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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.


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.”


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.”


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

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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.”


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.”


“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.”

“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.”

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Drummer, Jazziz, Matt Wilson

For Harry Connick’s 49th Birthday, a Jazziz Feature Article From 2002

For the 49th birthday of Harry Connick, here’s a “director’s cut” of a feature piece I wrote about him for Jazziz in 2002, on the  occasion of his CD Songs I Heard and the Broadway musical Thou Shalt Not, for which he wrote the score. I was given quite a bit of access to him, and he was quite open and self-aware — a very interesting subject.


Harry Connick (Jazziz Article):

“Well, I made me a fortune, that fortune made ten; I’ve been headlined and profiled again and again,” Harry Connick murmurs to a languorous triplet groove over a plush magnolia carpet of slow-moaning strings and woodwinds. The Marvin Charnin verse is self-descriptive; like cartoon tycoon Daddy Warbucks, who delivers the lyric in Annie, Connick has the Midas touch. A bona-fide Pop Culture celebrity with a high recognition quotient, he packs arenas singing songs he wrote and dancing steps he devised in front of a well-oiled 17-piece big band that plays arrangements he composed. He has two Grammies to go with four multi-platinum, three platinum and three gold albums. He is an increasingly visible presence in film and television, and models clothing by Tom Ford (Yves St. Laurent and Gucci) and Prada in the pages of Esquire and GQ. Last summer he made his first foray into big-time theater, composing the score and lyricist of the Broadway musical Thou Shalt Not.

Connick strikes a chord on the piano, changes the key, and croons: “But something was missing. I never quite knew that something was someone. But who?” Daddy Warbucks’ existential ache for family, fatherhood and reciprocal love is emphatically not an autobiographical reference. Connick, 34, and Jill Goodacre, the model-videographer who is his wife of eight years, have two young daughters, and he remains close to his father, Harry Connick, Sr., the incumbent District Attorney of New Orleans since 1974.

Connick’s gnawing question might more appropriately be phrased, “But what?” Perhaps the answer is respect — from hardcore jazz observers who dismiss him as a lightweight — and comprehension — from fans who dote on his chiseled image and charisma and are clueless about his craft. The content of Songs I Heard [Columbia], the two-time Grammy winner’s recent release from July 2001, won’t help matters; including “Something Was Missing,” it contains 16 “children’s songs” from Annie, Mary Poppins, The Sound Of Music, The Wizard Of Oz, and Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory, few of which hold much cache among art-oriented jazz musicians.

None of this deters Connick, who displays his passport — as the lyric goes — to “the world of pure imagination, traveling in a world of my creation” as a conceptualist, singer, entertainer and pianist. Without condescension, he arranges each bar with painstaking detail, cherrypicking ideas from the imposing cliffs of tradition to sculpt his own contemporary hybrid. Having absorbed the instrumental personalities of his musicians over a decade of proximity, Connick the arranger deploys them as extensions of his mind’s ear. His timbral palette draws from Duke Ellington, Billy May, Nelson Riddle, Claus Ogerman and Quincy Jones; his pulse, which distinguishes Connick from his influences, partakes of a savory menu of New Orleans streetbeats. Connick the singer references the storytellers — Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra for elasticity of phrasing; Carmen McRae for clarity; Nat Cole for tone — and is now fully his own man. Connick the entertainer knows the craft of serious fun, how to convey to his audience the illusion of intimacy and spontaneity. Connick the pianist remains primarily in the background, notably excepting “Oompa-Loompa,” on which he creates a dramatic triologue between his voice, right hand and left hand in a manner singular to him.

“Living there,” he continues, “you’ll be free if you truly wish to be. And the world tastes good ’cause the Candy Man thinks it should.”


Cool and focused in a white polo shirt, blue jeans and white Nikes, Connick faces his orchestra in an enormous studio at Manhattan’s Hit Factory. They are recording the brass and woodwind section for Connick’s chart of “America The Beautiful,” to be heard three weeks hence at the closing ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Connick wants them to put a Louis Armstrong feeling on the reharmonized, racehorse line. “Would it be possible to do the down-notes on the second beat and do a lip thing instead of a valve thing?” he asks quietly and firmly.

After the take, Connick grabs a bottle of water and strides into the control room. Buff and physical, he punctuates jivetalk to his musicians with sharp forearms to their chests and biceps, then flops into a chair next to drummer Arthur Latin to listen to the playback. As it rolls, he and Latin follow the score to a walking bass section that will accompany a tap interlude from Savion Glover. Latin suggests a rhythmic figure, and Connick assents. He leans toward Latin, grips his shoulder, stares into his eyes, and chants precisely how he wants the drummer to execute the beats on the kick cymbal. The band files back into the studio. They nail the take. “Beautiful playing,” Connick says. “Let’s do it a little slower. Keep it in that pocket. Big pocket.”


Connick has marched to the beat of his own drummer since he was a small child in New Orleans. The son of a politically ambitious Catholic New Orleanian father and an artistically-inclined Manhattan-raised Jewish mother, each a lawyer and a jazz lover, he heard jazz music, as he puts it, “from the womb.” Gifted with perfect pitch, he took quickly to his classical lessons, assimilating the European and African-American canon in equal measure. With his father’s blessing, he learned the latter at the side of maestro James Booker, whose scope encompassed Jelly Roll Morton, Huey “Piano” Smith and Frederic Chopin, and whose lessons Connick applied at various trad clubs on Bourbon Street, where, under the gaze of his parents, he would be invited to sit in for a tune or two. By 14 or 15, Connick was doing whole gigs, observing such highly skilled local entertainers as Johnny Horn and Thomas Jefferson, and finding his own public persona in the company of such world-class Crescent City drum-masters as Smokey Johnson, Zigaboo Modaliste, Freddie Kohlman, John Vidacovich, Herlin Riley and James Black.

“Booker to this day is the greatest musician I was ever around,” says Connick the following morning in a suite at Sony Music Studios. “He was an inventor, and at this late date, to be able to invent something on an instrument as old as the piano is pretty impressive. He played things that were incredibly hard, and he was able to use the piano to communicate with people, much like Chopin used to do. I’ve always felt I have the ability to do that. I feel very at-home in that situation because I did it in my most formative years.”

Connick is about to mix the cast album for Thou Shalt Not, a musical adaptation of Thérèse Raquin — an Emile Zola novel of love, betrayal, murder and ensuing spiritual decay — that received almost uniformly negative reviews during its two-month run. Lifted from 1860s Paris to 1940s New Orleans, the production boasted a pithy book, visionary choreography from director Susan Stroman, state-of-the-art sets spanning vivid naturalism to hallucinatory abstraction, and idiomatic costumes representing a broad swath of postwar Crescent City social strata. It lacked, however, lead actors of sufficient skill to represent credibly the passions and customs of their characters, or phrase Connick’s two dozen nuanced songs, or even sing them in key. Many critics cited Connick’s inexperience with or unwillingness to follow Broadway conventions as the main reason for this debacle. But it occurs to me that it’s the world that needs to catch up with Connick.

Maybe Connick agrees, maybe he doesn’t, but he’s diplomatic when I offer these impressions. “It’s very difficult to find people who can really sing and act and move on stage,” he remarks. “Would I have cast differently for the main characters? I don’t know. It’s give-and-take. This theater thing is a living, breathing organism. What if you find an amazing singer who really understands this stuff, but can’t act? Or a great actor or actress who just can’t sing?

“I wanted to act in it for a minute, but Stroman talked me out of it. I enjoyed performing on stage in high school, but I didn’t much enjoy the constraints. By then I was playing gigs in jazz clubs, which is a completely different way of thinking; as an actor in a show, you’re locked down, and with some small exceptions you pretty much can’t change anything. Playing a solo and doing a scene are similar experiences, though. It can be like going very fast on a boat through the water, moving forward, forward, forward, everything falling away behind you. If you can get to that very specific, special place, oh my God, there’s nothing like it. Acting requires a certain way of thinking about life and about the world, I think, in addition to having certain skills or inclinations to perform. A person who just walks off the street could be a great actor. But you need skill to be a jazz musician. However talented the person is, they have to understand the workings of it first.”

If Booker passed on to Connick a sort of Platonic ideal of how music should sound, pianist Ellis Marsalis and his sons — who introduced him to the complex tributaries of modern jazz — laid down the Aristotelian mechanics. “Wynton and Branford were five or six years ahead of me, and those guys weren’t messing around. They could tell in two seconds if you knew what you were doing. They’d come in and completely shut you down! I’d sit in with Wynton’s band, and during my solo Jeff Watts and Charnett Moffett would play the whole thing on upbeats. If you didn’t strongly believe that what you were doing was right, you’d go with them, and then they’d screw you up and get you lost in the form.

“Those guys were HARSH, man! They would verbally cut me down. I’d show up backstage, and they’d say, ‘Man, who you checkin’ out?’ I said, ‘Oh, man, I’ve been checking a lot of Errol Garner out.’ They were all into different stuff. ‘You sad, you can’t play.’ They would beat you up emotionally. At the time it was tear-inducing. But I knew they were being unfair, and I knew I was going to ride through that storm. When you’re in bed looking at the ceiling at night, you know whether you can play or not.

“Wynton’s approval still means a lot to me. I really wanted him to see Thou Shalt Not, and he called me after the show and quoted specific things I did with melodies or orchestration or whatever. That meant the world to me. I can talk to him purely on a philosophical level about the art, which thrills me. I know that he and Branford are listening to me and understand what I’m trying to do. I won’t say Wynton’s a big brother, but he is in a sense. He and Branford and Ellis are my” — Connick searches for a word — “family. I grew up with them.”


Connick notes, “One thing I can do even better than anything I can do musically is hustle.” At 18, Connick moved to New York, took a room at the 92nd Street Y, and hit the streets, using every ounce of charisma he possessed to conjure gigs and persuade Columbia honcho George Butler to deliver on an oral commitment to give him a contract. Moving to Greenwich Village, he landed a weekly gig at the Knickerbocker, a well-established neighborhood piano bar, where he began to blend his predispositions — vernacular New Orleans romantic blues piano, the McCoy Tyner-Herbie Hancock-Kenny Kirkland branches of modern piano gleaned from the Marsalis apprenticeship, and a nascent appreciation of Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington — into a recognizable, idiosyncratic style.

“Back in New Orleans, when Wynton was playing with Herbie Hancock, all I listened to was Herbie,” Connick says, with a short laugh. “Then I remember one day, around the time Monk died, Wynton came home and told me not to listen to Herbie any more. He said, ‘Listen to Monk.’ I didn’t understand it at all, but if Wynton was listening to it, I had to listen to it; I basically did what Wynton did. I started trying to transcribe and play Monk, and realized it was more complex than I thought. When I got into Duke, I started to understand my place on the planet as a piano player.

