on “All Matter,” a Bilal Oliver song that, says Glasper, “is just F-minor; you don’t have to know to play it.” Propelled by Derrick Hodge’s surging bass lines and Mark Colenburg’s inflamed refractions of Tony Williams, Roney, standing stage right, assumed an implacably take-no-prisoners persona, posing a series of “let’s see what you’ve got” challenges to Benjamin, who rose to the occasion, delivering his responses with a dark, glowering tone that displayed his assimilation of alto saxophone vocabulary from Charlie Parker to Kenny Garrett.

Two months before, at a midnight concert before a full house of cheering, arm-waving 20-somethings at Perugia’s Morlacchi Theater, Glasper drew upon his own considerable command of modern jazz piano language on an extended preface to Benjamin’s vocodered reading of Radiohead’s “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box.” After a Coltrane-ish alto solo, on which Benjamin modified the pitch with foot pedals, Hodge segued to a Spanish-tinged statement on “No Church In the Wild,” the Kanye West-Jay Z hit. While delivering the lyric of Sade’s “Cherish the Day,” Benjamin manipulated his voice with sound effects triggered in real-time on a keyboard synth, then counterstated with an intense saxophone declamation on which he built tension with fresh, electronically modified shapes and swoops. Colenburg embellished and subdivided the pulse like a human robot, coordinating into the grooves slaps and claps generated by his drum pad on covers of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Get Lucky” and “Time After Time.”

Throughout both concerts — and a dozen-plus performances posted on YouTube — the Experiment’s telepathic ability to reach emotional agreement was palpable. One factor influencing their mutual intuition is long acquaintance (Glasper, Benjamin and Colenburg have played together since they attended Manhattan’s New School during the late ’90s, while Hodge joined a year after the Experiment’s formative sessions at the Knitting Factory in 2005). The band has also spent a lot of time on the road together — eight months in 2013 — since Black Radio’s release. Furthermore, everyone has experience performing and conducting in the upper echelons of pop and hardcore jazz. Glasper, Hodge and Colenburg all cut their teeth as church musicians, learning to follow the arc of a sermon, to play for different guests, to illuminate different stages of the service and to address the unpredictable elements that differentiate one Sunday from the next.

“Coming up in church, you learn by ear,” Colenburg says. “There are no boundaries, no formulas telling you something has to be done a certain way. That helps with creativity. But knowing jazz means that you learn your instrument more thoroughly than in any other genre, so you understand how to have a voice in different genres.”

“Jazz is the spine of what we do,” says Benjamin, a native of Jamaica, Queens, whose c.v. includes work with Stefon Harris and Buster Williams. “Even on the biggest pop stage, we try to find some way of sticking in the jazz message.” As vocal influences, Benjamin cites Betty Carter for her “patience” on a ballad, Ron Isley for his phrasing and Withers for “his presentation, where it seems he’s just talking to you with the melody.” He credits Herbie Hancock’s phrasing and timbre on the 1978 LP Sunlight as the primary inspiration for his vocoder concept and Pat Metheny’s guitar-synth-playing on “Are You Going To Go with Me” for kindling the notion to electronically process his saxophone.

“You’d think Casey is the leader, because he’s singing the songs,” Glasper says. “I’ve never felt comfortable playing in the middle, unless it’s late-night TV, when the world has to know who I am pretty fast. Other than the songs we’re playing, everything is literally made up on the spot, but we come together so quickly that it seems things are arranged. There are no real roles. Everyone has the baton and can make something shift.

“Each of these cats can out-chop most people on their instrument, but they don’t let that override what needs to happen at a given time. I respect that so much. It’s harder to express yourself fully but honestly, and not feel you have to do certain things to please. They’re my favorite musicians in the world.”

However collective RGE’s orientation is when performing, the members acknowledge that Glasper sets the tone. “Black Radio was designed to mimic how the Experiment works,” Hodge says. “It’s a testament to Rob for being confident enough not to clench up in the studio. We came in laughing, cracking jokes, and then, ‘Oh, shoot, we’ve got to record something.’ Then we’d record it and before you know it, the album is done.”

“This baby was built because of my 11-12 years in the game,” Glasper says flatly. “Blue Note signed me. Also, I’ve taken my falls. Sometimes your band members make more than you, because you have to make things happen for your career. You have to be seen at a certain festival, no matter what it pays. I used to pay for the hotels and travel, and I wouldn’t make money, but the guys had to be paid. If you don’t have my liability, if you’re not losing what I would lose, then you can’t gain what I gain.

Black Radio 2 is for me to have longevity in this mainstream R&B game,” he continues. “I want to establish myself, like George Duke and Quincy Jones. I’m a jazz cat at heart, but I want an R&B bank account. I have a son. Living in Brooklyn ain’t cheap. I honestly don’t see myself doing the same jazz festival 50 times, and having to do them to make money to keep afloat.”

Financial considerations aside, Glasper has no intention of eliminating hardcore jazz expression from his musical production. “I love playing acoustic jazz, and I think my jazz lovers are missing it, even though I’ve only been gone for one album,” he says, referring to the Blue Note trio albums — Canvas, In My Element and the first half of Double Booked — that established his bona fides. “When I go back to jazz, I’ll do trio for sure, maybe live. I need to do a Village Vanguard album.”

Another possibility is a Black Radio gospel project. “It would bring everything back to the beginning,” Glasper says. “Most of the people I work with grew up in church, so there could also be people from the secular world — R&B or even jazz — as well as gospel.”

He recalls an end-of-April conversation with Herbie Hancock and the late George Duke at the United Nations International Jazz Day festivities in Turkey. “I asked Herbie’s advice, and he said, ‘Don’t stop anything you do. Do them all at the same time.’ I like where I am, because I feel I’m serving a bigger purpose than I could with just straight-up jazz stuff. Jazz trio is my favorite group to play in, but I don’t feel like I’m changing anything — though my version brings in a newer audience. But in the larger scheme, I can only go so far with it. To be able to live in both worlds, to understand both worlds, to be sought after in both worlds — that’s my whole thing. That I love.”

[–30–]

****************

Robert Glasper (Aug. 28, 2009) — http://www.jazz.com:

“I’m dramatic,” Robert Glasper told me in 2005 for a Downbeat story. “I feel like an actor and a painter—all the arts in one. When I play, I won’t sacrifice the vibe for some chops.”

On his 2009 release, Double Booked [Blue Note], Glasper actualizes this aspiration more completely than on any of his previous recordings. He devotes the first half to his soulful, expansive, highly individualized conception of the acoustic piano trio, drawing harmonic references from a timeline spanning Bud Powell to Mulgrew Miller. His lines flow organically through a succession of odd-metered and swing grooves and unfailingly melodic beats. He stretches out, but he’s also not afraid to milk his melodies and develop them slowly, using techniques of tension and release more commonly heard in functional situations than art music contexts. For part two, Glasper transitions to a plugged-in mise en scene, deploying spoken word and rhymes from such luminaries as Mos Def and Bilal. The latter both employ the Houston native on both recorded and performance projects, as have the likes of Q-Tip (The Renaissance), Kanye West (Late Registration), MeShell Ndegeocello (The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams), Erykah Badu, J Dilla, Jay-Z, Talib Kweli, Common, and, most recently, Maxwell, who kept Glasper on the road for consequential chunks of 2009.

Out of Houston, Texas, where he attended Houston’s High School of Performing and Visual Arts, Glasper developed his ability to spin tales in music from emulation of his mother, the late Kim Yvette Glasper, a professional jazz, blues and church singer, and from early experience playing the service in three different churches, one Baptist, one Seventh Day Adventist, and one Catholic.

“The music in the church is built on feeling, period,” he told me. “It’s not ‘Giant Steps.’ People give praise or cry, and you have to control all those things. You put a little something behind the pastor. Depending on the type of song, church music has jazz elements and pop elements, too. Hip-Hop is natural for me, because church music has a lot of the same grooves. I just fall in—take from here, take from there, but don’t take too much from one thing.”

In late August, I caught up with Glasper, now married and a father, at the offices of EMI-Blue Note for a conversation.

Describe your last few months of work. How much has it been divided between the acoustic trio, being on the road with Maxwell and your other sideman things, and to the Experimental Project? To what degree they’re separate and to what degree related would be a good way to launch the conversation.

Actually, this year I haven’t been doing much, because I just had a baby, January 22nd, and I pretty much stayed home until April to be with the baby and my lady. I did a few trio gigs at the end of March, and then I went to Africa and did the Capetown Jazz Festival with the Experiment. So we did one night with the Experiment there, and the very next night we did the Experiment with Mos’ Def. Then right from there, which is funny, I flew home for one day, on my birthday, April 6th. The plane was delayed for six hours. So I got to stay home literally, like, 8 hours, got on the plane, flew to Japan to do the Cotton Club with the Trio for a week. Did the Cotton Club with the Trio for a week. Right from Japan, I flew straight to Oakland to do a week with Mos’ Def with my Experiment band, at both of the Yoshi’s—went back and forth from the San Francisco Yoshi’s to the Oakland Yoshi’s. We did that for a week. Then I came home, and basically started the Maxwell rehearsals. Then I went on tour with Maxwell for two months. Got back maybe a week-and-a-half ago. Now I’m starting back out with Max next week, and we’re going to be gone until the middle of November. Then I go out with my trio when I get back, to do a few dates in Europe. Then I go to Japan with the Experiment in December, with Bilal as my special guest. Now we’re actually booking more dates around that time. I’m going to be home for like two months. So we’re trying to do it like that.

But you’re not double-booked for any of those.

I’m not double-booked for any of those, no-no-no. But day to day, I’m doing one or the other.

So it’s a pretty even split.

It’s a pretty even split. Right now, it’s working out, and I can really say I’m working. That’s a good thing.

Double Booked has some structural similarities to the other records. However, where the other records presented one sound, this one presents two. That said, particularly on your Blue Note records, you use the producer’s strategy of splitting the record in half. In My Element began with originals, and then the flavor changed.

Exactly.

Can you speak to how your thinking about making recordings has evolved since your first one, Mood [Fresh Sound], which I wrote the liner notes for. On that one, you said you were trying to do in with an open attitude, like it was a gig. Three years later, when I spoke with you for a Downbeat when you released Canvas, you said the opposite.

For most of Mood, it was just trio, and it was on a small label, so I wasn’t shaking or scared, really. I was, “Ok, I’ll do a record on Fresh Sounds. No one’s going to hear it.” [LAUGHS] For me, it was “everybody does a record for Fresh Sounds; whatever.” So there was no pressure. So I tried to approach it like a gig. But it didn’t really come off the way I wanted to, because we recorded at 10 in the morning—you don’t do gigs at 10 in the morning! Canvas was my first Blue Note…

But it obviously got some attention.

Yes, it definitely got more attention than I was expecting, so that was great as well. When I did Canvas, though, obviously that’s another level. It’s Blue Note now. It’s going to be a debut thing. So I wasn’t so comfortable. I didn’t really approach this one as a gig. This was more like, “let me think this out, because the world is going to hear this.” I had Mark Turner on that record, had Bilal on that record. It was more a compositional record, I think, for me. It wasn’t so much about the trio. It was more about what my sound is and the vibe of my compositions.

For In My Element, I was way more comfortable. It was just about the trio. We had just got off tour, so we knew the songs. I’m not one of those artists that spring up new songs on the day of the hit. I like to know what we’re going to do as far as the songs we’re going to play. I’m not really about, “Ok, I’m going to take two choruses here, and you do this.” I don’t like to structure it, because I do want it to have the feeling and vibe of a live gig. I’d like to keep that as much as possible.

For this record, I started recording a little bit later, so I could have the vibe of, “ok, I’m playing at night now.” I had a few drinks at the studio. I wanted to keep it loose and have the vibe correct. It’s really cold in the studio, and the walls are white, and you have the headphones on—it can really kill the vibe. So if you don’t feel jazz, it’s hard to play comfortable. So I tried to keep that feeling as much as possible. For In My Element, we’d been on tour with it, so it was comfortable—almost every song except for one or two, were first takes, and we only did one take, of “In My Element.” Same thing with Double Booked. Every song on the trio side were first takes and only takes, except I did one extra take on “59 South,” just to do it, because it was the last song we recorded. Incidentally, we never played that one before. That was really new, and I brought it to the studio, and we did it the first time, and it worked out—then I did a second take.

For the Experiment side of Double Booked, same thing. We recorded them in different places, different times. But my Experiment Band is different, too. I love them because we’ve only had one real rehearsal. Everything else we kind of vibe on stage and come up with. Even when we play songs, we might learn a song, say, at a soundcheck, or say, “Hey, learn this song separately, and let’s come together and see what happens.” I love that surprise aspect of it, the way it sounds organic when we do it like that. That’s what happened in the studio. Every song was a first take. We recorded at night, once again had some drinks there, chilled out and made it really loose. So every song on the Experiment side was a first and only take, except two or three takes of the Bilal song, “All Matter,” because that was our first time ever playing the song.

My main thing is trying to translate to CD the live, organic, comfortable performance you would see if you went to the Village Vanguard or another club. That’s hard to do, but I try to get as close to it as possible.

Is there a different intention with the Experiment than the acoustic trio?

Not really different intentions. What makes my trio different, I think, is that we tap into the hip-hop side, and most piano trios don’t do that, and do it back and forth. But with the Experiment, it’s, “Ok, let’s go all the way in and go for it.” It’s not even like Experiment is a hip-hop band. If you listen to the record, all of the songs aren’t hip-hop. It’s not like that at all. We’re a worldly music thing, I guess you could say, in a way. It’s more a hiphop-fusion-jazz-soul vibe, if you will.

Not everything you do as a sideman is hiphop either. Maxwell isn’t hiphop.

Exactly. It’s a mixture. When people refer to Experiment, they say hiphop, but for the most part it’s a different side of me that I can’t really portray in a trio setting. I get to play as a sideman when I play with the Experiment. I get to comp behind Casey Benjamin, and come from a whole different angle musically. I bring in the Rhodes and electric bass, and sonically it’s a different sound, too. So it’s a band that can take you more places than an acoustic piano trio can take you. You can only go so far with acoustic piano and acoustic bass.

The transitions are delineated by a pair of phone messages. This isn’t the first time you’ve used your answering machine as part of the record—you included a message from Dilla on In My Element. At the beginning of the CD is a message from Terence Blanchard—“Are you double booked? Give me a call.” Halfway through, there’s a different sort of message from Quest Love. In any event, were you double booked?

[LAUGHS] That’s the story of the record. I’ve actually been double-booked before. Not with Terence in that instance. But I wanted to find a way to make this album make sense, because when you’re listening it could well seem very random. “Huh? Where did that come from?” I wanted to make a story line. Most jazz records don’t go that deep into their record to do that. That’s more of a hiphop thing, a pop thing, to have interludes and storylines and messages and things. It’s interesting, and I think jazz needs to be more interesting.

We tend to be snobs at times. The whole genre tends toward musical snobbery, in a way. You go to a jazz concert, it could be like going to a golf tournament or something. SHHH. They have that whole vibe. I’m of this generation, and we do things like that. We make the music fun. I try to make it more than just your average record. So I try to throw in those little musical snacks, interludes, and phone messages from people in my other worlds, and make it somewhat different than the normal jazz record—here it is, here’s the tunes.

Are you thinking about it before, or is it all post-production?

For this record, definitely before. I had to figure out the way I wanted to make the record make sense and make a story out of it. Like I say, I didn’t want it to be random.

There are a number of components to your style, which you’ve spoken of. There’s hiphop and jazz. There’s certainly gospel. There’s a blues feeling, too. You also have a pretty distinctive time feel, as has often been noted. I’d like to talk about these elements discretely, perhaps beginning with gospel—and blues as well. As you described to me, early on you played some drums in church, and your mother, who was a singer, brought you with her to clubs, because she wouldn’t entrust you to baby-sitters.

Right.

You said: “I have a certain feel, a certain way of thinking and imagining and hearing harmony, and it all descends from coming up in and playing music in the church.”

I guess that’s where I developed my sound. Growing up in church gave me my way of hearing harmony; I would take church and gospel harmonies and mix them with the jazz harmonies I know. That’s not too normal in jazz. Pretty much, the jazz realm, especially when you look at standards and so on, is very II-V-I oriented in the chord changes and AABA in the form. The form and the chord changes tend to repeat a lot—though of course, nowadays, people are branching out and doing all kinds of things. I would write gospel tunes all the time, and people would say about my gospel tunes, “They sound a little jazzy.” But then, when I played jazz, they say, “I hear gospel.” I try not to ignore any part of my background or what I hear. I become a vessel for the music that I hear, and just let it come out how it comes out.

Your sound and harmonic imagination come through pretty fully-formed on <i>Mood</i>, the first record. I think the evolution has come in other way—narrative focus, broader frames of reference, more clarity. But there’s a pretty recognizable line from when you were 21-22. Would you agree with that?

Yeah, I would. I’m glad of that. I didn’t think so at the time, I didn’t know at the time, until I did the record and started hearing that. “Wait. Maybe I do have a certain sound.” That’s the greatest compliment anybody can tell someone—“You have your own sound.” It’s different than, “You’re a good jazz musician” or “boy, you can really play.” There’s a million people who can really play, but that don’t have a sound. It’s totally different. I know people who aren’t really great players, but they have a sound, and they can write, and they also have a sound compositionally. I’ll take that over just being a good player, because those come a dime a dozen.

Another component of gospel is not the sound that imprinted itself on your consciousness, but that you started working as a professional musician at a very early age in the church.

Exactly. Especially for African Americans, too. That’s the only place where at 8 years old you can get a paycheck playing music. People don’t come up with money, so if you’re a musician, it’s a way you can help out with the family. I know people literally 7 years old that play drums in church who make a check. There’s no other way you can do that musically at 7 right around the corner from your house.

No more Jackson 5.

No more Jackson 5, that kind of stuff. Church is very accessible for African-American people to come up and play in. Then from church, that’s when you develop being spiritual in music, being able to touch someone with a song. When you play in church, the audience, the congregation, the choir, are all reacting to you as well. Everything you play, the singers are reacting to you, the audience is reacting to that, and it’s all very spiritual. I think that’s another part of music that I take from church as well—not playing for the sake of playing but for the spiritual aspect, the emotion, the realness of it, the organic honesty of the whole thing.

By the age of 16, you were orchestrating 10,000 congregants in a service at the Brentwood Church in Houston, where Joe Samuel Ratliff was the pastor. That’s quite a responsibility. And not just there, but at the Catholic church nearby, and another service, too…

Then I played another service on Saturdays with my mom at a Seventh Day Adventist church. So I was rolling in the dough in high school!

Talk about your learning curve. How quickly did you develop facility at the piano? And what do you think allowed you to have that kind of perspective and detachment at that age?

I don’t know. Honestly, I think I was born with that thing. I just discovered it late. Then I think I always had the talent to play the piano, but kind of refused it—I kind of tapped in and just left it alone. I thought I was going to be a track star, but it didn’t work out for me. I ran the mile. I was pretty fast. Up until four years ago, the record for my elementary school for the mile run was still up. No one had beat it. I don’t even know if it’s been beaten yet. But four years ago, my old coach found me, emailed me, “good to hear what you’ve been doing; by the way, your record for the mile run has still not been beaten.” Oh yeah! Look out. Bolt, look out!

I think Bolt is safe for a while.

He’s amazing. Bolt is a very inspirational cat to me right now. But I think I got the musical gene from my mom. Well, my whole family is pretty musical. My grand-dad’s a singer, my aunt is a singer. So when you go to our family reunion, it’s like a musical. Everybody’s singing and doing things. So just my sensibility to music, and even to my facility on the piano… I can’t explain it, because I never had formal lessons. I’ve just been able to play. That came natural. Along the way, I learned certain things, definitely, but it all pretty much came natural. And then, holding down a church service by yourself on a piano does require some facility as well. Certain things you’ve just got to be able to do. That helped as well.

You couldn’t have been entirely self-taught, though, because you did go to Houston High School of Performing Arts, a magnet school, where there must have been some formal training.

Yes. But there wasn’t piano training there. All the school had there was a jazz combo and a jazz band. Jazz big band and jazz combo. Basically, they’d give you charts, and you’d just learn tunes and stuff like that. We had a harmony class, so you would learn things about harmony, ear training, and so on, that, but never an actual piano teacher who would sit down with you at the piano and show you things. To this day, I’ve still never had a real piano teacher. I just picked up things here and there where I could, off the streets. A lot of comrade church musicians, we would sit down and shed together. I got a lot from Alan Mosley, a piano player in Houston who played with my mom all the time. He’s the reason why I even play jazz. He’d come over to the house and rehearse with my mom, and I’d sit there by the piano the whole rehearsal and watch him play, and afterwards he’d show me things. I think the first jazz tune I learned to play was “Spiderman,” the actual cartoon Spiderman—he taught me a jazz way to do it, like a minor blues. Then he showed me how to play “Cherokee,” how to play “Giant Steps,” things of that nature. So he’d be it as far as a jazz teacher or piano teacher goes.

A very pragmatic education. Put your fingers here, you get this sound.

Yes.

I’d like to talk about pianistic influences. You have a Herbie Hancock tune on every one of your records. I know you’ve said that this is by accident, but it can’t really be one.

The first two albums it was completely, “Dang. Really? I did it again.” Kind of accidental, not really thinking about it, just kind of happened. Then In My Element, I actually further Radioheadalized “Maiden Voyage,” which I’d done on Mood, but hid the Radiohead more, so it wasn’t so obvious. But there I wanted to make it obvious, so I redid it for that purpose. Then on Double Booked, we did “Butterfly.” Now a part of my repertoire is Herbie songs. We feel comfortable playing them, and he’s an amazing composer.

Actually, I thought for the life of me that “Silly Rabbit” was referencing “Jackrabbit” from Inventions and Dimensions.

Not one bit. But it’s certainly in that vibe. Herbie’s impact on me is his ability to go between any genre of music and fit right in. Herbie could easily go from a Bonnie Raitt gig to a Stevie Wonder gig to a Miles Davis gig to a Mos’ Def gig, to any gig he wants to go to, and just slip right in, and sound amazing, and still sound like Herbie—but fit what’s happening. He’s like water. He fits the shape of whatever is needed without losing his self, his consistency, his own thing. Now, he’s one of my favorite acoustic piano players, but he’s also my favorite on Rhodes. No one gets a sound out of the Rhodes like Herbie. It’s amazing. What’s he’s done in terms of branching off from his acoustic jazz career, and doing the Headhunters and the Mwandishi stuff, and getting into the hiphop side, and getting the recognition he’s got from the world. Everyone knows “Rockit.” It’s hard for a jazz person to get that recognition. Most people know “Watermelon Man,” believe it or not. Stuff like that. And he hasn’t lost any respect from anyone by any means. He’s still playing to this day. I respect him on the piano, and also off the piano, just business-wise and his imagination. Then there’s how open he is to this day. He’s not a musical snob. Not one bit. It maybe an “us Aries” thing. He’s very open, and he sounds open. When he’s playing, he sounds like he’s having fun, and I love that, too. Some people take what they do way too seriously, so it comes across. But you can hear he’s having fun, reaching for things. I love his spirit as well.

7-8 years ago, you mentioned Keith Jarrett less as a stylistic influence than as a template for your trio playing. Does that still hold true?

Yes, that totally still holds true. With Keith, it’s so organic, and he translates that very well from live to record. Everybody in the trio has a voice, and it makes the music more interesting. When you go to Keith’s concert, you don’t know where everything is going to come from. You can tell everybody has a place, and also trades places.

Monk. You do “Think of One” on this. I like the version, because you played the tune idiomatically but also sounded like yourself. When did you get involved in Monk’s music? In high school or later?

No, that came after. Even when I first got to college, I wasn’t a big Monk fan. I liked his tunes. That became a thing, especially in college. Everybody tries to learn the most obscure Monk tunes, have a competition who knows the most obscure Monk tunes—but I was never really so into it. Around mid-college, 1999-2000, I became more intrigued by him.

Was it being in New York for a while?

That, but then also, when everywhere you go, everybody’s trying to play a Monk tune. You think, “Let me check this out and see what it is.”

What hadn’t appealed to you, and when then did appeal to you?

Now I’m more into the composition and his comping. And Monk’s attitude. He had a certain attitude when he played, a fun, free attitude like what I hear when I hear Herbie or Chick. Have fun. It so comes across. Monk’s that way. When you watch him, you can tell. But in college, checking out his compositions really did it for me. When I decided to do a Monk tune, I didn’t want to do it the regular way. Everyone does Monk tunes all the time, to the point where, after a while, it gets annoying, because “ok, now you’all just doing it to do it.” You’re not doing it any justice. So when I did do one, I wanted to do it in a way that was fresh and new, and at the same time you never lose the tune. Some people will redo something, and it’s like, “where is the song?” They’ll even change the melody to fit some chord or something. Huh? So I try to respect the song, and at the same time put my own thing on it, and at the same time make it as modern as possible. That’s what I did when I mixed it with Dilla. I came up with that idea.

Speaking of Dilla, let’s talk about your time feel. A few years ago, you told me that Damion Reed, who played drums with you then, called the way you feel time “the circle.” You continued: “We don’t think straight-ahead like 1-2-3-4. We feel where the measures end, do whatever we have to do between 1 and 4 to get back to the 1, and then come in together.” Does that description still obtain for the way you think about time?

Yes, but not so much as then, because I play a little bit different with Chris Dave. Damion was more open and free-flowing, to the point where sometimes the time would get lost—you don’t know where it is. It’s still there, but it’s more mysterious where the time is. Chris is a master at knowing where the time is, and doing so many different things with it, but you still feel where it is. So I still feel the pulse. With Damien, you would lose the pulse sometimes—in a good way. “Oh, shit, where’d it go, where’d it go? Ah, there it is.” BAM. So it made me play a certain way within measures. That still has its place now, too, at times, but not so much as it did.

You obviously use many beats from hiphop, particularly ideas that were in play during the ‘90s, in your formative years and when you first became involved. Can you speak to your perception of how hiphop affected jazz time? Also, once in New York, did you personally incorporate other rhythmic influences? You arrived here at a time when various hybrids were taking shape. Dafnis Prieto came to town in 1999, along with other Cuban and Afro-Caribbean musicians. Brad Mehldau’s ideas were well-established.

A lot of those things are true, but probably I didn’t realize it, just being in it. Sometimes it just seeps in, and you don’t know. Just going from club to club and playing with different people in school and outside of school, a lot of things affect you, and you don’t even know. It’s like catching a cold. You never really know where exactly you got the cold; just you get home and don’t feel too well. You don’t know if you got it on the subway, when you were outside, when you were at McDonald’s. So a lot of the rhythmic things are just being in New York and getting all of it at different times.

But also, playing in a soul and hiphop setting often, as well as playing jazz often, I would intermingle the two without really trying, I think. I’m used to playing this way time-wise. When I play hiphop and soul, especially with the people I was playing with, behind the beat is kind of the thing to do. It has a certain feel. So I took that over to the jazz realm, and it became my style, in a way, to have that kind of vibe with the jazz style. The jazz style tends to be on top of the beat more, versus laid-back. I think I get that from especially hiphop in the area of Dilla, who I got into around 2000-2001. His stuff is about things like sampling pianos, or any instrument, putting it way back behind the drums, and the bass is way behind, but the snare on the drums is a little bit ahead, and there’s nothing landing you anywhere—you’re just wobbling around in the middle, nodding your head, like “Oh my God. I feel the time; I can’t really nail it, but it’s there.” It’s kind of mysterious. I call it “drunk funk. Anyway, I took that, and cats like Pete Rock have the same thing, and some Tribe Called Quest things (which Dilla was part of for the first part of his career) have the same thing. DJ Premier, too.

What’s the appeal of that time feel?

It just feels so good. It doesn’t feel jagged or in a rush. It feels like you’re taking your time, like you’re just chillin’. You’re not taking anything too…almost too seriously. I feel like I’m hanging out for a while! Or something. You feel more in control, too. Because when everything is jagged, and you’re on top and they’re on top, it feels like rush hour. Imagine being in rush hour, but you’re going slow as hell, but you’re still with everybody, so everybody else is looking at you like you’re in slow motion—there’s no traffic for you but it’s rush hour. It’s an interesting feeling.

Would the rush hour feeling have anything to do with a northern way of thinking vis-a-vis a southern way of thinking?

Not really. Honestly, I think it’s a mixture of the two. Culturally, African-American people tend to lay back behind the beat. Other cultures tend to be more on top of the beat. [DEMONSTRATES ON HIS CHEST] That lazy, fucked-up rhythm from Africa. It’s passed down. It’s more natural. We’re more rhythmic people, if you will. I think that’s probably what it is.

In high school, before you came to New York, what hiphop were you listening to?</b>

Mostly just Tribe Called Quest and some Busta Rhymes stuff. I wasn’t as big into hiphop in high school as I became once I moved to New York.

Was this because of the church influence?

Church influence. For the most part, my life was pretty much church and jazz. I was working in church on the weekends, and during the week choir rehearsals and stuff like that, and then, when I’d go to school, it was jazz. Once I moved to New York, which is the home of hiphop, is when I really got knocked in the head with a bunch of hiphop. I started to work with Bilal, then started meeting all these emcees and doing little things, shows with him and shows with different hiphop artists. That’s how I got into it more. I’m still not the biggest hiphop head. But I like what I like.

You described for me a couple of years ago how your jazz career evolved from the New School. You came here from Houston, Dr. Ratliff from Brentwood Church knew the pastor at the Canaan Church in Harlem, so you got a job playing that service early on, which probably kept you in funds.

Yes.

Then you started going to sessions. You mentioned a place in Fort Greene called Pork Knockers, Cleopatra’s and Small’s in Manhattan. Anthony Wonsey linked you to Russell Malone, and things happened. But could you go into some detail on your progress in..well, let’s not call it “hiphop,” because it seems insufficient. Let’s call it Urban music.

The very first day I got to the New School, they had all the new students play. They call your name up and put a little group together on the spot, and you play together. I can’t remember if Bilal and I were on the stage together or if we were separate, but by the end of that day, we were boys, we were friends. We started hanging out. One of the teachers from the New School said, “I have a friend who lives right around the corner who used to drum for the Spin Doctors, Aaron Comess, if you want to do some recording over there.” We were like, “cool.” Bilal wanted to do a demo, and we went over there and did some recording. Soon after that, Bilal got signed, and once he got signed, before his record came out, we started doing gigs around the city, and that’s where I started meeting people in the Soul genre, in the Hiphop genre. Bilal had Common and Mos Def on his record. So at one point, we went on tour with Common, and then Common opened up for Erykah Badu, so the tour was with Erykah, Common, and Bilal. Then I met Mos Def. I was playing with Bilal, but on the tour, you get to know all the cats in their bands, and you get to know the them, too. I’ve done some playing with Common, and done some things with Erykah, not in her band, but situations where we’re together. From that, I met the Roots—Bilal’s from Philly, the Roots are from Philly—and I started playing gigs with the Roots on and off. Throughout the years, that aspect of it has continued to grow. From there, I started playing with Q-Tip. I’ve done some things with Talib Kwali.

It seems like the two most consequential relationships now are with Bilal and Mos Def.

Yeah, Bilal, Mos Def, and Tip.

Talk about each of them.

Bilal is my favorite singer, period, of all time. He’s extremely organic. He doesn’t do anything unless he means it. He’s an amazing vocalist, period. People don’t even know, but he was like all-state opera in high school. He has an extremely trained voice without sounding trained. But he can sing any genre. He’s probably the only male jazz vocalist I know that actually sings jazz for real. Most people that sing jazz get on my nerves, because there’s a specific jazz voice people have when they sing jazz that’s annoying. It’s like, “I’m singing JAZZ now.” It sounds like their eyebrow is up. It’s really annoying. But he gets it, and he’s actually a jazz musician at heart. He knows how to interpret songs. He can do that in any genre of music, and he knows how to change his voice to fit certain things. Musically, he’s an amazing cat.

<p>Mos Def is a great person overall. Funny cat. Very down to earth. I don’t think there’s an asshole bone in his body. He doesn’t come off like one of them cats, like, “Oh, I’m a superstar, leave me alone”—that kind of vibe. He’s very open, and musically very honest, and has an eclectic library of music in his head. When we do shows with him, we’ll go from an Eric Dolphy tune to a Neal Young song in a minute, to a Radiohead song, to a James Brown. To whatever. He loves music. He’s a vessel for music. He understands the live band aspect, because he plays a little piano, plays a little drums; he respects it and is always searching for more knowledge. Also what’s great about working with him is he lets me be me. We have a good working thing, because he listens to me, I listen to him, and we work things out. It’s a very give-and-take relationship.

Tip is the same way. Mentally, his musical library is ridiculously huge, and so is his physical library at his house. He has so much music. He’s one of them cats that I would call if I was on Millionaire and there was a question about music. He’s a deejay at heart, too. Records, years of records… And he has perfect pitch. An emcee with perfect pitch? A lot of the songs that we start, songs that he sings, he can start them off the top and be in the right key all the time. He’s another emcee, like most, who knows how to play a little piano. He’ll be rhyming, and then, “Yo, stop real quick. When we get to that A-flat-minor chord, play this.” That’s crazy. For an emcee to be that musical is different than a singer, because most emcees much just rhyme their tracks, so they’re not really doing it with a live band aspect. Again, Tip has a big respect for the live band aspect. He’s one of the people trying to bring it back and move it forward, and look to the future and do some cool things.

That segues well into my next question, which is how hiphop/urban music has evolved during your own maturity, since you arrived in New York in 1997. At the time, there was a confluence of many streams, which have since branched out, until today hiphop itself is in a different place, and the hot performers from then have matured and gone in different directions.

In 1997, when I first got here, the Neo-Soul movement was big, which brought back the live bands and the importance of the live band sound. There was a big blast of, “Let’s bring live bands back.” Hiphop artists were using bands. Then something happened in Neo-Soul, and it got strange. I think once D’Angelo was out of the picture, it started dying down a little bit, then Hiphop in itself got real strange, and now you have all these kind of dumb songs, and they’re not really Hiphop. I call it “Hip-Pop.”

Is Hiphop something else now?

No, Hiphop is still Hiphop. But the stuff that people say is Hiphop isn’t even hiphop to me. That’s like people calling Smooth Jazz, “jazz,” to me. When people say “jazz,” I think what I think, but somebody might call it listening to jazz—which they can, but for me it’s not that. I don’t even get mad. There’s a lot of bullshit out right now getting fed to the public, and they’re eating it, and they’re thinking that’s where real music is. That’s the area we’re in now. We’re trying to fight back and bring back the live band and the good music, and even the stuff that people are talking about is… You’re still talking about money and fat asses? Really? Can we move on? That type of thing.

Now I think there’s more of an uprising of actual cause for good music. For a while there was no cause. A lot of good music is lost. Back in the day, there was great music, because there was a cause behind the music. Something political was happening…

What do you mean by “back in the day”?

‘70s and below. There was always a cause. Your “What’s Going On” era with Marvin Gaye. All that shit. There was always a cause and a passion for real music, a PASSIONfor it, and now it’s just like some dumb shit. But I think it’s coming back. Politically, there are things happening. You have Barrack Obama. Michael Jackson just passed, so now people are revisiting those records and getting influenced again. Sometimes you don’t really think about shit until it’s gone. I think Michael’s passing is really making people reflect and look back and see what’s real now, and it’s changing their aspect on things…

How so? For you, for instance?

My lady and I were talking about this the other day. I think Michael’s influence for most people is different than anybody else’s, because he was such a big influence on the world when he was 7. I don’t know anybody else who can say that—like, on his level. He was a major superstar for 43 years. On top of the world type stuff. That’s unheard-of. So you kind of watched him grow up. You feel like you knew him when he was a child, when you see these videos. He was always an influence for me. I used to get in trouble for moonwalking in second grade. I had the glove and everything. I actually went to a Jackson Five concert, and the whole nine. When you listen back, people forget that he could really, really sing. Michael Jackson was a brand, so you get caught up in his whole thing, with the dancing, and just him being weird, and the Jackson Five and all this stuff. But if you sat Michael down in a chair next to a piano and start playing, just to hear him sing…he was ridiculous! I think people skip over it. You think he can sing, but when you listen back to the music you’re like, “Wow, he can really sing!” He was so ahead of his time! When he was with the Jackson Five, when they were small, doing the Destiny album, with some of those changes on there, and he’s singing all through them changes, eating them up… It’s like, “Yo, you’re 7; why are you sounding like you’re 30 and you’ve been hurt already?” That’s what Smokey Robinson was saying after he recorded “Who’s Loving You,” and Berry had Michael Jackson sing it after he signed Michael Jackson. Berry called Smokey, like, “You sung this song, but listen to this,” and Smokey heard him and it was like, “Oh my God. This boy sounds like he’s been through it all, and he’s like 9.” So Michael Jackson was an angel that God put here specifically for a reason. He did inspire me and most people musically.

Before your digression on Michael Jackson, you spoke of the ways in which the music of the ‘60s and ‘70s reflected the times in which it was created, and said you say you feel similar winds in the air today. Can you reflect on any connections between the way you’re approaching jazz and the way the culture has developed during your maturity?

I’m trying to involve things and people in the music that have something to do with today, and pushing the envelope in music and politics and everything in general. I had a song on the record that I didn’t release because we couldn’t get it cleared. I was playing a one-motif thing, and over it was the news about the Sean Bell hearing, and it had Martin Luther King’s “We Shall Overcome” speech….

Sean Bell was the man who was killed by 50 shots from several policeman after leaving his bachelor party in Jamaica, Queens.

Yeah. More than 50 shots. They all got off. It also had my friend, Jessie, who was a Katrina victim, speaking about his experience with that, and there was a Barrack Obama thing at the end of it. It addresses the time period we’re in. Certain albums you can look back on and you know the time period it was in just by listening to it. I think being able to capture the times musically within a record is kind of a lost art as well. Then, the people I’m using on the record, like Quest and Terence and Mos, are visionary people who I look up to, who are doing things. The time period we’re in is making me be more aware of my surroundings. That kind of thing.

I do want to ask you about one tune on Double Booked, “Festival,” with Casey Benjamin, which in the beginning, the way Casey is playing and the way you’re comping, makes me think of the Wayne Shorter Quartet. Now, whether or not I’m accurate on this, could you discuss some of other bands you’ve been paying attention to over the last 8-9 years?

It’s very possible that what you say is true. I love Wayne. He’s my favorite jazz composer. I love his composing, period. I also love Art Blakey and the Messengers. I love the Miles Davis Quintet. I love Herbie’s stuff on his own. I love the John Coltrane Quartet. I love Brian Blade’s Fellowship Band. I love the Bandwagon—Jason Moran. Terence Blanchard’s band. He’s had a few different bands through the years, and I love what he does.

A few words about the contemporary bands you spoke of—Bandwagon, Fellowship, Blanchard.

First of all, Brian Blade is one of my favorite drummers of all time, because he gives you a feeling like he’s playing keys. He brings so much color to the music that normally a drummer wouldn’t bring. His textures and the passion that he has when he plays, you can feel it and you can hear it. It’s all there. He’s just a very emotional drummer. I’ve cried listening to Blade. Drummers don’t generally make people cry. I also love the compositions that Fellowship plays and the way they portray them. Brian Blade Fellowship put on probably my top favorite concert I’ve ever seen, at the Vanguard a few years ago. You can get a lot of great musicians, put them together, but they don’t sound good as a band. But Fellowship is a great band, in their collective honesty and how they play with each other. Ego can get in the way of allowing honest things to happen, but with Fellowship there’s no ego on that stage.

I think that’s what it is with Jason, and also Terence. It’s Terence’s band, but he doesn’t have an ego about it. He lets everybody write, lets everybody be themselves, and kind of goes where the music goes. He’s not trying to dictate everything because he’s the leader and “this is what it is.” You can feel that from the spirit. What makes me like people is the spirit, the intention, and that really comes across in Terence’s band. Especially Terence’s current band, because Kendrick Scott is on drums. He’s another one of my favorite drummers. He’s like a Blade, too—I think he’s also made me cry. I’ve been playing with Kendrick since high school, and Kendrick was playing with me at Dr. Ratliff’s church. I’ve known him for years. He’s definitely a very egoless drummer. Really about the music and what’s happening, and lets the spirit move him. I love that about him.

You made a remark in 2005 about liking to play with Derrick Hodge, who plays on the Experimental half of Double Booked, because he can go in and out of jazz and hiphop feels seamlessly, as can you. Can you speak to the qualities that are distinctive to rendering jazz and rendering hiphop, and the complexities that pertain to a jazz-oriented musician addressing hiphop and to a hiphop artist addressing jazz?

As far as jazz and then going into hiphop, I think it’s the disconnect between urban music and jazz musicians. Because nowadays, let’s face it, there are less African-Americans playing this music than there were before. I sat down not too long ago and tried to name five pianists that are my age or younger who are known on the scene.

Who are African-American?

Yeah. I couldn’t name five—I was really trying—who are really known, who are my age and younger who are actually on the scene. In other words, is somebody in Chicago going to know this person? Since we live in New York, we have a false reality. If I live in Kansas, am I going to know Eric Lewis? Love him to death. He’s one of my favorite pianists. He’s ridiculous. Amazing. I mean, I can name some people I know who are in New York that are bubbling. But I’m just saying cats that are getting some kind of broader recognition. You do this for a living, so you’re going to know these cats. But I doubt someone who’s going to a college in Houston or in Kansas is going to know who all those cats are. I’m not saying they’re not here, but they’re new, bubbling kind of cats that are not getting the recognition they probably should.

But as a whole, there’s not a large amount of African-Americans playing this music, as was the case before. Let’s flip it around. In the ‘60s, there were more black people playing jazz than white people.

Whether or not that’s true, black musicians formed the preponderance of those crucial to the development of the idiom.

Yes, of course. I did a survey of my own. If you look at the life of jazz, and take out anybody who wasn’t black, would it really change? Probably not so much. I don’t think it would have been a big change if you take out anybody who wasn’t black. Nowadays, if you flip it around, if you remove people who are black, the scene wouldn’t change very much. Look at all the magazines, look at everything—there’s not many black people in there. Most of your vocalists under 30 that you’re hearing about and seeing are white. Now, I’m just speaking about 30 years and younger. This generation. I’m talking about the difference between my generation and another generation. This generation has more European and more Asian than Black. I think it’s at an all-time high now. With black people, what happens is, when they’re young like me, they get sucked into playing in church. It’s easier. They make money. Not everybody has a jazz mentor. Like I say, we live in New York, so we have a false reality. If you’re from wherever, Cincinnati, and you’re an up-and-coming piano player, there’s probably one jazz club, maybe, and there’s probably no jazz station, and if there is a jazz station they’re probably playing Charlie Parker. Let’s be honest. Jazz stations suck nowadays. There aren’t many good jazz stations.