“At the Knickerbocker, since Wynton wasn’t around, I could play what I wanted. I started pulling out my traditional jazz tunes and my Booker stuff, which was very left-hand-heavy, and I felt, ‘Hey, this is home.’ I loved to play tunes by McCoy and Herbie, too, but I thought my left hand was dormant in the mid-range of the piano, and that didn’t cut it on a solo gig in New York City. I started studying the great left-handed piano players — Fats Waller and James P. Johnson, and then Art Tatum and Earl Hines, who played a different kind of stride. It was extremely intimidating, because these people just did not miss notes. It was perfect playing. I never wanted to be less than that technically. So I practiced a lot. My technique got where I wasn’t even thinking; I was playing so fast that it was silly. I started to slow down after I started listening to Monk and Duke. Dexterity became less important. If I’m losing a crowd, I’ll play some stride to get them back, but it’s a trick. Now I’m interested in playing notes that sound right to me at the time. It seems that musicians in their mid-thirties start to become who they are. It’s liberating.”


On the road three to four months a year with his big band, with large chunks of time devoted to film and television projects, Connick these days has scant time to practice his scales. He writes incessantly, a complete arrangement every day, relying on the sounds in his head and Finale music software. He keeps about 100 tunes in his working book, of which about half are original compositions.

“I’d be helluva lot better pianist if I practiced,” he says. “I’ve been blessed with a natural ability, and I’ve been able not to play for a while and then jump back into it.”

“Harry isn’t a great jazz pianist any more, but he could have been one of the best ever,” Branford Marsalis says. “To get back where he was, he would have to start from scratch, like he did with singing. He would have to play jazz more than sing, which makes no sense at this point of his career. Maybe when he’s 50, and has all the money he needs and doesn’t feel like doing that shit any more, he could start playing jazz in some little club somewhere, and then in another five years he’ll just kill people. The talent is not in question.”

Well, not to everyone. The Third Penguin Guide To Jazz on CD described Connick as “a rather pointlessly eclectic pianist; his solos an amiable but formless amalgam of Monk, Garner and Hines influences,” noting that “any good piano trio record will outdo” Lofty Roach’s Souffle from 1990. But Connick’s talent shines throughout 30, recorded a week before his September 11th birthday in 1998 and released last fall. It’s the third in a quintennial series documenting Connick’s evolving take on the solo piano function, refining a lived lineage that links him to such fin de siecle bordello entertainers as Tony Jackson and Jelly Roll Morton. He commingles perpetual motion stride and modern harmony on “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” weaves dense angular chords through a Bookeresque prism on “Somewhere My Love.” He cushions a declarative vocal on “The Gypsy” with Ellingtonian pads of color, precedes an Armstrongesque chorus on “I Were a Bell” with an expansive six-minute duo with Ben Wolfe, his off-and-on bassist since 1988.

“When I heard Harry at the Knickerbocker, he was singing and playing a lot of stride piano,” Wolfe recalls. “I’d go to his apartment on Mulberry Street, and we’d work out these intricate, challenging arrangements. We played with a lot of exuberance, real hard, with a lot of swagger. The week after he hired me, we played the Bottom Line. Then we went on the road, to Blues Alley in D.C., a week in Seattle, a week in L.A. Then we recorded When Harry Met Sally. It was very fast-moving, very exciting. We played duo for about 18 months, and had a lot of fun.”

Springboarding off the success of When Harry Met Sally, Connick toured the country with Wolfe, propulsive New Orleans drummer Shannon Powell, and conductor-arranger Mark Shaiman, picking up a different orchestra in each city. The public responded, and Connick, armed with only a couple of charts from When Harry Met Sally, decided he might as well write a few of his own for a forthcoming world tour. “Man, they were pathetic!” he says. “I hustled the audience, made them think we had a jam-packed show of big band music.” Applying his customary persistence, he wrote all the charts for Blue Light, Red Light [1991]. “I’ve written them all ever since,” he says. “You learn.”

“Music seems effortless for Harry,” Wolfe says. “There are a lot of musicians who have perfect pitch and great ears, but he has great ears that are functional. If you hum him a melody, he will naturally hear the good bass notes. So when he started arranging, his brain would tell him the right things — good-sounding chords, good harmonic movement, good voice leading, nice melodies. He hears that way naturally, and that’s how he always played. He’s a complete perfectionist, real clear on what he wants.”

“Harry is not afraid to sound like shit for a while,” says Marsalis. “His early records weren’t very good, singing-wise. But Harry is a consummate musician, and he understood what he was doing. The only way to get good is to sing. I guarantee you, when he was growing up, big band was not in the picture. Singing was, but as a cute extension of his playing, not as a career. One aspect of growing up in New Orleans that helped him is that he’s a great showman. He’s charismatic — funny, can do a soft-shoe, can do his version of Louis Armstrong. So he’s very popular. And no matter how much critics wrote bad things about him, people continued to go to his concerts — which made him essentially critic-proof.

“He’s a student. He’s xeroxed it all, and now he doesn’t have to do it any more. His ability to write lyrics the way he does comes from years of studying the shit that he used to be criticized for! ‘Oh, he sounds like Frank Sinatra.’ ‘Oh, he sounds like he’s doing a Broadway movie.’ ‘He sounds like 1940’s retro.’ Blah-blah-blah. Yeah, and now what? Now he’s found a way to make that sound completely contemporary, yet be firmly immersed in the tradition. He was willing to say, ‘Damn, I can do this,’ and change his direction mid-stream.’ He bought old Broadway records and watched every old movie. Bring up the most obscure piece of one song from Guys and Dolls, and he’ll finish it for you. He’s a completely relational database.

“He did a record called To See You, where he wrote all these thoroughly modern, badass love songs. Nothing that sounds cliched, nothing that sounds like it’s from the ’40s. I told our manager, ‘This record ain’t gonna sell; it’s too good.’ I brought the record to my father, who never really approved of Harry singing in the first place, and he put it on. All of a sudden he understood. The light went off in his head and he says, ‘Oh, that’s what the motherfucker’s been doing.’ Then he called up my manager and said, ‘Man, Harry’s playing some shit now!'”


“The whole Duke-Monk thing has been getting kind of old for a while,” Connick says. “I studied it, did the homework, and have my own perspective on where they’re coming from. I think it’s going to go somewhere different. I don’t know where, though.”

Connick hopes to find some answers by reviving his quartet, which will perform publicly the next evening for the first time in several years. “Last night we rehearsed for the first time in I can’t remember when, and it was awesome!” he says. “The notes were just flying out. The last time I did it, I was deep within influences, but this time I didn’t feel indebted to anyone. I woke up this morning, and I called my wife and I said, ‘I had a quartet rehearsal last night.’ She said, ‘How did it go?’ I said, ‘The first thing that came to my mind is we were all smiling.’ It felt great, man! It didn’t feel like we were some young lions trying to go out and kick some ass, but just playing some tasty, soulful music.

I wasn’t going to heed my editor’s instruction to think like the establishment media, but Connick’s comment is too good an opening to pass up. So I inquire in what ways marriage and fatherhood has inflected who he is as an artist.

“One thing having kids did was make me think that this whole art thing is pretty silly,” he responds. “It’s less important than I may have thought. Which made me a better artist, because it wasn’t life or death. I’m enjoying it a lot more.”

Has marriage grounded him? Connick bristles a bit, interpreting the verb in the sense of “not flying.” “No, Jill doesn’t ground me. She’s just grounded. I don’t want to be grounded. And I don’t think she can ground me. What’s the fun of that? But she doesn’t try to do that. She’s infinitely stronger and more secure than I am, and highly intelligent. I’m fascinated by who she is. I’m still trying to figure her out. Maybe that’s why she still digs me. It’s a really perfect match. I mean, eight years is nothing, really. But I don’t see us going anywhere.”

Connick radiates such unshakeable confidence in his talent that it’s hard to imagine him feeling any insecurity of any kind. He demurs. “I’m as insecure as the next guy, and I think you can hear that vulnerability in my voice. Most people don’t present their insecure side in an interview.” That being said, he articulates his sense of place in the grand narrative with such transparent objectivity that anyone would think him downright arrogant if his deeds did not so palpably back up his words and if his manners were not so perfect. I ask him about the source of his instincts.

“I think it’s genetic,” he states. “My Dad is great like that and my mother was, They instinctively know what to do and say, and be truthful about it. I think watching my father give speeches… Or if I had to fire somebody and didn’t know how to do it, I’d say, ‘Dad, how do you fire somebody?’ My parents just understood how to do it. Not to say I do, but I feel like I do.”

Then he makes an astonishing self-comparison. “Young guys like Kobe Bryant are going to have their chance at being Michael Jordan,” he says. “I’ll have my chance. It’s not quite time yet. If anything, I’ve learned to respect the elders — especially the ones who can play. Like Ellis. Yeah, it’s Ellis’ turn right now. I’ll get my turn.”

“It will be your turn for what?”

“It will be my turn to walk into a room of knowledgeable people who are outside the inner circle, and they’ll say, ‘That’s the guy who wrote 20 shows and orchestrated all of them himself, wrote and conducted every note.’ It’s a time thing. In 20 years I will have done 20 shows, 20 more records and 20 more movies. I know that’s going to happen. Then it will be my turn to feel good about what I’ve done. But I don’t want to feel good about it yet, because it ain’t that time.

“When Michael Jordan steps out on the court, he pretty much knows he’s going to score some points. There’s no way to measure art statistically. But I pretty much know that I’m going to score some points. I say that as modestly as I can. Now, I don’t know if I’m going to have the opportunity to do 20 shows. That means you have to have some kind of success. That’s something I’m not secure about at all, is whether I’m going to be selling out houses or have a record deal five years from now.”


Given the scope of Connick’s ambition, it seems improbable that he would ever scale down any component of his career to fulfill his pianistic destiny. “Let’s be very honest,” he states. “The most hardcore jazz purists still love to make a living. You can be artistic and inward and introspective and brooding — but it sure is a lot better when people are watching you. That’s just the bottom line. My first impression of music was smiling and giving people a show. It took years for me to finally believe that that’s really who I am. I played in contemporary jazz clubs in my teens, when I was studying music with Ellis that was not appropriate to play on Bourbon Street, and when a tenor player would solo for 20 minutes, somewhere in my head was this restless voice saying, ‘God, I hope these people don’t leave.’

“I know what the people are coming for, and I know instinctively how much to give them. And I’m playing jazz to win them! It’s big band with singing. They’re snapping their fingers and tapping their feet to notes I wrote, and some’a them charts are hard to play. Sometimes what looks like some lame Sinatra impression is a definitive instruction to the trombone section!”

Connick’s concluding comment is a tantalizing carrot for the hardcore purist in me. “I was driving around yesterday, talking to my Dad, and told him I was rehearsing with this quartet. That took him totally by surprise. He said, ‘You’re kidding. That is great.’ I wanted to talk about something else. He said, ‘You know, that’s what you do, son. All this other stuff is awesome and great, but you’re a jazz musician.’

“And you know what? He’s right. That’s what I am. I’ve done this for so long, and I’ve absorbed an unbelievable amount of history. I didn’t start in some high school band in Peoria. I started on Bourbon Street as a kid, playing with people like Danny Barker and other guys who played with people at Congo Square. I played with Eubie Blake when that dude was 95 and I was 9 years old. Buddy Rich gave me a drum lesson in my living room! I was talking with my producer about a three piano player thing with Mac Rebbenack and me and Allen Toussaint. I didn’t feel like a youngster. I felt like I’ve been around for a little while.

“I love everything I’m doing. I say what I want. I play what I want. I do what I like. And I give the people what they want. That makes me feel very confident and secure on the stage and when I go to bed at night. And I think people respond more than anything to an artist who is very confident. But at the CORE of it is jazz.”

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Filed under Harry Connick, Jazziz, New Orleans

For John Surman’s 72nd Birthday, a Jazziz Feature Article from 2009

For the 72nd birthday of the master saxophonist/woodwindist John Surman, here’s a feature piece that Jazziz gave me an opportunity to write about him in 2009, when he was gigging behind the ECM release, Brewster’s Rooster, with John Abercrombie, Drew Gress and Jack DeJohnette. (For an informative contemporaneous interview with Surman that takes a different angle, link to this on Larry Applebaum’s fine website.)


On the last day of August, John Surman, baritone saxophone in hand, stood stage left on Birdland’s bandstand, preparing to introduce his band. Surman had just blown the last note of the opening tune — an original called “Hilltop Dancer” — during the opening set of a week-long engagement. He launched the song with a lyrical, unaccompanied baritone intro, caressing every note. Then he goosed a subtle, open-ended solo from guitarist John Abercrombie with a roaring, hypnotic vamp before winding down the flow with a melodic variation of his initial statement

Surman looked across the stage at Abercrombie, shifted his glance to drummer Jack DeJohnette, and then gazed at bassist Drew Gress, standing to his left. Then he said, “The only person who actually needs an introduction here is me.”

Although Surman, an Oslo resident since 2004, was making his first-ever appearance as a leader in a New York City venue, this piece of self-deprecation was not precisely true. As the crowds that packed Birdland all week were well aware, Surman, 65 and well into his fifth decade in the music business, has long commanded deep respect amongst his peer group for his virtuosic command of the baritone and soprano saxophones and bass clarinet, and for the high quality of a discography that includes 17 leader dates for ECM since 1979. These include Surman’s meticulously crafted compositions and orchestrations that have framed his horns with string quintet, a brass ensemble, a free-boppish piano-bass-drums British quartet, various synth-driven soundscapes, and the lute-song music of Elizabethan composer John Dowland. Other recordings include a collaboration with singer Karin Krog, intuitive free improv projects with Paul Bley and Tony Oxley, and two documents of his ongoing electro-acoustic duo with DeJohnette, on which both trigger real-time grooves and textures within the flow.

The raison d’etre for this belated debut was Surman’s most recent release, Brewster’s Rooster (ECM), for which he convened DeJohnette, Abercrombie and Gress to interpret a suite of nine original tunes. Late afternoon on the following day, Surman sat in ECM’s well-appointed conference room in World Wide Plaza, a skyscraper six blocks north of Birdland, to discuss the disk.

“Manfred Eicher proposed it,” he said, crediting ECM’s founder as the ur-source of Brewster’s Rooster. He related that, during “a casual moment between takes” of his previous project, a duo with church organist Howard Moody issued with the prototypically ECM title Rain On the Window, Eicher said, “It’s about time you made a real jazz recording. We should do it in New York. What would you like to do?”

In Surman’s view, “real jazz recording” meant recording with a rhythm section, something he hadn’t done since 1993, when he made Stranger Than Fiction with his British quartet, although such work is a regular component of his professional life. “I can only put out a limited number of CDs,” he said, “and I want them to be specific, personal statements that reflect what I’m into at a particular time or to document a corpus of music I’ve written.”

That those “specific personal statements” primarily reference European art and vernacular music is in keeping with the fact that more than 95 per cent of Surman’s massive sessionography, which dates to 1965, has transpired either in Britain or on the European continent. “I stayed where the work was,” he said. He noted that in 1973 he had “followed in the footsteps” of fellow Englishmen Dave Holland and John McLaughlin with a six-month stint in Woodstock, New York. “The thought had crossed my mind that maybe it was important to be over here. But the fact was that, as John Abercrombie often says, ‘I’m a commuter; I live in America, but I work in Europe.’”

“It’s easier for an American musician to come to Europe, because of the tour support subsidized by European taxpayers,” Surman said. “Coming here was, ‘Yeah, could do it,’ but after calculating all the costs — the airfare and fees and all — somehow we never got around to it. It’s been even more difficult since 2001. I’ve done some duo things here with Jack, but then it’s the case of Jack DeJohnette and John who? If you’re not here and you’re not known, then club owners say, ‘Who is this guy?’”


Brewster’s Rooster contains no end of admirable qualities, not least the opportunity to hear a suite of Surman’s well-proportioned tunes interpreted by a unit of virtuosos who enjoy, as DeJohnette puts it, “playing what we don’t fuckin’ know!”

“We lay in wait for those moments when one thing sets off another,” said DeJohnette, who is Surman’s brother-in-law. (Surman’s son, Ben, is married to DeJohnette’s daughter, Minya.) He and Abercrombie had joined the conversation as afternoon turned to early evening. “That seems to happen a lot in the improvisation, and that makes it fun. Music has seriousness, but the main thing is, it should be fun.”

Surman chimed in. “It would be important to point out that we worked together in a radio show when I lived in Woodstock.

Abercrombie picked up the story. “It was called ‘Harry Lovett: Man Without a Country.’ There were several episodes. We would take these different parts.” Abercrombie switched into a nasal, Truman Capote voice. “My part in it was Donald Dastardly, and I was evil.”

“I was the Reverend Right Time,” DeJohnette remarked, adding that he and Surman shared a deep affection for The Goon Show. Surman raised his voice to a falsetto. “Ah, he’s falling into the water now!!” The brothers-in-law responded in unison, “Who-oooaaa…”

“We so much bonded over the humor,” Surman stated. “I immediately thought of each of them when Manfred brought this up, but I never thought that we would actually do gigs. The idea was to have a day’s rehearsal, and record, so I looked for material open enough that everyone could be comfortable. There was no intention to pretend that it was a hot, tight band. In fact, the very looseness was the joy of doing it. That’s a statement, because this improvisational element, the fact that the music is shifting and mercurial, is important to me. I am not ithati interested in putting together a tight quartet playing tight stuff, because that’s what I do when I write for strings.

“What’s important in improvisation is give-and-take, to know your moment to get out there and pull the cart along or, when you hear someone else emerging with something, to step back and let that go through. That interests me more than chops, which result out of necessity. You’ve got to play high on a baritone. Once you get down in the lower-middle register, it’s hard to cut through. So sometimes, just to say ‘Yeah!’ as a baritone player, I’ve got to get up there and scream. That’s probably why I play the soprano, so I can soar above a lot of it.”

The improvised context is a familiar point of contact for Surman and DeJohnette, who first recorded together on guitarist Mick Goodrick’s 1976 ECM date, In Pas(s)ing. By DeJohnette’s account, they first met in August 1968, while DeJohnette was in London with Bill Evans for a one-month engagement at Ronnie Scott’s, the top-shelf club where, as Dave Holland said in a separate conversation, “young musicians could pretty much play all day and all night.” Holland was playing bass with the opening act, singer Elaine Delmar, whose accompanying trio also comprised pianist Pat Smythe and drummer John Marshall.

“I was sitting in with them with my melodica every night,” DeJohnette recalled. “I told Marshall and Pat to get some of their guys to come down and jam. So the word went around, ‘Jack DeJohnette wants to play some jams.’ At that time, a lot of the American musicians who came over were not interested in hooking up with the British musicians. That’s where I met John and Dave, and some of the other great talent there.

By 1968, Surman was one of London’s busiest jazzmen, paying the rent as a professional journeyman in high-level trad, blues, hard bop, and Calypso settings. He also played in John McLaughlin’s pre-Mahavishnu Indo-jazz-rock hybrids, as well as with a diverse set of big bands and orchestras. Toward the fulfillment of his own creative muse, Surman led a post-bop octet, a plugged-in quartet with pianist John Taylor and Marshall, an open-form trio with Holland and drummer Alan Jackson, and a subsequent one with bassist Barre Phillips and drummer Stu Martin, both American expats..

“My phone rang one day, perhaps in 1965, and it was John, asking me to sub that night for Harry Miller, a bass player he often worked with,” Holland recalled. “Before we went on, he gave me some music to look at. On the first tune, he’d written the theme, and at the end it just said ‘open.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, open?’ John said, ‘We’re going to play whatever you want after we play this theme. Play whatever you hear.’ It was the very first time I’d played in an open-form setting. A whole new world opened up.

“John and I became very close friends,” Holland continued. “We’d stay up all hours listening to music, checking out new records, talking about developments. We were all listening to Coltrane’s music and Joe Henderson, Sonny Rollins, Miles, Ornette and Cecil Taylor — all these influences were coalescing. A lot of mixtures of music were occurring in London then, and I had a chance to work in many situations with John. I think I wrote my very first song for that trio with John and Alan, who played good time and swung but also could open up the music and take it in new directions. A lot of what we did was very open-ended and exploratory, and we’d land on different fields and grooves and tonalities. For me, it was a precursor to the Sam Rivers trio that I was in during the ’70s.”