Well, I’d hope they were playing Charlie Parker. But hopefully they’re playing something of today as well.

Right. Music moves on in every other genre. If you turn on Hot-97, they’re playing Usher. When you turn it on, 9 times out of 10 you’re probably going to hear Chris Brown because he’s up to date. Any other genre of music is like that, except jazz. Jazz is very history-oriented, and it pretty much stays there for most people. Versus any other music. It’s very history-oriented, and it’s to the point where, “Do you care about the future?” Hello! Some people aren’t about the future. You’re about the future. But you have the same respect for the past.

You have to balance it.

You have to balance it. But most people, when it comes to jazz, there’s no balance. They won’t talk about Marcus Strickland. Jazz is hidden. Where would you find him? If you don’t live here, how would you know him? 99 times out of 100, the jazz stations aren’t going to be playing him. If you turn on the TV, you’re not going to see him. You have to dig pretty hard. Other genres of music, the new shit that’s out, it’s put in your face. I have to know Chris Brown right now. Without trying, you’re going to know him. You’re going to see him in the magazines, you’re going to see him on TV, you put on the radio and he’s going to be there. That’s how it is. They force-feed new artists down your throat.

I’ve wavered way off the point. But I’m saying that this is the disconnect of it. Because now, this music has changed from being more of a music that I guess black people have been playing to more of a music that other people are playing, so therefore the aspect of the groove, that urban groove, is lost. The Europeans and Asians aren’t driven by urban rhythm. They’re more driven by melody, notes, and other kinds of things. So it’s very hard for a jazz musician nowadays to be able to play a hip-hop groove, because that’s not really where they’re from with it. So it’s changed. Because back in the day, in the ‘60s, if you told somebody a jazz musician was on the gig, it was like, “Oh, great! Yes!” They did a lot of the Motown recordings. It was like a marriage back then. After the jazz clubs, they’d go right to the studio. If you look on many albums, you’ll see Ron Carter on the record, Herbie on the albums…

There was a studio scene.

Exactly. There was more of a mingle, too, between the studio musicians and the jazz cats. Now, to be a studio musician, you live in L.A. and you play real jazz here. It’s really separated.

This began when I asked you the impact of hiphop on jazz. Now let’s talk about the impact that jazz is having on hiphop.

Well, jazz has always had an influence on hiphop. Jazz is one of the reasons why hiphop is what it is. Jazz musicians have been sampled for years now. That’s what made me start listening to hiphop, from when I was listening to Tribe Called Quest in high school. I grew up in the suburbs in Houston, so a lot of the rap I would hear, I wouldn’t be able to identify with it, because a lot of people talked about guns or the ghetto or these girls, and I wasn’t about that, so it would go over my head. Until I heard A Tribe Called Quest, and I was like, “Wait—there’s chords. Wow, there’s melody. Wait, that’s ‘Red Clay.’  I know that tune!” It kind of grasped my ear. It’s like, “yo, they’re melodic.” So then I started listening to them. That’s what grasped me, the chord changes and things of that nature. To this day, I’m catching more and more songs, like songs I used to love, and I’m like, “Oh, I know what that song is; they sampled that tune.” So jazz always had an influence.

I think nowadays, it’s now about having the actual musicians mingle together. That hasn’t happened in a very long time. Granted, hiphop is new, so Trane couldn’t mingle with a hiphop artist now—he’s gone. Bill Evans, the same thing. But those cats have been sampled. Ron Carter’s done it. He’s done it for Tribe. So there certain cats now actually are bridging that gap, and have bridged that gap. I’m trying to bridge that gap, and do it while I’m actually doing my thing as well at the same time.

You remarked to a British paper a few years ago that you play “intelligent hiphop.” Can you elaborate a bit?

I can’t stand the hiphop that’s all about the jewelry and the girls and the money and the guns. I like more conscious hiphop, like talking about the empowerment of black people. Your empowerment of yourself as a person, whatever color you are. Treating women right. Every other song is dissing a woman and calling them a bitch or whatever. I’m more into other hiphop that’s more positive, talking about something else, something that’s not degrading. Moreso than ever, those songs are the ones that I like the music for, because those people are more conscious, and mostly conscious people listen to better music than people who aren’t conscious. Tribe Called Quest is very conscious. Common is very conscious. Mos Def is very conscious. They all have great, great music. So I guess that’s what brings the two together for me.

You were talking about all the obstacles that militate against a young black kid actually playing jazz. You could get trapped in the economics of being a church musician, you won’t get to hear it on the radio, and so on. But quite a number of remarkably mature, well-formed jazz musicians emerged from Houston, like you and Kendrick Scott, Jason Moran, Eric Harland, Chris Dave, Mike Moreno, Walter Smith…

Jamire Williams.

There we go. Was that solely because of the high school? 

Having that high school helped. That’s a big boost. I’m pretty sure that in a lot of other states, there are musicians just as talented, but probably never had the chance to… When colleges come to Houston, they go right to my high school before they go anywhere else. If you’re a music college, you’re going right to my high school. If I went to a regular high school, they would come right there. I probably wouldn’t have been so diligent and worked so hard. When you’re in high school with a bunch of talented people, it makes you work harder. It’s a competition type thing—you want to get better because this person is better. All your friends have the same agenda. They all love what you love. I went to a regular high school my first year, and I couldn’t talk to nobody about jazz! Nobody knew nothing about jazz. If you’re around a lot of people who don’t have the same dream as you and all that kind of stuff, it could wear you down, and you become not so serious about it, and then if you go to a high school that doesn’t have any kind of hoopla about it, you’re probably not going to get the attention from colleges that you want. So for some people, it gets heavier and heavier and heavier on them, and they don’t get that kind of chance. They were talented, but they didn’t hone their craft enough or get the opportunity to do this, and have comrades to do this with. So they just stay in church and do what they do, and it’s that.

But in Houston, I think a lot of it was that from the door the cats are just naturally talented, but then being in a school where there’s other talented cats that have the same interests as you really helps. You’re learning from your friends. I learned a pile of stuff from my comrades that I wouldn’t have known if I didn’t go to that school. Mike Moreno or Walter or Kendrick would bring tapes to school, like, ‘Yo, check out this new stuff.” They were really into what was happening in New York and in the jazz scene, and so on.

You made a remark, “I feel like I’m an actor and a painter. It’s all the arts in one. So when I’m playing the piano, I don’t just think of it as, ‘Oh, I’m playing piano.’ I won’t sacrifice the vibe for some chops.” You said, “it’s a mood thing. On each song I go into a place in my mind, and I’m in my moment right there.” Does that attitude perhaps hearken back to your church background, and orchestrating the function?

Exactly. Everything has its place. I’m not one of the people who play for the sake of playing. Some people say I don’t play enough. “I loved that tune, but you didn’t play enough of that tune.” But at the same time, a person will come to me and say, “the way you played on that song…” Space says just as much for me as playing something, and I think once you realize that space and silence is sound, that it has as much of a place as something you’re playing, it takes cats a long way. You really jeopardize the meaning and the mood and the focus of what’s going on when you just play to play. I think you reach people when it’s just honest. “Shit, I don’t feel like playing on this part.” It doesn’t come to me like that. “I just want to lay on these chords.” Then you’ll hear the inflections, say, that the drums are doing more. Then maybe the drums take over. He’s not even really soloing. It’s just the vibe, and you start thinking. It gives you a chance to think. A lot of times, if you go to a concert, people are doing so much on stage, it doesn’t allow your mind to be free to think of something and go somewhere. I like to be a soundtrack sometimes, so I might just play something, and it repeats. It might be a vamp. I might not be soloing, but I may be sparking some thoughts. It’s almost like giving you a soundtrack to whatever you’re thinking right now. Then you might start, “Oh, man!” It makes you feel a certain way. All that plays a part. So I think I’m just in tune with that.

Were things that happened in the early ‘90s…Was MBASE an influence on you?

No.

Was, say, Buckshot LaFunke, Branford Marsalis’ stuff, an influence on you?

I knew about Branford in high school, but I didn’t know about Buckshot LaFunke until I got to college. None of those things really…

Once you got to New York, did MBASE…

No. It still doesn’t.

That approach to music-making still isn’t so meaningful to you.

No. Not to say it can’t be later. But now, no.

You made a remark to the Boston Globe that you couldn’t bring the Experiment out too soon. “I had to establish myself first as a jazz pianist, and get that respect, otherwise very fast you’ll get pegged as a hiphop pianist.” What do you mean by that?

I still get it to this day—a little bit, not so much. But timing plays a part in everything. You can bring something out too early or bring out something too late. It’s just timing—of that record, of your band. I’m an up-and-coming pianist, I’m new, and I’m black; a black piano player having his own trio out in the world working right now is a whole different thing. I’d like to capitalize on that and keep doing that. I didn’t want to move quickly, for the second album on Blue Note, to “Ok, now I’ll do hiphop” or “now I’m playing Rhodes and I got a vocoder and so on,” because then it’s like, “that’s what you really wanted to do, isn’t it?” No. Playing jazz trio is my true love. So I wanted to do a few records with that first, and establish that, so people will respect me for that and understand it, and then I can turn around and do the Experiment stuff.

Is playing the sideman things and playing the Experiment equally as gratifying to you as the acoustic jazz trio?

Yes, definitely. I have A.D.D., I think, so I have to be doing something different all the time. I have to keep moving, and keep it moving. Which is one of the reasons why I love my trio, because it’s never the same shit all the time. Vicente is not going to play the same thing, Chris is not going to play the same thing. It’s always going to be something different. I don’t feel like I’m going to a job and clocking in. At the same time, I love the fact that I do all these different kinds of gigs. They all call for something different, that demands a certain amount of professionalism and a certain amount of musical maturity. You have to know, “Hey, in this situation I can’t do this; I have to do this. In that situation, I have to do something else.” So it teaches you patience and teaches you to be mature and to respect other kinds of music, while at the same time being able to put yourself into it, which is whole nother type of thing to be able to do. That’s not very easy for a lot of people.

Ted Panken spoke to Robert Glasper on August 28, 2009

************

Robert Glasper (Blindfold Test) – 2008 – Raw:

1. Joe Sample, “Shreveport Stomp” (from SOUL SHADOWS, Verve, 2004) (Sample, piano; Jelly Roll Morton, composer)

That’s some ragtime stuff going on here. Some strange moments. This is some Scott Joplin type. He doesn’t sound very comfortable doing it. He sounds cool, okay doing it, but it doesn’t sound like he’s very comfortable with the ragtime thing. But I guess the whole… I guess he’s not trying to push the envelope. The point is to play like within that time period, the Scott Joplin type style. It’s the kind of thing Marcus Roberts would do, but Marcus Roberts is a lot more comfortable with it. He makes you believe like he lived in that time period or something. I’ll give it 2 stars. He still needs to work some things out. Kudos to him, though. I can’t play ragtime!

It sounds like he’s trying to play a transcription; he hasn’t like digested the whole thing yet for real. Marcus does digest it. When he plays it, I believe that he lived then. But this cat, it seems like he’s not too comfortable with this time period yet. Some of the timing is strange, a little bit, and you can hear in the ragtime stuff that his left hand is not as comfortable, and the stuff he’s doing with his right hand is very worked out. You can tell it’s hard. I don’t know the tune, but it was in that whole Jelly Roll-Scott Joplin type joint.

2. Jason Lindner, “Monserrate” (from AB AETERNO, Fresh Sound World Jazz, 2006) (Lindner, piano, composer; Omer Avital, bass; Luisito Quintero, cajon, percussion)

I like the concept of the tune. It’s nice. His touch is a little bit strange, I think. I don’t really feel the compassion that it should have or that I want it to have from his playing. I like the percussion. Yeah, it sounds a little forced. It’s almost like forced passion, ha-ha, or something. I think I’ll give this 2½ stars. More the conception of the band… I’ll give it 2½ stars. No, take that back. 2 stars. I think I really just like the percussion. The percussion is nice. But it doesn’t really sound like a band. There’s an uneasiness to it. It sounds like it should be relaxed and it should be more free-flowing, but it sounds kind of jagged and forced—but the point is to be free-flowing.

It sounds like someone under 30…of a European descent. [Do you mean Caucasian descent, or European?] Perhaps. Either-or. Rhythmically it just wasn’t there. It didn’t sound like a cohesive band. I appreciate the concept, like the percussion and the way they started. But I don’t know. It sounded like it should have been more free-flowing, the kind of tune where it was effortless and free-flowing and beautiful, but it sounded like they were trying to force that idea.

3. Ethan Iverson, “Mint” (from The Bad Plus, PROG, Heads Up, 2007) (Iverson, piano, composer; Reid Anderson, bass; Dave King, drums)

Definitely of a Latin descent. Sounds like some tune Gonzalo would do. Many sections. Get lost in the sections. You probably can’t hum the melody of the tune when it’s over. But good ensemble. Cohesive trio. It definitely has the touch and the sound and the chops and the writing conception of Latin descent. But I’m thinking Gonzalo—or maybe I’m wrong. Good band, though. They’re definitely together…in their randomness, they’re together. Organized randomness. He’s definitely checked out Jason Moran. The right hand gives me Jason Moran, but I don’t know. Because the group also has that sort of together-random but composition vibe that Jason’s group has, that no one else really has. That’s what makes Jason’s group so different. Once he gets to the solo section, I think it’s Moran. No, it’s not Jason! I thought it was. It’s definitely somebody influenced by Jason; Jason’s writing, definitely.

I don’t know this cat’s playing very well, but is it Vijay Iyer? No? I was saying it has a randomess. Like, in the writing it’s a cohesive randomness. There’s really many parts, and it’s kind of random, you don’t know where it’s going to go, but the group is together, so it’s definitely organized randomness, like Moran’s trio will do or kind of like Gonzalo writes, but it’s really tight… It gives you that vibe. At first I figured it was Gonzalo because of the way his attack and stuff was, and how it was at the beginning of the composition, a lot of shit going on but it was together. But then, once they started soloing, they sounded like Jason, right hand. And the composition sounded like Moran would write. I wouldn’t come home and put it on. 3 stars. Bad Plus? Gotcha. They’ve definitely been influenced by Bandwagon.

4. Kálmán Oláh, “Polymodal Blues” (from ALWAYS, Dot, 2004) (Oláh, piano, composer; Ron McClure, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums)

I’ve heard these songs before. It kind of sounds like a high school band. [LAUGHS] I mean, as far as the cohesiveness of the group goes. I’m not really digging the ensemble at all, or the composition, or the cohesiveness of the ensemble. It’s just something that I’ve heard before, and it’s not really a good version of that. The drummer definitely checks out Jack DeJohnette. But it sounds like they all have different agenda or something; I don’t know.

I mentioned that the drummer definitely checked out DeJohnette. I don’t want to say it’s DeJohnette, but DeJohnette on not a good day. It sounds like that whole trio sat down and listened to some Keith Jarrett; it was like “Let’s try to do that.” But obviously, they’re all influenced by that trio. But I don’t dig what happened there. I don’t dig the tune. I don’t like the pianist, really. I mean, he can play the piano. He can play. But I don’t really like what he’s doing. It’s nothing I would get out of bed to go see…if they’re playing next door. 2 stars.

On “Hungarian Sketches”: They sound better doing this vibe. They’re more comfortable with this, it seems like. The swing tune sounded real pretentious, real not-comfortable. Whoever the piano player it, I can tell he’s one of them cats that would write something for a grant or something, like a really through-composed kind of cat. It kind of seems like it. They sound better doing this vibe. That’s a much better representation of the ensemble. So much better. The other one really gave me high school. But this one sounds good. I still don’t know what the melody was, even though I listened to it for three minutes. That’s kind of a new thing, I guess. Some cats just kind of write for the sake of writing, and there’s no real emotional purpose, or it’s just kind of writing to write, see what kind of bad shit I can write. But I like that vibe they had going on. 3 3 stars. The ensemble sounded great. The drummer was cool, and the bass…even the sound sounded better on this. When he was walking, he sounded like cats fighting in the alley. I don’t dig that style personally.

5. James Hurt, “Eleven Dreams” (from DARK GROOVES-MYSTICAL RHYTHMS, Blue Note, 1999) (Hurt, piano, composer; Francois Moutin, bass)

I like the pianist’s touch; the pianist has a really nice touch. I’m not buying the bluesiness of it, though. He sounds more into the composition, like that’s definitely his vibe. But once he starts swinging, trying to get the blues thing, he’s definitely out of his element. Sounds pretentious. But everything else sounds great. I’m not sure of the point of the solo, what’s going on with it. I’m not sure how he’s putting it together. It sounds like he’s warming up. Heh-heh. He should take a few breaths also.

He’s definitely European. Sounds European. Maybe not definitely, but he sounds European. Everything was cool until he started playing bluesy, then it was AGGHH… Strange. When he started soloing, it got strange. But as far as the composition, it sounded beautiful. But once it got to the solo, it was strange. I couldn’t tell you who it is. Because I don’t listen to that… 3 stars.

6. Eric Reed, “I.C.H.N.” (from HERE, MaxJazz, 2006) (Reed, piano, composer; Rodney Whitaker, bass; Willie Jones, drums)

This feels great. They all feel comfortable in what they’re doing. The pianist has a real nice touch, real laid-back with it. Like, he knows he’s swinging. He ain’t gotta try. He sounds like he has a cigarette in his mouth, hanging out the side, and a glass of ‘nac on the top of the piano. The bass and the drums have a really good hookup. Feels really good.

The band felt great. I forgot to critique. I was just listening, feeling it. The bass and drums had a great hookup. It’s great to hear something when it swings doesn’t sound pretentious. Some of it gives me a Jaki Byard vibe. Also, there’s a little jerk in the melody. I like the pianist’s touch. Had a really nice touch. Really laid back. You can tell he listened to a lot of old cats. He really dwells in it, but at the same time he sees the light at the end of the tunnel. Don’t know who it is. 4 stars.

7 Jean-Michel Pilc, “Spiritual” (from LIVE AT IRIDIUM, NEW YORK, Dreyfus, 2005) (Pilc, piano; Thomas Bramerie, bass; Mark Mondesir, drums; John Coltrane, composer)

Nice touch The pianist has a really nice touch. Very warm. Not forcing anything.

I don’t know who it is, but I really like the pianist’s touch. It sounds really warm. It doesn’t really sound like he’s forcing anything. They sound natural and comfortable in what they’re doing as a trio. I kind of know the song. It’s a remake. It almost sounds like… I’ll give it 3½ stars. I used to see him play with Ari Hoenig’s trio. I actually subbed Ari’s gig like twice.

8. Esbjorn Svensson, “Goldwrap” (from e.s.t., TUESDAY WONDERLAND, EmArcy, 2006) (Svensson, piano; Dan Berglund, bass; Magnus Ostrand, drums)

I like the composition. It’s pretty. I can hum the melody, but at the same time it has a lot of things going on, but the amount of things going on don’t really overshadow the melody too much. I like that. Nice group. They sound good together. I’m not crazy about the pianist’s soloing, but…

I liked the composition. It’s pretty. There’s a lot of things going on, but at the same time, it’s not overbearing, and I could hum the melody. There’s a good mixture of complexity and something you can grasp onto. He doesn’t sound like he’s writing for other writers. A lot of people have that whole thing where the average person wouldn’t buy their record. They write for other musicians, to be like, “Wow, they can really write”—or other writers. Then they wonder why there’s like five people at the show—and all musicians. I don’t know who it is. I’ll give it 3 stars.

9. Stanley Cowell, “A Whole New World” (from DANCERS IN LOVE, Venus, 1999) (Cowell, piano; Tarus Mateen bass; Nasheet Waits, drums; Alan Menken, composer)

I feel like I know this song, or maybe just a piece of that melody I can recognize. It reminded me of “Green Rainbow,” a piece of it. “Things to know. Ways to go.” The band sounds cool as a trio. I’m not too crazy about the solo the pianist is taking. Sounds like Nasheet on drums.

It’s definitely Nasheet. But it’s not Jason Moran and it’s not Tarus. It almost sounded like it could be Tarus, but at the same time it could be Charnett Moffett. It was Tarus? Okay. But the pianist, I don’t know… Judging from that, it’s probably…I don’t know… I liked it until he got to the solo section. It was cool. I could take it until they got to the solo section, then they got strange. The pianist’s feel wasn’t…it didn’t feel right to me. He could play. But it didn’t feel right to me, and his timing and… His sound got a little hokey for my taste. I hate to keep saying this; he sounded European. The composition is always cool, but then once you get into the solo section it always gets strange. That’s where you can tell that, okay, obviously there’s no blues clubs in Europe, they don’t have church, they don’t have things that… It just sounds like that to me. But hey, I could be fuckin’ wrong. 3 stars.

10. Antonello Salis, “La Dolce Vita” (from PIANO SOLO, CamJazz, 2006) (Salis, piano; Nino Rota, composer)

Beautiful touch. Nice chops. Very clean. Very sincere. Whoever it is checked out some early Keith Jarrett stuff, and probably some Latin type stuff.

He had a beautiful touch, and chops were off the chart—a lot of chops. At the same time, he’s really sincere. I could hear sincerity in his playing. He’s creative. He made my eyebrows raise once. That was good. Surprise! I mentioned that you could tell that he checked out some early Keith Jarrett type shit. I don’t know who it is, though. At first listening, I wanted to say Gonzalo, but going on, I don’t really know. 4 stars.

11. Matthew Shipp, “Invisible Light” (from HARMONY AND ABYSS, Thirsty Ears, 2004) (Shipp, piano, composer; William Parker, bass; Gerald Cleaver, drums; Chris Flam, programming [drum & synths])

Very interesting. I like it so far. The intro is really cool. The way they’re playing is really cool. They’re like sparse and random kind of free, but together at the same time.
I liked that! I liked that interlude, whatever you want to call it. That tune was cool. They were like playing free, separately, but at the same time it was together, even though there obviously was nothing written. It just sounded like raindrops. They were all acting like raindrops, but everything fit. Like a typewriter typing really fast, where everything fits together. 4 stars. I can appreciate that type of playing. You probably will never catch me checking it out at the crib, listening to it. Do I ever work with an avant-garde type vibe? Not so much avant-garde. Solo piano wise, I’ll do some stuff that’s kind of like that, on a Cecil Taylor type vibe. But even his shit is organized noise. It’s not free at all. People think it is, but no. That’s the tune! I checked the shit out with video. It’s just the tune. That’s fuckin’ crazy.

12. Cedar Walton, “Daydream” (from ONE FLIGHT DOWN, High Note, 2007) (Walton, piano; David Williams, bass; Joe Farnsworth, drums; Billy Strayhorn, composer)

The band sounds like a BAND. It sounds like a band in the sound. The pianist is losing the groove, to me. He’s playing all over in the solo section, kind of just losing the groove. I don’t know. Definitely sounds like an older rhythm section. It definitely has an Ahmad Jamal Trio vibe. But I don’t know. I like the drummer’s hi-hats!

I liked the feeling of it. The feeling felt good. I feel like I’ve heard the drummer before, definitely. The drummer and the bass player had a good thing happened. It sounded like they were older cats. Part of me wanted to say the pianist was Cyrus Chestnut, because some of it gave me some Cyrus vibe. But then half of it was strange. I was like, “I don’t know.” I haven’t heard a Cyrus record in a while, though. 3 stars.

***********

Robert Glasper , Downbeat Players Piece – 2005:

Accustomed to navigating complex, cerebral soundscapes, today’s twenty-something jazzfolk don’t always leave space to tell a story.

Not pianist Robert Glasper, who blends abundant technique with oceanic emotional content on Canvas, his Blue Note debut.

“I’m dramatic,” says Glasper, 26. “I feel like an actor and a painter — all the arts in one. When I play, I won’t sacrifice the vibe for some chops.”

Glasper is a 2001 New School graduate who apprenticed with hardcore jazzfolk like Russell Malone and Christian McBride, and built profile as pianist of choice for prominent hip-hop and R&B singers like Bilal, Q-Tip and Mos Def. Through the first six tracks of Canvas, he articulates an expansive, soulful interpretation of the piano trio. Using all ten fingers liberally, he draws harmonic references from a timeline spanning Bud Powell to Mulgrew Miller, and his lines flow organically through a succession of odd-metered and swing grooves and unfailingly melodic beats. He stretches out, but he’s also not afraid to milk his melodies and develop them slowly, using techniques of tension and release more commonly heard in functional situations than art music contexts.

“I’m not a singer, but I like to play things I can sing,” Glasper says. “If you constantly sing while you’re playing, then you probably won’t play bullshit!”

Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Glasper inherited this aesthetic from his mother, Kim Yvette Glasper, a professional jazz, blues and church singer, who was murdered last spring at the age of 45. Her spirit hovers over the proceedings, and her recorded voice — she’s singing a raunchy blues — opens the elegiac final track, “I Remember.”

“I wanted to make sure she was on my first record,” Glasper says. “I’m the spitting image of my Mom, totally like her in every aspect. My confidence level. Everything. She was a diva. Yes, sir. A diva.”

When Robert was 12, Kim Yvette Glasper taught him to play piano in the small Baptist church at which she sang. By 14, he was playing the service.

“Once I got better, I told myself I needed to make real money doing this,” Glasper relates. “I started playing at Brentwood, the biggest church in Houston, 10,000 people. During 11th and 12th grades, I played there every other Sunday at 11 o’clock, and I played in the Catholic church around the corner at 9. Saturdays I played the Seventh Day Adventist Church. My pastor in Houston knew the pastor at Canaan Baptist Church in Harlem, and I played there for two years once I got to New York.

“The music in the church is built on feeling, period. It’s not Giant Steps. People give praise or cry, and you have to control all those things. You put a little something behind the pastor. Depending on the type of song, church music has jazz elements and pop elements, too. Hip-Hop is natural for me, because church music has a lot of the same grooves. I just fall in—take from here, take from there, but don’t take too much from one thing.”

On the last four tracks of Canvas, Glasper deploys his populist influences. He entextures “Chant,” another elegiac refrain, with Bilal’s moans and his own organ and kalimba, while on Herbie Hancock’s “Riot,” the date’s only cover, he signifies on Mark Turner’s fleet solo with capacious keyboard color on the Fender Rhodes, before uncorking his own fleet, percussive statement.

Glasper plans to support Canvas with trio tours this fall and winter, filling down time on jobs with the singers – he performs on Q-Tip’s Fall release, joining guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and bassist Derrick Hodge – as well as hardcore jazz work.

“You’ve got to have a balance,” he says. “Church can be a bad habit; everything you play can sound like a church chord if you don’t know how to get out of it. It’s part of my thing, so I put it in there, but I play a little Bud Powell so you go ‘Oh.’ I haven’t played in church for seven years. There’s some black churches up the street from my block, so sometimes I’ll check out the choir or musicians. I get more from them than I do from a lot of preachers. Everything is so damn corrupt, you can’t trust anybody. Only thing you can trust is the music.”

**********

Robert Glasper (Liner Notes for Mood – Fresh Sound – 2002):

“You can’t join the throng til you sing your own song,” Lester Young once quipped, his singular argot underscoring an eternal jazz truth that all aspirants, however learned or technically accomplished, must come to grips with.

The Prezidential imperative of individualism and self-expression is one that pianist Robert Glasper, 23, fully understands. Like much of his peer group, Glasper has the vocabulary of piano modernism — Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Kenny Kirkland, and Oscar Peterson are among his reference points — at his fingertips. Unlike much of his peer group, he has no compunctions about using that language as a springboard from which to leap into his song of the moment. Or, as Glasper puts it, “I take small bits of information of from everyone and make up my own paragraphs.

Fortified by impeccable chops and uninhibited imagination, Glasper spins compelling tales throughout his conversational debut release. His core unit comprises young drummer Damion Reid and veteran bassist Robert Hurst, the latter until recently a long-time member of the “Tonight Show” orchestra after a decade playing hardcore jazz next to piano icon Kenny Kirkland in the high-visibility bands of Wynton and Branford Marsalis. Augmenting on various tracks are tenor saxophonists John Ellis and Marcus Strickland (respectively, runner-up and third-place awardees at the 2002 Thelonious Monk Competition), guitarist Mike Moreno, and popular Hip-Hop/Soul artist Bilal Oliver. All but Hurst were Glasper’s fellow students in the Jazz and Contemporary Music program at Manhattan’s New School, where the pianist matriculated in 1997 on full scholarship.

“The quality I like most about Robert is that he’s an improviser in the truest sense,” says Hurst, who in the spring released his own freewheeling earlier recording of the same trio [UNREHURST (Bebob Records)]. “He’s not afraid to fall flat on his face! He realizes something might or might not work, but he’ll try it, because he wants to do it differently than he did it last night. He listens and he doesn’t play licks. I feel that the music can go anywhere, which keeps me thinking on my feet.”

“I have to improvise,” Glasper agrees. “At my classical recital in high school, I was supposed to play three tunes. I played one, and then broke out and started ‘Giant Steps.’ Otherwise, I feel like I’m regurgitating what somebody else wrote.

“For instance, I love Keith Jarrett, but I can’t transcribe anything he plays. He just speaks. He doesn’t play anything he doesn’t mean. I can hear Keith Jarrett over and over again, and always get something different. The way his trio works together is amazing. They’re real musical. They’re patient. They don’t mind vamping. They let the music breathe. Wherever it goes, they go. They don’t put a cap on it. Some cats have told me to make my tunes four minutes long, then take it out. But that’s not where the magic is. That’s not why people love Trane and Miles. They actually stretched out, tried to take the music someplace else, and when it’s over, then it’s over.”

Testifying through music comes naturally to Glasper. From toddler years he witnessed his mother — who was not inclined to entrust the care of her child to any third party — singing jazz, gospel, R&B and the blues at various Houston venues and home rehearsals. At 12, pianist Alan Mosley, newly recruited to his mother’s band, sparked the youngster’s jazz flames. Soon, Glasper enrolled at Houston’s High School of Performing and Visual Arts, where such current luminaries as pianist Jason Moran and drummer Eric Harland had studied. By 14, Glasper was playing the church service; by 16, he was earning steady money playing jazz and pop gigs around the Houston area.

Glasper kept working after he got to New York, attending jam sessions and taking obscure gigs around the city. One such was a weekly hit on “a broken-ass keyboard” at a Brooklyn bar called Pork Knockers not far from the apartment of pianist Anthony Wonsey, who happened by on a night when he was playing. Impressed, Wonsey asked Glasper to sub for him with Russell Malone, who became a frequent employer between 1999-2001. During those years he also worked with Christian McBride, Mark Whitfield, Nicholas Payton, and Kenny Garrett. He’s played steadily with Bilal since the singer signed his record deal midway through their second year of school, and appears on Bilal’s recent record First Born, Second.

Such activity left little room for formal studies; Glasper notes, “I blew through school a little bit, and didn’t really take lessons, but the teachers were cool about it.” Meanwhile, he did develop instant simpatico with classmates Marcus Strickland, E.J. Strickland and Brandon Owens who share his aesthetic of not stopping until the piece is done (they’re documented on Marcus Strickland’s excellent quartet album, AT LAST, [FS-101]) and with drummer Damion Reid, a Los Angeles native who came to the New School after a couple of years at the Thelonious Monk School and the New England Conservatory.

“I play trio a lot different than I play with a group,” says Glasper, whose first instrument was drumset. “Damion and I call the way we feel time the circle. We don’t think straight-ahead, like 1-2-3-4. We feel where the measures end, do whatever we have to do between 1 and 4 to get back to the 1, and come in together. Damion is really free, but in time. If your time isn’t strong within yourself, you can’t even play with a drummer like him, because it’s going to sound horrible.”

Hurst elaborates. “These guys were raised on Hip-Hop, and it influences what they play, even in the jazz tradition. In the same way, my generation grew up on P-Funk and Motown and Prince, and we weren’t afraid to let it affect our music. Some people rejected that, and I think the consequence is that they sound stiff and they sound old. Not that you have to put a funk beat on everything. But in my opinion, you have to embrace everything that’s around you, or it’s going to be stale.”

There is nothing stale or old-school about Bilal Oliver’s treatment of “Maiden Voyage.” Treating Herbie Hancock’s classic melody as a kind of ritual invocation, he puts some multi-tracked throatsong-to-falsetto vocalese on top of an affecting reharmonized vamp and a funk-with-a-limp straight-eighth beat.

The trio embarks on their own voyage with Glasper’s “Lil’ Tipsy,” using compression-expansion techniques to explore in painstaking detail a disjunctive dance of inebriation. Glasper uses the concluding vamp as a spur-of-the-moment opportunity to segue directly into “Alone Together.” There ensues an avid triologue, Hurst holding down the bottom as Glasper and Reid, with nonchalant confidence, weave through an obstacle course of rhythmic signatures.

On “Mood,” a quintet track, Moreno and Ellis offer beautiful contrapuntal section playing and pungent solos, capturing the composer’s intent to resolve from a melancholy opening to an impassioned feelgood vamp. Bilal ratchets the intensity on “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” a bluesy jazz ballad to which Glasper wrote the melody and the lyric. Glasper says: “I have a certain feel, a certain way of thinking and imagining and hearing harmony, and it all descends from coming up in and playing music in the church.”

Glasper returns to ebullience on a creative and virtuosic treatment of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.” “There was a detergent commercial that used it during my first year in school,” he relates, “and I was singing it all the time. Then someone told me it was a jazz tune. I arranged it for a concert at school. A year later, I came up with this arrangement.

“‘Interlude’ happened because we kept playing after I faded out from the drum solo, and when I listened to the tape I thought the hip-hop part was hot. Hip-hop is a part of me, too, and I wanted to have that influence on the album.”

“In Passing” began as an elegy for Glasper’s Houston friend, Scooby, who died in 1999. “I never could finish the tune, but I started working on it again when Aliyah died,” Glasper says. “Not too long after that, 9/11 happened. That made me finish the song. It’s about how your time on earth is passing.”

Glasper ends the program with the incendiary “L N K Blues,” setting up a John Ellis-Marcus Strickland tenor battle that implicitly affirms his connection to and extensions of the idiom that defined the sound of jazz in Houston from the ’40s through the ’60s. “My Mom sang in a lot of blues clubs,” he says. “And the church. Blues and church kind of go hand-in-hand. Instead of ‘I love you, baby,’ it’s ‘I love you, God.'”

Perhaps that foundation bedrocks Glasper’s heady blend of spirited play and formal discipline, and allows him to avoid the strut-all-your-stuff trap that so many ambitious young artists fall prey to on first releases.

“This album is not about ego or soloing on every tune,” he concludes. “A lot of jazz purists might not like it because of the way it starts off, with ‘Maiden Voyage’. But the product I’m giving you is based on my experiences with different music and with life. That’s true in the compositions and how I arrange them. That’s what it is.”

Leave a comment

Filed under DownBeat, Jazz.com, Jazziz

For Nasheet Waits’ 50th birthday, a Jazziz Profile from 2017 and Nasheet’s Max Roach homage for www.jazz.com in 2009

To mark the milestone fiftieth birthday of the great drummer Nasheet Waits, here are a couple of pieces — at the top is a feature piece I had an opportunity to write about him for Jazziz at the end of 2017; below it is an article that I commissioned Nasheet to do for the great, late-lamented http://www.jazz.com ‘zine back 2009, where Nasheet selected and discussed a dozen of his favorite tracks by Max Roach, who a key mentor and influence in his life.

 

Nasheet Waits Jazziz Article (#1):

It was midweek in early February, the eve of a snowstorm, and Nasheet Waits, internationally known as the drummer with Jason Moran’s Bandwagon for the last 17 years and counting, was playing before a sparse audience at Manhattan’s Jazz Gallery with a quartet led by 19-year-old alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, comprising 20-year-old bassist Daryl Johns and 21-year-old pianist Jeremy Corren. It could have been the most innocuous of gigs. But Waits, who is 45, devoted full attention to interacting with partners young enough to be his children. Sight-reading the rubato, ametric passages and shifting time signatures in Wilkins’ charts, he interpreted the melodies on the fly, unleashing a stream of undulating beat permutations while eliciting precisely calibrated textures from each component of the drumkit within the flow.

“They were incredible,” Waits said the morning after. “What comes out of their instruments is very mature.” He became sold on Wilkins and Johns after hearing them play standards in trio with twentyish drummer Jeremy Dutton two weeks earlier at Smalls, down the block from the Village Vanguard, where Waits had just finished his evening’s duties with Christian McBride’s open-ended New Jawn Quartet.

“They were expanding them to the edge of what you could still identify as the tune,” said Waits, who had shared Iridium’s bandstand with Johns on a Macy Gray gig in January. “It reminded me of the Bandwagon’s approach to stretching and bending and refracting the foundation. I thought, ‘Oh, these young brothers have the same kind of spirit; it will be nice.’ You have to start accepting who you are age-wise.”

The encounter underlined Waits’ status as a first-call among his generation for multiple bandleaders, famous or obscure, who want a drummer to render a 360-degree range of styles with authoritative execution, high musicality, imaginative intention and inflamed-soul spirit. During the ’90s, Antonio Hart, Stanley Cowell and Hamiet Bluiett were the most prominent leaders who recognized Waits’ potential; in the first half of the aughts, in addition to Bandwagon commitments, Waits frequently played with the Andrew Hill Sextet and Big Band and the Fred Hersch Trio. But during the past decade, he’s become a ubiquitous presence on projects led by upper echelon shape-shifters and speculative improvisors. Since 2011, Waits has toured and recorded with David Murray’s Infinity Quartet, most recently documented on Blues For Memo (Doublemoon). Into the Silence (ECM) is his fourth CD with trumpeter Avishai Cohen; Quiver (ECM) is his third with trumpeter Ralph Alessi; Incantations (Clean Feed) is his fifth with tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby. Then, too, during the last 15 months, Waits’ special sauce infuses pianist Ethan Iverson’s old-school piano trio recital, The Purity of the Turf (Criss Cross), with Ron Carter on bass; alto saxophonist’s Logan Richardson fusion-esque Shift (Blue Note); alto saxophonist Michael Attias’ outer-partials opus Nerve Dance (Clean Feed); and pianist Sophia Domanech’s programmatic Alice’s Evidence (Marge).

Recently, Waits contributed his interpretative mojo to Abu Sadiya (Accords Croisses), on which he, French-Tunisian woodwindist Yacine Boularès and cellist Vincent Segal mold the Malian-descended Stambeli music of Tunisia into original works. A collaboration of longer standing is Tarbaby, an experimentally oriented trio with pianist Orrin Evans and bassist Eric Revis whose four recordings since 2009 include discursive encounters with Nicholas Payton, Ambrose Akinmusire and Oliver Lake. New Jawn Quartet’s prospective spring recording for Mack Avenue will reflect the freewheeling interactivity that McBride and Waits achieved throughout their week at the Vanguard.

“I love Nasheet’s intensity, that he’s a conversational drummer without being obtrusive, which is a fine line to walk,” McBride said. “Playing with him is an exciting feeling, like running down a street when a dog is chasing you.”

Moran deployed a different metaphor to express a similar observation. “The way Nasheet’s sensibility moves on the kit is unsettling,” he said. “He can make the ground that might be lush soil turn into ice very fast. You think you have your footing, then all of a sudden it becomes very slippery, and that next step you take, all of a sudden you’re sliding. That can be infuriating to a soloist. I heard that the first time we played together, and it’s intrigued me ever since.

“Any bandleader who calls Nasheet is not looking for anything light. They want to feel the fire underneath them. They want to feel the rhythm really moving. Also, most importantly, when you write music and hand it to a drummer, you are looking for them to fill in every gap you left in the score, to make all the decisions that you aren’t able to make as a non-drummer. He’s figured out the tools to utilize to make people’s average shit sound awesome. That’s what great drummers do.”

“Sometimes you play things that aren’t necessarily what the person wanted, but it’s what the music needed,” Waits said. “I have more resources now than I used to. I always had a creative connection to the music, but I wasn’t always capable of folding that creativity into every situation because I didn’t have the capability. I’ve become more versed in the music’s continuum, and it’s strengthened my foundation. I’ve put a lot more tools in my shed.”

[BREAK]

Shortly before New Jawn Quartet entered the Vanguard, Waits had played several dates in Europe with his group, Equality, with alto saxophonist Darius Jones, pianist Aruán Ortiz, and bassist Mark Helias, who perform on his 2016 leader album, Between Nothingness and Infinity (Laborie Jazz). He recorded it eight years after his leader debut, Equality (Fresh Sound), with Richardson, Moran and Bandwagon bassist Tarus Mateen. Both recitals reflect, as Helias puts it, “an unspoken imperative that we’re going to stretch out and take chances. Nasheet is most interested in where a piece is going, how we can expand it from the inside out to make something happen musically.”

One of Waits’ four originals on the new release is “Hesitation.” “It refers to my hesitancy to even ‘lead’ a band,” he says. “The way our industry works, you’re viewed differently as a leader than as a sideman. It took a while for me to become comfortable with feeling I was ready, although Andrew Hill had encouraged me to start my own thing.”

He seized the moment in 2007, while touring with Eddie Gomez for an Italian promoter who suggested Waits organize a band to play some dates. “I knew the promoter’s roster, and I thought a certain aspect of music was under-represented,” he says. “Everything I was seeing was very technical—well-executed, but missing a certain rawness and spontaneity. I felt Jason did that, Tarbaby did it, and that this could be my opportunity to do it.”

After the 2008 recording, Waits did sporadic hits with Equality, some with Moran, Mateen and Richardson. Helias entered the mix, and Cowell, Craig Taborn, David Virelles and then Ortiz played piano at different times. As Waits participated more and more in Murray’s projects, Valerie Malot, Murray’s wife, who runs the 3D Family production company, offered to help him find outlets for his sonic vision.

“I was reticent,” Waits says. “I felt sated in terms of my creativity. But I heard Darius, and enjoyed the emotive quality of his sound, so I decided, ‘Yeah, let’s work on some stuff.’ One thing led to another, and once we got this contract we started doing things overseas. This band definitely has a collective spirit. We’ve had quite a few special moments. I want to be part of creating as many situations like that as possible for the rest of my life.”