Speaking of the British music scene in the ’60s, Surman noted, “Part of the excitement was a general feeling of ‘It all works. Whatever suits you, bring it on.’ I don’t think it was just confined to the U.K., but the U.K. certainly was a hotbed. It was a melting pot. The South Africans and guys from the West Indies were there. A huge blues interest was coming up through blues musician Alexis Korner; it was all the buzz because Clapton and the Stones were emerging and going out — although they were playing closer to copies of the blues stuff. European musicians had inhibitions about jazz, like, ‘Well, it’s a beret,’ ‘It’s a goatee beard,’ ‘We’ll never be as good as the Yanks at doing that.’ Suddenly it was like, ‘Well, hang on. All this stuff works, doesn’t it?’ Then people stopped worrying and got on with it. Americans like Barre and Stu passed through, and said, ‘That sounds good to me; I’ll have a piece of that.’ Miles and Tony Williams were saying, ‘Hey, I like that bass player.’ Suddenly, a lot of confidence. We all thought, ‘We can’t be so bad, then. We have something to offer.’”

Over the ensuing decade, Surman, a son of Devonshire, actualized this proposition by drawing upon his English heritage, incorporating folk songs and also vocabulary contained in the choral music he’d sung as a boy soprano. Synthesizer first appears in his work in 1972 (“I bought one as soon as I could afford to”), after which he increasingly immersed himself in electronic music, using synth to dialogue with British saxophonists Alan Skidmore and Mike Osborne in the group S.O.S., and weaving sonic tapestries for a Parisian dance company between 1973 and 1978. By 1979, when Surman debuted for ECM, he had morphed from the conventions of free jazz and fusion toward a more consonant harmonic context.

“During those early years, I was learning to play,” he recalled. “Technique was developing, ideas were forming and brick walls were being run into. ‘What am I playing? I’d like to play like Sonny, but it’s not like that. Is something wrong?’ Then suddenly, “No. That’s actually me. That’s what I sound like. Well, you’re going to have to live with it. Just carry on.’

“When I was starting out with this traditional-jazz business, I had a go at the trumpet, the trombone, the banjo. Anything that played, I wanted to know how to play it. So here came the synthesizer, this other sound source that made very interesting noises. I wanted to get a piece of that.”

However far-flung his investigations, Surman “never experienced the feeling that I want a purely European sound,” in contrast to the aesthetic evolution of such European contemporaries as Evan Parker and Peter Brötzmann. “For me, finding jazz opened the door to music-making, so I always think of myself as a jazz musician.” Surman traced this attitude not only to his collegial partnerships with American jazz musicians, but also to his early fascination with Duke Ellington’s contrapuntal section writing — he channels baritone-sax icon Harry Carney on Brewster’s Rooster with a gorgeous “Chelsea Bridge” — and Ellington’s emphasis on the idiosyncrasies of each of his musicians. He also notes that his apprentice years coincided with the migration to Europe of such individualistic saxmen as Don Byas, Dexter Gordon and Johnny Griffin, all of whom he witnessed close-up in London.

“You could recognize all of these guys right away — even the ones who weren’t so well-known, like Booker Ervin,” he said. “This individuality of sound was one of great joys for me of jazz music, and that feeling of wanting to find one’s own sound—to not be afraid to be different—was important to me.”

In all the various idioms that he renders, Surman actualizes this notion both in his penchant for melodic expression and his ability to emulate the quality of the human voice on each of his horns. “That’s me, the man with the melodies,” he said ruefully. “Sometimes I wish I could do more. When I heard Michael Brecker play as he did, inside the harmony, I’d think, ‘Christ, I wish I could do that.’ But that’s not what’s happening.”

“John gets such a beautiful sound on all his instruments,” Abercrombie said. “He plays soprano so differently than other people.”

“It’s a full-bodied sound,” DeJohnette added. “He can play adventurously and rhythmically, but there’s always a song. It comes from his heart. He’s got the head, too, but it always communicates. It makes me feel great. There’s also his ability to listen. That’s what we have in common, an ability to listen, which keeps us from getting stuck in some of the clichéd kinds of playing.”

To avoid cliché, of course, is the default aesthetic of this cohort. “I don’t think any of us have unidirectional feelings about music,” Surman noted. “We’re dabblers. We’ve had a bit of a fool-around here, had a go at that, looked at this. John’s group is by no means your typical jazz quartet, and goodness knows what Jack is going to be doing next. We share a curiosity about the different paths music can take.”

Which raised the question of whether John Surman’s new quartet might have legs.

His mates left the door open. “That depends on what everyone is doing,” DeJohnette said. “But we’d be happy to do it, sure.”

“I like the idea of cycling back and doing something organic with musicians you’ve played with before,” Abercrombie responded. “I’ve tried to keep all my own groups going, at least the current ones. Maybe 18 months down the line, John gets in touch with us again. ‘Want to do volume two? Here are some ideas.’ Maybe the newer one would be more free music, or maybe contributions from all of us.”

Embarrassed, Surman lowered his head. “I haven’t even asked them if they want to do it ever again,” he said. “But all of us are interested in putting ourselves in different contexts. You’re forced to come up with something.” He laughed. “What else can you do when you’re on the bandstand with those guys?”

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Filed under ECM, Jazziz, John Surman

For Jack DeJohnette’s 74th birthday, a Jazziz Article/Celebration from 2012, a Long Interview with jazz.com from April 2009, a Mid-Sized Article for Downbeat from 2005, and the Interview Conducted For the Downbeat article

For master drummer-bandleader-pianist-composer Jack DeJohnette’s 74th birthday, I’m posting three separate pieces — at the bottom is a mid-sized article for Downbeat in 2005 on the occasion of his Readers Poll victory for “Best Drummer”; above it is an exhaustive Q&A interview that appeared in 2009 on the now-defunct and much missed http://www.jazz.com website (it contains a lot of information about his formative years in Chicago); above that is a piece for Jazziz in 2012  in responsed to his NEA Jazz Masters Award that year that is primarily focused on appreciation-testimonies from 6 colleagues and friends from different generations.


Jack DeJohnette (Jazziz Article, 2012):

Calls of “Happy Birthday” rang out from the sardine-packed house at Manhattan’s Blue Note as Jack DeJohnette positioned himself at the drumkit for the first of two sold-out sets on January 8th. Rather than inform his fans that their salutations were premature (he turns 70 on August 9th), DeJohnette opted for inclusion: “Say it as many times as you like.”

Two days hence, uptown at the Rose Theater, DeJohnette would receive an 2012 NEA Jazz Masters Award. But on this evening, the iconic drumman-pianist-composer was celebrating that honorific—and a new self-released CD, Sound Travels [Golden Beams]—with his working quintet of the past two years (Rudresh Mahanthappa, alto saxophone; David Fiuczynski, double-neck electric guitar; George Colligan, piano and keyboards; Jerome Harris, electric bass) augmented by saxophonist Tim Ries and percussionist Luisito Quintero. Reacting to Quintero’s imaginative postulations of the beat, DeJohnette uncorked a symphonic array of organic grooves that touched on swing, salsa, tango, calypso, funk, drum-bass, Indian, and open rubato feels. The unit cohered from the jump, listened closely, self-orchestrated instantly, shifting on a dime from one feel to the next while reimagining such DeJohnette standbys as “One For Eric” and “Tango Africaine” and fleshing out new jewels from  Sound Travels.

Centered around DeJohnette’s intense simpatico with Quintero, a steady partner since his clave-centric Latin Project from 2005, Sound Travels is a succinct, interactive date on which DeJohnette—who plays piano on all but one track, joined by Esperanza Spalding on bass—distills a lifetime’s assimilation of musical dialects, while embracing experiences on a cohort of more recent projects. Bruce Hornsby, who partnered with DeJohnette and Christian McBride on the 2007 instrumental date Camp Meeting, contributes lyrics and vocals on “Dirty Old Ground,” a 7/4 line that DeJohnette describes as “Levon Helm and the Band meets New Orleans.” On “Luisito Serena Salsa,” Spalding’s elegant vocalese, a spare solo by guitarist Lionel Loueke, and a clarion wrap-up by trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire transpire over the DeJohnette-Quintero connection.

Sound Travels took shape while DeJohnette and his wife, Lydia, were in England last summer. “She’d been thinking we should plan something special for my 70th year,” he relates, noting his participation in the 70th birthday celebrations of Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. “Then the NEA called.” They approached jazz impresario Chuck Mitchell to work with them on “a record that encapsulates my musical taste,” with “a focus on groove and beautiful melodies.” Mitchell assented, requesting only that DeJohnette play piano. Based in Nice during the Keith Jarrett Trio’s annual summer tour of Europe, DeJohnette took advantage of off-days to write the tunes on a Korg M3, playing the pieces over the phone to album producer Robert Sadin.

Like DeJohnette’s entire oeuvre, Sound Travels embodies, as DeJohnette puts it, “the spirit of playing with Miles Davis, the Gateway Trio, and Keith Jarrett—open, prepared for the unexpected, and willing to follow that where it takes us. It’s easy to say ‘come up with something different,’ but the challenge is to come up with something that’s different and also makes sense and communicates.”

Asked to self-assess his accomplishment, DeJohnette focused on collective imperatives. “I’ve always come to the table with an intention to help—to add my creative input and make someone else’s music be the best they want it to be. I do this with love and passion. I was thrilled and touched to be recognized as a ‘jazz master’ for what I love to do, to be in the category of those who laid groundwork for me to build my music vocabulary on. But I hope that I am doing something to inspire the younger players, too. It’s important to have that exchange. It keeps everybody connected. You’re learning on both sides.”



I see Jack as a natural extension of Roy Haynes and Elvin Jones, a perfect combination of the two—of course, with his own sound and style. You can hear Roy’s influence in the crispness of his touch and articulation; you can hear Elvin’s influence in the elasticity of his beat. I fell in love with Jack’s drumming when I heard him playing with Charles Lloyd on Forest Flower. That’s what I wanted to play like, so I spent a lot of time with his jazz style. I appreciate all of his recordings, but one of the more inspirational things for me is the way he plays standards with Keith Jarrett. I always keep one of those CDs in my car; sometimes, in my brain, I’m still trying to get to that.

Jack and Lydia have been like my second family. When I was 18 and able to drive, he invited me to his house in upstate New York, and I’d spend weekends, leaving Monday at 6 a.m. to make a 10 a.m. class at Berklee. I was a jazzhead, closed in my personality and playing, and they helped open me up. They were listening to all kinds of things—reggae, music from Africa and New Orleans, ECM style music. Jack calls his music multidirectional, which I think is a more accurate description than jazz—he let me know that you define who you are. Sometimes he’d play piano and I’d play drums; once he told me I didn’t have to repeat he rhythm he played, but could complement it with my own idea. Jack understands the importance of passing on his knowledge more than anyone else I’ve encountered. He made himself available for me and other younger people, which is a lot of work. The older I get, the more I recognize how special that is.