Waits traces the consistent imperative to exist as a creative being—to take risks, to make mistakes and play out of them—to “the people who mentored and taught me, my father first and foremost.” He’s referring to Frederick Waits, who worked with blues and rhythm-and-blues groups as a youngster in Jim Crow era Mississippi, before moving to Detroit, where he became a Motown house drummer. He moved to New York in the late 1960s, and ascended the ladder, accumulating a c.v. that boasted work with Ella Fitzgerald, Lee Morgan, Richard Davis, McCoy Tyner, Hill, Cowell, Donald Byrd, Bill Dixon, Cecil Taylor and Max Roach’s M’Boom.

Waits lives with his wife and four-year-old son in the apartment he grew up in at Westbeth, the venerable artists’ complex on the western edge of Greenwich Village where his parents were original tenants, sharing the space with luminaries like Gil Evans and Merce Cunningham, along with numerous painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers and actors. During childhood and adolescence, his main passions were baseball (he played shortstop) and the drums, on which he practiced assiduously to high-octane jazz recordings like Lee Morgan’s “The Beehive,” from Live at the Lighthouse, fueled by Mickey Roker. He played timbales and drum solos in an excellent middle school band that included best friends Eric McPherson and Abraham Burton, now esteemed jazz pros; Rashied Ali’s son, Idris, who played trumpet; and Sam Rivers’ granddaughters Aisha and Tamara, who played clarinet. At 11, Waits recalls, he accompanied his father to a gig in Connecticut with Jackie McLean, and was allowed to sit in for a tune. For his 16th birthday, he asked his father take him to Sweet Basil, a few blocks away from Westbeth, to hear Cedar Walton, Ron Carter and Billy Higgins.

“I was there at the inception of hip-hop, but it was filtered through Gil Evans and all this other stuff my father was involved in,” Waits says. “It wasn’t that it was jazz; I was attracted to the way it made me feel. It was never presented to me that I had to approach jazz in a certain way, but a cultural importance was placed upon it—if you were going to participate you had to have a respect and reverence for the music.

“Greenwich Village was wild, a lot more diverse—culturally, economically, racially—than it is now. I could say that it translated to being attracted to a certain raw quality in what I do, but also in seeing validity in a lot of different styles of music. It’s more about the culture to me, and the culture can be expressed in a lot of different ways.”

[BREAK]

Waits’ mother, Hakima, died when he was 13. He enrolled at a boarding school in Pennsylvania, from which he matriculated to Atlanta’s Morehouse College, where he studied history and psychology, while tabling his involvement with the drums. But when his father died in November, 1989, Nasheet returned to New York so that his 9-year-old brother would not have to be uprooted. For the next decade, they lived together at Westbeth, given unconditional support by family and friends like Max Roach, Roach’s M’Boom colleague Dr. Fred King (Waits’ godfather), and Carvin, who opened their homes and hearts. So did McPherson and Burton, who invited Waits to McPherson’s weekly gig at Augie’s, an uptown bar where other stars-in-the-making like McBride, Brad Mehldau, Jesse Davis and Peter Bernstein came to play. In this environment, Waits rekindled his passion for music-making.

“I didn’t read, and I hadn’t practiced rudiments, like doing a paradiddle or a double-stroke roll,” Waits says. “On my first gig at Augie’s, they called the blues and I didn’t know what they were talking about; they called Rhythm changes and I was like, ‘What does that mean?’” He set about systematically transforming raw talent into knowledge, abetting the process through formal lessons with Carvin; classes at Long Island University’s strong jazz program; and ample face time with Roach, who responded to Waits’ questions with cryptic, koan-like answers. Gradually, Waits assimilated dicta that his father had impressed upon him, particularly the notion that “the sound you pull out of the drums is the first impression you make to people who are listening.”

“My father never forced any of his opinions upon me, but let me discover these things for myself,” Waits says. “He, my father and Michael would always tell me to start my own thing. ‘Ok, this is the way they did it; now how are you going to do it, what are you going to incorporate?’ The breadth of their work was wide, and their hearts were open. They were practicing on the bandstand every time they hit. They had no limitations, and that became part of my lexicon.”

Roach’s insistence on “always sounding like he’s on the edge,” on “never playing it safe,” will remain core to the default basis of operations that animates Waits, his partners in the Bandwagon, and the other company he keeps. “Part of what’s helped us stay together so long is that I try to keep finding other frameworks for us,” Moran says. “It could be conceptual frameworks, where we work on how slow can we play, how long can a space be between one note and the next. I could ask Nasheet to do a press roll for 15 minutes on a piece, and then not have him do it during the performance. It’s to have us think about these processes and how we work together. These things give us new edges to jump off of.”

Waits concurs wholeheartedly. “If you’re always accessing something that you know, you’re limiting what you can learn and the music that can be created,” he says. “Sometimes it can be a disaster, but out of those disasters is a lot of beauty. The way Bandwagon evolved is optimal. It reflects being inside the music and trying to release yourself within that, becoming the music, as opposed to trying to control it or make it do something. To play a tune that sounds good the same way all the time is definitely not the goal. We’re always looking for the sweet spot, but to find that sweet spot you might have to tread through deep and murky waters where you don’t achieve it. The search is lauded as much as the accomplishment. Look at and approach the music like it’s putty in your hands. Make it elastic. Put it in a ball, throw it up against the wall, take it off, see what’s imprinted on it. That can be done in infinite ways, so there’s never an answer. That spirit lends itself to being fresh all the time. Immanuel and his guys were approaching it that way. Most of the musicians I’ve surrounded myself with have that same spirit.”

 

************

Nasheet Waits (Max Roach Dozens for http://www.jazz.com):

In an era when drummers consider it a default performance practice to navigate a global template of rhythmic expression, it is important to remember that Max Roach (1924-2007), whose eighty-sixth birthday anniversary came along last week, is the single most important figure in this development.

Just ask the drummers who knew him, as I did a few years back when Downbeat gave me the honor of writing a lengthy obituary. “Before Max, all the drummers, even the great ones like Baby Dodds or Gene Krupa or Chick Webb, approached soloing on the drumset from more of a rudimental and snare drum concept,” said Billy Hart. “Max was the first one to take the rudiments and spread them melodically around the whole drumset—bass drum, tom-tom, snare drum, cymbal.”

“Max was adamant that it was just as important for him to know the form and melody as everybody else,” Kenny Washington added. “He took independence between two hands and two feet to the next level.”

Roach was never content to recreate the past, which he associated with segregation times, and he spent the second half of his career in perpetual forward motion, determinedly bridging stylistic categories. “Max may have used 30 signature things, but he used them in so many different ways,” Jeff “Tain” Watts remarked. “One piece of vocabulary could function as a solo idea, a melody for a solo drum piece. He’d take the same fragment of melodic material and take it out of time, use it like splashing colors on a canvas or whatever, or use it in an avant-garde context, like his duets with Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton. That cued me not to be so compartmentalized with certain stuff for soloing and other stuff for something else, but just to use vocabulary—your own vocabulary—to serve many functions.”

Born on Jan. 10, 1924, in Newland, N.C., and raised in Brooklyn, Roach was the first jazz musician to treat the drum set both functionally and as an autonomous instrument of limitless artistic possibility. As a teenager, Roach paid close attention to “drummers who could solo”—Jo Jones, Sid Catlett, Chick Webb, Cozy Cole. Toward the end of his studies at Boys High School, he began riding the subway from Bedford-Stuyvesant to Harlem for late-night sessions at Minton’s Playhouse and Monroe’s uptown House, where the likes of Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke and Dizzy Gillespie, all Roach’s elders by several years, explored alternative approaches to the status quo.

By 1942, they had reharmonized blues forms and Tin Pan Alley tunes, changing keys, elasticizing the beat and setting hellfire tempos that discouraged weaker players from taking the bandstand when serious work was taking place. Before World War II ended, the new sound was sufficiently established to have a name—bebop.

Thoroughly conversant in how to push a big band—he hit the road with Benny Carter in 1944 and 1945, and filled in for Sonny Greer with Duke Ellington in early 1942—with four-to-the-floor on the bass drum and tricks with the sticks, Roach made his first record in 1943 with Coleman Hawkins, and played on Hawkins’ ur-bebop 1944 session with Gillespie on which “Woody ’N’ You” debuted. But as Charlie Parker’s primary drummer in 1944 and 1945 and from 1947–49, Roach developed a technique that allowed him to keep pace with and enhance Parker’s ferocious velocities and ingenious rhythmic displacements. His famous polyrhythmic solo on Bud Powell’s “Un Poco Loco” in 1951 foreshadowed things to come in the next decade.

During the early 1950s, Roach studied composition at Manhattan School of Music and co-founded, with Charles Mingus, Debut Records—one of the first musician-run record companies. In 1954, he formed the Max Roach–Clifford Brown Quintet, in which he elaborated his concept of transforming the drum set into what he liked to call the multiple percussion set, treating each component as a unique instrument, while weaving his patterns into an elaborate, kinetic design. After the death of Brown and pianist Richie Powell in 1956, he battled depression and anger, but continued to lead a succession of bands with saxophonists Sonny Rollins, Hank Mobley, George Coleman, Stanley Turrentine, Eric Dolphy, Clifford Jordan, and Gary Bartz, trumpeters Kenny Dorham, Booker Little, Richard Williams, Freddie Hubbard, and Charles Tolliver, tubist Ray Draper, and pianists Mal Waldron and Stanley Cowell.

Roach also performed as a sideman on such essential ’50s recordings as Thelonious Monk’s Brilliant Corners and Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus and The Freedom Suite, as well as important dates by Herbie Nichols, J.J. Johnson and Little. He interpolated African and Afro-Caribbean strategies into his flow, incorporated orchestral percussion into his drum set and worked compositionally with odd meters, polyrhythm and drum tonality. He gave equal weight to both a song’s melodic contour and its beat. “Conversations,” from 1953, was his first recorded drum solo; by the end of the decade, he had developed a body of singular compositions for solo performance built on elemental but difficult-to-execute rudiments upon which he improvised with endless permutations.

He continued to expand his scope through the ’60s. A long-standing member of Bedford-Stuyvesant’s Concord Baptist Church, he incorporated the voice—both the singular instrument of his then-wife, Abbey Lincoln, and also choirs—into his presentation. It was the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and he used his music as a vehicle for struggle, expressing views on the zeitgeist in both the titles of his albums and compositions—“We Insist: The Freedom Now Suite” (commissioned by the NAACP for the approaching centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation), “Garvey’s Ghost,” “It’s Time”—and his approach to performing them.

Roach joined the University of Massachusetts, Amherst faculty in the early ’70s, and seemed to use the post as a platform from which to broaden his expression. In 1971, he joined forces with a cohort of New York-based percussionists to form M’Boom, a cooperative nine-man ensemble that addressed a global array of skin-on-skin and mallet instruments; and in the early ’80s he formed the Max Roach Double Quartet, blending his group, the Max Roach Quartet with the Uptown String Quartet, with his daughter, Maxine Roach. He recorded with a large choir and with a symphony orchestra. A 1974 duet recording with Abdullah Ibrahim launched a series of extraordinary musical conversations with speculative improvisers Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor and Archie Shepp; these sparked subsequent encounters with pianists Connie Crothers and Mal Waldron, and a 1989 meeting with his early mentor Gillespie.

He also reached out to artists representing other musical styles and artistic genres—playing drums for break dancers and turntablists in 1983; collaborating with Amiri Baraka on a musical about Harlem numbers king Bumpy Johnson, and with Sonia Sanchez on drum-freestyle improv; improvising to video images from Kit Fitzgerald, to moves from dancer Bill T. Jones, and to freestyle verse from his nephew, Fred “Fab Five Freddie” Braithwaite, who conjured the epigram, “The man with the fresh approach, Max Roach.” He scored plays by Shakespeare and Sam Shepard, composed for choreographer Alvin Ailey, and set up transcultural hybrids with a Japanese kodo ensemble, gitano flamenco singers, and an ad hoc gathering of Jewish and Arab percussionists in Israel.

No drummer born after the Baby Boom knew Roach more intimately than Nasheet Waits, whose father, the excellent drummer Frederick Douglas “Freddie” Waits (1940-1989), was an original member of M’Boom. Nasheet attended high school with Roach’s twin daughters, Ayo and Dara, and after Freddie Waits passed away, Roach took Nasheet under his wing, eventually hiring him to play with M’Boom.

”Max always used to say that the drums were treated like the nigger in the band—disrespected in terms of your knowledge of music, your ability to be ‘a real musician.’” Waits says. “Nowadays drummers like Tyshawn Sorey and Marcus Gilmore write as well as anybody else. You have to be to be aware of what’s happening on a lot of levels to be able to play the music. Max may have been the first of his kind like that. He was known as a reader. That’s why he got called to play with Duke Ellington when Sonny Greer was ailing. But then, he said, when he got up to play the chart, there was no chart! So it became instinctual. That’s something that he always stressed to me, personally.

”I had the good fortune of being in his presence quite a bit, on a one-on-one basis, setting up drums and just being around the house. I was starting to get back into playing, and I’d be asking him questions, but his answers were always in a parable, always presented as esoteric knowledge, like trying to get information from a griot and receiving it as a riddle. He always emphasized that the key was to find your own voice, your own path. Everything I’ve heard he plays on always sounds like he’s on the edge, always taking chances, taking it to another level, not satisfied playing the role that drummers traditionally play—and still play.”

[BREAK]

1. TRACK: “For Big Sid.”

ARTIST: Max Roach

CD: Drums Unlimited [Atlantic SD1467 / Collectables CD-6256]

Recorded: New York, April 25, 1966

Musicians: Max Roach, drums.

RATING: 100/100

“For Big Sid” is one of three drum solos that Max recorded on Drums Unlimited, along with “The Drum Also Waltzes” and the title track. He had referenced that composition quite a bit, but to my knowledge, this was the first time it was released. Just the fact that he had those drum solos on the album, and the way he presented them, was pretty revolutionary. To me, it’s one of the great albums in the history of jazz music, not only for interspersing the solos between the other songs, but also the quality of those tunes, like “Nommo.” It’s what he played, how he played it. In this music, you always find connections and threads to the history, and even though Max was always forward-thinking, he also referenced the past. This is a perfect example of that.“For Big Sid” references the tune “Mop, Mop,” which Kenny Clarke developed, and is also a direct reference to Sid Catlett who recorded that tune with Art Tatum in 1943. It’s like he’s killing two birds with one stone.

Call-and-response is always present in Max’s approach to soloing as well as comping. Here it’s like he’s playing a melody and comping for himself—all of it happens at the same time. It’s a supreme example of theme-and-variation, where he initiates a theme, and answers himself. He continues that pattern all throughout the piece. He takes a motif, flips it around, inverts it, elongates it. Same initial phrase, but it gets longer—different dynamics and so on. Max always said that he didn’t really play melody, that he played form and structure and shape. He meant that within the course of the framework of the song, the harmony and so forth, he was creating those shapes and following the form. But he always did it so cogently, with great clarity. This is a perfect example of that quality.

What he played was individual to who he was, and how he synthesized all of his experiences. He preached that mantra, but he also followed it. He referenced all types of sources—from the Caribbean and Africa, from the church, from Western Classical, rudimental solos, and Wilcoxsen. All of that is expressed when he played, and it’s certainly evident here. You see his technical virtuosity, but you also see how he uses space. It’s almost like the stuff that he isn’t playing is just as important as the stuff that he does play. Regardless of what he played, he always used that call-and-response, but there’s so much call-and-response from phrase to phrase within the context of this solo in the way he builds it and creates the architecture, and the tones he uses to express it. DIGGIT-UH-DUH-UNH, DIGGIT-UH-DUH-UNH, DIGGIT-UH-DUH-UNH-UHN, DAHT-DAHT.] Sometimes Max goes from left to right, right to left, and then he comes out this way. It’s almost looking in a kaleidoscope. You see the shape, then you twist it, which changes that shape. It’s coming from the last one, but it’s still related to what came before it. All his stuff is related to what comes before, and then he recapitulates to the
beginning.

2. TRACK: “Dinka Street”

ARTIST: Max Roach

ALBUM: The Max Roach Trio Featuring the Legendary Hassan [Atlantic, Collectables CD-6256

MUSICIANS: Max Roach, drums; Hassan Ibn Ali, piano, composer; Art Davis, bass

RECORDED: New York, December 4, 1964

RATING: 100/100

Jason Moran brought The Max Roach Trio Featuring the Legendary Hassan to my attention, and it really speaks to me. It’s one of my favorite records, period. The whole record is a departure from traditional piano trio playing I’ve heard up to that point, which is late 1964. It wasn’t like the piano player soloing, and then the drummer and bass player are in support mode, like the Oscar Peterson Trio, or any other trio. It’s like everybody is almost soloing at the same time, or collectively, in the sense of New Orleans collective improvisation. That’s the historical reference I draw from it. It’s never that Max is just playing even the swing pattern and comping for Hassan while he takes a solo. They’re always back and forth, a true conversation. Everybody has individual responsibility as to what’s going on.

The tune starts with an arco bass thing at the beginning, he plays the melody, then a solo section. There’s no real TING, TING-TA-DING, TING-TA-DING swing going on through it. It’s referenced, it’s intimated, but it’s not really that. And Max isn’t really playing the hi-hat on 2 and 4 either. There’s no regimented feel throughout the course of the piece. Then the rhythm that all of them are using is pretty advanced. Hassan is playing phrases in 5 and in 7, and they’re all playing over the bar, even when on the trading. All of it is right on the edge. All of them are virtuosos, but they’re taking it to the apex in terms of creativity within the framework of a trio. Even Elvin Jones, as influential as he was in terms of phrasing and so on, generally rooted everything with a 2-and-4 thing on the hi-hat. Max abandoned that in certain situations, and this, as you can clearly hear, was one of them. He told me there were certain techniques you could use to play that way and still maintain the groove—the groove isn’t abandoned, but he’s still not playing 2 and 4 on the hi-hat. It’s more of a dancing kind of feel. I’ve heard older musicians say that to drummers and to bass players, like, “Yeah, ok, we’re walking, but I want you to dance.” So there’s more freedom involved in how everybody is approaching the rhythm within this group.

There’s also some ride cymbal distinctions on this tune which also, for me, references back to Kenny Clarke. In terms of the music’s evolution, I always think of Papa Jo Jones establishing that ride cymbal pattern, and then Kenny Clarke embellishing on that with techniques like “dropping bombs,” syncopating more between the bass drum and the snare drum, and also varying the ride cymbal pattern, using the ride cymbal more in terms of accents—so not playing four-on-the-floor all the time. On this particular cut, as on the whole recording, Max takes these ideas to another level in the phrases he’s playing in conjunction with what Hassan and Dr. Davis are playing, terms of the pattern of the ride cymbal associated with the omission of the 2-and-4 on the hi-hat. Everybody is listening hard, too, responding and reacting to each other. It’s not like anybody is just doing their own thing. There’s a true synergy. No automatic pilot.

Max changes the texture when the bass solo occurs by switching to the brushes. So takes the flow from a more interactive quality to just straight quarter notes, and changes the dynamic of the piece—more like a movement in a symphony. They’re constructing the music in a way that goes out of the framework of the regular song. From the bass solo in the introduction, to the piano rubato, to the tune, then back to the bass solo—the tune’s structure, the form of the song is pointing forward, elongating. It’s different than the regular 32-bar or 12-bar blues that some people associate with “jazz music.”

3. TRACK: “Tropical Forest”

ARTIST: Max Roach

CD: Birth and Rebirth (Black Saint (It)BSR0024)

Musicians: Max Roach, drums, percussion; Anthony Braxton, clarinet

Recorded: Milan, September 1978

RATING: 100/100

My younger brother is like a renaissance man; he does all kinds of things. A few years ago, some of his friends would come around to our studio and hang out, playing chess, and they’d put on this record. These people were in their early twenties, they weren’t musicians, but they really got into the music. I found that very interesting. This date is a set of extemporaneous compositions. They’re just hitting. But man, these people played this thing over and over again. Some of them were dancers. It spoke to them in a very powerful way. So I guess music can transcend boundaries of the acceptable or the unacceptable, or what people call “avant-garde” or “free.” This is a jewel right here!

It’s all beautiful to me, but on this particular cut what strikes me is that Braxton is playing clarinet, and Max is only playing the hi-hat and also a pitch-bending floor-tom, almost reminiscent of the tympany. Max wasn’t afraid to take chances. I don’t know anybody else who had that on their set—the pitch-bending floor tom with the tympany-like pedal. This piece sounds like, I would think, cut-and-splice—they went in and hit for however long a period of time, and took what they liked. “Ok, this is kind of a song form; let’s deal with this one right here.” This one starts out like that. Max initiates a basic phrase on the hi-hat, Braxton comes in and starts responding to that, they’re still having a conversation, and then Max opens up a little bit to the cymbals, and then he goes to the floor tom and alternates between the floor tom and the hi-hat. That’s it. He doesn’t touch any other part of the set for a little over five minutes. But he creates such a wonderful setting.

I wondered why they called this “Tropical Forest.” But then I realized that Braxton sounds almost reminiscent of those crying birds, like a toucan. I started receiving that kind of imagery from the sound he and Max got. In a lot of Max’s tunes, the title creates a certain image. I started seeing a rainforest setting—tropical colors, yellows and oranges.

This made about as powerful an impression on me as when I heard Roy Haynes play “Subterfuge” on Andrew Hill’s Black Fire. Roy just plays hi-hat the whole track, but still projects the force and drive as if he was playing the ride cymbal. Just that same phrase. I got the same feeling when I heard this track. Sonically, it’s almost a three-part structure, but they transmitted the feeling so effectively. That’s one I’m going to have to go back and revisit a lot. You stumble up on stuff, and then you go, “Wow!” You wind up playing it over and over again. That’s definitely one of those.

4. TRACK: Onomatopoeia

Artist: Max Roach

CD: M’Boom (Columbia JC36247, CK57886

Musicians: Roy Brooks, Joe Chambers, Omar Clay (composer), Freddy King, Freddie Waits, Warren Smith, Max Roach (drums, percussion, vibraphone, marima, xylophone, tympany), Ray Mantilla (conga, bongo, timbales, Latin percussion); Kenyatte Abdur-Rahman (percussion)

Recorded: July 25, 1979

RATING: 100/100

M’Boom is an all-percussion ensemble, a special group formed in 1970; this recording is from 1979, so it had been a while in the making. The initial members were Omar Clay, Warren Smith, Joe Chambers, Roy Brooks, Max, Freddy King, and Freddie Waits, who was my father. Ray Mantilla came in later.

“Onomatopoeia” is a word that describes a sound. M’Boom is an onomatopoeic expression. I’ve always thought of it as bass drum to the bass drum and cymbal — MMMM-BUM. Tympany. This piece is a perfect example of seamless transition. A lot of themes and phrases overlap and others emerge. or phrases or whatever. It doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of stuff where it stops and starts—one thing happens, an undercurrent of something under it comes to the forefront, this recedes, something else comes in. Polyphony all the time, shifting dynamics, the different instruments introduced in a staggered way. The piece is in 11, it starts off with the chimes, then the vibes and marimba enter, then after that’s established, the tympany and drumset come in, and they’re kind of soloing over that hemiola that’s repeating in 11—that’s Omar and Joe on drums, I believe, and Warren on tympany. That’s the first portion of the song. Then they make a transition. They stay in 11, but instead of playing [CLAPS 11 QUARTER NOTES], they start playing [CLAPS FOUR HALF-NOTES AND THREE EIGHTH-NOTES] and they go from the marimba and vibes to membrane. I remember playing this song, and they would always be like, ‘Membrane! Membrane!”—meaning going to the skins. If you’re playing a timbale, play the center of the timbale; if you’re playing congas, the center of the conga. No rims. That creates an interesting counter to the xylophone, which is in a different type of register. Max takes the xylophone solo.

Max always used to tell me, “Get to your shit quick” when you’re soloing. He’d go, “Yeah, you’re making some nice statements, but get to your shit quick.” In live performances it might have been different, but for this recording everyone gets their ideas out quick. Regardless how wild or expressive they may be, there’s always that very clear message, to me—not only from Max, but everybody. Warren Smith takes a solo on tympany after Max, then they transfer the phrase from the membrance to the rims—in other words, to the metal. Then he takes a solo on the membrane of a tympany. It switches up. That theme also occurs in a lot of Max’s work, whether solo or with bands—a juxtaposition of different feelings or sounds or meters against each other.

All the members of M’Boom were adept at making those types of rhythmic changes and comfortable with that variation, to the point where the transition from one to the other was seamless. The different textures create a different feeling for the listener. In certain instances, it creates a sense of power, and then when they go to the metal, it sounds a little more frenetic, more like an anticipation of the climax, which is coming next.

5. TRACK: Triptych: Prayer / Protest / Peace

Artist: Max Roach

CD: We Insist: Freedom Now Suite [Candid CCD 79002]

Recorded: New York, September 6, 1960

Musicians: Max Roach (drums); Abbey Lincoln (vocals)

RATING: 100/100

First and foremost, this recording was really important because of its social implications. The liner notes begin with an A. Philip Randolph quote”: “a revolution is unfurling—America’s unfinished revolution. Masses of Negroes are marching onto the stage of history and demanding their freedom now.” That’s where I assume Max copped the title, which was very powerful and definitely indicative of what was happening in the country in 1960. The Civil Rights Bill wouldn’t be signed until 1964. There was a long way to go. Black people in America were living under very severe conditions, and Max was addressing that in the music.

It’s a powerful piece. It’s a duo between Abbey and Max, presented in three parts. Max did a lot of duo work during the course of his career, which speaks to his musical sensitivity, because in every situation, even though he plays some similar language, he presents it differently—and it always seems so fresh and creative. The other day [pianist] Connie Crothers told me they had done a recording on which, he told her, he played some things on brushes that he had never played before. So he was always in tune, always searching for something outside his usual language. We all have language that’s usual to us. I use certain words and phrases more often than others. It’s the same with music. Even a genius and virtuoso such as Max Roach always referenced certain phrases—you can hear them on “Triptych.”

“The Freedom Now Suite,” was a collaborative piece by Max and Oscar Brown, Jr., but “Triptych” is just a duo, which it seems like an extemporaneous composition in three parts. The first part is “Prayer,’ which is the cry of an oppressed people. He starts with a simple phrase. That call-and-response, that antiphony, is always present in his playing. He starts, Abbey is singing, like a prayer, and then the protest emerges from that, where she’s screaming and yelling, and Max is rumbling. There is a definite sense of anger, but there’s also, especially in Max’s playing, a sense of organization. Taking it out of the musical realm and applying it to the social: People had been killed and mistreated for hundreds of years, so there was tremendous anger and resentment, but organization was essential to achieve the goal. I received that message especially in this part, because even though Max is playing aggressively and intensely, there logic in his playing, and he conveys there is also a logic to what he is playing. It’s intense, it’s big, but there’s definitely a logic—and he conveys the message. Abbey as well.

The last part is in 5/4. But Max also references that “Drum Also Waltzes” motif in this section of “Triptych.”

So the image that was created with this song was very powerful and pretty clear. “Triptych” is a piece of art that has three panels, usually the middle one being the larger. That definition doesn’t necessarily apply to this piece; the movements all seem almost equal in length. But I got a very clear visual image from it. Not too long after Miles passed, in late ‘91 or early ‘92, Max organized a memorial for Miles at St. John’s The Divine. Judith Jameson was there, Maya Angelou, different people, and there was some dancing going on. I drove up to the church with him, and we were listening to “Bitches Brew” in the car. He went, “oh, man, I can see these evil-assed chicks brewing some shit.” He was hearing the music and he was relating it directly to the title. He said, “I can see them stirring up some brew to fuck up some cat.” He said it sounds like that.

This has the same effect. I got a very clear picture from “Triptych,” referencing clearly what was going on at that time in America. Max had a lot of problems getting work during this period, from making his political statements. He said a lot of times he went somewhere, and they’d say, “I love this music, but can you just not say anything about this?” He’d say, “No, I have to talk about it.” It was taking money out of his pocket—him and Abbey. I know that she suffered quite a bit as a result of them actually taking a stand and being as vocal about it as they were. Financially speaking, their careers took a hit. So Max always put his money where his mouth was. He was really dedicated. Really high integrity. Willing to sacrifice financial security to get across the message.

6. TRACK: “Fleurette Africaine”

ARTIST: Duke Ellington

CD: Money Jungle [Blue Note CDP 7 46398 2]

Recorded: New York, September 17, 1962

Musicians: Duke Ellington (p) Charles Mingus (b) Max Roach (d)

RATING: 100/100

“Fleurette Africaine” is my favorite song off the legendary Money Jungle record with Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus. So how can I not include it as one of my favorite cuts that Max was involved in? The great star power of those three individuals together on a record is phenomenal. Actually, to be truthful, I don’t know if Max and Mingus really had that connection in terms of the rhythm section. In fact, Max told me about some things that happened at the session… What happened is probably legendary.

Max was connected to Duke; he’d played with him at 16, his first gig with a signature person, sitting in for Papa Greer [Sonny Greer] for a few nights while Sonny wasn’t feeling well. Here, twenty years later, Max is somewhat of a star himself, and of course, Duke influenced Mingus so much as a composer. To have them all there is special thing. A lot of times, those kind of pulled-together all-star situations don’t work, but this is one of the best dates of that kind.

The Bandwagon recorded “Wig Wise” from this session. I’d never heard it before we recorded, but when I listened, it definitely sounded like they’re at odds, and there’s a lot of aggression coming from Mingus. I dug it, though! It definitely sounds frantic and tense. But this song doesn’t have that quality, which is maybe why it’s my favorite from the album. It’s melancholy, in a way, almost softly sad.

To me, Max provides that calmness. He’s playing mallets, and the feel is subdued throughout. The whole piece sounds like a ballad-fairy-tale song. This is 1962, still the era of the Civil Rights movement, so the fact that they’re referencing something African as beautiful, and equating that with black people, was important. Nowadays it might not necessarily be as important, but then it really was. The “Fleurette Africaine” title references the times—1962 is the year Algeria got its independence from France, and the African nations generally were coming out of the colonial grip. I think the musicians were conscious of that, and were using their music to convey a kinship to those people who were struggling for their independence, because we were doing the same thing over here.

A lot of times it seems that Max is playing the opposite of what Mingus is playing. Mingus goes DING-DING, DING-DING, he’s up in there, and then Max is playing longer. When Mingus is doing the opposite, then Max is rolling. The sound of Max’s playing gives me an image of water in a shallow river bed over small rocks. It sounds like there’s small rocks under what he’s doing. Gentle, sensitive, inobtrusive playing. Very simple melody. Beautiful.

7. TRACK: Donna Lee

ARTIST: Charlie Parker

CD: The Complete Savoy & Dial Master Takes [Savoy Jazz]

Recorded: New York, May 8, 1947

Musicians: Charlie Parker All Stars: Charlie Parker (alto saxophone, composer); Miles Davis (trumpet); Bud Powell (piano); Tommy Potter (bass); Max Roach (drums)

RATING: 100/100

I could have accessed so many pieces from this era, but I really like “Donna Lee.” It’s a great band, a revolutionary band, with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Max, each a legend in the creation of jazz music. And it’s a great piece of music. It’s an abbreviated song—Charlie Parker takes two choruses, Miles and Bud Powell split one, and then they take it out. I like the fact that everyone was able to say so much within that period of time. But this tune also exemplifies how Max could propel a soloist—the way he builds through the course of the song, the way he accompanies the melody and then the soloist. He always pays attention to dynamics; when the piano solo comes, Max takes it down. But during Bird’s solos, he’s never playing anything corny, like when people are using the same rhythmic language to converse. They’re congruent with each other, but they aren’t necessarily using the same language. It’s almost like they’re parallel and connected at the same time. So they’re cross-sectioning, but they’re also parallel—Max is egging Bird on and answering his phrases, like they’re speaking different languages but talking about the same thing. I find that fascinating.

Max was such a risk-taker. He had to have received a lot of criticism for playing that way, because nobody else was playing like that in 1947. He was playing with the people who were at the edge of creativity, and he himself was pushing it forward. Where he was placing his phrases was completely unconventional as far as the rhythmic language of the day. As I listen, I keep wondering, “where is the impetus for you to do that?” The horns were so much out in front on recordings from this time, it’s almost difficult to hear what everybody else was doing! Duke Jordan’s comping is really traditional, playing the turnarounds and so on, and the bass player is just walking, but the interaction between Max and Bird is completely different.

On “Donna Lee,” even when the melody is being played, Max is playing a kind of counter-melody against it. Arthur Taylor used to talk about “Confirmation,” how there are hits in the course of tunes like that, that are the tune. That’s how Max is playing that in “Donna Lee.” He’s playing off of the melody, playing in the holes of that melody, almost like he’s creating an alternate melody, an accompanying rhythmic melody.

8. TRACK: “Un Poco Loco”

Artist: Bud Powell

CD: The Amazing Bud Powell (Blue Note)

Recorded: New York, May 1, 1951.

Musicians: Bud Powell (piano); Curly Russell (bass); Max Roach (drums)

RATING: 100/100

On “Un Poco Loco,” Max played one of the greatest beats ever on a jazz recording, in the same category as the beat Vernell Fournier plays on “Poinciana,” or the beat that Art Blakey plays on “Pensativa.” Max told me that in the studio, he was playing some variations on Caribbean-Afro Cuban rhythms, and Bud said, “You’re supposed to be Max Roach. Can’t you come up with anything slicker than that?” So Max went home and shedded it out, and he came back with this phenomenal beat. Months later he ran into Bud in the street after not seeing him for a while, and Bud said, “Man, you fucked up my record!” I didn’t understand it. I was wondering what about what Max did destroyed it for Bud Powell, because it’s one of my favorites. Of course, Bud may not have been coming from an entirely rational place.

A lot of people have studied the “Un Poco Loco” beat, because it’s in phrases of 5 over the 4, which was way ahead of the curve at the time. Also, the fact that he’s using that cowbell; the sound he’s getting out of the cowbell. It’s obvious that he spent some time dealing with those rhythms. Max had been spending time in Haiti, where he went to study with a guy who had told him that he was greatest drummer in the world. The guy would tell him, “Come here, meet me right here on this corner at 2 o’clock,” Max would get there at 2, and the guy wouldn’t come until 7—he’d leave him waiting! But he said that the guy gave him invaluable information.

Max did a lot of teaching, but he treated his one-on-one drum instruction like oral tradition. He studied from books, and I’ve studied from books, but that’s only a small component of it. Books will give you the facility to execute the stuff that you hear and feel already, but it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the creativity. This is a perfect example. Max distilled all this stuff and immediately hooked it up into an original beat—you’d never heard anything like it before. It’s the beginning of all those phrases based on rhythmic permutations of five over the four—a step into the future in 1951. A lot of people are playing those types of rhythmic permutations now, almost sixty years later. It sounds like he pulled it together the night before, because it’s right on the edge of almost sounding fucked-up. Then when he comes in, what he plays isn’t clean, the way it was clean with Clifford Brown and that band. It’s right on the edge of almost second-take. I’m talking about everybody. It sounds like it’s not quite settled and comfortable. But I think that quality is what makes it a great recording, and the fact that he was able to superimpose that feeling and beat at that particular time and have it work, keep it happening for almost five minutes. Amazing.

9. TRACK: “Garvey’s Ghost”

ARTIST: Max Roach

CD: Percussion Bitter Sweet [Universal Music Special Markets, B0012607-01]

Musicians: Max Roach (drums); Abbey Lincoln (vocals); Eric Dolphy (alto saxophone, bass clarinet, flute); Clifford Jordan (tenor saxophone); Booker Little (trumpet); Julian Priester (trombone); Mal Waldron (piano); Art Davis (bass); Carlos Valdez (congas); Carlos Eugenio (cowbell).

Recorded: New York, August 1, 1961

RATING: 100/100

This is one of my favorite cuts of music of all time. It’s another example of how the title really speaks to what’s happening in terms of the music. This references Marcus Garvey, the great Pan-Africanist in the States during the ‘20s and ‘30s, who died in England at a young age, mistreated, and his organization decentralized by the same tactics used against the Black Panthers some years later. The piece references that history, talking about self-determination, but then it’s also really haunting, ghostly—the melody is so powerful, and the fact that Abbey doesn’t sing any words. Max wrote the song. The solos by Booker Little and Clifford Jordan take are straight fire. Then again, we see that juxtaposition of rhythms against each other, because he has Patato playing the congas and Carlos Eugenio playing the cowbell—Max is kind of playing in 6 but also in 3, in the way he’s swinging, and keeps that pattern almost all throughout the piece. But the way he’s comping, it’s almost like he’s soloing. The way he pushes Booker Little and Clifford Jordan through their solos is reminiscent of a solo that he takes, but he keeps that ride cymbal pattern going the whole time, along with the other percussion. But everybody has a certain freedom within what they’re doing. Even the cascara pattern that the cowbell is playing is not fixed. Max’s ride cymbal pattern is, but the other shit he’s playing completely is not. It’s not like any traditional comping. It’s like collective improvisation. Then he solos over that cascara and the congas, and, as he often does, he utilizes a lot of space. He always plays something and then leaves some space, and then plays something else and leaves some space. He calls, he answers, he answers, and then he leaves some space, and then he calls, he answers, and he leaves some space. He always used to say that. There’s always room. “Get to your shit quick, make a statement, and in making that statement, the things that you don’t play are just as important as the things you do.” That always seemed to be a theme for him, and he utilized it in every component of his career. Always some space for others.

That’s the way it seems he led his life in aligning himself with different people, like the record with Hassan, where he gave him the opportunity to present his original music, and even though it was billed as the Max Roach Trio, the title was The Legendary Hassan. That was the only recording that Hassan made except for another Odean Pope recording that I don’t think was ever released. Or the fact that he aligned himself with Clifford Brown and said, “Let’s lead the band together.” I don’t know if he really had to do that. Also the different duo situations. Always on the cusp, but then also, in a sense, very selfless. To be as prolific as he had to have a strong sense of self, as I know because I was around him. That strong sense of self allowed him to let other people shine as well. It was never, “No, it has to be me, and you can’t do your thing.” It was “come on and do your thing.” This is a perfect example. It’s not like he has to growl over the whole thing. He leaves some space, and then he’ll talk to one of the cats, and communicate. Everybody’s listening. This is a year after We Insist, and Max was still on the same path. There’s tunes like “Man From South Africa,” in 7/4. He’s still making that commentary. He’s still on the soapbox, because it’s important and it’s still current, still developing in America.

In 1991, I remember doing a Sacred Drums tour with Max here in America, one of my very first gigs out of town. Tito Puente was on it, and some of these Native American drummers, some koto, stuff like that. Max was playing with Mario Bauza, who had a small orchestra. He was doing multiple things as well as solo stuff, playing with the small band, and this was one of the other portions of the show. Patato was in the band, too. During one of the rehearsals the piano player came up with some arrangements for Max to read, and he called over to me—I was there as a stagehand, his PA, setting up the cymbals and stuff like that. He was just trying to put some money in my pocket and help me out. Max said, “come here, man. Play this.” So he got me down to play the show, and got me my first traveling gig—with Mario Bauza! I had no idea then who he was. I didn’t know what I was doing with clave and so on. I remember Patato looking at me like, “You don’t know what the fuck you’re doing.” The other cats in the band were very encouraging, but Patato didn’t want to give it up. Which I understood, though, because I didn’t know what I was doing. Some years later, I did a recording with him and Michael Marcus and Rahn Burton, and he was cool—maybe I had gotten a few things together. But he tuned my snare drum. I don’t know how, because he still didn’t speak any English, but he tightened it in a certain way, and that snare drum still sounds great to this day. He showed me how to tune the bottom a little tighter than the top. He had that pitch. That snare drum was singing for years.

10. TRACK: “Love Is A Many Splendored Thing,”

ARTIST: Max Roach

CD: Clifford Brown And Max Roach At Basin Street [EmArcy MG 36070]

Recorded: New York, February 16, 1956

Musicians: Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet : Clifford Brown (tp) Sonny Rollins (ts) Richie Powell (p,arr) George Morrow (b) Max Roach (d)

RATING: 100/100

Clifford Brown And Max Roach At Basin Street is one of the albums that I played along with the most when I was younger, and—along with Round Midnight by Miles with Philly, Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil, John Coltrane’s Crescent, and Horace Silver’s Silver’s Serenade—it’s one of the classic albums that anybody who is interested in pursuing a career in the music really needs to check out. Even though it was only together for about a year, it’s one of Max’s most important bands, with Sonny Rollins and Clifford Brown on the front line. I love the arrangements and the way that band played together. The stuff was tight. It was a true band—a perfect example of the best. I hate to use that sort of terminology, but that’s the way I feel about it. These cats were executing at such a high level, and the music was so refreshing. It’s still refreshing, to this day.

This one starts off with a little, one-bar intro on the bell of the cymbal, and then they go into five, and then come the solos—Clifford, Sonny, Richie Powell, and Max. One thing that attracts me to this take is the way Richie Powell plays coming out of Max’s solo going back into the top of the song. It’s a seamless transition, like they’re coming together from different places, right into the theme.

It’s important that they were playing in 5/4 in 1956. In American culture most music is in four. It’s just those 5 beats, but with a little lopsided feeling. Now, if we were raised in India or Iraq, we would be accustomed to feeling those rhythms—but we’re not. So the fact that they were using it in “Popular music” meant something in pushing the music forward—initiating something that hadn’t been widely accepted, as happened when Dave Brubeck did “Take Five” a few years later. So this recording is an important document in terms of recorded history. Once an idea is documented, it becomes a possibility. If you were a younger musician in 1956 listening to this for the first time, it may have been the first time you’d heard someone do it, or play a different time signature—and the presentation is so beautiful. Max was part of so many movements where he was ahead of his time, or pointing to the future, part of the vanguard of musicians who always did something challenging.

11. TRACK: “Variation On A Familiar Theme”

ARTIST: Max Roach

CD: Max Roach With The Boston Percussion Ensemble

Musicians: Al Portch (frh) Max Roach (d) Irving Farberman, Everette Firth, Lloyd McCausland, Arthur Press, Charles Smith, Harold Thompson, Walter Tokarczyk (per) Corinne Curry (soprano voice) Harold Faberman (cond, dir, arranger)

recorded in Music Barn of the Music Inn, Lenox, Mass. on Aug. 17, 1958.

RATING: 100/100

I only heard this recently, and it’s an amazing piece—another example of seamless transitions. It runs 2-minutes-20-seconds, and it’s a variation of “Pop Goes The Weasel.” Theoretically it’s like a predecessor to M’Boom. I don’t know if that idea had anything to do with Max’s decision to pull these musicians together, but this was something completely different. He was just guest soloist with the Boston Percussion Ensemble. Harold Faberman did the arrangement.