Jack seeks out eclecticism in players who are proverbial diamonds in the rough, and nurtures and hones them to fit his purposes as a bandleader, like a musical chef, using a jigger of this, a pinch of that. Then he lets the dogs loose. His philosophy is that if you have to make too many statements and judgments and modifications, then obviously you’ve hired the wrong people. He expects nothing other than experimentation, people walking the tightrope, having open ears and being responsive to what’s going on around them. Playing with him is like playing with an octopus, a multi-tentacled drummer-percussionist. You get so caught up in the vortex of what he’s doing that you have to slap yourself back into the moment. You just can’t believe you’re that secure. He’ll do what he calls ‘elastic time,’ playing cycles within the cycles, like a metrical embodiment inside this rhythmic rush.

When I played with him, he was very open to the experiments we were doing with the M-BASE Collective. His band was the best laboratory for me. Gary Thomas or I would make what we thought was a mis-step, but Jack would say, ‘That was some bad shit; keep that in there.’ That let me know he was listening, and I had license to stretch. He embodies the spirit of somebody who wants to know about everything; he’s probably the most curious person I’ve ever met. We’d be out on the road for six to eight weeks, and he’d carry a suitcase filled with hardcover books and cassettes. He’s always checking out different languages and cultures and folklore. It was like a furthering of my academic education, on-the-job training with somebody who was a professor of life and information.


Jack sums up everything for me about jazz drumming—or just drumming in general. He can play audacious rock-and-roll; and he can play great open, free music; he can swing like mad; and when he feels like it, he WILL just lay down a beautiful time feel—there’s nothing that sounds and feels quite like that. To play with him is challenging and very abstract sometimes, but it always feels great, because he comes from how it feels and how it sounds, and not so much worried about WHAT he’s doing. When we recorded together in the ‘70s, his pieces were often very loose, but he also wrote very pretty songs that he liked to play on the piano, which became structured, with dense harmonic material, like things that I or someone like Ralph Towner was writing. I think we got along so well because we both liked to listen to everything. That’s why he can fit into any situation—he’s able to respond and get into what the music calls for, rather than just superimpose his thing on the music. Jack is very accepting. You don’t have to be the most killing musician, but if he hears something in your playing that he likes, he’ll play with you and make something out of it. I was a totally green kid when he found me, but he was open and brought me along into his little world.


In 1967, when I was still living in London, Jack was in town with Charles Lloyd. At the time, young musicians were using Ronnie Scott’s old place to do late night sessions, and I was there playing at 2 in the morning, my eyes closed, when suddenly I heard a change on the drums. It was Jack. It felt so easy, comfortable and familiar. We did a lot of playing together that month, and we’ve enjoyed it ever since. Both of us had listened to and practiced with similar records—Coltrane’s Crescent and “Chasin’ the Trane,” We were working on the same ideas—the fast tempos, the relaxed, beautiful grooves that Elvin and Jimmy Garrison would set up. Perhaps that’s one reason why we hit it off so quickly, Jack brought his own set of parameters to the table. His understanding of harmony and melody helps him assimilate new music; I’ve seen him learn complex songs so quickly on recording sessions because he can recognize the form and changes right away.

When I came to New York in the summer of 1968 to start working with Miles, Jack and Lydia accommodated me at their small apartment in Manhattan, and introduced me to all kinds of people, which gave me a chance to get a foothold. He gave me a big opening in 1990, when he asked me to be part of the Parallel Realities tour with Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny, which was a turning point in my career. We grew up in a time where we were inclusive about music, and both of us have stayed that way. We don’t consider categories to be limiting. Music is music, and we can use any aspect of it that feels creative.


When you go to various drum festivals, Jack is the one drummer who brings something different every time, who isn’t afraid to have another drumset on stage and make music instead of a drum battle. He’s willing to play less for the sake of the music. Jack definitely has amazing technique, but he didn’t bog himself himself down with trying to be technically efficient. He’s not a classically-trained drummer, who uses a lot of finger technique, a lot of wrist, minimal arm movements. Early on, the way he held his sticks was unorthodox; I always wondered, “How is he playing that way?” But that’s how he taught himself. His musicality behind the piano and other melodic instruments helped him hear things that he forced out at the drumset. Drummers were always taught that in playing swing you need a washy cymbal, a loud cymbal that drives the band. Jack’s approach is closer to African music, where the cymbal is very dry, so it functions with the drums more like a unit. It’s like a mix between the rumbles of Elvin Jones and the clarity and back-and-forth skip from snare-to-bass drum of Roy Haynes, but more relaxed.

When you try to mimic drummers, you have to get into the body style, try to feel them as a person. When I try to pull off a little Jack, I notice that I have to become almost like a child. Which proves the innocence that you hear within his playing. He’s playing from a space that Herbie and them call ‘Why not?’—there is no right or wrong in music, and you can do anything you want. You can be supremely technical, or you can just be you.


Playing with Jack is always an adventure. It’s always fresh. I love playing with him. There is this element called swing, which is undefinable, in some ways a lost art. Jack would refer to it as “lock”—when a bass player and drummer have a lock. It requires a total surrendering of whatever you think you are or whatever you think is going on, and you’re just there with a pulse of some kind—and when it’s swinging, the hair on the back of your neck comes up. He’s one of the few drummers that I can do that with forever and ever. There’s never a question about where Jack is when he’s playing. He’s always present. So many interesting nuances come out of that. He doesn’t trot out what he knows. He’s just there with the music, and he uses his array of drums and cymbals in a unique, intuitive way that’s always musical. He’s always adding something, playing the harmony. It’s amazing how he can bring a ballad to life with one little sound, You’re like ‘how the hell did that happen? How did he know?’ I don’t even think he knew. He was just responding. But it was absolutely perfect. You can’t learn that. You have to forget about yourself altogether. You have to be totally committed to the music. Can’t be about anything else.


The piano is Jack DeJohnette’s oldest musical friend, but it’s been a while since he played it as much as he does on Sound Travels—he bookends the recital with two unaccompanied improvisations, uses it to dialogue with Bobby McFerrin and Quintero on “Oneness” (from the 1996 ECM date of that title), and both coheres and blends into the flow throughout.

DeJohnette began taking lessons at five from a private piano teacher, got more serious in mid-teens, and was working with a trio around Chicago’s South Side by the end of high school. He cites Ahmad Jamal’s famous Live At the Pershing: But Not For Me as a seminal influence, both for Jamal’s orchestrative approach to the piano, but also for Vernell Fournier’s brushwork. He also dug Erroll Garner, Wynton Kelly, and local pianists Jodie Christian, Billy Wallace, and Muhal Richard Abrams; as the ‘60s progressed, he also got into Herbie Hancock, a neighborhood friend from teen years.

“I had a trio [Scotty Holt on bass; Harold Jones, Steve McCall, or Arthur McKinney on drums] that played tunes like ‘Empyrean Isles’ and ‘One Finger Snap,’ and the pieces off of But Not For Me,” he says. “I did standards and originals, and learned how to interact with a rhythm section. It was good for me, because as a drummer, I knew what it felt like to be the soloist. The piano is a percussion instrument as well as a melodic instrument. It’s like an orchestra, and I can translate that to my drumming—the way I tune the instrument, the way I hear cymbals.”

On Sound Travels, DeJohnette observes, “I’m using the piano to be of the fullest service to the music, not to show off what I can do. I’m not in competition with all the great piano players I play with. I don’t get to play it as much as I’d like. In the future, I’d like to study and get some more knowledge and theory and harmony—get that done.”


In Conversation with Jack deJohnette  (April 18, 2009) — http://www.jazz.com

“I’ve always been curious about mixing different things, like an alchemist,” Jack DeJohnette told me several years ago. “Different genres of music have always cross-pollinated, but the rate is speeded up now.”

At 67, DeJohnette continues to add consequential pages to a career c.v. that exemplifies what it is to be a musical explorer, most recently on the CD Music, We Are [Kindred Rhythm], as pianist Danilo Perez, and bassist John Patitucci title their equilateral triangle-oriented trio, which performed in April at Manhattan’s Blue Note. Seated before a gigantic drum assemblage that incorporated an electronic sampler and his own customized bells, and also playing melodica, DeJohnette propelled the flow with an assortment of driving grooves and precisely calibrated timbres, engaging in extended call-and-response with Perez.

This endeavor was an extension of a 2005 quartet project, with Jerome Harris on guitar, for which DeJohnette had composed Andalusian-influenced music “that needed guitar and six-string banjo,” Over the last several years, DeJohnette has focused on other hybrids informed by various flavors of the Afro-Iberian diaspora—several concerts with nuevo flamenco pianist Chano Dominguez, and Gitano singer Blas Cordoba, and a unit called the Latin Project, a clavecentric unit (Don Byron, Edsel Gomez, Giovanni Hidalgo, Luisito Quintero) devoted to elaboration and abstraction of the groove. Other DeJohnette offerings over that period include collaborations with the Mauritanian singer Dimi Mint Abba, the South African singer Sibongile Khumalo, and Ghanaian griot Foday Musa Suso; improvised electronica with son-in-law Ben Surman, and brother-in-law John Surman; and a group called Trio Beyond, on which guitar hero John Scofield, organist Larry Goldings, and DeJohnette reimagine the travel-the-spaceways musical production of Tony Williams and Larry Young in the cusp-of-the-‘70s group Lifetime.

Indeed, like Chick Corea, his 1969-70 partner with Miles Davis, DeJohnette in his golden years seems to grow ever more hungry for new sounds, which he assimilates, digests, and incorporates into his next step, which always appears to be imminent.

“I’m more refined now, but much looser in another way,” DeJohnette reflected in 2005. “I’m taking in much more. My heart is more open, and I’m free to do whatever I want. So playing music is more joyful to me.”


TP: We were speaking how you handle this group. Have you been playing at all since 2005, when you did the Birdland gig that inaugurated this band?

JDJ: We played for the first time as a trio in Panama, the Panama Jazz Festival.

TP: Right. At Birdland, Jerome Harris was playing guitar.

JDJ: We’d played as a group with Jerome in Europe. So we had the experience of playing the three of us together. This kind of thing, with the grooves we get, was happening, and we wanted to get more into it as a trio. So we talked about it, and put aside some time, and last February everybody came up, and we recorded in RS Studios in the Catskills, which is not far from my house. We spent three days there. Of course, we had a great producer, Mirav Ozeri, who we asked to come and film the process. She did a great job—the interviewing, and asked great questions, the editing, and putting it together. We worked together on that.

TP: That’s the DVD that comes in the package.

JDJ: Yes. I think Danilo and John both talk about when how we all play together, the music has a level of quality, and also a risk-taking thing. They feel like they can take off and do different things that they don’t do in other situations than with me, because I’ve kind of got their backs. They have mine, too! So we support each other. But grooves! All of us like to groove as well as play abstractly. So even when you play abstract, there is some kind of connection. There is some kind of groove even you can’t kind of 1-2-3-4. There is some melodic, rhythmic, or harmonic connection.

TP: There’s also a lot of color.

JDJ: Absolutely.

TP: You don’t usually hear Danilo playing synth-keyboard.

JDJ: Yes. Then I have an electronic percussion unit incorporated into my set. So we’re not the average jazz trio. We use the colors, which is a good term. We use the percussion…

TP: John Patitucci also uses the six-string electric bass. A few years ago, you told me that you’d written some music with an Andalusian-Spanish sound, and you were hearing John and Danilo’s sound with that. Is that the base on which the next…

JDJ: No. It’s taken on its own identity. It spotlights everybody, without overshadowing. There’s plenty of room, even when it’s busy. So there’s lots of space, and each night the music is totally different, so we take different approaches to it, and we’re not afraid to follow where it might go, and we have a great time! The other thing about the group is that it connects with its audience, in the sense that we can connect with each other facially, and also our audience. So there’s this rapport that connects the audience. Danilo is very outgoing, John is very visual, there’s a lot of smiles and stuff going on between us. So it’s like an intimate thing that’s shared, and it comes back from the audience.

TP: You played on Danilo’s first record. Is that where you and he met? Did you know him before?

JDJ: I knew of him, but that was the first time we played. That was the first time I heard him. He had his own voice. He was doing something different. There are quite a few Latin pianists who have incorporated the Latin aspect to jazz—Gonzalo, Michel Camilo, and some others. But Danilo is unique. He has a sense of drama, orchestration—very orchestral. Both he and John have grown tremendously in that sense from being with Wayne Shorter. I think that translates into this situation, with this trio, where it comes out in a more accessible way—I feel that anyway. We immediately got a rapport, but I think it took Danilo some time to get used to how to play with me.

TP: How do you mean that?

JDJ: Well, rhythmically, dynamically, the colors and all of that. But it inspired him, in a way, to develop certain things. Certain things that he’s playing now came about when we were touring with Jerome in Europe, this way of… This sort of multi-directional pulling, with John playing in one direction, I’m playing in another one, and Danilo pulling two or three ways, but we all know where are with it, and then we all of a sudden come back together and hit a point.

TP: Compression-and-release.

JDJ: Yeah. It’s like breathing. It’s fun. The music should have dynamics. If it stays on one thing all the time, it’s boring.

TP: I seem to recall you remarking that you first played with John in ‘96 or ‘97.

JDJ: The first time we played together was with Eugene Pow, a Chinese guitarist from Hong Kong. Nice guitarist. I was familiar with John through his work with Chick Corea, so I was excited to get the opportunity to play with him. I said to him, “Hey, man, you and Danilo sound good together; you guys have to meet each other.” I told Danilo that, too. And both of them, fortunately, did join Wayne.

TP: Before that, they played with Roy Haynes.

JDJ: Yes, they did. And again, that in situation, they played totally different. Roy likes to play traditional stuff.

TP: In 2005, when this group launched, you were in the middle of presenting a lot of different projects. The Golden Beams label was new. You had a Latin Quartet, with Don Byron, Giovanni Hidalgo, and Edsel Gomez… I’d like to ask the present status of these projects. There was the duo with Foday Suso. There was the Brass Project with your brother-in-law, John Surman, and the remix thing with your son-in-law, Ben Surman. Last November, you did a month with a group of…was it African musicians?

JDJ: Yes. I actually did it at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris. That actually came about through Dave Liebman. Apparently, for his sixtieth birthday, Dave went with the saxophone player Jean-Jacques Quesada to Mauritani, just to hang out. When they got there, they were in a car, and the guy was playing this music of Dimi Mint Abbar. She’s like a griot there. Mauritania is a small country. It has 3 million people maybe. It has a city, but most of the time it’s a desert, it’s very hot, no electricity… At any rate, he met Dimi, and wanted to bring her back. She had performed in France before, but next time they tried to bring her back she refused, but then this time she decided to come. Unfortunately, Dave had another commitment that he had to fulfill, so he couldn’t do it, and he asked me to come in. So she brought five of her musicians. She had a son and a daughter who are singers, and an electric guitar player, and a bassist and percussionist. Rick Margitza played and filled in for Dave and Jean-Jacques. She’s amazing. She’s like a goddess there. This soulful African-Moroccan-sort of Mali-ish… She’s got a lot of things. She’s powerful, man. She’s got a spirit about her. So we played her music, and I did some duos with the drummer. We played for three nights there at the museum.

TP: That’s great to hear about. I was thinking of a month-long tour in Europe last November that’s on your website.

JDJ: This performance with Dimi Mint Abbar happened in March. The project you’re talking about has been ongoing for the last couple of years. It first started out with Mino in it, Jerome Harris, a couple of British horn players, Brian Waller on trumpet and Jason Yarde on saxophones. Both of these guys worked with Andrew Hill before he died, in his big band and small groups—Nasheet Waits was in some of those bands. Anyway, it was with Sibongile Khumalo. She’s from South Africa, from Johannesburg, and she’s amazing. I heard her in London. We have a booking agent who works there, John Cummings, with Serious Production, who does a lot with the younger musicians of Britain, and world musicians, too, from other places. So I heard Sibongile at the London Jazz Festival, and when I heard her I thought, “Oh, man, I want to play with her.” She’s amazing. She has this classically trained voice, but she uses another voice when she improvises, sings pop tunes. She is an improviser. Amazing. It’s like playing with a horn. It reminds me a little bit of playing with Betty Carter. Betty was like a horn. She’s very much into dynamics. She’d written some pieces. That first band had Danilo in it, but the second time, last November, we took Billy Childs on piano, and it was fabulous. As far as keeping that going, I’d like to do it at some point. It’s a matter of making it financially worthwhile, especially in America, because she’s going to have to come all the way from South Africa, which is a long trip, and these guys would have to come from England. But musically, it was great. Phenomenal.

We hope to continue the trio as soon as we get a real clear window on everybody’s availability. Of course, I’m still doing the stuff with Keith Jarrett, and I’m working on a next project, which is kind of looking back and moving forward at the same time, doing some of my music from earlier CDs—music from the Fifth World, some from Special Edition. It would be Jerome Harris, David Fiuczinski on guitar… In the horn section, I’d have Don Byron here, but if I go to Europe I’d have Jason and Byron. Also here I was thinking about adding someone who plays piano and keyboards.

TP: Three years ago, you said you were less interested in leading bands.

JDJ: That’s changed. I want to play some more of my music. That’s something I feel the need to do. Also, I want to write some new music. It’s fun playing my music! That’s the other part of it. I haven’t been writing prolifically for a while, so that’s coming back. The juices are flowing for that.

TP: In the ‘90s, you were doing a lot of sideman work in addition to being a leader. You were sideman-for-hire on a lot of one-off dates. That’s not so much in the picture these days, is it.

JDJ: Well, I think economics plays a big part in that now. A lot of people, for better or for worse, have their own labels, and they’re struggling with that.

TP: As are you.

JDJ: Yes. Well, Golden Beams is actually doing ok. This release is really… We knew it was going to be pretty strong. I hope to follow it up with some more.

TP: This group?

JDJ: Yes, but also a group led by me. Hopefully, we’ll do some more things with the Music, We Are Trio.

TP: As you expressed it to me, the idea of Golden Beams was to do projects that were financially feasible, i.e., the various duos with Suso and Frisell, and your New Age record, which you received a Grammy nomination for. I’m sure you’ve sold a ton of units…

JDJ: No, not yet. But it’s definitely helped the profile of the label. Hopefully, that will pick up.

TP: But one thing that occurred to me in observing how John and Danilo interact with you was what sort of people are best-suited to play with you. You’re a very dynamic, assertive, strong player, apart from everything else. You’re a force. What sort of people are you looking for to play with?

JDJ: I’m looking for people like Dave Fiuczynski, Jerome Harris, people who are not afraid to take chances and are very comfortable on their instruments and comfortable with taking chances, and like to interact. Because I always need…I provide a base for musicians who have those abilities to experiment and find out what they don’t know about themselves. That’s the kind of musician I like to play with. And those who have their own voice, too. For me, that’s stimulating, and it gets my juices flowing. Then, certain music in certain circumstances that will create musical soundscapes, environments. I experiment with different things. Type of colors, different types of concepts.

TP: I’d like to ask you about your drumming, aspects of your personality on the drumkit. When drummers talk about you, they talk about your timbre, what they call your “dry” snare sound that’s your trademark. Could you talk a bit about the process by which you conceptualized a sound on the drumkit, how your identity developed, how it’s evolved over the years. It could be very specific or very broad. Any way you’d want to respond.

JDJ: Having played piano first, I think of myself more as a colorist. I’m a drummer, of course, and I create rhythm, but the drumset is an orchestra, and I tune each drum to different pitches. In the process, I design my own drum heads along with Roy Burns, who helped develop my signature drum head. But touch, tone, and cymbals—those are some of my signatures. And I develop my own cymbals also, and the bells you saw that were there. So I’m always searching for ways to enhance the color. One of the things I like to develop, and I’m still working on it, is touch. No matter how light or how strong I’m playing, there’s a touch, a lightness to it, an uplifting spirit that happens. So the cymbals, again, are like the icing on the cake basically. I hear all kinds of colors and tones. And the sticks… The sticks create these different shades, depending on how I touch the cymbals and the drums themselves. A lot of times lately I play with the snares off, because that gives more of a tribal sound to the drum—you just hear a tom-tom. The snare drum sometimes can overshadow the rest of the band, because it’s got these wire snares underneath, and they just resonate when you put them on. So it gives more clarity when I don’t use the snare drum. But when I do use the snare drum, it’s pretty crisp. I just the hear the instrument as music, as a musical instrument, just like you use the piano or a guitar…

TP: At least this week, you’re using a huge kit.

JDJ: That’s the kit I always use.

TP: How many pieces?

JDJ: An 8-piece kit.

TP: Not including the cymbals.

JDJ: Yeah, I wouldn’t count those as a drumkit.

TP: So it’s drums-and-cymbals.

JDJ: Yes, I’ve been doing that for a while. But the bells are a new addition for the last four or five years.