Here Max is playing within the conventions of orchestral percussion, but from the first time you hear him on the brushes it’s unmistakably him—the same phrasing, the same sound out of the instrument. Regardless of the setting, the language was so indigenous to his person, you know it’s Max regardless of the setting. There are several sections. Max initiates some time with the brushes, then they come in with a theme, then they switch up from 4/4 to 3/4, and he makes that transition, too. A different theme is initiated, and then they transition back into four. This often happens in Western Classical music, but here it’s an interesting juxtaposition of time signatures and also of genre. It’s the “jazz feeling” or whatever, because Max is playing some time countered against what the orchestra is doing with the structure of the piece. He kind of solos in it, but he’s also weaving in and out of the piece, and he’s used to accentuate certain portions. It amazes me that Max was so open and flexible and willing to put himself into so many different positions throughout his career.

I have a degree in music, but the way I learned the music was kind of on the street, watching my Pops play and so forth. I’ve never studied Western classical. Now, Max went to Manhattan School of Music and studied it, but here it sounds like he’s using the techniques that he mastered from his experiences, not from the Western pedagogy. Within the framework of this piece, the music has a certain time feel. When I played with orchestra, it was always challenging from the downbeat, because when I see the conductor come down, I’m thinking that’s the downbeat, but it’s not. Then it’s weird. It’s the downbeat-and, and everyone’s responding to that. Visually, it was so challenging to de-condition yourself—in jazz, it’s always the downbeat, so everyone enters there, whereas in the orchestra the AND after the downbeat is the place. So the fact that Max was able to integrate what he does within that setting so seamlessly, to play the music so impeccably, was impressive—to say the least!

12. TRACK: Streams of Consciousness

Artist: Max Roach

CD: Streams of Consciousness (Baystate (Jap)RVJ-6016)

Musicians: Max Roach, drums, Dollar Brand (aka Abdullah Ibrahim, piano)

Recorded: New York, September 20, 1977

RATING: 100/100

This is another one of Max’s many extemporaneous compositions. On the jacket he writes: “This music is an expression of pure improvisation. Mr. Brand (this is when he was still Dollar Brand) and I had no rehearsals or plans, written or otherwise, as to how or what we were going to record…the resulting cohesiveness, I am sure, had much to do with our environmental similarities.” Another piece on this album is titled “Consanguinity,” and that’s what Max was talking about—the connection between people who are descended from the same ancestry. He’s talking about the fact that he and Abdullah Ibrahim, who was a South African pianist, were equally involved in the struggle for the freedom of their people—or had been involved, because by this time conditions had changed in America, though not in South Africa yet.

But the first cut, which runs about 21 minutes, is called “Stream of Consciousness.” To a certain degree, it’s a spontaneously organized suite that occurs in different movements. They definitely played some construct songs; I don’t know if Abdullah Ibrahim had previously played them, but they were definitely tunes. In between the tunes, a drum solo brings about the transition. That is, in between each statement, there’s a small drum solo, then there was another idea collectively expressed. There are 5 or 6 movements. It goes from drum solo, to interlude, to a 7/4 thing, then the drums initiate a faster 7/4, then they play a couple of blues, a solo—not really any solo piano except when Abdullah Ibrahim plays a little solo at the beginning, and then Max plays some. There are some church inferences after that. You can hear some South African themes, but not as pronounced as you might expect.

It’s another example of Max’s social consciousness and awareness, and also his ability to put himself in an unconventional situation—duo with drums and piano isn’t done that much. In all honesty, the sound is terrible. The bass sounds like a big drum, like he might be using some oil heads or something. The drums themselves don’t sound that good. But the magic between Max and Abdullah is pretty special. It’s obvious that they have a kinship in what’s being played. I think it’s ultimate artistry, not to plan or discuss what’s going to happen, to feel each other out, to let it fly and be open to whatever happens.

Leave a comment

Filed under Jazziz, Max Roach, Nasheet Waits

For Russell Malone’s 55th Birthday, A Jazziz Article From 2016 and a Downbeat Blindfold Test From 2005

For master guitarist Russell Malone’s 55th birthday, here’s a feature profile that I wrote about him in the fall 2016 issue of Jazziz, and the proceedings of a Blindfold Test that we did for Downbeat in 2004.

Russell Malone, Jazziz, 2016:

Before settling into the formalities of an interview in the kitchen of his Jersey City row house, Russell Malone, Southerner that he is, decided to feed his guest. First he prepared ginger lemonade, a 20-minute procedure that included eight squeezed lemons, a lot of ginger, and agave for sweetener. Then Malone shaved daikon, cooked sushi rice infused with butter, fixed a ponzu sauce, seared some pea-shoot greens with garlic and, finally, broiled two slabs of salmon.

Malone worked methodically, washing and drying the dishes and utensils after each stage of the process. He was dressed well — cream-colored linen slacks; a forest green shirt from Thailand with gold brocading, untucked — but didn’t wear an apron. We spoke as he cooked, and continued to speak as we ate lunch, trading opinions and scurrilous gossip, discussing family and mutual acquaintances. Ninety minutes later, it almost seemed a shame to turn on the digital voice recorder.

The subject at hand was Malone’s spring release, All About Melody (High Note), on which the 53-year-old guitarist and his quartet — pianist Rick Germanson, bassist Luke Sellick and drummer Willie Jones III — address an American Songbook ballad; two American Soulbook torch songs; a spiritual; and originals by jazz icons Freddie Hubbard, Jimmy Heath, Bob Brookmeyer, Bill Lee and Sonny Rollins. Malone also presents his own ballad, “Message to Jim Hall,” directly followed by a brief voicemail from the late iconic guitarist.

Neither notions of high concept nor narrative arc inform the program, Malone says, not even his decision to follow his dedication to Hall, who famously played on several early-’60s recordings by Rollins, with Rollins’ “Nice Lady,” which Malone learned while touring with the saxophonist in 2010. “Those songs are fun to play,” he says. “When I make a record, I want the songs to flow naturally, to hold your attention, just like playing a set in a club.” He affirmed his close friendship with Hall. “Jim would call to tell you how he felt about you,” Malone says. “He was big on taking the time, effort and thought to write a letter, get the stamp, put it on the envelope, and mail it. I have a stack of his handwritten letters. I didn’t get around to writing Jim a letter, but I did get around to writing that tune for him.”

For a unifying thread, Malone suggested the title, edited from HighNote proprietor Joe Fields’ suggestion, “It’s All About the Melody,” which, he says, seemed too preachy and dogmatic.“This could have titled any of my other records, because that’s always been my attitude,” Malone says, before fleshing out the core aesthetic principle that infuses his previous 11 leader recordings since 1992 and numerous sideman or collaborative appearances with — to name a roughly chronological short list — Jimmy Smith, Harry Connick, Diana Krall, Benny Green and Christian McBride, Ray Brown, Dianne Reeves, Ron Carter and Rollins.

“I’m as influenced by singers as by instrumentalists, and whenever I learn a song, particularly a standard or a ballad, I listen to a vocalist’s rendition,” he says. “I want to learn not just the harmonic structure, but the story, the lyrics — everything. Those things go through my head when I play them. I try to sing through my instrument.”

In that regard, Malone mentions his unaccompanied reading of Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” which he heard growing up in Albany, Georgia. “If you noticed, I only played the melody,” he says. “Sometimes a strong melody, good changes and a good story is enough. That’s my thing these days.”

Malone adhered unstintingly to this stated criteria for song selection and play-your-feelings interpretation on both All About Melody and its 2014 HighNote predecessor, Love Looks Good On You. The latter date transpired four years after Triple Play, a trio recital that was Malone’s only studio recording during a six-year, four-CD run with MaxJazz, a fine boutique label that ceased operations after the death of its owner, Richard McDonnell.

“I was working so much, it wasn’t a priority to do a record if nobody would get behind it,” Malone explains. Several labels suggested he join their roster, but none followed up. “My attitude was: Your loss; if you ignore me, I’ll keep forging ahead. Then Joe Fields contacted me. People who’ve worked with him told me he’d support the records. Joe seemed to be the only guy interested in someone who plays like I do.”

He referenced the phrase “interview music,” coined by pianist Mulgrew Miller, Malone’s dear friend and colleague from before the guitarist moved to New York from Atlanta in the late ’80s until Miller died in 2013. “Certain musicians talk a good game, and sound deep and interesting, and it gets over,” Malone says. “But writers don’t consider people who play like me as cutting edge. Players who adopt a Eurocentric perspective — devoid of melody, swinging, blues and, heaven forbid, any black elements — are described as pushing the music forward. That’s complete bullshit to me.”

He recalled a brunch gig with organist Trudy Pitts in Philadelphia around 1990, playing tunes for “older people who wanted to hear some melodies.” One of Malone’s core influences, Kenny Burrell, working in town, was in the house. So were a group of college students. “Whenever I played something a little outside or rebellious to what was going on, these kids went, ‘Yeah, man — whoo-oo!’ Instead of thinking about the music, I started to think about impressing them with my crazy, dissonant shit.”

After the set, the admirers offered compliments: “Yeah, you were really pushing the envelope; you’re taking it out.” Malone thanked them, proceeded to Burrell’s table, and sat down. Malone recounts: “I had the nerve to say, ‘Hey, Mr. Burrell, you hear what I’m working on?’ He put his arm around me, and started chastising me like I was his son. He told me that what I’d played may have worked well in another situation, but it didn’t work here. You have to play what the situation calls for, which means allowing yourself to be vulnerable. Any time you’re playing to prove something, it’s not honest. I never forgot that. And I never did that again.”

[BREAK]

“I am flexible,” Malone says. “I take pride on being open enough to play with anybody.” He’s played “Moon River” and “The Christmas Song” with Andy Williams on The Mike Huckabee Show. He’s shared stages with B.B. King, Aretha Franklin and Natalie Cole; channeled the pioneering electric guitarist Eddie Durham in Robert Altman’s Kansas City; played the blues with Clarence Carter and raised a joyful noise with the Gospel Keynotes. He’s played high-level chamber jazz with Ron Carter and supported Dianne Reeves in a two-guitar format with Romero Lubambo. He’s rehearsed outcat projects with Bill Frisell and James “Blood” Ulmer. He visited Ornette Coleman’s loft once for a marathon of shedding.

Malone grew up in a Pentecostal church, where he discovered the guitar. He traces his openness to the experience of playing it there from age 6 to 18. “It fascinated me how these church mothers singing spirituals would move people to tears, or to get the Holy Ghost and shout in response,” he says. “That’s when I started to really listen — the singers might start singing in any key, and not always at the same time, so I learned to be flexible throughout the guitar neck.”

As he entered his teens, Malone memorized his first guitar solo from Howard Carroll of the Dixie Hummingbirds, had “epiphanies” from B.B. King and from “country” guitarists like Chet Atkins and Merle Travis on Glen Campbell’s TV show. In 1975, “on a school night when I should have been in bed,” he saw George Benson play “incredible things” on “Seven Comes Eleven” on a PBS homage to John Hammond “that let me know there was a whole other level to aspire to.” Malone soon purchased The George Benson Cookbook and the double-LP Benson Burner. “A gentleman in my church who played guitar noticed that I was trying to play this stuff,” he continues. “He liked Wes Montgomery, and he laid Smokin’ At the Half Note and Boss Guitar on me. Those four records set me on a course that I have not deviated from.”

That course followed autodidactic pathways. “I had enough sense to know that something triggered George Benson’s interest in playing guitar like that,” Malone says. “I read that George was influenced by Charlie Christian, then that Charlie Christian was influenced by Eddie Durham and Lester Young, and had influenced Johnny Smith, Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow and so on. I didn’t have skills to write anything down, and I never transcribed a solo. I like the way I learned because I trust my ears. I’d pick things up and remember them.” He sought advice from lesser players who understood theory, as, for example, when he saw “Misty” in the Real Book, spotted an E-flat-major-VII chord, and asked a roommate to play it. “I said, ‘Oh, that’s what I’ve been playing all along.’ From there, I learned how to identify what I saw on paper. I still ask questions.”

After garnering experience on chitlin’ circuit revues that included Bobby Rush and Johnnie Taylor, Malone spent much of 1983 in Houston with Hammond B3 practitioner Al Rylander. In 1985, just before he turned 22, he moved to Atlanta, where he quickly established bona fides on transitory engagements with Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Little Anthony, Peabo Bryson and O.C. Smith. In 1986, he joined Freddy Cole, who offered a master class in the nuances of blending with a singer before firing Malone after several months because, the guitarist recalls, “I wasn’t there yet.”

Malone first visited New York in 1985. He promptly received a lecture on the virtues of sonic individualism from bassist Lonnie Plaxico after they played “Stablemates” at Barry Harris’ Jazz Cultural Theater. “I respected Lonnie, because he’d played with Art Blakey and Dexter Gordon,” Malone says. “He asked where I was from. He said, ‘Yeah, you’ve got good tone, good feeling, and you really hear those changes.’ Then he said, ‘I hear that you like Wes and George and all those guys. You might be able to get away with playing like them in Atlanta, but not here. Those guys were able to break through because they didn’t come here trying to sound like somebody else. They had their own thing, and people eventually caught on.’”

Two years later, Jimmy Smith took an Atlanta engagement, and invited the local hero to sit in for a blues, “The Sermon.” “After the head, I played all my pet licks and generated some superficial excitement,” Malone says. “Then Jimmy went into a ballad, ‘Laura,’ which I didn’t know. You can’t just hear your way through it, because it moves harmonically, with a lot of twists and turns. That’s when I found out I wasn’t nearly as good as I thought. After he’d finished embarrassing me, Jimmy got on the microphone and said, ‘Whenever youngsters sit in with us, we like to make sure they learn something.’ He looked at me. ‘Now, did you learn something, young man?’”

After that set, Malone approached Smith at the bar to thank him for the opportunity. Smith, a black belt, turned and stuck his index finger in Malone’s solar plexus. “Let me tell you something,” Smith said, finger still in place. “I knew all those guys you’re trying to play like, and I also taught them. Don’t ever get on my bandstand with that bullshit again.” Then he invited Malone to his hotel room to play for him, telling the youngster about his life and experiences until 6:30 in morning. A year later, Smith hired Malone for his Southern and Midwestern tours.

“I’ve been around a lot of the older guys,” Malone says, reflecting on a cohort of associations that includes Smith, Rollins, Hall and Ron Carter. Another mentor was guitarist John Collins, who replaced Oscar Moore with the Nat King Cole Trio after quality time with, among others, Fletcher Henderson and Art Tatum. “John saw Andrés Segovia when he was a serviceman in World War Two, and remembered that he played the whole guitar, compared to young guitar players who focus on single lines like a horn player,” Malone says. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but you’re selling the instrument short. In the right hands, it can function as an orchestra. I never forgot that.”

He cited an encomium from Benny Carter, who was 94 when he heard Malone play his “All About You” on Marion McPartland’s Piano Jazz. “Benny told me he liked the way I treated ballads and my own songs because I respect the melody and don’t treat them like blowing vehicles,” Malone says. Dr. Billy Taylor — who himself sat at the feet of Willie “The Lion” Smith, Duke Ellington and Art Tatum during formative years — learned Malone had been spending quality time with Carter. He said: “You’ve been around the real guys, doing it the right way, the way we did it coming up. You know what’s up. Nobody can come along and bullshit you.”

Perhaps the accumulated weight of these validations helps Malone sustain philosophical equanimity in processing the inequities he discerns as he approaches his own elder statesman years. “I meant what I said about critics who have racist agendas and jump on things that are devoid of ethnic elements,” he says. “But my attitude now is that what anyone decides to play ain’t my damn business. I’m just trying to play good music, what feels right, and at the end of the day, I have to take responsibility for what I do. When I hung out with Ornette and Blood, I wasn’t concerned about trying to push the envelope. I was looking for a different musical experience. I’m not going to change who I am. I don’t classify my favorite musicians, like Hank Jones, as ‘modern.’ I steer away from that word. I see them as timeless. That’s how I want to be.”

SIDEBAR

“It’s all in the hands,” is all Russell Malone will say about his plush, full-bodied, instantly recognizable tone. “Everybody hears their sound in their head, no matter how old they are. I just heard a recording of me with a gospel group when I was 16. It sounds like me — the feel and everything else. You refine the nuances and subtleties over time, but it’s going to still sound like you.”

He points to a Gibson Super-400 standing by an armchair in his living room. “Kenny is the reason I play that guitar,” he says. “Just before I joined Jimmy Smith, he did a concert in Atlanta. He needed a Twin amplifier, and I had an old one, so I brought it for him to play his Super 400 through. I decided that if I ever made some money, I’d get one.

“I modeled my sound after him, Jim Hall and Mundell Lowe. They get this big, beautiful, round sound, where you can still hear the wood. Kenny picks great notes, plays great tunes. He also sings. Great composer. Master musician.”

Malone continues: “What attracted me to George Benson was the drive in his playing. He showed us that you can be a great musician and still be successful. That whole thing about being a starving artist never worked for him. It never worked for me either. I think we all sound better when our bills are paid and when our bellies are full. A lot of people have disparaged George for ‘selling out.’ That’s one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard. The way I look at it, he cashed in on his talent.”

On a previous occasion, Malone had offered a list of guitar heroes that also included Chet Atkins, George Van Eps, Johnny Smith, Pat Martino and Wes Montgomery. “I love everyone on that list, but Wes really sets my soul on fire,” he says. “I’ve loved every record I’ve heard by Wes Montgomery. He never played a bad note. Always got a good sound, good taste, and swung all the time.” —TP

 

Russell Malone Blindfold Test, Downbeat, 2004:

1. Ted Dunbar & Kevin Eubanks, “Fried Pies” (from Project G-7: A Tribute To Wes Montgomery, Vol. 1, Evidence, 1993) (Dunbar, Eubanks, guitars; Rufus Reid, bass; Akira Tana, drums; Wes Montgomery, composer)

This is a Wes Montgomery tune, Fried Pies. It’s two guitar players. This guitar player, whoever he is, is playing with his thumb, and he doesn’t seem to have good control. It would lay in the pocket better if he played it with a pick, I think. I have no idea who this is. I mean, this is just okay. It’s funny when you play a tune like this, that’s already been done right once. I almost never play songs by my heroes, because unless you can bring something to the table that’s equally as good or better than, what’s the point of playing it. Now the second guitarist is playing it. He sounds good. He seems to be more in the pocket than the other player. He’s got some fire, too. I like the bass player and the drummer; they’re locking up very nicely. Is that Kevin Eubanks? Ah!!! Ha-ha! Yeah! Now, that makes sense. This record was done about ten years ago, right? Was that other guitar player William Ash? I have no idea who the other player was, but I recognized Kevin immediately. There’s a certain way he attacks the notes. He’s not playing with the pick, he’s playing with his fingers, but he has a certain attack. That’s the reason why I was able to distinguish him. He plays very nicely. 4 stars for the bass player and drummer, because they really locked in well. Hell, 5 stars for Kevin. The other guitar player played nicely enough, but I would have liked it more if he’d been in the pocket. 3 stars for him. I’ll give the piece 3 stars. [AFTER] That was Ted Dunbar? Wow! I loved Ted. I never got to meet him. I talked to him on the phone a couple of times. I heard Ted play before, and he could definitely play better than this.

2. Jonathan Kreisberg, “Gone With the Wind” (from New For Now, Criss-Cross, 2004) (Kreisberg, guitar; Gary Versace, organ; Mark Ferber, drums)

This is nice. Is that John Abercrombie? I have no idea who it is, but he plays very nicely. He has a nice touch. The sound of the organ threw me in the beginning, because it sounded like one of those cute Farfisas or Wurlitzer, but now it sounds rich. Boy, this guitar player is killing! Oh, that’s Jonathan Kreisberg! So that must be Gary Versace on organ. I can’t remember the drummer’s name, but I think he plays with Jonathan every week. Jonathan’s a good friend of mine. Wonderful player. I’ve gone to see him a few times and listened to him, and once you become familiar with a person, you become accustomed to what they sound like. Everybody has a sound. Jonathan is younger than I am; I think he’s in his early thirties. I hear a lot of people talk about young guys don’t have a sound, which I think is total bullshit. Everybody has a sound, everybody has a voice; it just depends on how familiar you are with that person. If you listen to a person enough, then you will be able to distinguish it. That’s how I was able to distinguish Kevin on the previous thing you played me, and this is how I was able to distinguish Jonathan. There are certain things you key in on. Here it’s Jonathan’s sound and the ideas that he plays, and his touch. I love this tune, Gone With the Wind. I like that they took an old standard, and did something different with it. It sounds like they’re playing it in 6/4. Jonathan has chops in abundance, and one thing I like about his solo is that he really took his time and said something beautiful on the tune. Guys with that kind of ability to play whatever they want on the instrument sometimes have a tendency to overstate. But he didn’t do that, and I appreciate that approach. 4 stars for Jonathan.

3. Joel Harrison, “Folsom Prison Blues” (from Free Country. ACT. 2003) (Harrison, guitar; David Binney, alto sax; Rob Thomas, violin; Sean Conly, bass; Allison Miller, drums)

Man, this sounds like some of the sanctified music that I grew up hearing in my church. Oh, this is grooving. Is it Derek Trucks? Wow! I LIKE this cat, whoever he is. See, this is one of the things that guitar can do. It can bend notes, it can wail, it can cry. Whoo, man! Now, this was fine until the horn player started to play. He’s probably a bad cat, but he’s not really adding anything to this performance. Is it Bill Frisell? Oh, this is Folsom Prison Blues? The Johnny Cash tune. I didn’t recognize it without the lyrics. The guitar player, whoever he is, he just got right to the heart of the matter. But the horn player, though he’s probably a great musician, listening to him play is kind of like eating crabs. You’ve got to go through so much to get so little. He’s not really doing it for me. But the guitar player got right to the heart of the matter. Mark Ribot! It’s not Mark Ribot? Dammit. I give up. Joel Harrison? I’ve never heard of him. I’m going to go out and get some Joel Harrison records, man. That’s one of the ways I like to hear guitar played. Because the guitar is such an expressive instrument. It can do so many things, man. That’s going into the CD collection. Joel Harrison. 5 stars. I loved him. I’ve seen Dave Binney’s name, but I don’t know him. I like the bass player and the drummer. I like the whole band. Oh, I know Allison Miller. She’s great!

4. Rodney Jones, “Summertime” (from Soul Manifesto Live!, Savant, 2003) (Jones, guitar; Will Boulware, Hammond B3; Lonnie Plaxico, bass; Kenwood Dennard, drums)

Whoever this is, I hear a very strong George Benson influence. The tune is Summertime. Rodney Jones. Which record is this from? Soul Manifesto Live? Okay. This is just okay. I’d like to have heard him pay closer attention to the melody. This is a personal thing with me. What he’s playing is great. That tune has such a beautiful melody. I’d like to hear a little less embellishment of the melody. It’s a little bit too much guitar for me. Now, Rodney’s bad. I’ve heard him play a lot more musically than this. It doesn’t do it for me. I love Rodney; he’s one of my best friends and one of my favorite guitarists, but I don’t feel this. I’ve heard him play a lot better. 2½ stars.

5. Jim Hall-Geoff Keezer, “End The Beguine” (from Free Association, Artists Share, 2005) (Hall, guitar, composer; Keezer, piano)

Mike Stern? No? Okay. Oh, I like the dissonance. The guitarist sounds like he’s picking close to the bridge. It sounds like he’s playing one of those solid body guitars. That’s cool. That doesn’t offend me at all. Mick Goodrick. It’s not Mick Goodrick? Ah, that’s Jim Hall. [LAUGHS] Yeah, go ahead, Jim! That’s Geoff Keezer. I heard them play this tune at the Vanguard when they played there a couple of years ago. These are two of my favorite musicians. Geoff Keezer is one of the greatest piano players walking the planet today. He can do anything; he’s so versatile. What can you say about Jim? He’s a magician. He’s like a magician that makes the rabbit pull him out of the hat! Wouldn’t that be something to go see a magician, and then the rabbit pulls him out of the hat. That’s the way I see Jim. He’s such a quirky, unorthodox kind of guy, but he’s always musical. Never anything for the sake of being different. Everything that he plays and does has a purpose. One of my favorite things about him is that there’s so much beauty in his playing. Most guitar players go for the jugular vein, and that’s okay to do, too. But Jim Hall showed us that it’s okay to go for the G-spot, too. 5 stars. Give Jim Hall the Milky Way. In the beginning I said Mike Stern and Mick Goodrick, but even though I was wrong I wasn’t too far off-base, because I know Jim Hall has influenced both of those players. What threw me in the beginning was that Jim was picking towards the bridge, and when you do that, it makes the tone of the guitar thinner, more brittle, and that’s not how I’m used to hearing Jim. But what gave it away was just the touch and the ideas.

6. Nguyen Lê, “Walking On The Tiger’s Tail” (from Walking On The Tiger’s Tail, Nonesuch, 2005) (Lê , guitars; Paul McCandless, oboe; Art Lande, piano; Jamey Haddad, percussion)

I like this. Really thick harmony. Thick chords. Is that a bass clarinet? Is it Adam Holdsworth? Nels Cline? Oh, wait a minute. Dave Fiuczynski. No? Okay. Damn. Whoever he is, he’s a heck of a player. I like it. Whoo! Ben Monder. Not Ben? It sounds spacious. It’s out there, but there’s a groove. I mean, you can pat your foot. It sounds good and it feels good. Is he European? [Yes.] This is good. I think I would appreciate this better if I was listening to these guys play live. After a while, it all starts to sound the same. There was some stuff that moved in certain spots, but now it’s going on and on and on. It doesn’t really do anything for me. But I liked what led up to this. I have no idea who the guitarist is. 3 stars. There’s no denying the ability. Everybody can play. That cannot be denied. Nguyen Le? I’ve heard him. He’s good! I’ve been meaning to check out more of him. I have nothing but respect for him, but as far as this performance, I’d appreciate it more if I was sitting there listening to them. I have some homework to do. There’s so much stuff out there. I’ve seen this guy’s name, and I have heard him play and I liked what I heard. What I heard by him was acoustic, and it was beautiful.

7. Bill Frisell, “My Man’s Gone Now” (from East-West, Nonesuch, 2005) (Frisell, guitar; Tony Scherr, bass; Kenny Wolleson, drums)

I like this. He’s getting some very beautiful colors out of the instrument. Nice voicings. Is that Ben Monder? No. I like Ben. “My Man’s Gone Now,” a Gershwin tune. This is really pretty. Is that Paul Motian on drums? Is this Frisell? Aha. He does a lot of different things. He does a lot of things with swells and he uses effects. You never know what kind of bag he’s going to come out of. Oh, yeah! He’s a very wonderful musician, and he’s a very nice guy, too. I have to be honest with you. For a while, I had a problem with listening to guys like Bill Frisell and Metheny and Scofield, a lot of the white players. Not because they were bad musicians. It’s just that whenever white writers would write about these guys, I always got the feeling that they were making them out to be superior to a lot of the black players. So for a long time, I didn’t listen to these kinds of players, but after having met them, I found out that they don’t think like that at all. These are very nice men and they’re great musicians. 3 stars. This was very good. I like listening to things like this, but after a while I like to hear some time. I like to hear guys deal with time. But Frisell is great. He’s a wonderful musician. But for a while I didn’t want to hear guys like that, because of the way certain writers would write about them. But having met them, I know that they don’t think like that at all. These are very soulful guys. They’re just about the music.

8. Calvin Newborn, “Newborn Blues” (from New Born, Yellow Dog, 2005) (Newborn, guitar; Charlie Wood, organ; Renardo Ward, drums)

I like this. This is home here. This is where I live. Whoever this guy is, he likes B.B. King. That’s not B.B., is it? But he likes B.B., whoever he is. I know some critics might look upon this kind of thing as being dated and predictable and not pushing the music forward and whatever, but I NEVER get tired of this, man. The blues, man. To me, jazz needs that. I have no idea who this guy is, but give him the Milky Way, too, whoever the hell he is. I love this. I love the band. I love the way they’re locking in together. This is great. He’s not playing anything slick or fancy, but it makes sense, it works, and it sounds great. Oh, yes, yes, YES! Oh, yeah. Cornell Dupree? Calvin Newborn! Know how I knew? The touch! That’s what I’m talking about. All the stars in the universe. I’m very suspicious… You’ve played some great stuff today. But I read about a lot of players who the critics write about as players who are pushing the envelope or players who are breaking away from the tradition. I’m very suspicious about players who are described that way, because to me, all it means is that they deleted all of the ethnic elements out of the music—or the black elements out of the music. Players who adopt a Eurocentric perspective seem to be the ones who are described as pushing the music forward. I mean, I know the music has to move forward and everything, but come on, man. If you don’t have this, you got nothing. You might have something else, but you need those ethnic elements to have jazz, man. Some people may disagree with me, but that’s just the way I feel. Right on, Calvin Newborn. Bend those notes. Play that blues. [LAUGHS] Yeah! That’s how I feel about that one. Listening to him… I got the same feeling as I got when Joel Harrison played. I don’t care what color he is. I’m sure he’s white. But he is not afraid to acknowledge the blues, those black elements. He’s a brave white man who is not afraid to acknowledge that in his playing. My hat’s off to him.

9. Baden Powell, “Samba Triste” (from Live A Bruxelles, Sunnyside, 1999/2005 (Powell, guitar, composer)

This is just okay. Whenever I hear people play solo guitar, especially on the nylon string, I like to hear a lot less sloppiness. I don’t mean to sound like I’m nitpicking. I know it sounds like I am. But I have to tell you how I feel. This is a little sloppy for my taste. This doesn’t really go anywhere. If there is a melody, it’s damn near nonexistent. The tune is weak and I think it’s poorly played. I have no idea who this is. Whoever he is, it’s probably a legend. But this is a pretty poor performance. Is it Barney Kessel? Well, I don’t know if he did anything on the nylon string anyway. Bad guess. Bill Harris? He’s a guitarist who lived in D.C. who did some things on the nylon string guitar. No, this is not good. 1star. That’s Baden Powell? That’s surprising, because I’ve heard him play. I feel really bad that I don’t like this, because I love Baden Powell. He’s a monster player. I love the way he plays. But this is not a good performance. I’ve heard him play on other things, and the touch is a little more delicate than this.

10. Paul Bollenback, “Too High”(from Soul Grooves, Challenge, 1999) (Bollenback, guitar, arranger; Joey DeFrancesco, organ; Jeff Watts, drums; Broto Roy, tabla; Stevie Wonder, composer)

This is a catchy tune. The band is swinging. Is this Too High? Yeah. That’s a Stevie Wonder tune. This is nice. They put a lot of thought into this. I have no idea who the guitar player is. Now, the guitar player has got some chops. Once again, a very strong Benson influence. George is all over the place. Is it Paul Bollenback? Okay. [LAUGHS] I know his ideas and his touch. Very nice arrangement. He put some thought into this. It’s very well played. Is that Joey on organ? Byron Landham on drums? Billy Hart? Whoever he is, he’s really locking in, man. He’s swinging, laying that pocket down. That’s Tain? Whoa! That doesn’t surprise me. He played on my all-ballad record, Heartstrings, and Tain, man… He’s got the whole history of the drums. There are a lot of young drummers coming up nowadays who are influenced by him, but I don’t think they’ve really checked out what makes Jeff Watts, Jeff Watts. He’s got Kenny Clarke, he’s got Baby Dodds, he’s got Elvin, he’s got Tony—he’s got everything. And he’s incorporated all of these influences and came up with his own thing. Yeah! 4 stars. With Tain, swinging is not an afterthought. Whatever wild and crazy things he does, it’s all rooted in swing. It’s all about that groove. It’s never an afterthought for him.

11. Kurt Rosenwinkel, “Brooklyn Sometimes”(from Deep Song, Verve, 2005) (Rosenwinkel, guitar, composer; Brad Mehldau, piano; Larry Grenadier, bass; Ali Jackson, drums)

Kurt Rosenwinkel. That’s Kurt! He’ s a great musician. I have a lot of respect for him. He’s always very musical. I have quite a few of his records around here. He’s a wonderful musician. Plays the piano. Knows the instrument and the history of the music. I have a lot of respect for him. He’s a phenomenal player. That’s his latest release on Verve, Deep Song. I have it. That’s the beauty of being in New York. You have so many different types of musicians here. So many different types of music to take advantage of. I always tell young players when they come here, don’t just get locked into one thing. You may have your taste and your preferences, but go out and hear all kinds of different things. Go out and hear these different kinds of players, because you may find something you’re able to use. That’s why I love being in the city, because I get to hear all kinds of players on any given night. 4 stars.

Leave a comment

Filed under guitar, Jazziz, Russell Malone, Uncategorized

For Esperanza Spalding’s Birthday, A Jazziz Feature From 2016

For the magnificent Esperanza Spalding’s birthday, here’s a long profile I had the pleasure of writing about her for Jazziz magazine in early 2016, framed around the release of Emily’s D+Evolution.

***********

Esperanza Spalding Feature, Jazziz

 

As part of the initial publicity blitz for Emily’s D+Evolution, Esperanza Spalding’s first release since 2012, scheduled to drop in April, Spalding’s management and Concord Records, her label, scheduled a press day in mid-December. It transpired at the Milk Bar, a low-key café in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights neighborhood, where Spalding, incognito in a red head-scarf and tan jacket, sat at a small, elevated back-corner table, fielding questions from four journalists in separate 50-minute interviews.

There was much to discuss about the album, and little time to do it. Channeling the character of “Emily,” described by Spalding as “a spirit or being that I recognize and am informed by,” the singer-bassist performs 11 original songs, all conceived for the project, and a rousing album-ending cover of “I Want It Now,” Anthony Newley’s anthemic paean to instant gratification. Her songcraft is formidable, and she hits all the notes. She sequences the lyrics — on love, self-empowerment, race, class, Judas and other matters — into an ambiguous narrative. Her supple soprano voice more than does justice to the memorable melodies; she phrases freely with rhythms that counterpoint grooves of various provenance — some crackling, some undulating — that she generates on electric bass. Guitarist Matthew Stevens complements the flow with kinetic sound painting, while drummers Kareem Riggins (who plays on eight tracks) and Justin Tyson (who plays on four) propel it with a wide palette of beats and textures.

In its instrumentation, rock ’n’ roll attitude and explicit singer-songwriter focus, Emily’s D+Evolution diverges from its two chart-topping predecessors, comprising music composed between 2006 and 2011. Spalding won a 2013 Grammy for “Best Jazz Vocal Album” with Radio Music Society, a dance-friendly program, both sophisticated and accessible, that revealed the breadth of her songwriting and arranging skills. Spalding has described]Radio Music Society as the “extroverted’ successor to the “introverted,” Brazil-tinged Chamber Music Society, the 11-tune recital that earned her a “Best New Artist” Grammy over Drake and Justin Bieber in 2011. Assisted by arranger Gil Goldstein, she conjured evocative arrangements for jazz trio, string quartet and her voice, deployed as an instrument in the ensemble on seven tracks; she also sings lyrics on four original songs.

“I’ll never be able to catch you up with the last four years of my life — it’s just too dense,’ Spalding says. “I can’t explain why or how, and I can’t explain the evolution of this music.” She began to think of “opening a door for Emily” in October 2013, while on a self-imposed hiatus from “weird political bullshit with people and managers, and being a psychologist for my band.”

Emily is Spalding’s middle name, the name her family called her as a child in Portland, Oregon, when she was curious about acting and dance,” interests she shelved while immersing herself in musical studies. Approaching her 30th birthday, Spalding “realized that Emily wanted to come out, to say some things, play some things and perform some things.”

After sketching out some ideas and titles, Spalding began to form “an energetic picture of this performer, a sense that this idea was an armature I could build on.” She realized that Emily wanted to be plugged in and loud. She made demos, and, in spring 2014, contacted her desired collaborators to workshop the music on gigs. She made adjustments, recorded some tunes in June 2014, then a few more that November. She was already determined to stage the project, and she started touring to figure out how it would work in a concert setting. Toward that end, in the summer, she began working with director Will Weigler, also a Portland native. In September, she reentered the studio to re-record everything. “Then I knew the label wouldn’t let me mess with it any more,” she says, “so I turned it in.”

“Everyone is important to the total projection of the idea,” Spalding says. “It doesn’t feel like work for hire; it’s like we’re a troupe. I knew when I invited everybody in we’d be doing more than just standing up and playing awesome songs.” She elaborated in terms evocative of Wayne Shorter, who she describes as her “hero, guru and friend”: “We need co-explorers. We need a partner in crime as you explore uncharted territory — somebody who is resourceful and ready to go down that dark tunnel and find out why it smells like swamp, and somebody who can rig up a fire with nothing. That’s the kind of person you want in your corner.”

As an example, she mentions guitarist Stevens. “He can take an idea: ‘Can this sound ominous but hopeful? And can the texture be kind of thin but have a rippling effect?’ He’ll go, ‘OK,’ and find that with a pedal or a loop or whatever. I hear instrumental music as language, too. It feels like narrative and character, and character interaction, and dynamic storytelling. That’s how it sounds to me, whether there’s lyrics or not.

“When the record comes out and we start touring this performance in April, I’ll be presenting Emily’s D+Evolution in at least the starting place I envisioned it could be. Everybody has to be ready for an adventure and forget about everything that happened before. See it for what it is and let it tell you what it is.”

“Seeing” is the operative word. The album cover portrays Spalding as Emily — in a white V-top, white hood, white slacks and white sneakers — foregrounded against what might be a post-apocalyptic landscape of rocks, barren trees and a turbulent sky. Two more photos show “Emily” and “Esperanza” as doppelgängers — Emily, hair braided, with teal glasses, in a red bra under what looks like a fur coat, bracelets on her wrists, sits on a bed alongside Esperanza, wearing a yellow dress striped horizontally with stylized Nubian figures, and no eyewear. Another photo has Emily in that yellow dress, poised between a stuffed lioness and a sculpture of a very dark-skinned woman with exaggerated features, in a gold tunic, gold belt and gold trousers. Another portrays Esperanza, facing the camera full-on, with a resplendent Angela Davis Afro and a streamlined black turtleneck.

“When I saw Emily the first time, it was clear she was picking up terrestrial frequencies,” Spalding says. “I knew her hair was down. I knew it was heavy. You could feel gravity through it, affecting her scalp. That’s part of why Emily needs twists. Glasses … it’s what she wears. It’s who she is.”

Minus visual aids, Spalding’s new music doesn’t seem like a radical departure from her previous work. “I don’t take that offensively,” she says. “But I think you’ll see it differently over time. Even if you don’t, that’s your prerogative.”

Where does Esperanza leave off and Emily begin? “If my name is not Emily in a performance, I’m Esperanza Spalding,” Spalding responds with a certain asperity. “When you watch Meryl Streep play a witch in Into the Woods, hopefully you’re not thinking, ‘Oh, Meryl Streep as the witch.’ You’re thinking the witch. Emily came to be Emily, not Esperanza. To manifest that she’s created her own world, which is its own expression of that spirit. This is obviously not a jazz record. Emily doesn’t play acoustic bass. She is not a jazz musician.”

BREAK

On the day after our conversation, Spalding began a six-night run at the Village Vanguard as acoustic bassist in the ACS Trio, a collaborative venture with pianist Geri Allen and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington that coalesced after the three women performed on Carrington’s ambitious Mosaic Project recording in 2011.

“I don’t know what will happen this week,” Spalding says at the Milk Bar. “It’s going to be a great experiment of not depending on agility, of ‘What do you do with less?’” She explained that she’d sprained her pointer finger three weeks before, and was wary of reinjuring it. “I’ll have to honor the effortless approach to playing bass. It’s great to know you can try that, and it won’t be ‘Pull your weight’ but instead ‘We’ll find a way to make it work.’ That mentality that we’re all in this together is exciting — though it’s usually the case in any band I play in.”

Six days later, Spalding joined Allen and Carrington on the Vanguard bandstand for their 12th and final set of a week during which friends James Genus and Matt Brewer had “come to the rescue when my muscle went out.” To protect blisters on her playing hand, she wore a salmon-colored glove that complemented a light jacket with thin, pale stripes. Indeed, Spalding was on point throughout an hour-long performance that featured highly reharmonized, stretched-out renderings of Shorter’s “Fall,” “Infant Eyes,” “Virgo” and “Nefertiti” and Allen’s “Unconditional Love.” On the latter piece, Spalding sang an extended wordless improvisation, as she had done on other repertoire on an earlier night when, as Carrington put it the next day, “she almost didn’t have an instrument.”

“Esperanza has a fine musician’s melodic and harmonic understanding, and chops to improvise on a very high level vocally, which a lot of singers cannot,” Carrington says. “She’s a cutting-edge, creative jazz musician rooted from playing the bass and composing, and she has a more commercial, pop side, more electric-bass driven and groove oriented. She considers herself a poet, rightfully so, because her lyrics can stand alone as stories and poetry. But Emily isn’t so far away from the music she’s already been creating. To me it’s a natural evolution — and a way to introduce her to a new audience of sophisticated listeners who come more out of rock and pop than jazz or r&b.”

“I’ve always told Esperanza that she could make a jazz vocal album where she only sings,” says pianist Fred Hersch, a mentor to Spalding since she introduced herself to him at the Vanguard five or six years ago. They played a duo concert last May at SFJazz, during Spalding’s second season as its resident Artistic Director. “Esperanza is a world-class singer,” Hersch continues. “Her improvising is crazy good, and she hears everything. She doesn’t have a big, luxurious voice, but sings with so much flexibility and spontaneity. It’s the same with her bass playing. She plays with great energy and feeling and a quality of alertness, an ability always to respond in the moment.”

As Spalding noted earlier, she relates to notes and tones as a kind of alternate or equivalent language, as do many musicians who learn music at an early age. By her account, she could carry a tune at 5, the year she started on violin. “I played music like it was a toy,” she says. “Like somebody gives you an erector set without the instructions, and you start building stuff because you want to.”

Skipping classes one day at 15, she entered a high school music room, and stumbled upon a bass. “I liked it, and then I got better,” she says. “It’s the instrument that stuck. It’s the instrument I love. When I hear piano or trumpet or saxophone, I’m like, ‘My God, I could never do that.’ When I hear bass it’s, ‘Oh, I hear you.’ I feel I understand it, it speaks to me — it’s how I want to play in the band.”

Neither garnering five Grammys nor pursuing a high-profile career have dissuaded Spalding from wanting to play in the band or burnish her instrumental skills. In addition to ACS Trio, she played at this year’s Charlie Parker Festival in Tompkins Square Park with Joe Lovano, her teacher at Berklee. She’s played, when available, with Lovano’s Us Five ensemble since it debuted at the Vanguard in 2009, and with that band made the recordings Folk Art and Bird Songs. She spent the entire summer of 2014 touring with Tom Harrell’s Echoes of a Dream project, a suite of sextet music incorporating three horns, two basses, drums and her voice.