TP: How did that evolve? In the ‘60s you weren’t using so many components.

JDJ: No. But that came maybe in the ‘70s. Drummers just started adding more drums to the palette. To me, it’s just more colors. There’s just two smaller drums, an 8 and a 10, and I tune them up in bongo range. So it gives me a pretty wide palette of colors in terms of pitches for the drumset. So yeah, I love having those extra colors?

TP: Are beats colors as well as pitches?

JDJ: Yeah, beats can be that, depending on how fast or slow they’re played.

TP: I also wanted to ask you a bit more about your tuning system. How did it develop, and why did it take the shape it did?

JDJ: I try to tune the kit so it’s in a range that doesn’t clash with the bass or the piano. I tune my bass drum up high. As I said before, the two mounted tom-toms on my left, the 8 and the 10, are in the bongo range, which is a higher range. So if I want to make a point, make an exclamation, I can go to that, instead of a lower tom-tom. It gives me a comfortable range that can work with most any genre of music. Sometimes I tune to chords. Like, when I worked with Dimi Mint Abbar, I actually had tuned to a G dominant VII scale, so that it would be tuned… Because they sing in the same key all the time. So I’ll change the tuning for that. Other times, depending on what the music is and what the harmonies are, I’ll change the tuning again to work with the situation. Otherwise, I keep it in a general range.

TP: How much piano do you practice these days? Do you always keep up on your keyboards?

JDJ: Not enough. I haven’t been doing that enough. Although with this group, I’m playing melodica, which gets me back into keys. I plan to be doing more of that in terms of writing, for writing new compositions, and I use the piano to write.

TP: Now, piano is sort of your oldest musical friend.

JDJ: It is. It’s still my friend.

TP: Your bio states that you started playing it at 5?

JDJ: Around 5, yes.

TP: What were the circumstances? You had a piano at home?

JDJ: I had a piano teacher come by.

TP: You had a facility for it?

JDJ: Well, I had a piano.

TP: Well, some people might have a piano and not develop their facility.

JDJ: I didn’t get more serious about it until I was a teenager.

TP: I’d like to talk a bit about your roots in Chicago, and discuss some of the information that’s on your site, which I can link to. There’s a photo of you as a little kid with a toy saxophone. Can you tell me where that picture is from?

JDJ: That was at the Pershing. That’s the famous Pershing where Ahmad Jamal did “But Not For Me,” Live at the Pershing. The guy holding the microphone is T-Bone Walker, who was playing. My uncle, Roy Hill, loved jazz, and he liked to go out to clubs and cabarets, and I used to listen to all of these records when I was around that age. I believe I was 7 or 8, and this was one of these little plastic saxophones with cellophane in it, where you sing through it. I was playing…I forget who the artist was, but I was playing this melody [SINGS IT], and the band came in right on it! They knew it. I remember being scared to death. I’m 7 years old. “How the hell did they know that?!” I knew the solo, and I was playing this solo, so now I think back, and they must have thought, “Look at this kid, he’s 7 years old, and he’s playing—he’s listening to the record.” So that’s what that was. I sat in with the band. That was phenomenal.

TP: Getting that feedback from grownups.

JDJ: Wow. They must have been like, “Wow, this kid is 7 years old and he knows this stuff.”

TP: You also wrote on the site that your mother is the author of “Stormy Monday.”

JDJ: So she says. She sold the tune for 50 bucks, or whatever it was. In those days, people did do that. The jazz musicians used to do that. “Hey, man, give me some tunes. Give me five tunes.” Then they’d put their name on them.

TP: Was she involved in music at all?

JDJ: No, she wrote poetry. My father had nothing whatsoever to do with music. Not at all.

TP: So your uncle was the inspiration.

JDJ: My uncle. And my mother wrote songs and poetry, and I used to put tunes to her words. She had music and she liked music.

TP: At what point did it seem to you that music would be what you were going to do?

JDJ: When I was a teenager. About 16.

TP: What was making you think that?

JDJ: I was naturally drawn to it. I knew I had abilities, natural abilities. At the time, I was working as a pianist, and then I got into drums, and I started working on both instruments. Then I knew… It was something I was really good at it, and I enjoyed it, and I had a passion for it, and I said, “Oh, this is what I want to do.”

TP: As a pianist, were you playing in the Ahmad Jamal style? Were you emulating him primarily?

JDJ: When I started, he was one of my first influences. I liked Erroll Garner. He was amazing. I wish people would reissue some of Erroll Garner’s stuff so we can hear how phenomenal this guy was. There were some Chicago pianists, too. There was Jodie Christian, a legend who’s still around. Billy Wallace.

TP: He played with Max Roach for a while in the latter ‘50s.

JDJ: Yes, he did. Then Muhal Richard Abrams was a great influence on me, not only musically, but as a male role model. I liked Wynton Kelly a lot.

TP: Did you know Andrew Hill in Chicago?

JDJ: Yes, I knew Andrew. I knew Chris Anderson, too.

TP: Did you know Herbie Hancock in Chicago?

JDJ: Yeah, I knew Herbie. Herbie lived down the street from me. But Herbie was definitely an influence, especially when the Empyrean Isles record came out. I had a trio which used to play tunes off of that, like “One Finger Snap” and “Empyrean Isles.”

TP: Stylistically, what sorts of things were you interested in presenting in your piano trio?

JDJ: I did standards and originals, things like that. Interacted with the rhythm section, learned how to use the rhythm section. It was good for me, because as a drummer, I knew what it felt like to be the soloist, and I’ll play a melodica in front of a rhythm section also. It gave me insights into how to be a better drummer—and listener also.

TP: Was your trio Scott Holt and Steve McCall?

JDJ: Yeah, actually it was. That was one of them. Then I had another drummer with Scotty, Arthur McKinney. Then actually, Harold Jones played with me and Scotty also. You know Harold, right?

TP: He played with Ellington.

JDJ: Yes, but he also was the drummer on Eddie Harris’ Exodus To Jazz, and he worked with Eddie. In fact, I filled in for Harold because he was a teacher at Roosevelt in Chicago, and he had some graduation stuff to do. I went on the road with him. The first time I went on the road was with Eddie Harris. I went to Kansas City, and then played Pep’s in Philadelphia. It was interesting, too. When I went to Kansas City with Eddie, we played a double bill opposite an organ trio led by Eddie Chamblee, and Aretha Franklin was on the bill. She had just made her first record for Columbia Records, and she was there with her mother.

TP: Eddie Chamblee was a tenor player. One of Dinah Washington’s husbands.

JDJ: He could have been. Anyway, we were in this club for a week. It was a famous club, one of the last clubs in Kansas City. Count Basie had played there. And the hotel was down the street from it. I remember it very well, because they wanted Eddie’s band to play for her—she came with no band. So Eddie said, “Well, yeah. Cough up some more bread.” The guy didn’t want to cough up what he had. Some Eddie Chamblee, the drummer, and the organ player wound up playing with Aretha. She was doing, “Yeah, by the railroad tracks…” — she was playing piano for herself. It was interesting. We talked. At the time she said, “I might get a band together; maybe I’ll call you.” But she never did!

TP: So you were on the fence during those years between piano and drums, and as you’ve put it, Eddie Harris steered towards concentrating on drums.

JDJ: He thought I was a natural drummer, and he thought I’d be more successful at it—and as it turned out he was right. When I came to New York in ‘64 or ‘65, I went up to Minton’s, and Freddie Hubbard was there, and I sat in with him. John Patton was there, he heard me play, and he said, “Hey, man, you got a set of drums.” I said, “Yeah.” “Well, you got a gig.” That’s when I decided, “Ok, I’m going to make drums be my main instrument.”

TP: What brought you to New York?

JDJ: Of course! It was the mecca.

TP: Of course. But a lot of great musicians from Chicago stayed in Chicago.

JDJ: I exhausted every other avenue of places to play. At that time, disco was coming in, so a lot of good places to play jazz were drying up. So I just said, “Ok, let me out of here.” Of course, some of it dried up here. I just caught Minton’s before it closed, and Birdland was still going. A few years later, it closed. I got a chance to hear Al Grey and Billy Mitchell at Birdland, so I sat in with them on piano and then on drums.

TP: Also regarding Chicago, you mentioned Muhal as an influence, Steve McCall was one of your drummers, and you knew a lot of people in the AACM. Can you speak to what your level of involvement was with those musicians? Were you sort of on the outskirts of it, occasionally doing a gig…

JDJ: No-no, I was right in it. I was right in it. I was there when Muhal formed…he got a charter to form it. I was there when the whole thing started, and he found the building. We had the AACM Orchestra. Out of that orchestra… First of all, Roscoe Mitchell and I were close friends. We went to college together. Malachi Favors went there, Joseph Jarman was there, another guy named James Willis. We used to actually go… Joseph said I broke up his marriage because I convinced him to have whole concerts in the attic of his house. I guess his wife didn’t like jazz that much. But we used to charge some money and put on concerts up there. But Joseph and Roscoe and Malachi would play together. Roscoe and I used to play at each other’s house every day. I’d go to his house, or he’d come to my house, and we’d play for hours—just improvising. So that was the freer aspect. But when I say “free”… I mean, these guys were serious composers as well as playing improvised music. They were coming at it in another direction.

TP: They were very involved in structures and incorporating a broad range of vocabulary and ideas.

JDJ: Oh yeah. But at the time, we also were involved in creating structures for improvisation—just go up and play.

TP: You’ve also related a certain time when Coltrane came to Chicago and you were able to sit in.

JDJ: Yes. I’d been coming almost every night to see him at McKie Fitzhugh’s, on Cottage Grove. Elvin didn’t return for the last set. I was there. The place was packed. People were outside; there were lines outside. I’d played some of the jam sessions on Monday night, and McKie said to John, “Man, we need to play the last set. Let Jack come up; he’s a good drummer.” John said, “Ok,” and I went up and played three tunes with McCoy and Jimmy. It was one of the highlights of my career. It was fantastic.

TP: Had you ever dealt with that sort of energy on a bandstand before?

JDJ: No. It was the first time for that.

TP: Was it a transformative moment for you?

JDJ: Absolutely. John was a very spiritual guy, but he was also very magnetic. So I understood why Elvin had to play the way he played. Because whatever you could throw at John, John was like a sponge—he absorbed it. So I realized on an energetic level how amazing John Coltrane was. So I’m happy that I was developed enough as a good drummer to hold my own in that, playing those songs. Later on, around 1966, I had the opportunity to go back to Chicago with John at the Plugged Nickel, when he had the new band with Alice and Rashied and Pharaoh and Jimmy. That was even more phenomenal, because we had two drummers, two saxophone players. I remember one night, Roscoe came and sat in. So musically, mentally, and spiritually, it was one of the most challenging gigs I ever did.