“I don’t know who you think I am or if you expected something different,” she says when asked what motivates her to assume the sideman function so assiduously. “I’m surprised it’s even a question that I do that. To me it’s like, ‘Oh, you still feed and clothe your children; what compels you to do that?’ ‘Because I’m a fuckin’ mother, dude! That’s what moms do.’” She paused. “I can think of some really neglectful mothers. I guess that question implies an expectation I’d be something else. I’ve never lived the something else, so I don’t know what to tell you.”

Why did she join Harrell’s project? “I prefer that question,” she says. “If Tom Harrell asks you to come play bass on a tour and wrote all the music with me in mind to be in his ensemble, and I get to sing and get paid to hear him solo every night … any bass player would say, ‘Hell, yeah!’ Fortunately, he asked me to tour with him during a year I made myself available to play, because I was so ready not to have to be responsible for anything or anybody. Whatever I could have done during those months is no way comparable to or better than being with Tom.”

She adds, unprompted: “No matter how busy I am, if Wayne Shorter ever asks me to do anything, I’m going to make sure I can do it.” Carrington had noted Shorter’s influence on the chords that infuse various sections of Emily’s D+Evolution, as well as on Spalding’s previous work. Spalding agrees. “I hope that Wayne is influencing my work,” she says. “He is influencing my mind and heart. He inspires me to be courageous all the time, and do what I dare to dream.
“Music doesn’t feel easy to me. It doesn’t feel like second nature. It feels difficult. You go get it. You see it, you find the tools, and then you make it the best that you can.”

SIDEBAR:

Title:

“I just recently met Emily,” said stylist Cassie O’Sullivan, who first worked with Esperanza Spalding in 2010, when photographer Sandrine Lee recruited her to style Spalding for the cover of Chamber Music Society, on which the leader wears a white button-up shirt under a black vest. She subsequently styled Spalding for Radio Music Society, and helped her to visually portray the particulars of “Emily’s” appearance. O’Sullivan had dropped by the Milk Bar to chat with Spalding’s assistant and have a bite, and agreed to discuss the contrasting styles of “Emily” and “Esperanza.”

“Emily was unavailable to speak, so at first I worked with her telepathically,” said O’Sullivan, who has run Spalding’s style blog since that time. “We went to a thrift store, and Emily picked out a pair of ski pants. I saw the glasses on the rack.”

O’Sullivan elaborates. “Emily’s style is unification of the entire world. For example, a piece of couture that works really well with a piece of beadwork that was done by Native Americans maybe 100 years ago. It’s earthy and etheric, high-tone and low-tone, high-vibration and low-vibration. Her style is similar to Esperanza’s in that it’s always moving and changing and sustainable. Esperanza’s is pretty and sweet, form-fitting and constructed, with common sense to it — something maybe anybody could wear.”

Before discussing how Emily and Esperanza use makeup differently, O’Sullivan asserted their shared values. “We always search for the cleanest makeup, because the toxins in Bisphenol-A makeup enter the bloodline 10 times as fast through the skin as when it goes into your mouth or stomach,” she says. “Esperanza’s makeup style was very natural, and that’s how I worked with her. Maybe we would put on all-natural eyelash and do a nice blended line. Emily’s makeup is maybe more of an intuition Cleopatra. She prefers a defined line.”

O’Sullivan doesn’t perceive the differences as dramatic. “Emily and Esperanza and I really don’t argue. We just agree and we disagree. It’s multi-dimensional. It’s facets of the jewel, facets of the gem.” —TP

Leave a comment

Filed under Esperanza Spalding, Jazziz

For Singer-Songwriter Gregory Porter’s 46th Birthday, A Jazziz Feature From 2013

Today’s the 46th birthday of the inspirational singer-songwriter Gregory Porter, who will drop his new album, a Nat Cole tribute, in a couple of weeks. For the occasion, here’s a feature article that I had the honor to write about this master for Jazziz in 2013.

*_*_*_*_*_

 

Water pouring down the sidewalks/Cleaning windows clear to see/Washing gumdrop down side gutters/Rusting chains and cleansing me/Growing gardens, drowning ants/Changing rhythms, bruising plants/Graying vistas soulfully/And it’s saving me. —“Water,” Gregory Porter

It rained torrents in Brooklyn on June’s first Friday, so much rain that at 3 p.m. water was flowing through crevices in the cornice atop the stoop of Gregory Porter’s Bedford Stuyvesant brownstone into the cramped vestibule. It was also, Porter said, seeping from the back into his ground-floor kitchen. No respite was in sight until well past Porter’s scheduled 7 o’clock flight to Pittsburgh, so it promised to be a long day. Still, the singer, sheathed in the black balaclava and Kangol cap that is his sartorial trademark, seemed stress-free as he escorted me upstairs, where it was dry.

In truth, the weather seemed an apropos backdrop for a discussion framed around Porter’s September Blue Note release, Liquid Spirit, which follows on the heels of his Grammy-nominated 2010 leader debut, Water [Motema] and its Grammy-nominated successor, Be Good [Motéma]. Both generated uncommon levels of crossover buzz for a release by a “jazz” singer. One reason is Porter’s dazzling toolkit—a resonant voice, multi-octave range, conversational projection and soulful feel. Another is his luminous songwriting—27 well-crafted originals on the three CDs that convey both grand metaphysical themes and intensely personal narratives in precise, symbolic, soul-baring language that evokes such late 20th-century masters as Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, Bill Withers and Abbey Lincoln, Donny Hathaway and Gil Scott-Heron. It’s also intriguing that the source of these introspections is a strapping, full-bearded ex-linebacker who built his Q-rating in the old-school, grassroots manner — several years of weekly Tuesday night appearances in the raucous confines of St. Nick’s Pub in Harlem, then a year of Thursday night three-setters at Smoke, the Upper West Side jazz club — after moving to New York in 2005.

“Some people told me, ‘Stop doing that damn gig,’” Porter says, recalling reaction to his appearances at St. Nick’s Pub. “But I dug that regular people would come in and buy a $3 beer and hear live jazz. So this lab that is St. Nick’s Pub — that is community, that is tourist — became this soulful place for me and the band as well. We enjoyed ourselves there for that little $30 or $40.”

These days Porter commands much higher fees. In five days, he would fly to Los Angeles to play the Hollywood Bowl, launching a summer itinerary of North American festival appearances and engagements in Europe, where he’s toured without respite during the past year. His fan base spans the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe, and the former Soviet Union and Japan, where he was packing rooms well before Water launched his recording career. Increasingly his admirers also include peers and elders, including stylistically divergent artists like Wynton Marsalis, who in March cast Porter in the Trickster role originally inhabited by Jon Hendricks in a high-profile restaging of Blood On the Fields at the Rose Theater, and David Murray, who recruited Porter to sing lyrics by Ishmael Reed and Abiodun Oyewole of the Last Poets on Murray’s recently released Be My Monster Love.

“The hook-up with Gregory was one of the greatest things I could do with a vocalist,” Murray told me over the phone. “He can reach deep down, but also get up there, like the tenor or cello — he’s got power in all areas. He can sound like people, too. He can do all those things, which is phenomenal, and he’s a thinking man. I have total respect for him.”

“He has the spirit of the ’70s with a jazz aesthetic,” says Chip Crawford, Porter’s pianist from his earliest St. Nick’s Pub days. “I’m getting more and more amazed at his writing ability, plus his melodies are as good as anyone’s. At this point I don’t know if there is anyone who writes lyrics as well as him. And, if anybody has as good a voice as he does, let me hear it.”

“I try to be organic,” Porter says of his approach to making albums and writing lyrics. “I’m not calculating in terms of, ‘I want to write some modal music and connect it to Gregorian chant,’ which is a dope way to be as well. I open up my chest and arms and see what falls in there inspirationally, and these are the things that come out at the point of the release of energy. After everything is on the page, I look and say, ‘OK, this is what that is.’”

Having eased into the conversation, Porter adds, “I don’t mean to be throwaway about it, or like I’m not really thinking about everything.” He offers a creation story for “Wolf Song,” one of several pieces on Liquid Spirit that he generated during a fortnight in Europe shortly after his son was born and immediately before the mid-March recording session. “I had to get it done,” he recalls. “Concepts and even some lyrics formulated on the train across France. I remember looking at sheep on a hillside, and thinking: I wonder, are there any wolves? And then the thought: Boy who cried … boy who cries wolf. No. Girl who cries wolf. … Hmm. Have I had a girl cry ‘wolf’ for me about a love situation? Ah! The song started to write itself, right there on the train.”

Porter turned his attention to the title track, also conceived in France, while sitting in a coffee shop. “This piece of poetry flowed out of me quite easily,” he says, before reciting, plain-song: Un-re-route the river, let the dammed water be, there’s some people down the way that’s thirsty, so let the liquid spirit free. The folk are thirsty because of man’s unnatural hand. Watch what happens when the people catch wind of water hitting the backs of that hard, dry land.

“It came from people saying, ‘Where can I get some more of this kind of music? Where have you been? We’ve been waiting for you.’ That energy, the music, love, culture and soul is somewhere, being re-routed or diverted. I wanted to be in front of people, and I didn’t have a gig. Now, I’m gigging, and I sing, and people say these things to me.”

[BREAK]

“Music is subliminal,” Porter told a sold-out room at Subculture, a new basement space on Bleecker Street where he was presenting a showcase for Liquid Spirit the Monday after his Pittsburgh weekend. He’d just flown in, and it was raining again, as was evident from the soaked lapels on his beige sport jacket, which draped a white shirt, black vest and olive bowtie that complemented his black headgear. “It’s hypnotic, in a way,” Porter continued. “No matter how tired my voice is, no matter how I’m dressed, I can sing.”

Porter had performed infrequently in New York over the past year, so, as he said in a later chat, this appearance spurred “a bit of pent-up demand.” He added that the attendees — roughly three-quarters of whom were African-Americans, an unusually high proportion for a downtown jazz event — “were real fans; I didn’t stuff the house with just my friends from down the street.”

From the very first tune, they signified allegiance with a call-and-response that continued throughout the 75-minute set. On the title track, a blues stomp with an Oscar Brown-ish feel, Porter had no need to augment the exhortation “clap your hands now” with a crash course on finding the beat. “Work Song,” which he addressed with stylized rawness, elicited shouts of “Unh-uh, child!” from several enthusiastic women. The “congregants” imposed their own master plan on the set-closer, transforming “1960-What,” a soul-stirring, socially conscious number from the Les McCann-Eddie Harris “Compared to What?” playbook, into a collective sing-along.

Between songs, Porter, who is 41, testified at some length. After “Work Song,” for example, he spoke of Bakersfield, California, the dusty agriculture-and-oil city where Porter moved at 8 from Los Angeles with his siblings and mother, a pastor in the Church of God and Christ, who, he told me, circumvented doctrinal proscriptions against female practitioners by “calling every church that she established a ‘mission’ so that she could be the head missionary and, essentially, the head preacher.”

Onstage at Subculture, he told the room: “My mother had a real desire to go to the churches with older congregations — small storefront, no-air-conditioning churches. If the music I heard there disappears, then it will be — watch this word, it’s kind of heavy — a kind of musical genocide.” Having landed on the next song’s title, “Musical Genocide,” Porter’s simultaneously wrenching and affirmative delivery of the lyric encapsulated a sensibility that he internalized while singing at those churches while his mother preached.

Give me a blues song
Tell the world what’s wrong
And the gospel singer giving those messages of love
And the soul man with your heart in the palm of his hand
Bringing his stories of love and pain.

“Black people came to Bakersfield from the South, and all the black ministers were thick, farmer-hand preachers,” Porter had told me while seated on a couch in his living room. “They were singing a lot of deep Southern gospel blues. So I was singing with these old men who had great voices. Ted Johnson sounded like Leadbelly. Elder Kemp and Elder Duffy had the style of James Brown, and Pastor Richardson sounded like dead-on Sam Cooke. Others sounded like John Lee Hooker, and others like Bobby Bland, except for that snorting thing he does between phrases.

“Many times I hated it because it was hot in the church, and here I am on my knees with all these old people, singing these blues. Yeah-esss, Yahyaess, Yesss, Yes, Yehhhs. Now, that chord progression, you’re singing it a hundred times over an hour, but each time it’s slightly different. ‘Yes, you will, Yes, He will; yes, we will, yes, we will.’ ‘Save my children. SAY-YA-VE my child-dreh-ehn, SAYVE MAH CHIL-dren…” On and on and on. Very much like jazz. Deviating from the melody. These voices were constantly harmonizing. We would all do it as a group. And it’s just happening. Nobody’s saying, ‘You get this part and you get this part.’ I appreciate that steeping of music now. Sometimes in a song, I’ll go to that place, and that’s the energy that fuels that moment.”

Porter’s ability to make musical decisions in real time in functional, ritualized contexts allows him to mix and match genres that don’t always coalesce in jazz expression circa 2013. “I’m not saying this because I’m a black man trying to take ownership of any music,” he says, “but when I heard jazz, certain saxophone players playing the blues or something, I was like, ‘I hear my grandfather preaching; that’s my grandmother moaning over it when she cooks.’ It wasn’t, ‘I want to get with that.’ I heard myself, and I was like, ‘There’s something for me there, too.’ Then I opened myself up to wider things.”

Not only did Porter directly experience and absorb the gospel-blues tradition, but also his mother’s social-gospel practice of “always going wherever the need was deepest, wherever the battle was.” As Porter describes it, she fed and clothed and cleaned the indigent, answered calls from denizens who had overdosed on heroin or a “Sherman” — a cigarette dipped in PCP.

“Some way, people would find a way to call her when they got in the deepest situations,” he says. “My mother would somehow drive to the rescue, pull somebody into the back seat of her brand-new Cadillac, wrap them up in a sheet and pour water on their head until they came to after 2 or 3 hours. In a way, we were in the trenches with her. That sticks with you.” He quotes“When Love Was King,” from Liquid Spirit: “He lifted up the underneath/and all this wealth he did bequeath. There’s a bit of my mother, Martin Luther King and Jesus Christ in that song. Redemption was a big thing for her. Her water sermons were very important when I was a child, which is probably where all these water themes are coming from in my music.”

BREAK

What primarily distinguishes Liquid Spirit from its predecessors is the pithiness of the 14 tracks — the track-lengths are shorter, the solo interludes fewer. Some have asked Porter whether this decision was to facilitate airplay for his “major label” debut. “Not really,” he says. “It’s a feeling of ‘Let me hit these blues and come off of them.’ I don’t put myself in the category of my influences — of great Japanese poetry or even the blues yet. But I want to get out these little ideas, restate them, and then rely on the energy it leaves to strike to the heart quickly, which to me is what a dope short blues song does.”

Porter’s path to blues expression as an avocation and not a sideline began in 1993, when his mother, on her deathbed with cancer, urged him “to really give singing a try.” He was then a 21-year-old undergraduate at San Diego State, where he’d matriculated on a football scholarship in 1990. A shoulder injury ended that dream, and Porter was focusing on city planning and “a nice government job, so she’d think I was doing something positive as she was leaving us.”

Eventually he started attending local jam sessions, which had a bebop flavor, “trying to get with Eddie Jefferson, King Pleasure and Jon Hendricks,” sitting in with adept locals like trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos and saxophonist Daniel Jackson. One night, after he “tried to scat something over ‘Giant Steps,’” the master trombonist-composer George Lewis, a recent addition to the UC-San Diego faculty, invited him to his class.

“There were no vocalists there, and George started using me liberally from the beginning,” Porter says. “The students were dismissing the voice, but he said, ‘No, no, the voice is important; it does different things, it has its own qualities.’”

One day Lewis had to miss class, and called saxophonist-keyboardist-arranger Kamau Kenyatta to sub. “Kamau immediately brought me to his crib for lunch,” Porter says, recalling the beginning of an important and ongoing friendship (Kenyatta produced Water, and co-produced Be Good and Liquid Spirit with Brian Bacchus). “He did 12 charts, in my key, of different songs he thought would be good for me to learn. Kamau is from Detroit, and the relationship was in the tradition of that scene. You have lunch, do music, talk about it, play a bunch of songs. You live the music.”

In 1998, Porter, who was working at a Deepak Chopra Center for Wellbeing, (“personalizing body treatment oils and doing a bit of cooking in their kitchen”) went to a Hubert Laws recording session of Nat “King” Cole repertoire that Kenyatta was producing. Kenyatta asked Laws to listen to his protégé; Laws immediately invited Porter to sing a tune. His daughter, Eloise Laws, who was present, then urged Porter to attend a Los Angeles audition for the musical revue It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues. Porter, who had already appeared in the doo-wop musical Avenue X, was hired “on the spot” and joined the production for an 18-month run on Broadway. Then he did a national tour with the musical Civil War, returned to Los Angeles and started writing a musical — both songs and script — based on his relationship with the music of Nat Cole.

“I heard my mother’s Joe Williams and Nat Cole records when I was 5 or 6,” he recalls. “My father wasn’t around, and I’d look at Nat Cole’s LP covers and imagine he was my daddy. On mic checks and warm-ups for It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues. I’d sing ‘Mona Lisa,’ ‘When I Fall In Love,’ ‘Too Young,’ and the cats would comment that I should do something with it. I’d tell them how I got into him, and they’d respond that it was an interesting story, and at some point I realized that this was the story I had to tell.”

Nat King Cole and Me ran for two months at the Denver Center Theater, before 700-800 people a night. “They were responding to my songs as well as the Nat Cole songs,” Porter says. “That’s when the confidence in my songwriting began. Doing Ain’t Nothing But the Blues, I got so much exposure to great blues music, country to city, very sophisticated to just gutbucket. Just like jazz, I heard myself in it. Abbey Lincoln’s songs, her personal stories, made me realize that, sometimes, the more personal, the more universal. Then, too, the Bible and the style of speech in sermons convert well to song. Traveling around Europe, all those medieval cities, you feel like you should talk that way.”

Nat Cole and Me didn’t make it out of Denver, and its closing coincided with the end of a love affair. “I had a pocket full of money, and no place to go,” Porter says. “My brother was just setting up a coffee shop in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and he said, ‘Come here.’ So I came and worked in his shop, making soup. My idea was to stop going out and doing these small theater gigs that sustained me and kept insurance, to let me go broke, be hungry, but try solely to do the music thing.”

[BREAK]

With all the momentum that Porter has generated in New York, for all the charisma he possesses, and, as Liquid Spirit co-producer Brian Bacchus says, with “nothing to prove in terms of jazz credentials,” it is curious that Porter still “feels like on the outside looking in,” quoting “The In Crowd,” which he covers on Liquid Spirit.

“I chose it after I knew this would be on Blue Note,” Porter says. “It’s a little commentary to myself, like, ‘Am I in that crowd now?’ I don’t know. At St. Nick’s, Frenchmen and Spaniards came who said, ‘You should be in France, you should be in Spain.’ I felt it, but I didn’t have a passport yet.” He references “Bling Bling,” a song from Be Good: “I’m so rich in love and so poor in everything that makes love matter/I’ve got gifts to give, but no place for those gifts to live. Eventually, I started to get the opportunities, and once they came. … But you don’t have confidence right off the bat. In a way, you build to it.”

Porter is “increasingly comfortable in the fact that I can only be me.” He cites sage advice from Marsalis. “Wynton told me, ‘There’s some things you have that can’t be learned; I’m sure there are some things you could know that would be instrumental to you. Whether you have them or not, get them, put them in your back pocket, and access them. But at the same time, use the facility that you have.’

“I have many things that I desire to do. Coming to the public eye slightly formed, people almost thought, ‘There are 10 records I can get somewhere, right?’ And there’s not. I say, ‘If you want 10 records, you’ve got to wait. You have to wait that 8 years or however long it takes.’”

SIDEBAR:

Title: The Cat in the Hat

“My editor wanted me to ask you one question,” I told Porter at the end of our first conversation. Before I could mention that it was a query about his headgear, he interjected, “I know what the question is.” Then he laughed long and hard.

“Please tell me,” I said.

“It’s my jazz hat. I used to wear berets.”

“Do you wear it all the time? Are you wearing it just for me?”

“This is just for you. No …”

“How many do you have?”

“Many.”

“What’s the brand?”

“Well, this is a Kangol Summer Spitfire.”

“How many Kangols do you have?”

“These, I must have eight.”

“All the same?”

“No. I have a brown. I have five black. I have a red, a blue. … But the balaclavas, I have many-many-many. It’s my look, man. I’m recognized at a great distance.”

“How did the look begin?”

“Since I’ve been in Brooklyn. It’s been about six years.”

“What was the inspiration?”

“You do something one day, and you’re like, ‘This is my look.’”

“And you used to wear berets.”

“I used to wear berets. I still do every now and then, when I’m in church, you know.”

“Is the hat and the balaclava a sort of prop …”

“No.”

“…to sing? I mean, does it kind of put you in character or …”

“When I go out with my wife, I’m dressed like this, too. Now, when we come home and we’re relaxed, no. But this is my look, my public look. It is a jazz hat. The first time I went to Russia, they asked me about it, and the next time I came, the kids came to the concert dressed like me. This was over five years ago. I remember they were taking pictures with their cell phones. And the next time I came, they came to the concert looking like me.”

Leave a comment

Filed under George Lewis, Gregory Porter, Jazziz, Singers

For Antonio Sanchez’ 46th birthday, A Jazziz Feature From 2015

For drummer-composer Antonio Sanchez’ 46th birthday, here’s a feature article that I had the honor to write about him for Jazziz in 2015, framed around his soundtrack for the film Birdman and two  contemporaneous releases.

*_*_*_*_

Beyond Birdman, Jazziz, 2015

In the program notes for his new release, The Meridian Suite, Antonio Sanchez draws an explicit analogy between the raw materials of his long-form, 55-minute work and the invisible pathways along which energy flows through the human body, even the lines that criss-cross the globe and the celestial spheres. These days, Sanchez’s Q score is as high as any living drummer after 15 years of constant touring with Pat Metheny and the release last year of the widely admired solo-drum soundtrack that he created for the award-winning feature film Birdman, yet he was thinking of matters more prosaic than chakras and qi when he titled the ambitious five-part Meridian Suite.

Specifically, it gestated in a hotel room in Meridian, Mississippi, after an October 2012 concert by Metheny’s Unity Band. Sanchez saved a 5/4 motif that he had conceived, then named the file for the location. In 2014, at the beginning of a 10-month tour with Unity Band, Sanchez was pondering the next step that his quartet, Migration, might take after the previous year’s release of its eight-tune album New Life. “I remembered this cool intro that I thought was OK,” he recalls. “I listened and liked it again. That’s a good sign.” Working in short spurts while on the road, he added more sections, realized it would be a suite, and began to trace the metaphysical connections.

I spoke to Sanchez, 43, on a balmy May afternoon at the airy one-bedroom Jackson Heights co-op that he shares with his fiancé, singer Thana Alexa. He had recently returned from a 17-concert, seven-clinic sojourn to Canada, Mexico, Japan, Germany, Finland, Italy and England with the personnel from Meridian Suite (tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake, pianist John Escreet and bassist Matt Brewer), with whom he’ll tour extensively to support the CD during the remainder of this year. He and Alexa had spent the previous week house-hunting in neighboring Brooklyn, motivated more by practical imperatives than dissatisfaction with their current premises. “This place is super-quiet and beautiful, but I can’t practice, because it disturbs the neighbors,” Sanchez says.

The strength of Sanchez’s playing on Meridian Suite and the simultaneously released Three Times Three— both on the CamJazz imprint — demonstrates that attenuated practice time has been anything but an impediment. On the former date, he creates sections tailored to the tonal personalities of his bandmates, including Alexa’s powerful contralto. She sometimes doubles with Blake’s bass clarinet-sounding EWI (Electric Wind Interface) passages, which are reminiscent of vintage Mini Moog. Escreet contributes skronky Fender Rhodes; Adam Rogers interpolates high-octane guitar. Sanchez propels the flow with complex rhythmic figures drawn from rock, fusion, swing, electronica, Afro-Caribbean and free-bop. He executes them with an extravagantly detailed attention to texture, as on “Channels of Energy,” the third section, for which he compressed the drum sound in post-production, put a pillow inside his 20-inch bass drum to make it sound like a rock kit, and used piccolo and soprano snare drums.

“I’m tuning everything a little lower than I used to,” Sanchez says. “I like getting more meat from the drums. On a regular jazz record, you keep the sound consistent and don’t change the tuning for just one piece, but here it felt right.”

Sanchez says that his “first albums were mostly about improvisation, with everyone soloing over the form.” He mentions his 2007 debut, [igration, on which Metheny and Chick Corea (with whom he toured and recorded that year) blew a tune apiece with tenorists David Sánchez and Chris Potter and bassist Scott Colley, and its 2008 successor, Live in New York at Jazz Standard, on which alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón replaced Potter. “The approach was, ‘Let’s get in the studio and record some tunes.’ But Meridian Suite is the most structured thing I’ve done. We did it to a click, which I completely mapped out on the computer. I learned that from Pat, as well as compositional things and production elements.”

In the notes, Sanchez compares Meridian Suite to “a musical novel instead of a group of short stories,” in which the composition develops analogously to “the way a novelist develops a story and its characters.” He acknowledges as an antecedent Metheny’s 2005 long-form epic The Way Up, on which he played. He adds that he shares with Metheny an aesthetic of contextualizing complex musical ideas within an epic narrative frame. “Music without storytelling doesn’t hold my attention,” Sanchez says. “My tunes can be over 10 minutes, because I love to tell that story as fully as I can. That’s why Meridian Suite was such a cool vehicle to tell a story over a longer period of time. Most of the stuff I’ve been influenced by my whole life seemed to come out.”

He continues: “I love the show aspect of things. I don’t like being in bands where you play the first tune, then discuss what you’re going to play next on stage while people are waiting. So, as a bandleader, I really like to plan. I grew up listening to rock and fusion, which is very arranged, and my attitude descends from that — but Pat’s methodology rubbed off on me.”

Metheny discovered Sanchez in Turin in 2000, when, while dining backstage after a performance, he heard the Danilo Pérez Trio playing onstage. He remarked, “The drummer and percussionist are playing really well together.” The promoter responded, “No, it’s just one guy.” Metheny decided to verify, and watched Sanchez operate. In London soon thereafter, Metheny attended the trio’s second set at Pizza Express, and asked Sanchez for his email address.

“Pat sent a long note that described in detail everything he liked about what he heard, and then posed some questions, like a job application,” Sanchez recalls. “He asked if I considered myself someone who could play any style or just did jazz. Did I consider myself someone who is stable? Did I like going on the road or not? Then he asked: ‘What are you doing next Thursday? Do you want to play?’

“His vision is very specific, and learning the parameters — which are very clear — was the hardest part. The first time we played, we did ‘Turnaround’ and then ‘All the Things You Are.’ Then Pat asked, ‘What would you play behind this?’ I started playing a rhythm I knew from the Pat Metheny Group that I thought would fit. Pat said, ‘Try 30 percent less with your left hand and 10 percent more with your hi-hat, and maybe 50 percent more, or 52 percent (he was seriously like that), with your right hand on the cymbal.’ He was half-joking, but completely serious. It was his way of telling me, ‘I need you to have that much command of your instrument.’ That was mind-boggling. Luckily, I was at a point where I could do it.”

BREAK

Less scripted than Meridian Suite, but as cohesive, are the performances on Three Times Three, released in Europe in 2014. Three separate trios for which the only possible description is “all star” — pianist Brad Mehldau and Brewer, guitarist John Scofield and bassist Christian McBride, and tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano and bassist John Patitucci — play two Sanchez originals and a rearranged standard apiece. Himself a classical-piano student before migrating from Mexico City to Boston’s Berklee School of Music in 1993, Sanchez devoted particular attention to writing pieces that Mehldau “could sink his teeth into.” These include a reharmonization of “Nardis” and a 14-minute original called “Constellations” that occupied 15 pages of sheet music. “I got carried away,” Sanchez says. “I’d told Brad it would be an easy blowing session, so he was a little ticked off. But he had it down in no time.”

For Lovano and Patitucci, Sanchez offered the aria-like “Firenze” on which Lovano milks the melody like an operatic tenor. There’s an outer-partials, tempo-shifting treatment of Thelonious Monk’s “I Mean You” that Sanchez compares to “a race car that you can steer in any direction.” Scofield and McBride plumb the harmonic riches of Wayne Shorter’s “Fall,” and hit a deep, funky pocket on “Nooks and Crannies,” of which Sanchez says, “I can’t imagine another guitarist playing it.”

“Antonio writes for the occasion,” says vibraphonist Gary Burton, whose third album with Sanchez is 2013’s Guided Tour, which begins with the drummer’s “Caminos” and ends with his “Monk Fish.” “His pieces are tailored very much to my strengths and what interests me as a player. When you explain and demonstrate a new song, he picks it up immediately, and you hardly have to think about it.”

McBride, who toured and recorded with Sanchez on various Metheny projects from 2003 to 2008, elaborates further on his qualities. “He’s one of my few friends I can make inappropriate jokes with,” the bassist says. “When Antonio told me he was doing his first CD, I said, ‘Oh, that means you’re going to get everybody else to do the writing for you, right?’ But when I heard it, I was shocked. I said, ‘When did you write that? We were together almost a year; I never saw you at the piano.’ I have to point to his work ethic. You’d be hard-pressed to find a drummer who practices as hard as he does, just on technique and learning forms and how to play inside and outside those forms.”

Sanchez has put in his time, and then some, since his teens in Mexico City, when he spent mornings at the Escuela Superior de Musica, afternoons in regular high school and evenings training in gymnastics (he was a member of Mexico’s Junior National Team). From age 13, he found time to play occasional rock gigs on drums. Fearing burnout, he dropped out of high school with his mother’s blessing, and “immersed myself way deeper into music and gymnastics at that level.”

He modeled his discipline and professionalism from examples in his immediate family. His grandfather, the esteemed actor Ignacio Lopez Tarso, is still active at 90. “He’d have to be about to die to miss a performance,” Sanchez says. His mother, Susana, still in her teens when she had him, “was single and working from the beginning. She studied literature and philosophy, and was a film critic for years. She took me to rock shows and the symphony, and to the theater to see my grandfather. When I was super-heavy into rock drumming, she tried to play me an Art Blakey record, but I had no interest.”

A family friend gave Sanchez drum lessons at 6, teaching “basic technique and how to play along with the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.” Later, Sanchez took three lessons with Tino Contreras, “the Buddy Rich of Mexico.” Otherwise, he learned by doing, playing along with progressive rock and fusion records, and emulating the examples of Dave Weckl, Vinnie Colaiuta and Dennis Chambers on hard-to-come-by videotapes. “I’d devour them for days on end, very methodically,” he recalls. “I’d put a mirror before my drum set and check that my hand position was exactly like theirs. I learned a lot that way. Most people I was playing with in rock bands weren’t as serious as me, and I thought if I got better I’d be able to play with different people. That led me to Latin jazz and fusion, and I got more technique and general knowledge.”

At Berklee, Sanchez, who had elected to study piano because “I thought I knew everything there was to know about the drums,” discovered that his self-regard was illusory. “I had chops, and a lot of drumming friends told me I could play, but I didn’t know left from right,” he says. During first semester, an instructor spotted him with his stick-bag and suggested he attend a bebop ensemble. “I brought my humongous kit, with a 22-inch bass drum, 7 cymbals and double-bass pedal.” The group began playing Sonny Rollins’ hard-bop classic “Pent-Up House.” After adjusting to the time feel, Sanchez “started blowing as many chops as I could — and I had some fancy ones. I thought I was impressing the hell out of everyone.” The instructor approached, “and started taking my drum set apart as I was playing. He left me with a hi-hat, bass drum, snare drum and ride cymbal, and told me, ‘Now solo in the form and trade choruses.’ I built myself up from there.”

While matriculated, Sanchez studied and jammed every day for hours. “I would volunteer for anything,” he says. “I was afraid of tendinitis because I was playing way too much.” Already playing frequently with Zenón, a fellow student, Sanchez developed a relationship with Pérez, six years his senior, then on faculty at New England Conservatory. “Danilo took me under his wing,” Sanchez says. “We’d have lunch and listen to music, and he started to come to a lot of my gigs. Then an opportunity arose to study with him at NEC. The lessons were mostly about rhythm. But my plan was, ‘Danilo, I love that tune of yours; how does it go?’ I’d pretend I didn’t know it well, although I did. He basically started training me for the job without even knowing it.”

Pérez was in the vanguard of a cohort of generational contemporaries from the nations shaped by the collision of the Iberian and African diasporas who focused not only on playing jazz with idiomatic fluency, but also on exploring their own cultural heritage. “I met a lot of students from Brazil, Cuba, Venezuela and Puerto Rico who all seemed to be so connected with their music,” Sanchez remembers. “I was almost envious. Mexican music was always in my life, but it didn’t draw me to want to write something Mexican-sounding or grab a Mexican rhythm and incorporate it. I wanted to play jazz, not be pigeonholed into Latin music, even though I loved it and it came easily to me. It has too many rules. Clave is so embedded in the culture that people have fist fights, and I wasn’t interested in being part of that, especially since I didn’t grow up playing it. We’re close to the U.S. and the Caribbean. We have a lot of influence from everywhere.”

After joining Pérez’s trio in 1998, following a consequential stint —on Pérez’s recommendation — with Paquito D’Rivera’s United Nations Orchestra, Sanchez developed his mature style. “Danilo made me jump from student to a high level in a relatively short amount of time because we played so much and so intensely,” he says. “You can’t slouch for one second in a piano trio, and his physical and psychological approach exhausted me at first. We would play the Afro-Cuban and Panamanian rhythms and bend the rules, as we did later in Miguel’s and David Sánchez’s bands with Puerto Rican rhythms. It was a new way to combine Latin music with jazz and make it open. I started experimenting with different sounds on the kit, exploiting the size of the drums, the rims, cross-stick combinations. When I started transitioning to other kinds of music, that stayed in my playing. It’s become my own sound, in a way.

“My own band really should have no rules. The name Migration has a lot to do with my story — leaving Mexico, leaving my family and coming here — but everyone in the band is from somewhere else. I’ve played with immigrants my whole life. If what we play comes from Latin influence, great. If it comes from rock or jazz, great. But I don’t want to pigeonhole in any way, shape or form.”

SIDEBAR

Movie Music

Sanchez’ storytelling mojo may have reached an apogee in the solo-drum soundtrack that he created for Birdman, available on Milan Records, which aurally depicts the lead character’s descent into madness. Perhaps it’s because his connection to director Alejandro Iñárritu, who is eight years Sanchez’s senior, has deep roots.

“I started checking out Pat after hearing the Pat Metheny Group on Iñárritu’s radio show, when he was a deejay in Mexico City,” Sanchez says. “Then he came to hear us in 2005, when we were touring The Way Up, and we met. Nice guy, super-unassuming. We hit it off. We kept in touch. When he’d come to New York for, say, a screening of his movies, he’d call me. When I was in L.A., I’d call him, and he’d come to my gigs if he was around. He’s a hoot. I’ve never met anyone more Mexican than he is. The connection was easy.

“When he called me for the project, he put me on the spot. ‘Do you want to do it or not? Are you into it?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘I’ll send you the script.’ I thought it could either be amazing or a train wreck. He said it was a dark comedy, but I didn’t laugh once the whole time I read the script. It would be the equivalent of me sending him the charts to my music, and ‘This is the idea for my new record,’ and expecting him to decipher what it’s going to be in the end.”

Thinking Iñárritu wanted something scripted and specific, Sanchez wrote separate rhythmic themes for the different characters. Iñárritu praised the results, but told him he wanted the opposite — “something jazzy, improvised, very organic.” Toward that end, Iñárritu talked to Sanchez about each scene, then sat facing him as he improvised so that they could imagine it together, raising his hand whenever he wanted to denote a shift to the next phase of the scene.

“As a jazz musician you react to your surroundings — to your band, or somebody else’s music, or to what I just played, if I’m playing by myself,” Sanchez says. “So reacting to the storyline or to an image, once we had an image to react to, wasn’t that different. It wasn’t conscious; you see something, your brain goes there, and you play something. You don’t have time to think about it. But most of the time, if you’ve done it enough, that part of your brain makes the right decision. I was just reacting to what was going on.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Antonio Sanchez, Christian McBride, Drummer, Jazziz, Pat Metheny

For Regina Carter’s Birthday, a Jazziz Feature From 2010

In honor of the magnificent violinist Regina Carter’s birthday, here’s a feature that I had the honor writing about her for Jazziz in 2010 around the release of Reverse Thread.

*_*_*_*_

It was the first day of spring, a mild, cloudless Sunday, a lovely day to sit on a bench on a tree-lined path in the upper quintile of Central Park for a conversation with Regina Carter. After a jam-packed winter itinerary—a late January performance of a commissioned violin concerto by Billy Childs with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, then a month on the road with the Monterey All-Stars, comprising Barron and his trio, Kurt Elling, and Russell Malone, and here-and-there gigs with her working quintet—Yacouba Sissoko on kora, Will Holshouser on accordion, Chris Lightcap on bass, and Alvester Garnett on drums—in advance of her new CD, Reverse Thread [E1], a meticulously constructed 12-tune program of folk and pop songs harvested from various spots in continental and diasporic Africa. With the possible exception of the 2003 date, Paganini: After A Dream, on which Carter played a recital comprising French Impressionism, tango, and bossa nova on the magnificent 1743 violin that belonged to Nicolò Paganini, Reverse Threads, which Carter produced herself, is the first document that completely represents her intentions, from the repertoire to the actual recording process.

The back story dates to a morning in September 2006, when Carter—then residing in a Central Park West apartment that was visible from the spot where we sat—received a phone call from the MacArthur Foundation announcing that she had received a “genius grant” of $500,000, no strings attached.

“I hadn’t had my coffee, and thought it was a prank,” she said. After it became apparent that she hadn’t been punked, she added, “I couldn’t move, just stared out the window for a while.”

The timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous: A month earlier, Carter had lost a breach of contract lawsuit for having cancelled a concert the previous year after the death of her mother, a former kindergarten teacher in the Detroit public school system. “It lasted a year, and cost me a pretty penny that I didn’t have,” she said. “My mom had beat cancer four times before, but they said cancer was a preexisting condition, and that I should have known better than to take the gig.”

After paying off debts and purchasing a mortgage on the New Jersey house that she presently shares with Garnett, her husband since 2005, Carter sought to actualize a long-standing dream of making a “world music” record. “Detroit was ethnically diverse, and I was exposed to a lot of music from different cultures at a very early age,” she said. “At some point, I noticed that  all the music I heard from all over the planet had an instrument that was either a violin or related to it.” A Suzuki-trained child prodigy on track to a classical career, Carter discovered jazz in high school, contracted out on various gigs (in tenth grade, she toured with the pop group Brainstorm, opening for, among other acts, Michael Jackson), and developed a predisposition to partake of the many musical flavors available in the Motor City’s diverse ethnic mix.

Carter’s initial intention was to “lean more towards Middle Eastern sounds,” but as she investigated, and heard “interesting music that I thought was from Cuba or Puerto Rico, or even Ireland, but always turned out to be indigenous music from different parts of Africa,” she transitioned to a different path. She spent a day at Manhattan’s World Music Institute, “just picking stuff—I bought something from almost everywhere.” Several of her musicians made suggestions, as did Randy Weston. But as Carter began to select the raw materials that resonated—the final cut includes tunes from Mali (Amadou and Mariam’s “Atistiya”), Madagascar (“Zerapiki”), Uganda’s Jews (“Hiwumbe Awumba” and “Mwana Talitambula [The Child Will Never Walk”]), and Puerto Rico (“Un Aguinaldo Pa Regina” by trombonist Papo Vazquez)—she became fascinated more with finding connective unitary threads and less concerned with differentiating the idiomatic particulars.

“I was thinking how we’re all related, how we all come from the same place,” she said. “To think of the music and culture of Africa back in the days of slavery, where the slave ships dropped people off, how those people then mixed with other cultures, and the music and the art that emerged from that became intriguing. Most of this music is not of my culture, but somehow it made me react emotionally. Beauty is beauty, wherever it comes from. Now, if something strikes me, it doesn’t mean I can translate it on my instrument, or with a group. A piece might not be what I thought it was. Those got tossed, and I narrowed it down to what I thought worked for us.”

For Carter, “us” meant a reconfigured ensemble. Before beginning her research, she recruited accordionist Holshouser in lieu of pianist Xavier Davis, and added Sissoko, a native of Mali. “I wanted the sound to be more chamber,” she says. “I wanted the group to be extremely quiet, and I wanted another instrument as quiet as violin—kora is even softer. I wanted to strip away as much amplification as I could. I don’t use a monitor, and Alvester can play extremely quiet. Whether I used electric or acoustic bass, I wanted an acoustic sound. I wanted to have improvisation and still connect to the jazz world. Otherwise, I would have hired a completely African band, and gone inside the music to try to understand everything about it. The album is my take as a Westerner and as a jazz musician.”

Over two years, Carter conceptualized the material, assigned arrangements, and whipped things into shape. “I cut stuff out,” she says. “A lot of this music doesn’t have deep harmonic content—it’s about the groove and the rhythm, creating a hypnotic effect, and you can’t have long solos over these sections.  Not to say they’re simple, but they presented another challenge. The beauty was in the simplicity. The task was to try to make it fit into our world, to impart a contemporary feeling without losing the original beauty—not go into playing pyrotechnics or try to force intricacy. Sometimes I’d get into trying to make something hip, but I was taking the hipness out of it. I had to get out of my own way, if you will, and just let the music by.”

[BREAK]

“When I was younger, I felt I had to prove something—and in a way, you do,” Carter reflected. “Now I’m very much at peace with where I am and who I am. I didn’t know whether anyone would pick this record up or not. But I needed to do it to satisfy my soul, and it was huge to be able to bring on only people who shared my vision.”

Towards that end, E1 honcho Chuck Mitchell, and violinist John Blake, serving as producer, helped Carter to eschew placing her soloistic abilities front and center, as on her six highly produced leader recordings since 1995 for Atlantic and Verve. Instead, she privileges collective dialog, her improvised declamations weaving in and out of the ensemble flow. In this regard, it’s useful to compare Reverse Threads to Carter’s eponymous Atlantic launch date record for Atlantic, on which, framed by personnels and producers, she represents a pan-stylistic sensibility—plugged-in, synthy-worldbeatish-funkish fusion tracks for the smooth jazz market, a Latin track, entr’acte duos with djembe, a concluding ballad duo that ends with a classical cadenza, all impeccably played—on which her tonal personality, as Greg Tate put it in the liner notes, is “better described as [a musician] who plays jazz rather than strictly a jazz musician.”

“They needed a concept first, which I felt was putting the cart before the horse,” Carter says of her experience with Atlantic, and, after 1998, with Verve, which repositioned her as a hardcore jazz musician. “Sometimes A&R people had difficulty understanding that I DID like all this music.  I grew up with Parliament and Funkadelics, all that stuff from Detroit.  I wasn’t trying to do a record to please everybody; I was pleasing myself. I learned to understand the business reasons, though—you’re a product now, and they’re trying to sell a product, so sometimes you’re put in a box.”

The box was literal as well as metaphorical. “In the studio, you’re all in separate rooms,” she says. “The minute you put a glass in front of me I can’t feel you. To hear someone coming through headphones and not from their instrument is the most unnatural way of playing music. Then you see that red light go on, and the panic starts, because all of a sudden you want to be perfect.”

She recalled being urged to improve her solo on a Kenny Barron tune while recording Rhythms of the Heart, her first Verve. “I thought, yeah, maybe I could,” Carter said. “I tried and tried. After a while, Kenny spoke up. He said, ‘You know what? You are where you are today, and you are who you are.’”

“We recorded Reverse Thread all in the same room, next to each other. I wanted some dirt, so to speak, and not have the mindset when I was playing, ‘I can go in and fix that later.’ I wanted it to be about the band and the performance of the piece, not about me.”

During her first years in New York, Carter eluded the box by participating in various creative contexts—with Tate in Black Rock Coalition hits, the String Trio of New York, such “downtown” bands as David Soldier’s String Quartet—that “stretched me in directions I’d never been.” Perhaps the most lasting such experience occurred in 1996, when Carter toured Blood on the Fields for three months with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. “Wynton wrote it to be played down and dirty, like a fiddle player,” she says. “None of the fluff. I hadn’t had much opportunity to play like that before, and I enjoyed it. It can be hard to get rid of the stuff you’ve learned, but it felt natural. In a situation like that, or swinging, I have to be conscious not to use vibrato—we spend so much time in European classical music studying how to get that vibrato, and  now I’m trying to lose it!”

In the liner notes to Rhythms of the Earth, Tate noted that Carter “now believed that swing is the ideal idiom for her instrument.” Indeed, she swings like the dickens throughout those proceedings, as she did at the end of 2009 with singer Allen Harris’ unit during a week-long working vacation at Umbria Winter Jazz in Orvieto, where she’d joined her husband, there for that gig, to prepare to play Childs’  Violin Concerto.

She discussed the technical particulars. Classical violinists, she said, trained to use the whole bow and a very light stroke, deploy so much vibrato on one note that they get to the next note late. Furthermore, using so much bow causes them to phrase on top of the beat rather than laying in the middle of it.

“Classical is my mother language, but I don’t really speak it any more,” she said. “Sometimes I still have to make a conscious effort to be careful about vibrato and phrasing, and to breathe more. In classical music, you sit straight up and you’re ready. With this kind of music, you’ve got to find the groove. You have to dance to the style—the way you move your body is how you’ll play. If I get too excited and nervous, I tend to play too much.”

Most important, Carter said, referencing her early Suzuki ear training, is treating the assimilation of various musical idioms as a process analogous to learning to speak a language. “It’s not about playing the notes exactly,” she said. “You’ve got to listen to records, and, more important, go to live concerts and study people, then tape yourself and hear if you’re doing that. Sometimes I do these Q&A sessions, and parents whose children are playing violin ask me to tell their kid that you have to learn classical music before you can play any other kind of music. ‘No, you’re wrong. That’s what you have to learn if you want to play classical music.’ Every language has its own grammar, its own technique.”

That being said, Carter follows a more generalized methodology on Reverse Thread.  “There’s different violins all over the continent, and so many ways of playing them,” she says. “I’d love to hone in one specific place, to spend some time and learn, say, Ghanaian fiddle music or the violin of Uganda. But this was more about my being a vocalist with the instrument.”

[BREAK]

“My mother’s thing was that if you start something, you’ve got to finish it,” Carter says. “When she died, I felt like an orphan—‘I can’t do this by myself; I’m not a grownup yet.’ You’re flailing for a while, and then you realize, ok, you’re good to go.” Indeed, for Carter, the grieving experience seemed to trigger long-standing aspirations to explore identity—both genealogical and intellectual—more meaningfully in her musical production.

“A lot of times in  the black community, horrible things were not to be spoken about,” she said. “My great-grandmother was a slave, and when my grandmother asked her about the markings on her back, she told her what they were from and then said, ‘We are not ever speaking about this again.’ My mother told me, but that’s all she got. Which is unfortunate, because it’s a part of our history that no one wants to deal with. And we need to deal with it. We need to know.”

Carter’s grandmother graduated from Morris Brown College in 1915 with a degree in pedagogy. “I look at her name, Sarah Vandousa McCaskill. Where does Vandousa come from? As an African-American, I have many roots, and I’m interested in all of them. It would be nice to know if I was connected to some specific tribe, or a  people or an area. Growing up in the ‘60s and watching television, I experienced that Whoopi Goldberg thing of seeing the Prell commercials with the blonde hair going across the screen, and then looking at myself. I was always jealous. I’d see women from East India or Thailand, and they’d have all this jewelry, and see African women with all their garb—all of that stuff. I just thought, ‘I want something like that. Who am I? What is it to be an American?’”

Which are questions that Carter intends to explore for the foreseeable future. “I’d like to continue with this, but maybe hone in on an area,” he said. “I’ve just scratched the tip of the iceberg—why not push the door open and see what else I find?. But let’s see what happens. I always think I know what I’m going to do, but  I’m like a kid in a candy store—every day I change my mind.”

[—30—]

Leave a comment

Filed under Detroit, Jazziz, Regina Carter, violin

For Saxophonist-Composer Yosvany Terry’s 45th Birthday, a Jazziz Feature From 2014, Two Interviews from 2013, and A Downbeat Profile (and the Interview for that Profile) From 2013

Today is the 45th birthday of the master alto saxophonist-composer Yosvany Terry, which is a good excuse to post documents of three formal encounters I’ve had with him since 2006. At the top is a 2014 feature piece that I wrote about Yosvany for Jazziz magazine framed around the release of New Throned King, his investigation of arara culture. Following that are two interviews from 2013 for a Jazz Times piece in which I interviewed 8 Cuban musicians who had transplanted to the U.S. about their education in Cuba. Following that is a short Downbeat profile from 2006 framed around his CD Metamorphosis, and following that is a long interview that we did for that piece.

*_*_*_

Yosvany Terry, Jazziz Feature Article, 2014:

“It’s interesting that this happened in New York,” Yosvany Terry says, reflecting on the chain of events that culminated in the June release of New Throned King (5Pasion). Joined on the CD by a 10-piece all-star band comprised primarily of fellow Cubans transplanted to the New York metropolitan area, the 43-year-old alto saxophonist-chekere player refracts the rhythms and chants that animate Cuba’s obscure [i]Arará[i] religious ceremonial with a comprehensive, poetic conception of modern jazz harmony and phrasing.

In early June, over a lunch of shrimp croquettes, roast pork, yuca and moro rice in a Cuban restaurant in Greenwich Village, Terry offered the involved back story that led to New Throned King. The chain of events sprang into motion in 2006, when Terry, a Harlem resident since emigrating from Cuba in 1999, applied for a grant to research Arará traditions. His fascination with the subject had gestated a year before his move to New York, while he was touring on a Steve Coleman-led collaboration with the folkloric ensemble Afro Cuba de Matanzas, who played Arará chants on congas. “I loved the chants, and I wanted to discover more where they came from,” Terry recalls. “But I had never seen real Arará drums in person.”

Brought to Cuba from Dahomey (now Benin), Arará drums, which animate Haiti’s vodún religion, were not to be found outside  Matanzas province, where the famously hermetic Sabalú cabildo — a religious/social organization originally formed by African slaves — that has preserved the tradition over multiple generations, maintains hawk-eyed custody. The drums portray deities with characteristics similar to those described by the Yoruba bata drum choirs that fuel the majority of Cuba’s traditional Afro-descended ritual practices. Arará drums are tuned lower and sculpted from different wood than batas, and are used to generate rhythmic patterns, chants and dances that differ entirely from those generated by their Nigeria-rooted counterparts.  “A community can use the Arará patterns to tell another community to prepare for war,” Terry said. “Batas are more ceremonial, to play for the king and other occasions.”

In December 2006, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors awarded Terry an $85,000 grant. In September 2007, he made an initial visit to Matanzas, where he contacted Mario Rodriguez, a.k.a. El Maño, a master practitioner of the Arará, bata and abakuá dialects. This trilingual guru figure played a key role in the Sabalú cabildo, which, Terry says, has “turned away great musicians and ethnomusicologists” on suspicion of their motives. However, El Maño knew Terry’s father, a violinist and singer who had built a national reputation since the 1950s as leader of the prominent charanga ensemble Orquesta Maravillas de Florida, based in the Camagüey Province, 260 miles east of Matanzas. El Maño decided to share his knowledge and assumed the role of Terry’s padrino, or godfather.

Parallel to these lessons, Terry commissioned a set of Arará drums, which, he says, would enable him “to hear the way the Arará chants were supposed to work with the original instruments and in the right environment.” He continues: “Seeing the drums was like a flashback. These were the exact same drums, deities and cultural traditions that I grew up with from the vodún tradition in the Haitian side of my family, even though Camagüey and Matanzas have no relation to one another in Cuba.”

With assistance from Matanzas-born percussionist Sandy Pérez — an Oakland, California, resident who put Terry in touch with El Maño — Terry taught the rhythms and chants assimilated in these encounters to master percussionists Román Diaz and Pedrito Martínez, both Cuban-born first-callers in New York. Although familiar with the Arará religion as rendered in Havana, their hometown, where, Terry says, “there is no chance you see those drums,” neither drummer knew the idiomatic Matanzas style. The three powerhouses formed the core of an ensemble that Terry convened to make a demo CD of five initial compositions framed around the traditional Arará toques,  representing, Terry says, “my take on going to a ceremony, but with a different aesthetic vision that includes everything I’ve been exposed to since I started studying music in Cuba and then living in New York.” Joining the drummers were the leader’s bassist brother, Yunior Terry, Cuban pianist Osmany Paredes and — to add “an American perspective” — Oakland native Justin Brown on trap set. Terry named the unit Ye-Dé-Bgé, after a Fon phrase meaning “with the approval of the spirits,” and led them through several concerts around New York City and northern California in 2008.

After this initial salvo, Terry continued to study with El Maño, exponentially expanding his information base as he earned the trust of the members of the Sabalú cabildo. (In early 2011, he and brother Yunior were initiated into the sect.) During this period, Terry fleshed out the older pieces and composed several new ones, among them “Mase Nadodo,” written in conjunction with a commissioned poem by Ishmael Reed depicting the Minos warrior women of Dahomey, and “Reuniendo la Nación,” a drum chant that Terry augmented with ghostly sounds from Haitian DJ Val Jeanty and improvised piano from Jason Moran.
Terry’s sense of familial obligation to preserve and extend the cabildo’s traditions became even more palpable after Rodriguez died in August 2011. “Without El Maño, I wouldn’t have any information; nothing I could use was available on the internet or on CDs or anywhere,” Terry says. “I think he realized that I was not just a student interested in learning the patterns and chants, but someone who sees himself as part of the same lineage. In that way he embraced me. When my cousins saw me playing the drums in my house, they knew these were same drums they’d known as children. So I was able to connect my family tradition with Arará. One path developed in Haiti and one developed in Cuba.”

BREAK

In Terry’s view, neither New Throned King nor the Ye-Dé-Bgé ensemble could exist outside of New York City. Indeed, he ascribes his decision to emigrate to a deeply felt need to further his education by “living and participating in the mecca of music and the arts.” Having digested New York in his own manner, he has arrived at his own sound and, paradoxically, moved closer to his roots.

“I understood that my journey was not complete,” Terry says. “I wanted to meet the great masters of the jazz community, to learn directly from the source, not from books. That forces you to look more within yourself, to state who you are and what you really think about music, about life and your aesthetic perspective. Living here, you hear jazz mixed with Middle Eastern music, with music from areas of South America that you don’t hear in Cuba, with music by people from Europe, Japan and around the world. We no longer think of music in terms of Cuban flavor. For us, jazz is everything together. So my intention was not just to recreate Arará culture, but to do something with it from a New York standpoint.”

When he moved to Manhattan, Terry, then 28, was well-prepared to stake his claim within the world’s most competitive jazz scene. The early training he received from his father engendered intimacy with a broad array of folkloric styles and an ability to play the gourd-like chekere with the narrative flair of a griot. Comprehensive training in the Euro-canon at Cuba’s rigorous music conservatories polished his musicianship and sharpened his technique. “Even in Cuba,” he says, “I liked the concept that I could play multiple styles.”

After graduating from the Escuela Nacional de Arte in Havana in 1992, Terry freelanced in Cuban jazz and dance bands, with folk and rock ’n’ roll singers and with nuevo trova singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez, who exposed him to a Pan-American musical conception. He joined pianist-composer Carlos Masa, who brought Terry onto the European festival circuit and exposed him to Steve Coleman’s musical production. Terry met Coleman in 1995  at the Stanford Jazz Workshop, launching an intense, mutually beneficial relationship.

“Steve was one of the first people who told me to come to New York,” Terry says of his former guru. “In fact, he was the first person to bring me here.” Like several of his jazz-oriented generational peers from the Southern Americas, Terry benefitted from Coleman’s willingness to share seminal saxophone recordings by Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, and to impart his vast knowledge of the codes embedded in h the notes and tones.

“When we met, I told Yosvany that I was coming to Cuba to do a project with Afro Cuba de Matanzas and Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, and that I wanted him to be my Mario Bauzá,” Coleman recalls, naming the trumpeter-composer who introduced Dizzy Gillespie to Afro-Cuban  while they were section mates in Cab Calloway’s Orchestra in the late 1930s. “I needed someone who knew Cuban traditions and a bit about the folkloric stuff, but was also familiar with what we do. Right away I noticed that he’s serious, intelligent and curious, with an ability to break things down. Yosvany was always quick at rhythms, like he was familiar with them already. He had a lot of questions about our tradition; I had a lot of questions about his. We traded information over a long period of time, conversations deep into the night about all kinds of stuff. I would say it changed both our lives in terms of directions and paths.

“He was immediately interested in the experimental nature of that project. He also had leadership qualities, an ability to organize. His English was always good, so he was my main communication with those musicians, who didn’t speak English at the time. I think Yosvany did more for me than Mario Bauzá did for Dizzy.”

Once ensconced in New York, Terry continued freelancing, playing an assortment of styles on gigs with a range of forward-thinking musicians, including Coleman, Dave Douglas, Brian Lynch, Jeff Watts, Jason Lindner, Avishai Cohen the bassist, Avishai Cohen the trumpeter, Manuel Valera, Eddie Palmieri and Dafnis Prieto. Although the Rockefeller grant signified a transition from sideman work to a leadership role, Terry continues to apply a pluralistic orientation to his various endeavors (which still includes an abundance of work as a sideman).

The Arará project was the most imminent of these during the spring. Terry presented it over a four-night run at the Jazz Standard with the members of Ye-Dé-Bgé and dynamic, costumed dancer Francisco Barroso, who found alternate pathways to refine and develop the repertoire. “Each one is a cultural bearer who knows the traditions,” Terry says of his bandmates.  “Without their knowledge the project could not be given birth and could not have grown.”

Terry emphasizes that his quest to learn and refract the music he was listening to “even before I was in my mother’s womb” is far from finished. “It will take several years to complete my big idea,” he says. “I need to learn all the ceremonies in depth, so that I can then write a mass for it. How could Mozart compose his Requiem without being a believer, to know what a requiem means, and how to write a ‘Kyrie’ — all the parts of the Mass? My approach is to compose as though representing the entire mass of the church in classical music, but within the Arará tradition.

“Hearing these chants is like seeing my grandmother, my aunts — everyone in the family — dancing in the ceremony. To be able to work with things that are part of what made you puts you on a different plane than someone who just does the research and tries to work with that. You understand everything, even what a chant means. When you hear the chant, you can see the old lady who came to the ceremony all the time, doing so many different things. It couldn’t be more personal.”

SIDEBAR

In 2010, Terry received a call from Brad Learmonth, the Program Director of Harlem Stage. “He asked if I could write a musical opera,” Terry recalls. “I said, ‘Yes, I can do it. Why not?’ I had never done anything like it, and I never thought I’d do anything like it. But I always think that if a human being did it, I am supposed to do it, too.”

Terry was tasked with composing music for Makandal, conceived a decade ago in Miami by Carl Hancock Rux, who wrote the trilingual book and libretto. The narrative interweaves the stories of François Makandal, an escaped Maroon slave of the mid-18th century who directed effective slave resistance for two decades from the hills of Haiti until he was betrayed and burned at the stake in 1758, and of a boatload of Haitians, Cubans and Dominicans clandestinely crossing the waters in search of brighter prospects. Both the historical and contemporary protagonists interact consequentially with the spirit world, portrayed by Edouard Duval-Carrié in images and by Terry in notes and tones.

At an open rehearsal for funders and board members in late June, a six-piece ensemble rendered Terry’s deftly deployed mélange of traditional Cuban music, classical music, jazz and electronica, both as backdrop to the dramatic action and choreography, and in direct engagement with the nine extraordinary singers who comprise the cast.

“It was a super-challenging project, not like writing compositions for my band,” Terry says. “It wouldn’t work to use a European composer, because they needed someone who knows the Caribbean traditions and can use them within the environment of the piece. So it allowed me to bring in all my different roots. I wasn’t familiar with Carl’s work, but we spent a lot of time together, sharing, exchanging information. I did a great deal of research so I’d have a concept of the material I’m working with.

“To do this, I felt that I needed to add more tools to the art of composition, so I was forced to go back to school, which I’d been wanting to do. I took counterpoint lessons at Juilliard’s evening program, and studied composition, orchestration, analysis and more counterpoint with Leo Edwards at Mannes School of Music. Music existed before I was born, and it will be here after I’m gone. The more I can try to grasp and learn, it will only make me stronger. I consider myself an eternal student.”

*_*_*_*_

Yosvany Terry on Cuba Education — Part 1 (May 16, 2013):
TP: You’re from a very well-established musical family and I’d guess got your early musical training and ideas within the home before going to school.

YT: Yes, for sure. I started studying music within the family at 5 years old, with my father and also with a private teacher. He got us a private teacher to start music studies. We knew from an early age that we wanted to be musicians. Having said that, since music was in the family, everything was different for me in that case. So we learned a great deal from my family and also through friends, too. So it’s completely different than when you just go to school and the only music environment you have in your life at that time is the school.

TP: When did you start to study music in school formally?

YT: I started studying music in school formally at I guess 10 years old.

TP: Did you go to one of the regional schools when you were 10? Can you take me through the process a bit? I assume, then, that you didn’t attend a casa de cultura.

YT: No, not at all. I would say the first exposure that I had to music within the school system there that is… Each area has a music program that the school tunes to… The name of it is like “Singing With the Invisible Teachers.” Through that program, people are introduced to music in the sense of learning a little bit about singing in tune, and singing songs, and things like that. Very basic. I started, as I said, at home, but at 10 I went to what they call there the vocational arts school. The vocational arts school is a school that is built in every province in Cuba. Since it was built in every province, then you can guarantee that in Cuba the education is centralized by the government, and then it was a way to make sure also that all the students would get the same education in every province, in every little municipality. Say, for instance, that the vocational arts school was in Camagüey, and when I started my family had already moved to Camagüey, but by then, my older brother, Yoel, he was going… We were living in the municipality of Florida in Camagüey. So he would go from Camagüey to Florida, and then from Florida to Camagüey to go into the school. In other words, since he was from a little further away, he was going as a boarding student, too. So when I started also, and when Yunior, my brother, started at school, it was as a boarding student. And now, Yunior started early, because Yunior started at at 7 years old already in the boarding school. His first violin teacher at the school was a Russian teacher. In my case, my first saxophone teacher was from Camagüey, and he was a great saxophone player, and also an arranger, and he composed and arranged for one of the important bands in town. So that was a little bit what I got at the school.

TP: Had your teacher studied in Russia?

YT: No. My saxophone teacher studied in Cuba. In fact, he graduated in ENA, in Havana, which is the national arts school. What happened for saxophone is that most of the stuff… Also, the program for saxophone is modeled to the French program for saxophone in France. So yeah, it was fully classical music that we studied. The school is a classical music school. They taught a little, little bit of what they call music from Cuba in the school, and in that regard, I was fortunate to have my father, because my father was …[DROPS OUT]…

TP: You said you were fortunate to have your father…

YT: I was fortunate to have my father, because it was through my father that I was introduced to all the popular music culture of Cuba. Because even when I lived in Florida, my town in the municality of Camagüey, during the carnivals and major events in the province, all the big orchestras that would play in Florida would stop by my house, because they were all friends with my father. So it is now …(?)…. the same way… [DROPS OUT] [9:32]; L’Orquesta Aragon, Los Van Van, all these orchestras always stopped by my house in the carnivals, because they were very good friends with my father, and had known him for a long time. So the house was like a cultural center for the Cuban music, and we were fortunate to be around that.

TP: So you were able to absorb the whole timeline of Cuban popular and folkloric music.

YT: [DROPPED OUT] [10:39] … Afro-Cuban music, it was also present in my family, because from both sides of my family they were practitioners of the different religions that came from Africa. So since an early age before I know, I was going to ceremonies and everything even before I… [DROPS OUT] Because both sides of my family would practice within the …[DROPS OUT]…

Both sides of my families were practitioners of religions that came from Africa, and that is how I was exposed at a very early to different cults that still prevailed in the Caribbean, related with Afro-Cuban religions.

TP: Did you assimilate all the traditions in a very holistic way? Did your training in the African rhythms cause you not to play the classical exercises as a classical player might want, or was relatively easy to handle all the idioms on their own terms?

YT: The fact that I was exposed to the music at a very early age, and also from all the religion, it was a plus, because in terms of understanding rhythms, I was already exposed to many other things before getting to a school. So it made things easier, in a way, given the sophistication in all the rhythms of the Afro-Cuban religions. So of course, that helped greatly. It was never a problem, the fact that I knew that… It was never a problem to learn classical music or… I mean, it didn’t stop anything. If something, it really helped, because those were knowledge that I didn’t learn in the school at all.

TP: At about what age did you start to become conscious of jazz and interested in it?

YT: At 13 or 14.

TP: From family, or friends at school, or a teacher…

YT: That was from my family. Because my older brother was the one who had… He was introduced to jazz, and I think he was at that time introduced to one of the Chick Corea CDs, Friends. I was fascinated with the music, because it had nothing to do with what we were learning at school or what I’d heard before. Then there was this moment that they would go into this thing that was improvisation, that was like, “Oh, what is that?” So right afterwards, I discovered there were two jazz stations that we could get on the radio waves, so we quickly started tuning in every night to all these radio stations in order to hear jazz, and then we started going to… We found out that the library in my town had a huge jazz collection of LPs and things that we just didn’t know about. They had records by Coltrane and you could hear Charlie Parker. And then, at the school, they had also jazz later on, that they would play every… The guy who was working as the sound engineer in the school was also a fan of jazz, so he would play jazz in the afternoons. It was like that.

Then later on, one of the teachers at the school was a great saxophone player and a jazz player, Alfredo Thompson, and it was through him that I started learning jazz harmony. He just taught us a great deal of harmony, phrasing, and exposed us to a lot of music, too. So it was like that, by word of mouth and people who would bring information… I don’t know if you’re familiar with Ernesto Simpson.

TP: Of course. Great drummer.

YT: The drummer. So Ernesto Simpson back then was playing with one of the important bands in Havana. But his family lived in the building just next to us, and both families were really good friends. So I remember at age 13 or 14, whenever he would come into town, he’d perform with the group that he was with…I’ll remember the name of the group in a second… I remember waking up early, and then knocking at the door to see if they’d brought in a new style from Havana, what music he brought, and so on. So it was through him, for instance… He was the first one who brought me Elvin Jones and Trane and things like that. So it was something like that. Since there is no music store where you could buy any music, and they were not in Camagüey specifically any really old jazz musician, it was something that happened like that—by word of mouth, and knowing…some of the teachers discovered that the public library had jazz, discovered what the jazz station was, and discovered that there were some people that we knew who were familiar with this kind of music that we just discovered and was so hip for us.

TP: As a young musician with a lot of information under your belt already, what was it that it was appealing to you at the time?

YT: What appealed to me about jazz that I liked from the beginning was, you would hear them playing the themes, the melody, and then they would go into this zone that you didn’t know what it was, and that was improvisation. So for us, for me, that was really fascinating. You’d hear them playing the melody, but then all of a sudden, wow, everybody went into improvising. That kind of thing we didn’t have in classical music, the classical music that we were learning in the school, and it also was very different that the improvisation approach within the Cuban aesthetics. So we do have improvisation in Cuba, within the Cuban language and vocabulary. It’s different, because harmonically it was a whole different approach to improvisation. So I think it was improvisation and soloing, the part that really fascinated me.

TP: As your education continued, were you able to express these interests within the school, or did it always happen parallel to school, outside of school?

YT: I would say that the school was really hermetic and closed, in the sense that they would like people to learn classical music. Again, I was fortunate that my saxophone teachers, they were familiar with jazz, and of course they would let us be excited with it and would let us also bring jazz standards to play in the school. But the great thing is, if you want to play jazz, you have to be also good in classical music. So we couldn’t become bad students just because we were just playing jazz. So in other words, I always say that given that I discovered jazz and was interested in jazz, that forced us also to be the best classical music student, because we needed to prove the fact that we like jazz was not going to turn us into bad classical musicians. And the school was a classical music school, so in fact, we have to do double everything. You have to be really good in classical music in order to be able to play jazz.

TP: At what age did you go to Havana?

YT: Around 17. Once we started discovering jazz at age 13-14, then we discovered Irakere, then we discovered Emiliano Salvador, then we discovered Paquito D’Rivera, we discovered all the musicians who were doing jazz in Cuba.

TP: Did your father know them?

YT: Yes. My father knew Chucho. He knew who Emiliano was, but he wasn’t friends with him because Emiliano Salvador was a local figure more in Havana. The difference with Irakere is, like, Irakere also played a lot of popular dance music, and they would do tours and play in the carnivals in Cuba, so that was one of the few chances to see them perform, not only performing dancing Cuban music but also they would play an instrumental tune, completely a Cuban jazz tune. So that was completely (?—22:52).

In my province, also, like I said, one of the saxophone teachers was a great jazz musician. So there was a band in Camagüey that was named Fever Opus. They would have a regular gig every Sunday playing their original compositions, and it was jazz. For us, that was also another way to see live bands playing. I remember also, for instance, Gonzalo Rubalcaba going on tour with his sextet all around the country; when he stopped in Camagüey to play with it, we went to see it, too.

TP: So you got to Havana in 1989.

YT: Yes.

TP: And you did attend conservatory then, yes?

YT: Uh-huh.

TP: What did you major in?

YT: I studied saxophone.

TP: Can you speak a bit to when your own conceptual ideas began to emerge? When you arrived in Havana?

YT: No. I started exploring with improvisation in Camagüey. So by the time I got to Havana, I was already improvising, so I quickly joined the jazz musicians in Havana. So when I went to Havana at the school, I met Osmany Paredes, who was there. I met Dafnis. I met Elio Villafranca. I met Roberto Carcasses. I met also ….(?—25:29)… All the musicians I was performing with then. Also Julio Padrón. That was an opportunity to meet a lot of people who were really great musicians, but they were also playing jazz for a long time.

TP: People have said that it was tremendously competitive, at each stage of the way, the best of the best converging, and this had an impact on the way the music was thought of and the way it sounded.

YT: Yes, I think that it was competitive, too. The fact that we had to be really good students, and the fact that there were so many great musicians. Ok, I’ll give you the idea. It was like being at Manhattan School of Music or the New School or Berklee, but with the difference that there are all these great musicians at the school, but not only are they all great jazz musicians, but they’re all playing classical music. So now the amount of information that they’re dealing with is …[DROPS OUT—27:01]… In my case, I always loved classical music, so it wasn’t that I was just in the school because that was the only way to learn music. No. I love classical music, and still to this day I practice classical music and I play classical music with different people in New York. So it was a great challenge and it was a great… Well, like I said, coming to one of those great schools that you will run into many of the great musicians playing on the scene today, but they were all in the school, and you were friends with them at that time.

TP: As far as getting groups together and playing for audiences in Havana, was it complicated? Easy? I gather you couldn’t get paid for gigs like that playing in Havana. How did you deal with the issue of gigging and making a living as a musician?

YT: Well, there’s two things. Once you’re a student, you’re not thinking about how you’re going to support yourself. My family was supporting us. They provided us the money, the resources for us to be fine in the school. So I started gigging with groups from the school at the jazz festival in Havana. Money was the last thing that we ever thought about. We were just so focused on music, that in my case I never thought about any money. Then, right when I graduated from the school, I started playing with a local…with a singer-songwriter, with Santiago Feliu, for the first two years. Then I was playing with another group, the Grupo (?—29:16), and in that group there used to be musicians who worked with Emiliano Salvador. So they were all great jazz musicians. I was with that band for two years. From then, I started working with Silvio Rodríguez. Silvio Rodríguez was the person I started touring abroad from Cuba, in South America—Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia, Chile. That was with the band Diakara.

When I stopped working with Silvio, I stayed as a freelance musician, because at that moment I wanted to play just the music that I wanted, and it was at that time that I created Columna B with Dafis, Roberto Carcasses and Descemer Bueno. We started playing in all the venues and things like that. But the band… We got to be in one of the Cuban… We went on tour with Columna B, into Spain, and I started coming to the United States, because I had met one of the co-founders of Stanford Jazz Workshop, so he invited me to teach at Stanford. [Bob Murphy] He came to Cuba because he was interested in Afro-Cuban music, and there was a course being organized by someone from the Bay Area that would bring a lot of people from the Bay Area interested in Cuban music and musicians, to learn Afro-Cuban music in Havana. It was through those courses that I met John Santos, Wayne Wallace, Rebecca Mauleón, who is now head of the Education Board of the San Francisco Jazz Festival. All of these people came to Cuba because they were interested in learning Cuban music. They were really playing a lot of Afro-Cuban music in the Bay Area. But for them, that was an opportunity to come and learn with the master. Because in those courses, Changuito was teaching, Tata Güines was teaching, my father also was teaching, and all the great musicians of Cuba.

So Bob Murphy came to one of those courses, and I met him, and he realized that I was playing with a different band, and we… Then it was like that, and he invited me to be part of the Stanford Jazz Workshop, to teach over there. It was through the Stanford Jazz Workshop that I came for the first time to the U.S. It was known after the second time that I was at the workshop that I spoke to the director, told him that I had the band, Columna B, and it would be nice to bring the band. So it was through a grant from Meet The Composer that…it was to collaborate with a composer from the United States, and in this case it was Wayne Wallace, and there was a choreographer, Judith Sanchez,  and myself. So with us three, we were commissioned to write a piece with an element of collaboration between both countries. It was that way that I brought Columna B to be part of the project, which was Miguel ‘Anga’ Diaz, Dafnis, Descemer, and also my father came in, too. So that’s how Columna B got to the United States.

TP: What year did you start touring with Silvio Rodríguez?

YT: In ‘92. [20 years old] I had just graduated. It was end of ‘92, I remember.

TP: What year did you start Columna B?

YT: Columna B didn’t start until ‘97.

TP: What year did the Bay Area musicians come to Havana for the Master classes?

YT: They started coming from ‘91-‘92. So it was not until ‘94 that they invited me to Stanford Jazz Workshop, and it was not until ‘95 that I came to the United States, because the first time they didn’t grant me the visa because they said that I was too young and I was going to defect in the United States. So the next year, when I applied, and I had a great friend intervene in my case, who was at the time the UNICEF ambassador in Cuba. Then they grant me the visa, and when they saw that I returned to Cuba, then they started granting me the visa every year to go to the United States. In fact, I had a great relationship with the American (?—36:41) in Cuba, so I would receive… Then we had such a great relationship that they would send me every month the DownBeat magazine, so that was another way to be informed about what was going on in the jazz scene.

TP: Was it during these years that folkloric percussion started being part of the curriculum in the conservatory? Dafnis told me that his pedagogy was classically-oriented, and that at a certain point, because of interest from foreigners, they started teaching folkloric percussion and Cuban traditions and so on. Does coincide with Stanford Jazz Workshop and these events in the early ‘90s.

YT: Yes, with the Afro-Cuban music courses. Afro-Cuban music courses I think were really key, especially for the school and the educational system, to notice that a lot of foreigners were interested in Cuba for its culture. So even though we had Cuban music in our curriculum at the school, I don’t think that it was taught at the same level that was taught the other classical music. So right after that especially, the very, very last year… I remember in my case, in the very last year of my courses, they started to put more emphasis in the courses teaching Cuban music in our program in the school. Like I said, I was fortunate that music was in my family. So everything that I am learning in popular Cuban music was from my father, from my family. It wasn’t from the school. So if I had learn from the school, then I had ….(?—38:54)…. when they decided that Cuban music was important for them to put in the programs.  I think it actually became part of the pedagogy at the end of the ‘80s-beginning of the ‘90s—‘88-‘89, and on into the ‘90s.

TP: And you think the motivation is because there was interest from abroad.

YT: Yeah. People were going to Cuba not to learn about Mozart and about Beethoven and Stravinsky, but people were learning …(?—40:21)… in Cuban music which was going around the world. But what happened is, the people that get together and put together the programs for the classical music school in Cuba, they are not necessarily the popular musicians playing with all the popular bands. So as a result, they have a different orientation in what is important to them in music. That’s what I’ve always believed.

That’s why, yes, you study in theory who was Beny Moré , who was all the… There’s more inclination to teach about the Cuban classical music. Then the Cuban popular music is just taught in one semester out of the four years of one school and out of the four years of the other school. I was always like: Why are we studying our music only for one semester? There are so many things that would interact from there. So that was the case. But like I said, all my saxophone teachers were… My first saxophone teacher was a great arranger and a saxophone player. He played baritone. Then in the second school I went to, one of the saxophone teachers, who really wasn’t actually my saxophone teacher but he was teaching tenor, he was a great jazz musician. That’s why, by the time I came to Havana, I knew so much about jazz, because I was already learning learning with my teacher in the school. In that school, it was… In terms of saxophone players, Roman Filiu was there, Felipe Lamoglia, all these great saxophone players, were in the school. César Lopez, who was in Irakere later, also is from Camagüey. There’s a lot of great players who come in from Camagüey. Even if they are not from Camagüey, they went to study in Camagüey for some reason.

TP: I don’t want to take too much more of your time, because I know you have to start getting ready to perform.

YT: I know there are so many things that happened during these years that you want to know. We can talk another time, if you want, and we can talk for a little while more now.

TP: I don’t think I need you to say that your preparation in the conservatory and what you got outside the conservatory made it relatively easy for you to adapt to the different challenges you faced outside of Cuba, with all the different circumstances you have to function it. I’m pretty sure I know the answer to this question, but it would be helpful if you could talk about it. Could you synthesize, state in a relatively general way, how you draw on the information you received in the conservatory in the music you’ve been putting out in the last decade or so? Dafnis said, for example, that studying theory and composition has been tremendously helpful for him in organizing his ideas in composition.

YT: I’ll give you my take on it. I think studying at the school and in Cuba, and being exposed to all this classical music program at a very early age, gives you also a discipline of how to approach and learn music. I think one of the things that made Cuban musicians different from musicians in different parts of the world is all of the information that they have in music from a very early age. I must admit, in the Cuban cases, not only the Classical music but also the music of our culture. That is also really important for us.

In terms of composition and theory and all that, of course it’s important to me. As a composer, even when I came to New York, I went even further to study at Juilliard… I went to Juilliard to study counterpoint, and I went to Mannes to study composition, to study orchestration, to study analysis, to study theory, because I wanted to deepen all this knowledge that I brought from Cuba. Since I was in New York, it was even to me more important. I wanted to really master composition and all of that… I went to school here in the United States to keep learning, because I believe also, like, there were certain things that I didn’t learn in Cuba because of information. I didn’t go to study composition directly at the ISA, so composition was always important to me, but I always studied on my own and with people. Therefore, the amount of technique that you are exposed to in terms of composition, orchestration, analysis, and counterpoint…that I have been exposed to…is starting in New York. Going to the classical music school in New York to study that has been tremendous. And I keep in contact with all my friends that I went to school with in Cuba, that they also went to study classical composition outside of Cuba, and we all coincide with all the information that we have incorporated for ourselves as composers.

It is true that the fact that I went to the school makes you a strong musician, and it’s always… To me, also, I have a different vision, because I am a teacher at the New School, and I can see the way that the program has been put together. I see areas where there is a gap of information that the student needs in order to become a better musician at an early age, so they can …(?—48:43)… at the school to start discovering on their own what to do. It’s like all of the students that I teach at the New School, I always send them to take orchestration classes at Mannes. I always send them to take analysis, conducting, all these classes at Mannes, because I said, ‘Listen, you are not just a jazz musician; you are a musician. To be a musician is more important than just to know one different kind of vocabulary in music. So you’re a musician, you’re supposed to…like Mozart, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, or Beethoven, you’re supposed to be able to understand and work at the higher level with understanding of music. So it is great that you are learning everything here at this school, but we need to know what music is about. Music is something that has been around forever, and it’s going to be around afterwards. So there’s so many things that we need to learn to for that. So it’s like I always push them to work to their limit, because this is the belief that I have in music. To me, music is just one.

So that’s the way that I think with the school. I don’t know if it answers your question.

TP: There’s no one answer. Did you ever at any point feel limited in what you could attain in Cuba, in how far you could go with music, or being able to express your musical ideas… You left Cuba. A lot of musicians left Cuba. Yet, you were nourished in this extraordinary way in Cuba, that probably couldn’t have happened elsewhere. What are the advantages and what are the disadvantages of being here?

YT: That is a good question. There is a big reason why I left Cuba. I left Cuba because, like any other musician interested to learn music and interested to master and assimilate a lot of information from all over the world, you need to know what the mecca of the arts are. In the 19th century, the mecca of the world for music was in Paris, so a lot of musicians were moving to Paris to learn and be part of that important energy that was happening at that time. There was so much information going around. The mecca of the music and the arts moved to New York then. So since the mecca of the music was in New York, I realized that I needed to come to New York if I wanted to be part of all of this great information and things that were going on around the mecca. I’ll tell you something, too. If the mecca of the world in ten years moved to Burundi in Africa, I would go there, too, because it’s there where I really need to be in order to learn about that.

Of course, I understood that my journey was not complete in Cuba, and I needed to go out to do it. Because it’s like everybody has to do it in their time. So for me to come to New York, it was important, because wow, it’s there that I have the potential to meet all these other people that were great masters and idols and heroes to me that I needed to learn from. I mean, you don’t go there… I am not going to learn that from Rio De Janeiro. I am not going to learn that from Cuba. You’re always going to learn what do you think is this business about? Well, you will not learn from the horse’s mouth, you know? This is an oral tradition. Jazz is really an oral tradition to this day. You need to hear from people. There’s a lot of information that you just don’t learn from the books. The same happened even with classical music.

That’s why you always have to travel where the good teacher is, because it is with this teacher that you’re going to get a lot of information passed orally. Yes, it is true that you can get all the Bach fugues and Mozart concertos and everybody… All this is printed in books, and you can get it even in South Africa. But no, you need to go to Europe to study with the great performers and teacher in order to get the information that has been passed orally from that tradition.

TP: One thing I’m curious about, but feel a little shy in asking, is what sort of effect the armature of Marxist-Leninist aesthetics as applied to education affected you in any particular way? It’s hard to tell. Since I never had direct experience with it myself, it’s hard for me to get how it impacted people who were raised under that umbrella.

YT: It’s like…music and politics don’t go together. You know? At the same time, I was born in Cuba, which is a Communist country, and I consider myself a very political person. I think one of the greatest effects that I saw from that society in Cuba was that it made the highest education available to everybody, whereas I see here that you can study at a lot of the greatest schools, but you need to have a lot of money, too, to be able to have access to them or be lucky enough to have a scholarship to go to those schools. To me, one of the best things that could ever happen in Cuba is that that system made education available to everybody. In every little corner, in the most remote place, there are people coming from there who had the greatest music education. Even though I agree or not in my political views with the system, I cannot deny that I had really the greatest teachers I could ever have to learn anything that I learned, and this knowledge is going to travel with me to the end of my life.

 

*_*_*_*_

Yosvany Terry on Cuba Education — Part 2 (June 6, 2013):

TP: I’m not clear on how the plantilla system affected everyone, as it seems to have.

YT: Ok. It’s a simple concept. Plantilla is more…what it means within the music term is like contract and format, and the band instrumentation at the time. So to have a plantilla within the company, that means that you have basically a contract with the band. Let’s say, for instance… Every group, to be part of the company, they need to be plantillas.

TP: What is the company? The state?

YT: No, the companies are the music companies. Actually, the same term can be used at any regular companies, say, like, within the civil engineer company or agriculture company or a building products company. So plantilla are all the…how do you say in English…how do you call it when you work in the university and you’re part of the faculty, but you are… Let’s say, in my case, I teach at the New School, but I am an adjunct faculty. I am not full-time faculty. So plantilla is like a full-time contract. That’s what it means. That’s actually the meaning. It’s a full-time contract. So when you have a plantilla in the music company, your group has a full-time contract, and sometimes you have a contract, but you have a temporary contract—so you are not plantilla. You are not a full-time contract. That’s actually what it means.

TP: But the contract is with the regional empresa… In other words, who is the contract with? And what are the implications of the plantilla? Is it restrictive? Or does it make it difficult to move from one band… Or did it? I’m talking about conditions 20 years ago. I hear things have loosened up some now. But yes, was it restrictive in terms of moving from one band to another.

YT: I’ll give you an example. Say, for example, I am forming a new band, and I’ve got to gather all the musicians, I prepare their repertoire and everything. Now, I have to audition for one of the music companies in order to get a plantilla, a full contract, so that my band can receive a salary from the music company. All the music companies are sponsored by the government. Therefore, let’s say when we had Columna B, before we started getting a salary from any music company, we created the band and we started playing, but then we said, “Ok, we need to belong to a company.” Because if you don’t belong to a music company, then it is impossible to travel abroad of Cuba, because all of the tours are managed through the Instituto de la Musica or the Ministry of Culture. So therefore, for us to go and tour in Europe, this is… The Instituto de la Musica as well as the Ministry of Culture, they are the ones that do all the paperwork regarding passport, contracts, and everything.

So if you want to work and make money… I’ll give you another example. If you want to do a national tour, and you’re planning to perform in Camagüey, Santiago de Cuba, all the provinces, in order to make contracts with the institutions and make Cuban pesos, because you’re going on an international tour, you still need to be part of the structure. So plantilla is like being part of that structure. It’s part of the government. It’s like the Cuban music enterprise, you know?

TP: And is there one company for classical music, one for popular dance music, one for folkloric music…

YT: Yes.

TP: Which one were jazz groups placed under?

YT: Yes, there were differences. The one that we were associated with was Agrupacion de Musica de Concierto.

TP: Do they have you on a fixed salary?

YT: Yeah, we were on a fixed salary. That means Concert Music Association. That was the music company that would deal with people doing a lot of creative music. So that is one type.

Then there was another one called the Karl Marx Company. That was based next to the Karl Marx Theater in Havana. There was also a lot of creative music being done within that company. Also there was another one named Beny Moré , named Beny Moré . There was another one named Adolfo Guzmán, named after the Cuban composer Adolfo Guzmán. There was another one…

Those companies are mostly named after important musicians who were in Cuba. Agrupacion de Musica de Concierto, which is the one we were with…the symphony orchestra was through that, a lot of chamber music, all the classical concert soloists, and a lot of jazz musicians also—a small group, like Hernando Posnosa(?), and different things. So we were part of it.

But in order for us to be part of the system like I said before, we formed a band and started playing, and then I said, “Guys, actually, we need to be part of the system if we want to have a salary, and at the same time we need to prepare if we’re planning to tour abroad of Cuba.” So we did a… What was interesting is, like, the director of the Agrupacion de Musica de Concierto was one of the teachers at the school, so he knew already the musicianship of the band. So in our particular case, we didn’t have to do the audition because he knew who we were. They just came to a concert, heard the band, and then of course created the plantilla, created the full-time contract for the band to be in the company.

Then we started actually having a salary. That was the way we would do all the paperwork to travel abroad when we were touring in Spain, and then we came to the United States. All this paperwork has to be done through the company.

TP: Let’s suppose you had a gig with, I don’t know, Isaac Delgado or someone like that, and you wanted to move to another band. Would you easily be able to do that, or would that be very difficult?

YT: Well, that’s the other side of that system. That system makes it a little bit difficult to be a freelance. So let’s say if Isaac Delgado needed…if the saxophone player is sick, and he has a tour and he needed to do a tour with me, then I have to do a temporary contract with his music enterprise in order to have all my paperwork done with them so that I can have a salary to that. So that’s the other part. There’s a lot of bureaucracy involved in that.

TP: So it can be cumbersome.

YT: Exactly.

TP: And it can keep you with the same band. It can make it difficult to develop creatively, it might seem? Or not?

YT: Well, I don’t think it will stop you from being creative. Because it doesn’t have a direct impact on what you do. But what I think is, it’s not natural. It is not natural to the way musicians interact with each other. Imagine if you had that system here, it would be chaos, because everybody is free-lance, everybody works with everybody. So whenever you had to work with a band… Say, I have a concert with Tain at the Jazz Standard in July, but then I am playing with my band, and then I am playing with some other people. So any time that I have to play with everybody, I have to go through a contract and things like that. It would make things really difficult, really crazy.

But that doesn’t stop people from recording with each other. All the records, people go to the studio and just, like, you go with whomever you want.

In Cuba, there is a great culture of bands. So when people form a band…when there is a band, musicians stay for a quite a while with the band. It’s a different concept here, because people here are just playing with each other and we’re playing with everybody. But over there, when you talk about Los Van Van, you’re talking about, like, an institution. So it’s more the concept that used to be here in the ‘40s and ‘50s, where Art Blakey was an institution, Horace Silver was an institution, people who would work with Monk would be with Monk for a long time, with Dizzy Gillespie for a long time, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, you name it. It’s the same concept that still prevails in Cuba. That’s what it is. That’s why when you see the bands that come here, they sound like a band. They rehearse.

At the same time, with the music company, they always try to get them a rehearsal space and things like that. Different companies do different things. Different companies ask for a certain amount of concerts that you have to perform a month in order to make your full salary.

TP: Let me ask one other thing. When you were in school, it coincided with the “special period,” of real shortages and so on?

YT: That was at the very end of my school years.

TP:   What effect do you think going through that had on musicians in your age group? Some musicians left the country.  It seems to have made people determined to do whatever they could to… In a certain way, it seems to have strengthened people who were stronger.

YT: Looking back and thinking what I had in my time when I went to school, and then what I saw looking at the school when the “special period” came and the younger generation, what they were going through that I didn’t… I think it was the beginning of the collapse of a lot of great things I had during my time. Because in my time, when I went to school, the most important thing was just to be a great musician, to be a great student. Now, when the special period came in Havana, and then everything started being shortened and everything was…it was more difficult to do anything, to get reeds, to get anything, because of economics, then you could see how the principles that unified all the students start to be dismantled.

I’ll give you an example. It was not until I graduated that I started thinking what was I going to do after school, what band I was going to be working with. Because up until then, all I thought was just to be the greatest student, you know, and the best thing. Then, when I looked to the younger musicians who were in school during the ‘special period,’ now the whole thinking had changed, because the students from the schools while the ‘special period’ was going on, they were looking how to join a band in order to make money, so that they could have money to support themselves. Because everything was more difficult. Even for the parents to support those students was more difficult, too. So they were just thinking how to start your own band, to travel abroad and make money so that they could have their family and things like that. Which in my time, I never thought about anything like that. I was just about, like, “Ok, I want to be a great musician; I want to learn music.” So I never had to think, like which band I can join that would have a tour so that I can make money and support myself. You see? So I think that’s one of the big impacts.

The other impact that I noticed with the special period is, like… Of course, the students were not the only people involved with that, but the teachers, too, so the teachers now had to make sure they could get on tour and make money for themselves. So a lot of teachers started getting contracts out of the country. A lot of teachers started touring more, because their salary was not enough to cover all their needs. So like I said, right at that point, the whole system started to collapse, because… Well, when you have such an economic crisis, that crisis removes, in effect, the foundation. Therefore, everybody has to then rethink how are they going to support themselves, from the teacher to the student to the system itself.

It was interesting, because the ‘special period’ came, and all of a sudden, I started seeing all my friends from my generation, if they had finished their studies, they all started traveling abroad of Cuba, and they all started staying, and defected to different countries. A lot of my friends started traveling, joining orchestras in Europe, in South America, in Colombia, in Ecuador, El Salvador, and they went to those places where they didn’t have as strong a classical music foundation, and they started making orchestras everywhere. I have friends who live in El Salvador, classical students, who play in all these orchestras—in Spain, in Colombia, in Venezuela, in Chile you have Cubans also who are teaching and playing in the orchestras. So the same thing that happened with the Russians in Europe. Now, you go to Europe, there’s Russian musicians playing all over Europe in all those orchestras. Yeah, the same thing happened with the Cuban musicians.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

 

*_*_*_*_

Yosvany Terry (Downbeat Article — 2006):

“New York is an incredible learning experience,” says saxophonist Yosvany Terry Cabrera. “Every band or session or musical project that you participate in has people from all over the world, bringing new information and knowledge on what they do.”

A native of Cuba’s Camaguay province and a Habañero through the ‘90s, Terry, 35 and a Harlem resident since 1999, is a long-established first-caller in the jazz capital. His c.v. includes consequential stints with such radical conceptualists as Steve Coleman, Dave Douglas, and Brian Lynch; pan-diasporic postboppers like Jeff Watts, Jason Lindner, Avishai Cohen the bassist, Avishai Cohen the trumpeter, and Manuel Valera; Latin music envelope-pushers Eddie Palmieri and Dafnis Prieto; the tradition-centric show band Afro-Cubanismo!; and Norteamericano Afro-Cuba purists like Jane Bunnett and Glenn August. All value Terry’s immaculate musicianship, his rare ability to blend in when executing the idiomatic nuances of the function in question while also stamping his creative, recognizable voice within the flow.

“All the different gigs you play in town put you on the spot, and you always end up growing,” Terry said. “I like to be a sideman as much as playing my music; the different accents and demands put you into corners you wouldn’t get to otherwise.” He cited bassist Cohen’s various Middle Eastern influences, and trumpeter Cohen’s use of West African melodies and rhythms. “Of course,” he adds, “I was exposed to this kind of music in Cuba; my father also traveled in many African countries.”

Terry referred to violinist-chekere player Don Eladio Terry, who has led Maravillas de Florida, a popular charanga unit, since the ‘50s. He trained Yosvany and his brothers—flautist Yoel and bassist Yunior—both in the African codes that inform Cuban folkloric and popular music and in Euro-Classic strains.

“Growing up, music was really exciting,” Terry recalled. “When we were little, he would bring us to the bandstand, fill a big plastic bottle with water, and suddenly we were playing the chekere, or we’d sing and dance. We had a piano, and we were around musicians all the time. All the big orchestra names that came through my town to play in the Carnival would visit the house, because they were friends of my father—Miguelito Cuní, Chappottín, Beny Moré. Everyone knew him—he was a showman, a really good dancer with the hat and cane, and the orchestra drove around the country in this huge limo. My father created respect for the tradition of music, and even now I enjoy playing traditional music because of the feeling. If the dancer doesn’t move, then it’s not good. I think jazz has the same quality. When you hear the good bands, it isn’t just done at the intellectual level, but you feel that it’s moving people, too.”

Terry took up the saxophone at 10, and caught the jazz bug in his early teens. “I heard a jazz recording, it sounded really fresh, and I didn’t know what they were doing,” he said. “I wanted to learn. I studied piano and jazz harmony with a teacher in my school named Alfredo Thompson, who worked in Irakere and is now the musical director for Omara Portuendo. He played saxophone with the one jazz group in my province, led by Gabriel Hernández, a pianist who worked with Roy Hargrove after Chucho Valdés stopped working with Crisol. My father brought him to the Maravillas de Florida, and he’d put Coltrane harmonies in the bridges of the tunes. They were amazing, in-depth musicians, and I heard them play as often as I could.”

After graduating from the prestigious Escuela Nacional de Arte conservatory in Havana, where he moved at 17, Terry linked up with a clique of contemporaries for whom jazz was not a samizdat experience, as it had been for prior-generation Cuban jazzfolk like Paquito D’Rivera, Ignacio Berroa and Arturo Sandoval. He became, as he puts it, “one of Havana’s first freelance musicians, began to travel with such diverse personalities as  Silvio Rodriguez, Diakara, Santiago Felifi, and Chucho Valdés, and joined Prieto, pianist Roberto Carcasses, and bassist Descemer Bueno in Columna B, an over-the-top timba-rhythms-meets-postbop harmonies unit. “I liked the concept that I could play just music, not one style,” he says.

Attending the Stanford Jazz Workshop in 1995, Terry began a relationship with Steve Coleman, which solidified the following year when Coleman spent quality time in Cuba to prepare and document The Sign and the Seal, his epic collaboration with the folkloric group AfroCuba de Matanzas. “Steve knows the tradition so well, and he noticed that we were lacking some of this stuff,” Terry said. “He’d bring us recordings by Bird and Sonny Rollins, and break them down for us so we could really understand them.

“There are are major differences between the vocabularies here and in Cuba. Now, [pianists] Emiliano Salvador and Frank Emilio were playing from a perspective of deep knowledge. But I think my generation was a victim of all this fusion that happened in the ‘80s, Chick Corea and so on. We didn’t have access to recordings by the old players like Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Johnny Hodges, and Don Byas that the older generations were exposed to. I knew a little bit when I got here, but only then did I realize how deep I needed to go in order to integrate. If you want to be part of this community, you need to know this language and vocabulary so you can play with people in different formats.”

A worthy document of Terry’s hard work and due diligence is the 2004 recording Metamorphosis [Kindred Rhythm & EWE], issued earlier this year. Drawing on a lexicon of strategies deployed by such Terry employers as Coleman, Lynch, Douglas, and Watts (the latter performs on one tune), Terry arranges seven of his own originals and one by his brother Yunior for quintet, sextet and septet configurations. He tells his stories with gorgeous harmonic voicings that frame narrative beats postulated by Prieto and conguero Pedro Martinez and apt tumbaos from Yunior Terry and Hans Glawischnig. Avishai Cohen is a mercurial trumpet foil, and pianist Luis Perdomo and guitarist Mike Moreno comp and solo with elegance and imagination. Playing primarily alto sax, Terry uncorks an array of fresh, uncliched ideas, phrasing them in a singing-through-the-instrument Charlie Parker-through-Steve Coleman manner (check the out-of-the-blue quote of “Ornithology” on “Subversive”) and projecting them with a tenoristic tone that bespeaks immersion in the Gary Bartz-Kenny Garrett school of alto expression.

“I feel very fortunate to have grown up in Cuba,” Terry said. “The rhythmic concept is so sophisticated and elaborate, but it’s the folklore, the popular music, what you would hear in the ceremony or from people sitting down on the corner. But I want to be part of something bigger, of music in general. That’s what you learn from all the great composers, even in classical music, like Bartok and Stravinsky, who came here after living in different countries. Cubans have been doing this for a long time. It keeps the music fresh in content, to take tradition and fabricate something new.”

More and more, Terry accesses Cuban roots through the chekere, to which he returned while on tour with [bassist] Avishai Cohen’s International Vamp Band. “I started to discover myself more,” he said. “In Cuba, the chances to play the instrument were less, because my father is so active. Now I think about the instrument when I’m walking around, imagining how I can apply rhythms that I just learned and develop a solo. It helps me feel more Cuban, closer to the dancing aspect of the music that I like so much.”

*_*_*_*_

Yosvany Terry (May 12, 2006):
TP: I want to start by talking about the different things you do in New York now as a working musician, and then work back to how you got here. How many different bands are you working with now?

YOSVANY: Well, I work with different people, which is one of the things I like about the city, is the different styles of music. I’ve done stuff with the Jason Lindner Big Band, which is a specific kind of music, but it’s original music, and it’s very dependent on the creativity of the moment. People just get freer and freer right there on the spot.

Also with Avishai Cohen, the bass player first. With him I worked on three different projects – his bass project, the Vamp Band, then his quartet. They were three different kinds of bands, and helped me to grow a lot. Also with Dafnis’ band, which is different music, and that has a whole different perspective and demands with the music…

TP: The music you’re playing with him on the Absolute Quintet record is very abstract.

YOSVANY: Yes. Also with Eric Revis, with his band a little bit, although he hasn’t been playing a lot lately. But it’s different music, because it’s associated I’d say with avant-garde type of music where there’s a lot of room for experimenting with other kinds of sounds where you normally wouldn’t go in other groups. With Jeff Tain Watts’ band, which is another kind of music. You learn a different kind of perspective in the music… I think his goes more from a wide palette, respecting tradition, breaking it, and then going out and doing nowadays stuff, too. So that is also very interesting, because it puts you right on the spot. If you have a gap on it, you’d better go back to the room and work it, because you have to play it on the concert the next day.

Also with Avishai Cohen, the trumpet player. That’s more African oriented, where he’s working with a lot of material from the western region of Africa. It’s a different kind of band, with different musicians, like Lionel Loueke, Jason plays in the band sometimes, Eric McPherson has been doing the gig, Omer Avital, and then… In there I use also the chekere… I try to use the chekere in the other bands, too, unless it doesn’t feel right. But all the time I try to bring it, because people like it anyway.

TP: You make it sound like a talking drum almost.

YOSVANY: Yes. To me, it’s an instrument that can be placed in any style. Then I have my band with all the exigencies that I have on my own music. And I’ve been working a lot with Gregg August, a bass player and really good composer. It’s more like a large ensemble with three horns and rhythm section. It’s really good, because it’s another perspective.

TP: How about Steve Coleman?

YOSVANY: With Steve Coleman I used to work also a lot, but lately not, because he has a different personnel. But we’re always close and we’re always talking about music and concepts and things he’s researching, and its application within a musical context. He likes to learn and research all the time, but he’s always looking for the application to his music. He’s not somebody who just wants to accumulate knowledge and leave it outside. So in that regard, it’s really interesting and inspiring, too, because he’s also someone who really respects tradition. It’s always inspiring you to grow out of it.

TP: Are you playing traditional Cuban music gigs also?

YOSVANY: Yes, I missed one. I play with Eddie Palmieri, recording and touring. The first year I came here, I started working with them. I did this concert at Hunter College, and he invited me and Dafnis for that concert, and since then he’s been calling me for concerts and recordings.

TP: If Donald Harrison doesn’t do the gig, you do the gig?

YOSVANY: Exactly. When he can’t do it… It was at a time when Donald was traveling a lot.

TP: But traditional Cuban music, is that still part of your professional activity?

YOSVANY: I used to do it more at the beginning. Now I still do it sometimes, which is something I’m trying not to be disconnected from, because it’s my source, my own music, and it’s something that I’m learning, I keep growing in all the time. I get called to do different gigs, traditional Cuban music, too.

TP: Now, Metamorphosis comes from 2004, so it’s two years old, and presumably you were putting it together for the year before that. Does it reflect where you are now, or have you gone somewhere else in your own music?

YOSVANY: It’s interesting. I think it reflects where I was, and it’s still reflecting where I am now. Of course, the record, like you said, was done maybe two years ago. That doesn’t mean that we stop as a musician just growing up. So of course, I’ve been growing more and more, and trying to compose new music, too. I still play all these compositions, and I’m going within those compositions, too, because even though they were created at that time, it wasn’t like I was touring all over the world with that music. That’s what forces you to really change the repertoire. So mostly, I performed it at the Gallery and different venues here, whatever was available to play. But it’s now that I’m trying to really take the band on the road. Because also, I have all these demands to be a sideman, so it’s not like you can put all the energy into your own band. And I really now want to do that.

TP: Bring your own band on the road. Who would that band be?

YOSVANY: Now I’m going to the West Coast for a tour in mid-August, so we’ll be four days at the Jazz Bakery, then we go to the Outpost, then we go to Yoshi’s, the Jazz Hall in Seattle, and Boulder and Denver. That will be quartet with Yunior Terry on bass, Justin Brown on drums (a young drummer from the Bay Area who lives in New York; he used to go to the New School), and Osmany Paredes on piano, who is a very talented piano player living in Boston (we went to school together). I recently did one week in New Orleans and Lafayette, doing the Banlieu(?) Series at Lake Charles and also at Snug Harbor. It was really successful, and it was also a chance to expose the music down there… To me, it’s a very important city musically, because it has that Caribbean feeling, and the people’s reaction to the music was so natural.

TP: Several bands down there have doing… Cubanismo had roots in New Orleans, and the Irvin Mayfield-Bill Summers Group was doing a pan-Caribbean thing out of there, so it’s a receptive place. Is what you’re doing now what you envisioned you’d be doing when you moved to the States? If not, how is it different that what you thought 7-8 years ago?

YOSVANY: It’s interesting, because the music I was doing in Cuba before moving out here was very much alike, concept-wise. We were trying to do music in the border kind of region, trying to understand our own language and the traditions we represented and everything that we knew. I don’t think that changed. That vision didn’t change. What changed…

TP: For the record, Yosvany is having shrimp croquettes and tostones rellenos, and I’m having an avocado salad and a tamal.

YOSVANY: I don’t think the vision changed, because also it was… I had opportunities to make ..(?).. here, and then we worked together… My point is that the vision didn’t change. But when I moved here, you’re receiving so much information, that then I realized, “Okay, I have to learn all that,” and for a minute, it’s not like you stop your vision, but you go into a different process, just to really learn and digest all the new things that are happening. All that really helped me to grow. It’s helping me still, because now… Every day you discover more stuff that you need to check and there’s more things that’s going to inspire you.

TP: For how long was it your aspiration to come here? Because you don’t just leave. It’s something you had to be dreaming of and thinking about for a while.

YOSVANY: I really started thinking about it seriously in ‘99. Before then, I was coming here back and forth since ‘95, because I was going to Stanford Jazz Workshop and then playing up here with different musicians. But back then I never felt that I wanted to live here. I felt comfortable just coming back and forth. But it was not until late ‘98 and ‘99 when I decided that I really wanted to be part of what was going on here, and also…

TP: What happened? What made it the right time?

YOSVANY: I don’t know what happened really. There were many things that influenced me. I used to travel all the time, even when I was living in Cuba, so maybe the idea was that it was a slow year, for some reason. Then the first travel I did within that year was to the States, to this conference that I was invited to for all the people who had been getting grants through different philanthropic foundations here. So I decided, well, maybe it’s the time. Also, I had done a week with Chucho at Bradley’s and some people asked me for my phone to get a gig, and then when they asked, “So, where do you live?” and I said, “In Cuba,” that’s the beginning of the end, too. So all these things were hitting me.

TP: So living there was holding back your creative development in a certain way, because you’d been exposed to people but you could only take it so far.

YOSVANY: Yeah. Some friends were telling me, “man, you have to move to New York; it would be nice if you do it,” dah-da-dah. So I think at that time, I was decided that I wanted to do it and make a move, so that I could just keep learning.

TP: When you and Dafnis and some of the other Cuban musicians came here, I think because of your conservatory education, you arrived as well prepared as anybody does to meet the requirements of the scene – to play a lot of different music, play complex music, deal with different moods and contexts. What was the biggest challenge you found when you came here that you didn’t expect?

YOSVANY: The big challenge, which I think is still today and is going to be all the time, is all the information of music from here. We had information in Cuba about the music here, jazz in general, but it was not until I moved here that I really heard about Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Don Byas…

TP: The jazz tradition.

YOSVANY: Yeah. So this information, a lot of that I was missing there. Then it was a shock, also, the development of the language of that tradition. Because I remember starting, going into sessions, and then I heard that they were playing something that wasn’t exactly what I was playing, and it was, “Oh, now I need to sit down and figure it out.” So that helped me a lot. Also at the same time, if you don’t work with that language, you can get certain gigs, but there’s a lot of gigs that you’re not going to get into.

TP: Did the language come fairly naturally to you, or was it hard for you to adapt?

YOSVANY: It was both. It was natural in a way, because I was listening to jazz since Cuba. There are points of coincidence. But at the same time, it’s different from the rhythmic accents of Cuban music. So it was relearning it and being conscious of the difference. When you know a language that you learn in the street, and then you go to the country where the language is spoken, then you have to learn all the nuances and the subtleties, and everything is different. “Wait a minute.” This is what I knew. I could get by. But there is a whole deep level of it.

TP: Your English is excellent.

YOSVANY: I’m trying to work on it a little bit.

TP: It’s excellent, which I think speaks to the way you assimilated the musical language, too. What was interesting in 1999, to hear you and Dafnis, is that previously, when Chucho or Gonzalo came here, they were arriving as stylists, with their own idiosyncratic style.  I’m wondering if anything was happening in Cuba within that decade that made it possible for you and Dafnis to be more open to taking in the information rather than coming in as Columna B.

YOSVANY: I think what happened was… Someone who helped also was Steve Coleman. Because we were friends back then, and then he would bring me a lot of recordings. For somebody like him, who is from here and he knows the tradition really well, maybe he noticed that we were lacking some of this stuff. So he would bring a lot of Sonny Rollins, Trane, Bird, all this kind of information. We would talk a lot about music. He would break it down for us so that we could really understand…

TP: What would he break down? The harmonic stuff? The phrasing? The rhythm? The accents?

YOSVANY: It’s interesting, because some of that stuff it’s not like he would say, “This is the way to do it,” but he would say, “Check that, and check the way they do this, or check this out.” We’d discuss about some of the concepts he was working on at the time for his own music that we could share, and also we would tell him what we were working on in Cuba at that time.

There were also lesser-known musicians in Cuba who were working more with the traditions here. For instance, Ernesto Simpson, the drummer, I used to know when I was little, maybe 13 or 14 years old, but he used to live next to my building, when I was studying in Havana, so when we would come in town I would wake him up… He was the first one who played me Trane with Elvin Jones and all that. So he was bringing all that kind of information from Havana to Camagüey. He was the person, him and two other saxophone players who I respect a lot, who were working with this kind of information, too.

It’s interesting, because at a certain time, I think my generation was victim of fusion, this Chick Corea…all this fusion happening in the ‘80s.

TP: The way Irakere sounded in the ‘80s.

YOSVANY: Yeah, exactly. But at the same time, there used to be Emiliano Salvador, there used to be Frank Emilio and all this tradition, people trying to play music from a different perspective, with a different depth of knowledge in the music. So it all helped. It wasn’t – like you said – that I came here all of a sudden and I just did anything. I mean, I knew a little thing. But here was where I really saw that I needed to go deep if I really want to… My thing was that I wanted to integrate. I didn’t want to come here and just be an alien. I wanted to be part of the scene.

TP: So when Steve Coleman played you Sonny Rollins and Coltrane, how did that augment your knowledge?

YOSVANY: It’s interesting, because even though I was listening to Sonny Rollins and Coltrane since I was maybe 14 or 15 years old… But here’s the deal. It’s the same if you lived, say, in Ohio, if you lived here and were listening to Cuban music… New York isn’t a good example for that, because there’s a Latino community. But if you were listening to Cuban music, I don’t know, in San Francisco, and you’re here with friends, but for the first it’s different when some Cuban musician comes in town regularly and then you’re getting together with them. Then you can listen to the making of the music. You can really see to what they’re listening to. So even though I was listening to Trane and Wayne Shorter and all these people in Cuba, but it’s different when you get together with people that…

TP: It’s different when you’re in the culture, hearing Cuban music in Cuba and how it relates to…

YOSVANY: Exactly. It’s the same. That’s the example – you start understanding the Cuban system. Maybe you heard Cuban music since you were little, but you never knew really the details.

TP: When you were 14 or 15, how were you hearing Coltrane and Sonny Rollins? Was jazz sort of in the air with musicians? Was it a samizdat, the way Paquito describes it when he was young in Cuba… As he describes it, in the ‘60s it was dangerous to listen to jazz; people would pass around cassettes. I take it that it was different in the ‘80s.

YOSVANY: Yes, it was different. In my generation, we didn’t go through all this trouble that Paquito and his generation had to go through at the time, in terms of not being able to listen to jazz or listen to a lot of music that represented some other political views. There were a lot of bands traveling, a lot of musicians by (?). So to me it was just a whole different new sound. Listening to Sonny Rollins with Clifford Brown and Max Roach, and then Coltrane with his own band. Also, there was a jazz program in Cuba, a jazz show at night to which I used to listen all the time, one at 10 o’clock and one at 11 o’clock…

All I’m trying to say: To me, I think this is… Let’s say, if you’re a musician, you start listening to traditional Cuban music, and you like it but you don’t…let’s say… The way I would describe it is, yeah, I was trying to imitate it, but at the same time, there are so many layers of learning one culture that maybe I considered I was at the outer level at that time, and then, because I was at the imitation stage… It was at the imitation stage because I wasn’t really knowing the tunes, so I couldn’t manipulate the music. It’s not until really you know the tunes that you can manipulate it on your own and you can create your own sound and you can just try to say something different. Because you understand what he’s saying and at the same time you understand what he’s doing, so that inspires you to do your own stuff, knowing the tunes and even challenging the tunes. So that was the difference at that time, and when I was 14 or 15 and listening to that, it was just in the imitation stage. It wasn’t like I could understand, “Oh, they’re doing this hip dominant substitution.” At the same time, I was getting around to knowing my instrument, too. This kind of music really demands a knowledge of your instrument.

TP: You started off how?

YOSVANY: I started off playing violin at the age of 5, and then saxophone when I started in the conservatory when I was 10 or 11, I think.

TP: A conservatory at Camagüey?

YOSVANY: Yes.

TP: I had Dafnis Prieto on the air yesterday, and he said that as a kid in the cultural center in Santa Clara, he was learning bongo and conga, and learning in a very specific way, in a youth band playing traditional music. You come from a musical family. Were you trained in a ritualistic way?

YOSVANY: My way was completely different, because my father being a musician, the whole universe of music was open since I was born. So there was a piano always in my house, there were musicians visiting my house. All the big orchestra names that would stop by in Florida, my town in the province of Camagüey, they would come and visit the house, because they were all friends of my father. Like, let’s say Miguelito Cuní, Chappotín… They would come play in the Carnival, because there was Carnival in all the little towns, and they would all come to the house. Benny Moré also would come with his orquesta. I was very little, but they would stop in the house.

TP: Benny Moré was alive then…

YOSVANY: He died in the late ‘70s. I was born in ‘71. I might have been 1 or 2 years old. Orquesta Aragon. All the bands came because they knew my father, because the Maravillas de Florida was one of the most important charanga in the interior. So I grew up in a real music environment. It’s different than what happened to Dafnis. So then, that’s why, when I decided I wanted to be a musician when I was 5, my father got us a real…you know, a private teacher, and we started learning solfegge on the instrument… Since I was little, I went to the performances that my father played in town. Music was always in the family. Yunior is the same way, and also Yoel, my older brother.

TP: Were you playing with your father at a certain point? Was that part of the deal? Or was it separate?

YOSVANY: It was interesting. Because my father, we always got inspired by him because he was always practicing at home all the time, but he didn’t want to force us into music. He wanted us to decide for ourselves. So when we decided, he said, “Okay, if you really want to be a musician, I’ll get you a teacher.” That was the end of playing on Sundays and Saturdays, because he said, “if you want to be a musician, you have to be serious.” So we had to practice for the teacher when he would come on Sundays. That was the stop of my playing with other kids on the weekend. Which I didn’t understand at the time, but now I appreciate it, because it really made you understand the discipline. If you want to be a musician, you have to take it serious; it’s not like a fun time. I remember when we were little, 3 or 4 years old, he would take us to the bandstand, and then he would take a big plastic bottle, fill with water, and suddenly we were playing the chekere, or we would sing and we’d dance. But we were always on the bandstand. So that was a different… Growing up as a child, it was really exciting. We were around musicians all the time.

TP: When you play chekere, when you play traditional music, it’s in your blood. It’s very natural.

YOSVANY: Yes, it’s natural. Because my father created respect for the tradition of music. That’s why even now, when I’m called for traditional gigs, I like to play it. I really enjoy playing the traditional music. Because you have the dancing feeling. It’s made for the dancer. If the dancer doesn’t move, then it’s not good. I think jazz has the same quality. That’s one of the reasons why I like jazz. Because when you hear the good bands, you have a feeling that it’s moving people. It’s not just done at the intellectual level in which it just can be heard from that narrow point of view. I like that quality a lot, too. But to me, it needs to have both.

TP: Did your father have any connection to jazz?

YOSVANY: He likes a lot Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan. But he knew very little. It wasn’t like he knew much.

TP: Did he know Bebo?

YOSVANY: Yes, of course he knows Bebo. Every Cuban knows Bebo Valdés, Arsenio Rodriguez. Everybody.

TP: He knew Cachao back in the day?

YOSVANY: Yeah-yeah. Because he started… Orquesta Maravilla Florida was founded in the ’50s. He was one of the founders. They started working on that in ’57 or ’55…I forgot. So at that time, he knew everybody. He was somebody who was really distinctive in the charanga orchestra, because he was the leader at that time, and then he was like a showman. He was a really good dancer, and he would dance with the hat and cane. The orchestra also used to have this huge limo that would go all around the country. So everybody knew him.

TP: Was he a little like Bobby Carcasses?

YOSVANY: Yes, a little. But Bobby does that, mixing jazz and Cuban music, and this was with the traditional, with the charanga music, using also the folklore music. It was geared to the popular people, to the regular people, people who go to the ..(?)…

TP: The folkloric music, when it’s applied to the States, is almost an avant-garde concept, in terms of the rhythms. It’s like bringing a story to a particular set of beats or rhythms. I don’t know if there’s a question in this. But it’s interesting how the popular music of one culture can take on a different flavor in another.

YOSVANY: It’s true. In that regard, that’s why I feel very fortunate to have grown up there. Because when you look at that, like you say, from this perspective, it’s one of the most sophisticated rhythm concepts. Really, really sophisticated and elaborate. But that’s the folklore, that’s the popular music there. So this is what you would hear in the ceremony, or what you would hear from people sitting down on the corner to do that. So for me, I’m used to that since I was little. Just like it would be so natural for people here to listen to people at the early stage hearing jazz and blues — and it’s really sophisticated music when you look at it from a different perspective. So there’s a lot of similarities of culture. That’s why I believe that, besides they have the same kind of background… But that’s what made them interchange.

TP: Did politics impinge on you at all as a kid?

YOSVANY: Did they stop me from doing something?

TP: Did they stop you from doing anything? Or was music always an apolitical thing? A lot of people in Cuba don’t have mobility and can’t travel, and to be a musician, there’s a certain status that’s involved. I don’t know exactly what the question is.

YOSVANY: Here’s the thing. My father is a musician playing popular music before the revolution, and then I guess, since I was born in ’71, so I didn’t go to music school until the ’80s… Then in the ’80s, all that was going on with musicians not being allowed to do different things… By the time that I started going to conservatory and studied music, that was calmed down. It seems like maybe like… I don’t know what was the factor that made all this turmoil calm down. But maybe it was just a different time, a different generation; maybe they grew out of it by the experiences they had before of musicians leaving the country because they couldn’t do what they really want to do. So really, I didn’t live those moments. I came out of something different. That’s why it’s so difficult for me… All the musicians of that generation who left, I understand where they’re coming from. But I don’t have anything to understand, because I didn’t live that. All I can know is that I listen to them, because they know the story that I didn’t know. I learn whenever I talk to them.

TP: Let me get back to music. You start playing saxophone at 11 or 12, get yourself together on the instrument and start hearing jazz musicians at 14 or 15. Among jazz saxophonists, was there anyone you started modeling yourself after stylistically?

YOSVANY: Over there? It’s interesting, because there was… When I was there, I liked a lot of Trane and Wayne Shorter. Even though I heard Bird, I didn’t really discover him until later, when more recordings were available to me.

TP: What do you think of Bird?

YOSVANY: I was really transfixed when I started to transcribe him. I heard him many times before, and I didn’t know the level at which he was involved until I started transcribing him and just to realize that he was just beyond anything I could imagine before that, and everything that I heard, it was like wow. It was just like total awe — about everything he did. His melody concept, rhythmic concept, harmonic concept. It’s really impressive that a person can have all these things developed only in one person. Some people are good with rhythm, some are good with harmony and melody — but he had everything. Don Byas, too. That’s why those persons… You could be 50 years from now, and he will be sounding the same.

TP: Did your awareness begin when Steve started pointing that out to you, or before?

YOSVANY: To realize about Bird? I think it was more when I moved here, and also in talking to Steve, and then I started getting together with Antonio Hart, too, to practice. Antonio was really important to make me be aware also of the tradition and the depth of the music that they were working with. Because it sounds hip already when you listening to it, but then when you break it down and go inside, it’s even more profound. So he was really a deep person. And many other people, too.

TP: It seems like musicians here were very open to you.

YOSVANY: Yes. I think one of the…

TP: Well, you’re from a musical family and know how to behave around musicians, so I’m sure your manners and personality has something to do with it.

YOSVANY: Yes. Also, when people see that you want to learn, then they open the door. If they see that you’re going out with an attitude, it’s not the same. I’m just interested to learn. At this point, I want to learn as much as I can. You learn from everybody. Also, it’s true that we used to work with a different kind of information coming from our culture that people are always trying to learn here, so for them….

TP: You have something for them, too.

YOSVANY: Yeah. So it’s… It’s a shame. Everybody would like to go to Cuba right away, but they don’t have the possibility So whenever they see an opportunity from somebody who can talk to them in the same language and they can talk to them on the same music level, it’s great, because they can exchange. I learn from them, they can learn from everything I know from my own culture, and you have the exchange.

TP: In New York, it’s not just Cuba and jazz, but there’s Vijay Iyer and Rudresh, with North Indian music, all the North African and Middle Eastern themes. What do you make of that? Do those cultural ideas enter your concept?

YOSVANY: Well, from before moving out here, I have so many Indian music tapes in my house, all the great Indian musicians. I have all the great Brazilian music, music from all different parts of Africa, all the different countries. That’s what I was doing before that. The music vision hasn’t changed, because I was exposed to all that, and that was my interest before. Here it broadened it more, and then I had the opportunity to have the access to more information to really put in the sack.

TP: But it’s interesting, because on one night you might be playing in Avishai Cohen’s group with Lionel, then you might be playing another night in Jason Lindner’s band, another night Dafnis’ more abstract music, all these different flavors that you have to adjust to.

YOSVANY: Last night I was doing a gig at the Zinc Bar with Samuel Torres, who works a lot with Columbian folklore and music from South America, too. Edmar Castaneda came with the harp, and another guy… They were digging up in the tradition. Then if you play with Tain, it’s a whole different demand. You have to really know about tradition in this culture, like jazz tradition and also the concept that he’s working on.

TP: Not just the jazz tradition, but you have to have it all at your fingertips – you have to be post-Branford and even where someone like Henry Threadgill is.

YOSVANY: That’s the challenge that I like. Even when I was in Havana, I think I was one of the first freelance musicians. Over there, everybody is in a band. I like the freelance concept, so I started being freelance, and that’s why I started moving easily, coming here and then traveling to Europe with Carlos Masa. I liked the concept that I could play… I wanted to play music, just music, not one style.

TP: Why were there not so many other freelance musicians in Havana?

YOSVANY: Everybody who is over there, normally they have to belong to a certain music company through this band, and the way that the system is organized now doesn’t allow you to do a lot of freelancing. But now, more and more, people are trying to do it.

TP: So more people are trying to do this now, which also lends itself to an open attitude towards embracing a lot of music.

YOSVANY: The great thing is, I was playing with singers, Cuban music, Cuban jazz, rock-and-roll singer. I also liked folkloric music, too, because I was working with the people from Folklorica Nacional. Then I would do my own stuff with my own band, and also with some other jazz groups over there. I would get together with singer-songwriters, too. It was all these things that I was doing.

Now, the difference I find from what I was doing there and what I’m doing now is, like, now I am doing, as you say, all different kinds of things in the palette, but… Here I’m not doing funk or hip-hip or folk music or anything like that, which before I used to do a lot. Which is something that I want to start to incorporate more and incorporate a bit more. Because before I also had the pressure that I had to learn so much new information that… I mean, you either concentrate to learn it or you don’t. Because there is only way to do it. There’s no shortcuts. You have to be in your practice room. That’s the way to learn it. Or going out and playing in sessions. Because I’ve been putting in all this time to learn, I haven’t been doing a lot of other different things which I want to do. Also, I played with El Negro and Robby Ameen’s band, in which we were trying to do a whole different approach. We were trying to mix Cuban music with more Funk and Hip-Hop, too, and some other current sounds. So that was really good. It was another kind of exposure.

TP: You were talking about learning Cuban music outside the context. In New York in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, Eddie Palmieri and Barry Rogers, and then Andy and Jerry Gonzalez were reaching their own conclusions on the great Cuban music of the ‘40s and ‘50s. What did you think of what they were doing at that time? Were you listening to Eddie Palmieri or the Fort Apache band?

YOSVANY: I didn’t know much about the Fort Apache band, but I really did know Eddie Palmieri.

TP: What did you think of it in Cuba?

YOSVANY: What was really interesting was that they were keeping the form that was developed in the ‘40s and the ‘50s, so that was a great respect to the tradition, and now the new thing, why it was a real feeling for me, it was all the challenges that Eddie was doing with the harmonies. He’s a great writer. So that sounded really refreshing to me. That’s why people know who he is in Cuba. That’s why they know also that other people playing Cuban music here, like (?) Cedeno, El Canario, Oscar De Leon, who are also challenging a little bit the harmony. That sound a little bit came from the mix of jazz here and the awareness of harmony also on a different level. So that’s why it sounds appealing to a lot of Cubans.

TP: One criticism some of these guys who like the old-school music have of the music in Cuba is that it’s so fast, so intense, so virtuosic, it doesn’t breathe in some ways. I don’t want to cite Jerry Gonzalez as the authority on all matters, but is there anything to that idea that the music in Cuba these days…

YOSVANY: I know what you’re talking about. I can see it in people, especially when I go back sometimes. But let’s say if you are never exposed to, say, Coleman Hawkins playing a ballad, or Ben Webster or Lester Young or Johnny Hodges playing a ballad, then you don’t learn about that side. Because let’s say all the musicians doing jazz before in Cuba, they knew those people – Sarah Vaughan, Nat King Cole.

TP: Those musicians played shows in Cuba.

YOSVANY: Yeah, Roy Haynes played there.

TP: Stan Getz. Bebo described playing shows with Stan Getz.

YOSVANY: Also, Philly Joe Jones was there. So all these people from that generation, they KNEW. But then after ‘59, when there was the gap, no more American music was coming into Cuba to be performed, and it was not until 1978 when they had that Havana Jam… But again, this is only one night. It’s not like you were able to see that every day. Then at the same time, the fusion thing came in. So a lot of people grew up out of the fusion, and they never had the opportunity to learn. So that’s why I understand where Jerry is coming from, because I can see. He’s someone who has so much knowledge about the culture from here… He’s from here, you know. So of course, the younger generation, they don’t have that sound he was looking into. But he’s an incredible guy, because he’s always playing tapes, saying, “You have to check this out,” and so on. He’s hipped me to many really interesting things.

TP:  Within the broader frame of things, do you see yourself as specifically Cuban or as part of a broader Pan-Latin movement? In 1990, say, Gonzalo Rubalcaba was here, Danilo Perez was establishing himself, Ed Simon was here doing different things. Each was distinctively from their own culture, but also part of something broader, at least the way their identity portrayed itself here. Do you see yourself in that way, or is your identity here a more specifically Cuban identity?

YOSVANY: I understand your question, because you could be here and still keep your pure Cuban identity, which I know some people… But no. To me, the feeling here is to integrate, to be part of something which is bigger, which is music in general. Which is the same thing that you learn from all the great composers, even in classical music, like Bartok and Stravinsky. They all came here after living in different countries. They’re from something bigger than solely their own culture is going to be. I know Cuba is one… The three countries with the most important popular cultures are the United States, Brazil and Cuba. But I feel I’m trying to present something a little beyond. It’s music in general.

TP: Someone like Danilo extrapolated Panamanian folkloric music onto Cuban and Brazilian strains. There are people doing tangos who from Argentina and Uruguay. Ed Simon, ironically, learned about tonadas from Paquito. David Sanchez with bomba and plena. So it’s interesting how people integrate their own specific folkloric ideas into the broader fabric.

YOSVANY: But that’s what people have been doing for a long, long time.

TP: Since the Cubans came to New Orleans in the 19th century.

YOSVANY: Yes. That’s what also keeps the music fresh in content, when you can see people taking tradition and reviving it in a different way, but not for the sake of saying, “oh, I play tradition.” No, it’s…” You didn’t say this word, but it’s more like the intent to fabricate something new. It’s like when you put the fabrics together and you come up with something different.

TP: I was asking what you found so special about Bird. I want to ask you that about some other musicians. How did Coltrane strike you when you were in Cuba?

YOSVANY: I don’t know. There was something about his tone and his ideas that make it sound different. Even though I didn’t know much people… But when somebody has a power in their speech, then they can convince you. Maybe you speak to a thousand people within a day, but it’s like one or two that you remember the next day – “Oh, that an interesting conversation I had with this guy because of what he was saying and the way he was putting his piece together.’ I think that was what struck me on him. Like I said, I didn’t know much about what he was dealing with musically; I couldn’t understand that back then. But what he was expressing, even though I didn’t know the terminology, it struck me.

TP: Charlie Parker was part of the tradition of Cuban music in the ‘40s and ‘50s and ‘60s, but I can’t see an analog to Coltrane. I can hear it in Elvin Jones.

YOSVANY: But you can hear Bird in Trane, and that’s the bridge. Also, you can hear Dexter Gordon in Trane, and Dexter was somebody I always liked.

TP: When you heard something like Interstellar Space, was it something you could relate to?

YOSVANY: No, it wasn’t. The first time I heard that was on the jazz radio shows. I remember it was something completely different. At the beginning, I didn’t dig it much, because I didn’t understand what he was dealing with. I remember one of the radio guys was real into free jazz, which was hip, too, because if it hadn’t been for this guy, I would never have heard that. He would play a lot of Trane in his last period, and Albert Ayler, and… The guy passed, but he was into this type of sound. So he would cover the whole history, but always at the end of the month or every two months he would do a show with just that sound. For us, it was like you’d check the dial, because you’d wonder if it was the same station. It was so different. No, there was no way to relate.

TP: But when you came here you could relate to it?

YOSVANY: When I came here I could relate to it a little bit more. It’s not like this kind of sound is walking around the street. But at the same time, you can relate it also with the city. You can relate it with the dynamics of… Now that you’re here, you can see what the dynamic of the city and this whole city rhythm is, and you can arrive easier to that aesthetic.

TP: Another aspect is that a lot of the musical community here, musicians who play downtown at certain venues, that’s the sound they work with. It’s a very large clique of musicians who do it. Then you mentioned Wayne Shorter. Talk about his appeal when you were in Cuba.

YOSVANY: I first discovered Wayne with Weather Report. But he played so different within that sound, because he didn’t sound like any of the featured saxophone players who were playing within the fusion style. He sounded so different that it made me look for some stuff he was doing before, and then some people gave me cassettes of his LPs, and I found out that he was a monster who had all this tradition and knowledge within himself. Even though you couldn’t tell from the Weather Report, but at the same time there’s a certain tune he’s playing that you said, “Wow, this is not a cat who is coming out of the fusion; what he’s playing is something different.”

TP: When did you first hear him with Miles?

YOSVANY: When I was maybe 17-18. But I was in Camagüey still, but I might have been 16-17… There were people from Havana bringing all this information. Then I heard his own record with McCoy and then with Miles.

TP: Was improvising important to you as a teenager? Was there room in Cuban music for you to improvise? Someone as immersed in music as you and so at-one with your instrument, it would seem that the notion of creating your own music would be equally attractive to interpreting other music beautifully. You seem to be a musician who is equally comfortable doing both. There aren’t too many.

YOSVANY: I like to do both. I like being a sideman, being able to interpret music. That I got from the school in Cuba, because as we studied classical music, you have to interpret it like it’s yours, but then at the same time, when I heard a jazz recording, it’s when I was maybe 13 or 14, and I didn’t know what they were doing, because they were doing something really fresh. So then I wanted to learn how to do that. Even though there wasn’t much… I was lucky that there was a teacher around there who knew…he was a jazz player. So I learned with him piano and harmony, and I learned to understand the concept. His name is Alfredo Thompson. He is now maybe the musical director for Omara Portundo. But he knew jazz. He knew harmony and he knew Coltrane and all the jazz players. He also worked in Irakere before, and then he worked in …(?)… There was a jazz group in my province, only one, but they were really incredible players. The piano player was Gabriel Hernandez. He worked with Roy Hargrove in the latest stage of Crisol. After Chucho stopped working with Crisol, Gabriel Hernandez started working with Crisol. They were just amazing musicians, who really knew in-depth, and they were serious.

TP: And you knew them.

YOSVANY: Yeah, yeah, through my father. Coincidentally, my father was the one who brought Gabriel Hernandez to the Maravillas de Florida charanga orchestra after Gabriel had studied in Havana. If I play you those CDs, they’re really amazing, because it will be like a Charanga Orquesta, and then you will hear like Coltrane harmonies in the bridges.

TP: That’s what Emilano Salvador did.

YOSVANY: Yeah-yeah. But you never heard that in a Charanga orquesta. They did that because Gabriel was hip to all this music. So I used to go every Saturday when they played, just to listen to them, because he was an amazing musician.

TP: We’ve covered a lot. I’m trying to think how to tie this up. Was alto saxophone your first instrument?

YOSVANY: I’ve played alto since I started, through all my studies in Cuba. But when I finished school, since my alto was cool, my parents gave a tenor as a present. So for the next three years, tenor was all I played. Tenor and also I bought a soprano because I started working with Silvio Rodriguez, and he wanted to travel to Argentina. But I had to become a tenor player because I didn’t have any alto. Then I ended up liking it. It gave me a whole different register in sound. I like to play an alto more with a tenor sound instead of playing with more of a kind of alto sound.

TP: Like a lot of modern alto players.

YOSVANY: Yes.

TP: Were you into Jackie McLean and Kenny Garrett and Gary Bartz?

YOSVANY: Yeah-yeah.

TP: I know with Antonio you got a good dose of Gary.

YOSVANY: Yeah.

TP: Those guys all appeal to you.

YOSVANY: Yeah, definitely. Even Steve. He played with a different approach, not an alto type of sound. He was influenced a lot by Von Freeman, so he’s got so much of that depth. When he plays, it’s not like he’s taking the altissimo register. He’s got a deep bottom. But he’s very much raised on Bird. Bird is so strong in his style but at the same time he’s singing so much that mainly he’s just playing the instrument. That’s a whole different approach. Most of the people that imitate him don’t get his singing sensibility through the instrument, like the horn becomes an instrument, so they make the cliches or whatever…

TP: The licks.

YOSVANY: The licks. But by recreating the licks, you’re not really understanding. His real ability was to sing through the instrument. It was a different perspective.

TP: Not different than the sensibility of the older Cuban music.

YOSVANY: Yes, it’s something that used to be there a lot. What happened now is that the chances for a soloist to take solos in the popular Cuban music are all the time less and less. Before it was common. Everybody would take solos. Now I went to Havana, and it’s like you don’t listen to a soloist.

TP: Are people listening to MTV or hip-hop?

YOSVANY: No, they don’t have MTV there. There’s only 2 channels; it’s really controlled. But for some reason, reggae is there, and hip-hop has been there, too. They have a TV show… They don’t have something like MTV that would be playing mainstream. They have a show once or twice a week in which they pick whatever the emcee likes, and they will put it on. But I’ve never seen them… You know how MTV is sort of hip-hop. I haven’t seen it that much. It might have gotten there in some way, because of course people know. But they don’t have MTV bombarding them.

TP: So you play the three saxophones and the chekere. Has the chekere stayed there all through, or was there a period when you weren’t playing it and you’re bringing it back?

YOSVANY: It’s interesting, because in New York… I was playing with my band in Cuba, and then at some point I did a tour with my father playing in the band, on which I didn’t play chekere at all because it was right there. But then I would take it with me on the road with my other band. But I think it was here where I started playing it more and more, and then I grew up more playing the instrument. And with Avishai Cohen, because at the beginning I started playing with him in the International Vamp Band as a tenor player, and then chekere – but I think I was playing even more chekere sometimes than tenor (and also soprano). Even though I didn’t understand the concept of using it, I just wanted to blow my horn. But then, by playing the chekere every time and having to do solos and play it the whole concert thing on a tour, I grew up, and then I started developing more and more.

TP: Developing a personality on the chekere.

YOSVANY: Yes. Then I started to discover myself more. In a way, I was… It’s not like it was harder in Cuba, but the chances to play the instrument were less, because it was only my band, or maybe through… Well, very few other bands, because my father is really active there. So it was here that I had the opportunities.

TP: Here it becomes an art instrument instead of functional. People are sitting down watching you play it instead of responding.

YOSVANY: Yes. My father also played in places like that. But for some reason, people also haven’t seen the instrument. They don’t know it.

TP: Does playing chekere in some way, the longer you’re away from Cuba, help you stay Cuban?

YOSVANY: Not only that, but also stay closer to my Afro-Cuban roots. Even though I listen to that at home, too, the same way that I check out Brazilian music, classical music, music from the different parts of India and Africa… But I think about the instrument also when I’m walking around, imagining the way I can develop a solo, how I can apply certain rhythms that I just learned on the instrument. So again, it helps not only to feel more Cuban, but feel more close to the dancing aspect of the music that I like so much.

TP: Other musicians – Omer and Avishai – described that in Israel they didn’t really think of playing Ladino or Yemenite music, they just focused on hardcore jazz, but when they got here, they found themselves gravitating towards bringing those things into their sound as a way to do something individual, but also in some mystical way, so that being here brought them more in touch with their own national identity through art. That’s one reason why I’m asking this question.

YOSVANY: Ah! Now that you say that, it’s interesting for me to know that. When I look at musicians coming from Israel, they are the ones with the strongest sense of rhythm, in which they can understand Latin rhythms… They can pick it up really quick. That doesn’t happen in many other cultures. But of course, that helped me not to lose the tradition and not to forget about my roots, where I’m coming from, and then to adapt it and put it in whatever I’m doing.

TP: Your record Metamorphosis I suppose is your calling card for 2006. Do you have plans to do another record?

YOSVANY: Yes, I want to see if I can do another recording, maybe towards the end of this year. I’m already working with different material that I’ve been composing, and I want to compose more. But I would like to record something that’s here…

TP: This record has a formal quality, very composed, not something you’d be able to bring in every week, let’s say. Do you want to do something that’s more live-oriented. It’s your first record as a New York musician, and first records can be grand statements.
\
YOSVANY: When I do live shows, I go back and forth and new stuff that I’m playing now… If you want to pick up the word “formal,” they’re not as formal. They have to be more like what is happening, the way that you’re feeling that day and the way that it’s happening that day. That’s some of the quality that I like on the music. This music happened this way because I know that I composed it and I was working a lot on it. So even though it sounds more through-composed, I guess, it changes all the time in the live performance. It changes, because then I would put a whole different intro, like solo instrument intro here, and then we’d just switch the sections to here. I will do it differently, completely differently.

TP: And next year, you’re going to try to move your activity more towards leading your own group, but you’ll keep a lot of your sideman things.

YOSVANY: No. I love to be a sideman because it’s the way that I grew up. I like to be a sideman as well as I like to play my music. When you get to play other people’s music, with the different accents and demands, then you’re into corners that you wouldn’t get there unless you were working with some other people.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

Leave a comment

Filed under Cuba, DownBeat, Interview, Jazz Times, Jazziz, Yosvany Terry

For Eddie Gomez’ 72nd Birthday, a Jazziz Feature From 2012

In honor of bass virtuoso Eddie Gomez’ 72nd birthday today, here’s a feature piece that ran in Jazziz in 2012.

 

*-*-*-

“Eddie has the most surprising flexibility. Sometimes I wake up in the morning to The Today Show and see an Israeli folk group playing their folk music, and there’s a bass player in the back playing like he was born in Israel. It’s Eddie. Or he’ll get on that very free, expressionistic bag. Eddie is marvelous in that he has a very wide scope. As much as he fits me like a glove, you would almost think that this is the only way he can play because he does it so perfectly, but it’s not true.” —Bill Evans, Helsinki, 1970.

“Certain musicians arrived on the scene who were just complete. Paul Chambers would be one of them. Tony Williams would be one. They had everything already in place, and they were innovative. Maybe I was too busy being fragmented to develop that. There’s a positive side to playing in many genres, which I like to do. But to play my own devil’s advocate, maybe it took away my ability to focus on one particular way or style. In any case, that’s who I was, and still am.” —Eddie Gomez, New York City, 2012

Thirty-five years after leaving the Bill Evans Trio to pursue new opportunities and musical adventures, Eddie Gomez, once averse to public discussion of the 11-year run that made him the most visible — and perhaps most emulated — jazz bassist of that era, is happy to dwell on the subject.

“It’s been a third of a century, there’s a body of work, and I’m more self-assured and confident in my career and art,” Gomez said in June at a café a few blocks from his Greenwich Village home. At 68, he looks a decade younger, his barrel chest and muscled forearms obscured by a loose black sport jacket and black button-down shirt. The skin on his fingers, which he spreads in fan-like waves when emphasizing a point, is smooth and barely calloused.

“I feel there are lots of other things to talk about, but being with Bill is huge in my heart,” Gomez continued. “It’s like getting away from a parent or father figure, recognizing what a certain time in your life really was, that it’s part of you and you are part of it. So I’m able to feel it and express it and verbalize it.”

The Evans-Gomez connection is once again a hot topic, thanks to two recent drops of first-commercial-release archival material. Few extant Bill Evans trio dates can match the creative energy generated on the two April 1968 sets with drummer Marty Morell that comprise Live at Art D’Lugoff’s Top of the Gate [Resonance]. Nor does anything in the canon more effectively represent the breathe-as-one simpatico the pianist and bassist could achieve as the five duets they play on Disc 1 of The Sesjun Radio Shows, recorded in the Netherlands in 1973.

Performed with the real-time bustle of late-’60s Bleecker Street unfolding outside the club’s glass doors, the Top of the Gate tracks are unremittingly intense, the protagonists exchanging opinions with a freewheeling, serious-as-your-life attitude akin to the South Village coffee shop and saloon culture that prevailed when Evans himself was coming of age a decade earlier. The radio broadcasts — which include a five-tune 1975 performance by Evans, Gomez and drummer Eliot Zigmund — retain only a hint of that unruly flavor; the musicians, intimate with each other’s moves after years of bandstand proximity in clubs and concert halls, finish each other’s thoughts with burnished, cosmopolitan phrases.

In both contexts, Gomez displays the gifts that placed him atop his instrument’s food chain by his early 20s. When accompanying, he gooses the flow with clear, limber lines that both anticipate and complement Evans’ train of thought. When soloing, a horn player or singer might envy the speed and dynamics of his phrasing, as he moves in the course of an idea from fortissimo bellows to mezzo piano whispers, seamlessly incorporating extended techniques more commonly associated with “outside” playing into Evans’ harmonic world, never with “because I can” intention, but always toward unfailingly musical imperatives.

BREAK

In recent years, Gomez has applied his skills to several projects that denote his willingness to no longer “shy away from trio things and homages to Bill.” These include an Italian tour in 2010 with a highly stylized trio comprising pianist Mark Kramer — a frequent partner in the ’00s — and late-period Evans drummer Joe LaBarbera, and a summer 2011 concert with LaBarbera and Sicilian pianist Salvatore Bonafede devoted to the legacy of the virtuoso bassist Scott LaFaro, who, during his 20 months with Evans and Paul Motian from 1959 to 1961, established the template of bass expression upon which Gomez would place his own unique stamp.

Gomez’s gift for melodic expression and the commanding aura of his tone, whether produced by his fingers or the bow, suffuses recent duo recordings with pianists Cesarius Alvim (Forever) and Carlos Franzetti (the 2008 Latin Grammy-winner Duets). His voice even more palpably dominates CDs of trio concerts in Mexico City and Italy with his longstanding pianist, Stefan Karlsson. That he’s fully capable of subsuming his Olympian gifts to one-for-all purposes is evident on two recent releases: Sofia’s Heart, which Gomez produced for saxophonist Marco Pignataro, and Per Sempre, a Gomez-led studio date with Pignataro, flutist Matt Marvuglio, pianist Teo Ciavarella and drummer Massimo Manzi.

But the only item in Gomez’s recent corpus that stands up to the rarefied environment of clarity and unfettered interplay that Evans facilitated is Further Explorations. A two-disc masterpiece of collective improvisation on the Concord Jazz imprint, it cherry-picks from a fortnight-long engagement at the Blue Note during which Chick Corea, Gomez and Motian (it was the late drummer’s first recording with either partner) refracted Evans-associated repertoire in their own manner. Among the many highlights are Gomez’s arco solos on the second disc. (It’s hard to think of a location recording on which a bassist has bowed improvised melodies with the spot-on intonation that Gomez brings to his variation on Motian’s “Mode VI,” which transpires in the cello register.)

Gomez and Corea have brought out each other’s best since 1961, when the pianist, then a 20-year-old Juilliard student, and the bassist, a 17-year-old senior at the High School of Music and Art, jammed together in Corea’s loft in the Manhattan neighborhood now known as Tribeca. At the time, Gomez, a bass player for all of six years, was already a member of New York’s Local 802, and had conceptualized the bass-as-an-extension-of-the-voice approach that he follows to this day.

“We moved to New York when I was about a year old, and my deepest recollection of music is my mother singing to me at home,” he recalls. “My grandfather had an evangelist church in Puerto Rico, and when we visited, I’d sing in the church in English. Singing was my musical connection, not an instrument.”

A junior high school music teacher placed Gomez on the contrabass path. Once in high school he dual-tracked in classical music and jazz, becoming ever more embroiled in the latter endeavor via such classmates as Jeremy Steig, Jimmy Owens, Billy Cobham and Richard Tee, and such fellow members of Marshall Brown’s Newport Youth Band as Eddie Daniels and Ronnie Cuber. By 15, he was studying privately with “a wonderful mentor-teacher” named Fred Zimmerman, “a crusader for broadening the scope and repertoire of the double bass.”

“I wanted to play music and sing, and although the bass seemed an unusual instrument to be a singer on, Zimmerman played expressive, gorgeous melodies that inspired me,” Gomez says. “I listened to a lot of saxophone and trumpet, but singers — Sinatra, Nat Cole, Peggy Lee, Cheo Feliciano, Bobby Capó — were crucial. To me, it’s all singing or dancing, and if there’s no pulse, as is often the case, then it’s cerebral. But I’ll make the dance and singing work through the brain somehow. I think there’s song and dance in 12-tone music, too. Genre didn’t get in my way.”

At Zimmerman’s suggestion, Gomez enrolled at Juilliard in 1962. For the next four years, in addition to his studies, he supported his young family by playing gigs of every stripe. He worked an extended engagement at a midtown steakhouse with Marion McParland, who welcomed sit-ins by such elder icons as Buck Clayton, Edmond Hall and Bobby Hackett. He played on a Latin jazz album led by conguero Montego Joe, titled Arriba!, with Corea on piano and Milford Graves on timbales. Via Graves, Gomez began taking downtown outcat gigs, including concerts with Giuseppe Logan and Paul Bley — on whose ESP recordings he performs — as well as with John Tchicai, Roswell Rudd, and the Jazz Composers Orchestra. His future direction became more focused in 1965, when he went on the road with vibraphonist-composer Gary McFarland, then played a stint with Gerry Mulligan’s sextet.

“I could play the bass pretty well, but I wasn’t mature as a musician or as an artist,” Gomez says. “Gary and Gerry were very nurturing. Perhaps my role was defined, but traditional contexts made me dig deeper inside to find the creative part of myself.”

In the summer of 1966, Gomez was at the start of a run at the Copacabana with Bobby Darin when Evans — who, when his trio played opposite Mulligan a month earlier at the Village Vanguard, made a point of complimenting the young bassist — invited him on tour. About a month later, toward the end of a week at Shelly’s Manne Hole in Los Angeles, Evans told him, “This is working out very nicely. It would be great if you joined the trio on a permanent basis.”

During the ensuing 11 years, Gomez worked in other satisfying contexts. Notably, he subbed for Ron Carter on a few dozen gigs with the Miles Davis Quintet and performed in open-ended duos with flutist Steig that stimulated him “to find different ways to think about the instrument.” But Bill Evans remained his prime commitment.

“After a couple of years with Bill, I knew I was in the right direction as far as the song and dance,” Gomez says. “I liked being a soloist, which is what I was with Bill. So I made that choice. He talked to me almost as a son in this avuncular way. He’d tell me not to follow in his footsteps, to take his advice and not pick up his habits. When we played at the Gate or the Vanguard, he’d often drive me home to Queens, where I lived then, and we’d talk about how lucky we were to be making art and getting paid for it. I think the first trio formulated his idea of what the bass should do, and he saw me as extending or expanding it. I may have done some different things in using the bow, but I don’t know that I created anything really new.

“I recorded a lot with Bill, and I didn’t always like the recordings for myself. I like some moments on At Montreux from 1968 with Jack DeJohnette, and there are some nice things on Intuition (1974), but I felt I’d reached a pinnacle on You Must Believe in Spring[i] (1977), a flow, a poetic feeling that I’m proud of. I felt I should leave on that note.”

BREAK

Gomez immediately plunged into several overlapping streams of activity. In New York City, he became a first-call duo player, dialoguing with more pianists than he can remember at Bradley’s in Greenwich Village and with guitarists like Jim Hall, Tal Farlow and Chuck Wayne at The Guitar in midtown. Charles Mingus, a Bradley’s regular, befriended Gomez, and, when ALS rendered him too weak to play, tapped him to fill the bass chair on his final two recordings. At Bradley’s, Gomez also developed rapport with pianist Hank Jones, who recruited him to triangulate the collectively-billed Great Jazz Trio — among the drummers were Al Foster and Jimmy Cobb — on a series of Japan-centric projects throughout the ’80s.

Although the prospect of staying home was part of Gomez’s rationale for leaving Evans, he found himself traveling even more. He flew frequently to Japan for one-off guest-artist concerts and recordings, among them several well-regarded dates with pianist Masahiko Satoh. He spent several years touring with DeJohnette, both in the drummer-pianist’s open-ended New Directions quartet with guitarist John Abercrombie and trumpeter Lester Bowie, and on more impressionistic configurations — and ECM recordings — with guitarists Ralph Towner and Mick Goodrick. Corea, an employer since the mid-’70s, brought him on board for his iconic Three Quartets band with Michael Brecker and Steve Gadd, both of whom Gomez would soon partner with in the post-hardbop-meets-fusion quintet Steps Ahead, with vibraphonist Mike Mainieri and pianist Don Grolnick.

While in Tokyo in 1984, and again in 1985, Gomez made two sculpted, groove-heavy recordings, produced by Gadd, in which the leader addressed the various genres and flavors at his command. “Everyone had been urging me to do a solo album, and I forced myself to start writing compositions,” Gomez recalls of these and a subsequent New York session for Epic. “I wanted to do something against the grain of my past. They were criticized for being eclectic, but I think the continuity is that it’s all coming from me. There’s a lot of variation; I quite like them for what they are. I wanted a sound on the double bass that in opera they call a ‘lyric tenor’ — a high, clear, very melodic sound that bass guitarists get. Listening back, it’s too twangy and trebly for me now, but in the context of the records, it’s very clear and makes the bass sound like a solo instrument, which it is.

“My sound has changed. My likes and dislikes have changed. I’m wanting to hear that older sound, the sound of Paul Chambers and Ray Brown. Sometimes on these straightahead tracks, the bass should sound like it’s going straight through the microphone, and not have that direct pickup sound. It should sound embedded in the rhythm section, and not stand out, a little bit like drums.”

It’s been a remarkable career, and Gomez — whose obligations increased seven years ago when he accepted the position of Artistic Director at the Conservatory of Puerto Rico, where he spends six weeks each year — has no intention of resting on his laurels. Among other things, he anticipates performing a concerto with a small string orchestra, and hopes one day to play with Sonny Rollins, a huge influence during his formative years.

“Every day you wake up, it’s a challenge to play the double bass in tune, because there’s so much bass to miss,” he says. “So you have to keep your energy, love and passion for whatever it is, the good things in life — good food, a good cup of coffee, going to a museum, great literature, an old movie. All of that connects to me. I tell students they need to know something about Caravaggio or Velázquez or Turner or Picasso or Vermeer. They need to know something about George Bernard Shaw. Know stuff about things other than music, so you can broaden your artistic sensibility.”

SIDEBAR

Bass Impressions

Asked to name and briefly discuss five personally influential bassists, Eddie Gomez thoughtfully offered the following:
“The very first bassist who came into my life was Milt Hinton. I bought a glorious recording where he did that slapping thing. When I was a kid, I took a lesson from him at his house. He was a sweetheart. So generous. He showed me a great way to finger the chromatic scale. Later on, I realized just how good Milt was — so supportive and also a great soloist, but in a different way than Paul Chambers, Ray Brown and Scott LaFaro.

“Paul Chambers was the second bass player who came into my life. I bought a Red Garland Trio date, A Garland of Red (1956), with Paul and Art Taylor, and the way Paul played turned me around — his sound, how he supported the band, his swing feel, his soloing, how he played with the bow. I got into him even more deeply when I started buying Miles’ quintet records and Porgy and Bess. There wasn’t a bad note; everything was perfect.

“I discovered Ray Brown a little later via the trio with Oscar Peterson, and although I heard him with other pianists and he always sounded great, that’s how I always think of him. Aside from being a great soloist, Ray’s propulsion, his particular swing feel and sound, was beautiful.

“Scott LaFaro would be next. I didn’t get to see the Bill Evans Trio play, and the one time I saw Scott, when I was 16 or 17, I didn’t really hear him. I was rehearsing with a big band at a place called Lynn Oliver’s, on the Upper West Side, and through the window to the other studio Stan Getz, Steve Kuhn, Pete La Roca and Scott were rehearsing. I saw Scott play a very unorthodox way of fingering. He innovated a way of playing in space that became one of the junctions in modern jazz.

“Charles Mingus is at the top of the list because he was such a great bassist and a huge composer. But I liked Sam Jones and Jymie Merritt very much. I liked Steve Swallow when he was playing the double bass, and you’ve got to include Red Mitchell. Johnny Hawksworth was a great English bassist who played with Johnny Dankworth. Today I can enjoy listening to Ron Carter and Buster Williams. I like Peter Washington, and Christian McBride is a fine bass player, too. I’m still waiting for some of these younger guys to develop a voice that says, ‘Oh, that’s him — there’s no doubt about that.’ All these guys I mentioned had a voice. Each one was a breeding ground.” —TP

Leave a comment

Filed under Bass, Eddie Gomez, Jazziz

For Matt Wilson’s 52nd Birthday, a 2001 Blindfold Test and a 2012 Feature in Jazziz

In recognition of drummer-bandleader Matt Wilson’s 52nd birthday, I’m posting the uncut  proceedings of the DownBeat Blindfold Test that he did with me in 2001, and the text of an article that ran in Jazziz in 2012.

 

Matt Wilson Blindfold Test:

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 Drake, “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.

*_*_*_*_*

Matt Wilson Jazziz Article, May 2012 Issue:

 

Over lunch with Matt Wilson on the first Friday of March, the pressing topic was Arts & Crafts — his quartet with trumpeter Terrell Stafford, pianist-organist-accordionist Gary Versace and bassist Martin Wind — who would, in a few hours, begin night four of a week-long stand at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, their first run of that duration in a New York City venue.

“I started it to contrast with some of the Quartet’s wildness,” the drummer said, referring to his other primary outlet, the Matt Wilson Quartet — presently comprising saxophonist-woodwindist Jeff Lederer, trumpeter Kirk Knuffke and bassist Chris Lightcap — that he launched in 1997. “But as time has passed, Arts & Crafts has gotten more to the left and the Quartet has become a swinging band. So now it’s down to the personalities.” He noted that Versace’s chordal presence imparted a thicker sound than the Quartet’s “more transparent” ambiance, and also facilitates working with “classic repertoire that I’ve always wanted to do.” But the only substantive difference, Wilson emphasized, was the instrumentation.

“In both bands, everyone is an amazing musician and a great person,” Wilson said. “The community-family aspect is what I value most. It makes my life easier to know that everybody is totally hip to be with. A lot of people can play but that extra thing is essential. We drove 5-1/2 hours from the University of New Hampshire on Tuesday straight to Dizzy’s —started like that rather than coming in from our homes. It was a great way to keep the flow going.”

Wilson is a father of four who will celebrate his 25th anniversary in July. He owns a house, has two cars, and he’s an elder in his Long Island town’s Presbyterian church. He’s also an uncompromisingly creative musician who doesn’t purvey the tried-and-true. “You have to be incredibly crafty to make it all work,” he said. “I’m a hustler, but I try to do it creatively and to have as much fun as possible. The way I see it, being a musician should be just like being a plumber or a school teacher or whatever you do. You can have a family, live in a house, do things with your kids. A few years ago, my wife and I chose to try to be more involved where we live, to participate in our community rather than feel like we just live here. It’s nice to get out of the music world.”

Nonetheless, as was apparent from his crammed itinerary, Wilson, silver-haired and baby-faced at 47, would be immersed in the music world for the remainder of March. Already in gig shape after several February engagements behind their new CD, An Attitude for Gratitude [Palmetto], Arts & Crafts would reconvene a fortnight hence for an intense docket of gigs and clinics — one-nighters in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and Columbia, Missouri, followed by a six-day residency in St. Louis highlighted by a weekend at the Jazz Bistro. During the interim, Wilson would play two nights with singer Amy Cervini at the 55 Bar, then one-offs at Smalls with tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger, with pianist Falkner Evans, and with tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm. Upon returning home from St. Louis, Wilson would fly to New Mexico to meet pianist Myra Melford and bassist Mark Dresser, his partners in Trio M for shows in Albuquerque and Santa Fe to support their second CD, Guest House [Enja]. (They’d meet again two weeks later for single nights at New Haven’s Firehouse 12 and Manhattan’s Kitano). Then he’d head to Western Illinois University to perform with pianist Frank Kimbrough and bassist Linda Oh, both of whom would join him the next day at the Rootabaga Jazz Festival in Galesburg, Illinois, Wilson’s home town, to play a concert with Preminger.

“I like keeping busy,” Wilson said. “Some people have said maybe I shouldn’t do all these other things, and focus more on the group. But why would I do that? Sometimes with Mark and Myra, we play places where the audience is different than for the jazz crowd I travel with. It’s been fun to meet these different circles, like bringing together another community.”

Clearly Wilson’s ability to coalesce musicians from a broad spectrum of improvisational worlds and authoritatively inhabit each one of them, mirrors his consistently communitarian focus.

“Matt makes you part of his experience, and he makes you laugh by being brought into his mind,” says bassist Buster Williams, a frequent bandmate over the last decade in pianist Denny Zeitlin’s trio, Williams’ own group, and on a recent Lederer-led Albert Ayler project, documented on Sunwatcher [Songlines]. “He has a great gift of finding humor in everything. He plays things you don’t expect, but can anticipate. I can hear the lineage in him, and because it’s so alive in his playing, it expresses itself as Matt Wilson. He’s his own drummer.”

Stafford cites Wilson’s “big, fat beat” and his penchant for “finding beautiful melodies all over the drums.” Lederer — who collaborated with Wilson on the drummer’s 2010 release, Christmas-Tree-O [Palmetto], a recital of surprisingly effective Ayler-to-prebop treatments of 14 Yule season standbys — notes Wilson’s feel for texture, his knack for “gluing his sound to what’s happening around him,” his “magical way of turning four musicians, no matter who they are, into a band.”

“Everything Matt plays is honest, clear and pure,” Stafford says. “He plays drums like Chet Baker would play the trumpet, taking less and making more. Nothing is overdone. It’s all about the feel and the connection. He’s a genuine, caring person who makes sure always to reach out and see that everyone is OK. I was insecure about playing freer music. I had no idea what to do. Through Matt — and listening to records, and trusting and experimenting — I found my way to do it, and a comfort zone to do it in. That’s the sign of a great leader — to make someone who hasn’t experienced something not feel like a complete idiot or less musical.”

Lederer emphasizes Wilson’s flexibility to move with conversational flow, musical or verbal, without steering it to a place outside anyone’s comfort zone. “He’s unique in his genuine ability to encompass the history of swing in all its forms, even in more open contexts, when the pulse is free,” he says. “He has a million different, subtle ways to swing — pushing the beat forward, bringing it back, or putting it right in the middle, sometimes all within one phrase. His sound palette on a ride cymbal just within playing quarter notes is exceptional, ranging from a ping to a splash, and a broad range in between.”

Wilson expressed his view indirectly when, midway through lunch, he cited that day’s New York Times obit for Red Holloway in which the tenor saxophonist was quoted: “I was down to play whatever kind of music I could do to make a living, and my goal was just to make whatever that music is swing.”

“I thought that was a cool way to think about it,” Wilson said. “He was just trying to make everything he does feel really great. To me, swing is not just a beat. Swing is an attitude of how music can be. Swing to me is that flexibility — or that community feeling — on a bandstand.”

[BREAK]

On An Attitude for Gratitude, Wilson navigates the “inside”-“outside” m.o. that’s marked his output as a leader since his 1996 debut, As Wave Follows Wave, with Dewey Redman and Cecil McBee — his two major employers at the time — and keyboardist Larry Goldings. There’s a multi-sectional, through-composed set-opener, “Poster Boy,” with complex harmony in which each solo section requires a different metric signature. A straight-up reading of “Happy Days Are Here Again” proceeds as a ruminative ballad with Stafford and Versace milking maximum beauty from the melody. From the drum kit, Wilson expertly orchestrates the Sunday-morning-meets-Saturday-night narrative of Nat Adderley’s “The Little Boy With the Sad Eyes.” He propels the Latin-ish “You Bet” with his own refraction of Billy Higgins’ “Soy Califa” beat from the Dexter Gordon album [i]Go[i]; on “Bubbles,” after a melodic opening solo, he channels the ebullient four-on-the-snare that was Higgins’ signature when employed by Ornette Coleman. He reharmonizes “Out Of Nowhere” (“No Outerwear”), and plays it straight, tipping a la Mel Lewis for Stafford’s clarion solo; puts an impressionistic, straight-eighths feel on Jaco Pastorius’ “Teen Town.” After Stafford’s soulful, unaccompanied reading of “There’s No You,” Wilson ignites the jets on “Stolen Time,” evoking the high-octane multidirectional whirl of ’60s “New Thing” drumming while propelling Stafford’s turbulent declamation. Then he tamps the flames, switching to brushes on “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” interpreted by Versace as a quiet hymn.

Events during the 10 months before the recording are palpable in the notes and tones. “I was thinking how quickly things literally can change,” Wilson says of the emotions in play when he began putting the recital together in the fall of 2010. His parents had recently died. So had his close friend, Dennis Irwin, who played bass with Arts & Crafts when the group launched in 2001. Another close friend, Andrew D’Angelo, who plays saxophone with the Quartet, had undergone — and survived — a serious illness. Most overwhelmingly, that October, his wife, Felicia, was diagnosed with leukemia.

During the early stages of her arduous recovery, Wilson occupied himself in the hospital by writing and organizing repertoire. “I had to think about something else,” he says. “I got us some bookings, too — partly out of need. I thought, ‘Maybe I’m going to have to really be hustling here.’ You go through different stages dealing with this kind of illness. Felicia had her bone marrow transplant a few months before we recorded, and we were in a sort of holding pattern, so things were rather calm. I don’t want to sound like a cult, but the recording is a celebration that she’s OK, of gratitude that we have an opportunity to play this music or do whatever we have in mind. Felicia’s doctor came to the club last night, and we dedicated the set for her. In the medical community, like everywhere else, you see people who do their jobs and also have that extra-special thing in their souls, the way they handle themselves.”

Wilson was also grateful for the deep support offered by his “music family.” “Everyone was great,” he says. “The longer you do this, you develop bonds that you don’t get from school or the academic world. Musicians in the older days got that sense of family and community at a much earlier age — they were out on the road with big bands, and a lot of them were in the Army. When I’d hear bands as a kid, I’d see them hanging out and think they sure looked to be having fun, whether they were or not. I imitated what they seemed to be like.”

Growing up in the rural milieu of southwestern Illinois, Wilson — with his parents early on, with his buddies after 16 — drove long distances to workshops and to concerts by such icons as Dizzy Gillespie and Clark Terry, the members of the Count Basie Orchestra, Buddy Rich and Quad Cities native Louis Bellson. “They were all characters,” he says. “I don’t mean weirdos; I mean distinct — you’d know who they are.”

He wasn’t shy about approaching his heroes. “Once I asked Buddy Rich for an autograph. He goes, ‘I’ll sign them on the bus.’ I didn’t hear it. I said, ‘Auto…’ ‘I’ll sign them on the bus!’ But I went out there. I was like, ‘OK, I want to meet this guy.’

“Never let opportunities go by. Dewey Redman heard me play in 1992, handed me his phone number, and said ‘Keep in touch.’ If didn’t take that seriously, I’d never have played with him, and maybe a lot of opportunities I’ve had would never have come around. I said, ‘He was interested — call him.’ I called every month for a year-and-a-half — ‘Hey, Dewey, this is Matt Wilson. If you need somebody, let me know’ — before he picked up the phone.”

Wilson applied similarly pragmatic, open-minded principles to learning his trade. He started drums in second grade, heard Rich and Max Roach by fourth, and began to play for pay at 14. (“I never had to have a job,” he says.) His teacher, a bassist, improvised the lessons with him, enabling Wilson to master the beats “not strictly from a page in the book saying your right hand does this,” but from “hearing the sound. I learned I could do those beats my way, with my shapes.” He assimilated jazz vocabulary from the sound samples of Roy Haynes, Philly Joe Jones, Art Blakey and Tootie Heath contained in Billy Mintz’ book Different Drummers, and from the 4-LP ABC-Impulse compilation, The Drums, which documented drum thinking from Baby Dodds and Connie Kay to Beaver Harris and Sunny Murray. ECM records and cassettes were easy to find then, and Wilson became fascinated with Jack DeJohnette, particularly DeJohnette’s album New Directions: Live in Europe, on which Lester Bowie played.

“That got me into different things,” he recalls. “I always was fascinated with music that seemed to have a cinematic quality, that conjures up images, which that did beautifully. I was always looking to be resourceful, to be loyal to the music, but try things differently within it rather than dramatically change anything. Swinging was hip, but so was playing music by Lester Bowie and the Art Ensemble and Old and New Dreams. I didn’t know you had to sign up and get a card that said you were part of this or that.”

[BREAK]

“I have no evidence, but I have this inkling that something new is coming around the corner,” Wilson said. “I don’t know what it is.”

He raised two possibilities — perhaps one band comprised of 20-somethings, perhaps another with musicians who share Wilson’s southern Illinois roots. Or maybe the next step will emanate from one of the combinations of musicians he put together as music director for the 2011 edition of the Lost Shrines Festival, which includ[ed] an homage to ’40s prebop and a celebration of Afro-Cubanism that co-joined Arts and Crafts and the iconic nonagenarian conguero Candido Camero.

Wilson hopes at some point to do an “improv potluck,” a kind of meta performance piece with Lederer. They’ll drive a van around the Midwest, stopping each night in a different town, preferably populated by fewer than 20,000 souls. After a brief ballyhoo, they’ll jam with local musicians, followed by a cook-up in the van.

“Sometimes I want to know these towns a little bit more than just coming in and out,” he said. “And it would be fun to have people become part of the process. People could crochet. Painters could bring their stuff. Welders could bring their welding. Then we’d eat and talk. Food is a great way to bring people together and celebrate community.”
SIDEBAR:

“One thing I try to do as a teacher is give people what a friend of mine calls ‘small victories,’” Wilson said from his Santa Fe hotel room at the end of March.

“I give them one suggestion they can try, and they’ll immediately sound better to themselves. Maybe that clarity will open the rest of their sound, or the ability to play with other people, or to receive other people’s sound. If you inspire them by improving their sound immediately, they’ll continue to work on things.”
Wilson had followed this method in St. Louis the previous week with Arts & Crafts, which visited seven schools, (suburban and inner city), conducted afternoon sessions for a free afternoon program called Jazz U, and augmented their four-set weekend commitment at the Jazz Bistro with concerts in the playroom of the St. Louis Children’s Hospital and at Sax Quest, a saxophone store-museum.

“I played some funky drums, a five-piece set that reminded me of the way Max Roach would tune and set up his drums in his later years,” he said. “It inspired me to play some stuff I’d never play. It’s nice to improvise in each setting.

“Kids were playing well, but they’re not characters yet. That’s what we wanted to promote — respect the tune, but put your own vibe on it. By the end of the week, kids who were looking at us like we were from Mars were going, ‘Wow, we really dug this.’ If they’re the next generation of players, great. But I think they’ll be fans, and will take this encouragement of being characters — being themselves — into everyday life. I hope we helped them on all fronts.”

Another side of Wilson’s pedagogy comes through on Webop: A Family Jazz Party [Jazz At Lincoln Center], commissioned by the Jazz For Young People department of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Wilson directs 16 musicians from different communities — from his two bands, from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, four main vocalists, and Candido — through a program that, as he puts it, “expresses a lot of what I really like to do overall.” Shuffles, different blues iterations, standards, bebop and the Afro-Caribbean tinge commingle with made-up instruments, freebop and free jazz. In the Sesame Street vein, each song has a lyric with a kid-friendly message: an ABC song is set to “Syeeda’s Song Flute”; on “Free Jazz Adventure,” Ornette Coleman’s “Free” morphs into “Itsy-Bitsy Spider” into Don Cherry’s “Infant Happiness” into “Bingo”; “My Style” is a lyric set to Monk’s “Nutty.” On “Your Own Blues, Doug Wamble explains how to sing the blues and asks Wilson’s son Ethan to demonstrate.

“I dig that this kind of gave everyone permission to be the way we really should be in playing,” Wilson said. “It was an old-school feeling in that we were all in the same room. Maybe that’s what it was like when people were doing these great ensemble dates in New York in the ’50s and ’60s — that kind of musicianship and feeling, coming in, doing it, having fun and then go on to something else.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Drummer, Jazziz, Matt Wilson