TP: It’s interesting, because of all the really major AACM musicians of your generation—Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, Leo Smith—you’re the only one who went to New York at the time.

JDJ: Yes.

TP: Which is apropos of nothing. But as a speculative question: What do you think would have happened had all those people gone to New York in the mid ‘60s? Would they have been influenced in different directions? Would history have taken a different course?

JDJ: Maybe. I don’t know. But it might have been possible, considering the climate in New York. By the way, in New York I worked with Sun Ra at the Vanguard and up in Harlem.

TP: You spoke a bit about first establishing yourself in New York—you sat in at Minton’s, John Patton offered you a gig. In 1965 and 1966, you recorded with Jackie McLean, and then in 1966 you go out with Charles Lloyd, which brings you onto another level of visibility. But what scenes did you become part of after moving to New York?

JDJ: Well, I moved to the Lower East Side, as they had been renovating buildings, and that’s where a lot of the musicians were. They had just opened up a jazz club around the corner, on East Third Street, called Slugs, which was a bar, a pretty good club with sawdust on the floor, smoky. I started freelancing. I did various gigs. I worked with John Patton, and Freddie Hubbard called me to do one of those boat ride things out on the Hudson. I also hooked up with Charles Tolliver. The musicians around at the time were Henry Grimes, Cecil McBee lived on 10th Street… It was definitely an East Village thing. Herbie Lewis had a loft, and we used to go over to his house and play night and day. Charles Tolliver was very influential; we became close friends and musical constituents. Charles was playing with Jackie McLean, and Jackie had been away, and then he came back to the city. He said, “When Jackie comes back, yeah, man, you got to be his drummer; you’re going to get a call from Jackie.” I’d gone to sessions, the Blue Coronet, and played with musicians like Charles Davis and Pat Patrick, who is the father of Deval Patrick. I knew Deval when he was a little guy. He probably doesn’t even remember me…

Anyway, it was great, man! There was just music happening everywhere, and I just lived, breathed, and slept music in that period. But I was freelancing. I think I worked some with Betty Carter, with John Hicks and Cecil McBee. I remember we played a concert at Harout’s, and then I played a concert with Charles Tolliver and Gary Bartz and Hicks and Cecil McBee.

I heard Charles Lloyd when he had Gabor Szabo and Ron Carter…was it Pete LaRoca on drums… But anyway, somehow Charles was looking for a drummer, and he called me. Then I was playing with Charles, and Reggie Workman was playing bass, and Gabor was playing, and Gabor was getting ready to leave, and we wanted to get another bassist. Since I’d worked with Cecil with Jackie McLean, I recommended him. He asked me about pianists, and I’d heard Keith Jarrett with Art Blakey. So that became the Charles Lloyd Quartet.

Let me backtrack to Jackie. We did do some gigs, and we did the Jacknife album, with Lee Morgan, and Demon’s Dance. Anyway, we played in Connecticut, we played the Left Bank Jazz Society in Baltimore, and Pittsburgh. The band had Larry Ridley on bass, Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, Tolliver, and myself. It was a pretty exciting band.

TP: Being in New York, you’re all of a sudden in first-hand contact with all the drummers you’d been checking out on records for years and seen occasionally in Chicago. There was Tony. Through Charles you probably got to meet Max Roach. You got to know Roy Haynes and Elvin Jones. You’ve mentioned that you liked Arthur Taylor a lot, though he was probably in Europe by then…

JDJ: No, he was here when I got here. You could see him at the Five Spot. I got a chance to go to the Five Spot before it closed, where I saw Roy Haynes. At that time, groups used to go in and play for two weeks or a month, so they could really get tight. Coltrane worked there with Monk, and then Johnny Griffin, and then Roy Haynes was there with Wayne, and pianists like Albert Dailey, and Tolliver. I used to see A.T. there. Like I said, New York was a mecca of a lot of creative music. We can talk about the electric movement later.

TP: When you were accumulating drum vocabulary and making the decision that drums would be your main performance instrument, were you a drummer who was someone who deeply analyzed and emulated what other drummers did, or were the kind of guy who would hear what people were doing and tailor your approach to incorporate this, eliminate that…

JDJ: More of the second. I adjusted what I played to what the musical situation was. You can hear… I had influences. I had Elvin, or I had Tony, Roy, Max, and all those, but I also knew very consciously that I had to develop my own voice. So I took what I liked from the other drummers, and tried to turn it around into Jack DeJohnette, and basically had the good fortune to be in situations… The best situation is where musicians are taking risks and trying different things. I had a chance to experiment. And through those musical associations, I developed my own voice and my own concept around utilizing drums as an integral part of the ensemble as well as solos. I’m not an analytical player. I’m more an intuitive player, really.

TP: But your playing is so precise. There has to be some sort of analytical component to your personality.

JDJ: Well, yeah. But the process is… That sort of happens in the instant that I’m creating something. I’m not sitting down and saying, “Well, I did so-and-so and so-and-so.” I just take it in.

TP: Were you a big practicer?

JDJ: Oh, yeah. But I tailor-made my practices, to have the speed and the touch and the dexterity, playing time, different kinds of feels. I practiced a lot, to the point where I could…you know, with a tune-up at home, playing around, I’m ready to go. But I didn’t study a lot of drum books and all that kind of stuff, but I practiced rudiments and did a lot of listening—listened to the different drummers and listened to things I liked, and the feels that I like. I listened to a lot of the Blue Note records. I took some of that, and became one of the drummers that was called a lot for gigs. Fortunately, it’s kept me working all of these years.

TP: You always seem to have had the ability to generate a lot of velocity and energy without playing loud.

JDJ: Yes. That’s something I constantly worked on. The drum by nature is a dominant instrument, and it’s very easy to overpower a band. But having a lot of experience of playing with Keith… If you look at my history, I’ve done a lot of things with piano trios. So I learned a lot about dynamics, but playing with singers, like Betty and Abbey Lincoln, and playing with singers in Chicago. I learned how to support people. As well as being a leader, you also have to learn how to support and encourage, without obscuring the other musicians in the ensemble.

TP: You joined Miles Davis in 1969, and you played with him for two years—‘69, ‘70, and ‘71.

JDJ: Well, ‘70. I came back in ‘71 to play one or two gigs with him.

TP: Did playing with Miles affect the way you thought about playing drums?

JDJ: Well, before I played with Miles, the way drums are played, especially when Tony joined the band, yeah, that changed… It changed before I joined him, really. So I was already set up for that, between Elvin and Tony. Miles and Jackie McLean both had similar taste in drummers. Jackie always said to me, “Miles is going to hire you, because Tony was with me before Miles hired him, and we have the same taste in drummer.” Sure enough, one night I was in Slugs, and Miles came in to hear me. He’d heard about me, so he came.

Yeah, it was great to play with Miles, because Miles loved the drum. Everything came from the drums. He liked boxing, he was a big boxing fan, and he saw drums in jazz as having similar aspects. The drums and the horn player have to set each other up. He would talk about that, they had to set up. “Ok, now you’ve got to set this way…” If you play a phrase, you have to know how to set a guy up. The same thing with boxing. You set a guy up, you feint with a left hook and then catch him with an overhand or uppercut right. It’s in the rhythm.

TP: Did you box yourself?

JDJ: No. I love boxing, though. I have punched a bag a bit, but I didn’t want to get into it.

TP: You have to keep your hands safe.

JDJ: Yeah. No-no, I don’t want to mess with that. But I’m big boxing fan. I love boxing. But I love the art of it, not the… When guys are evenly matched, I like that. There’s a good match coming up, actually, with Manny Pacquiao and Ricky Hatton. Coming up on May 2nd. If you wait a week, you can watch it on HBO.

TP: Correct me if I’m wrong here. But the way Keith Jarrett put it, it seemed to him that you helped Miles—and Keith as well—move into the new area of music that he wanted to explore, in bringing contemporary dance rhythms into the mix, and that he was not happy when you left. He wanted you to stay, and Keith felt that things in Miles’ music got more chaotic once you left the band. I think I’m paraphrasing it correctly.

JDJ: Yes.

TP: Can you speak to what you consider to have been your impact on the direction of Miles’ music? That would also extrapolate into having an impact on the direction of creative improvised music in general.

JDJ: One of the things Miles was trying… I think Miles was at the pinnacle when he did those Cellar Door sessions, and I’m glad that they released the different nights.

TP: You mean the nights John McLaughlin wasn’t present for.

JDJ: Yeah. Because you can hear the development of it. Each night it was different. But Miles liked it because I knew how to anchor. I could be as abstract as I’d want to be, but I knew how to lay out a groove, and Miles loved to play with the grooves I laid down. So I had the technique and imagination that he wanted, but he also wanted something that was going to be rock-steady. One of the reasons I left is because the music was getting more restricted and more predictable. I left, because I wanted to keep doing freer, exploratory things. But that’s what Keith and I brought to that. Keith, like myself, can lay down and get in a groove and just sit with it, and that’s what Miles loved, was the ability to sit with that. Keith and I both had played at the Fillmore with Bill Graham. We had that done that circuit with Charles Lloyd before. So we’d already experienced that. Miles came after that, and he went out to the Fillmore. So you get the Fillmore recordings as well. So it was done twice, with two interesting bands. The Charles Lloyd Quartet was a crossover band even before Miles decided to move and more in an electric direction.

TP: there’s a difference in a music as nuanced as jazz between playing in an arena or theater and projecting those kinds of ideas and energies vis-a-vis doing it in a club. With Charles Lloyd, you really developed a way of projecting those qualities on a large scale.

JDJ: Yes. That group could have been really huge. But it reached its pinnacle, and we moved on from there. Charles is doing ok now. He made a comeback. I heard him a few years ago in Turkey doing something with Zakir Hussain and Eric Harland. And his group now with Jason Moran is nice.

TP: What’s also interesting is that you were so known for your deep grooves and energy, and then as the ‘70s progressed, a lot of your activity—though by no means exclusively—was with European musicians on ECM, and you became an influence on a European sound through people like Jon Christensen and people who were influenced by him. What kind of transition was that for you? Was it a natural evolution? A different side of your personality that was waiting to come out?

JDJ: I think it was… Manfred Eicher had this vision; he’s a visionary producer. His deal was that you could be successful recording artistic music, whether it be jazz or classical music (he was a classical music producer at Deutsche Gramophone before he started his label). He had a vision about sound and recording not just being a session, but a production, like in a movie sense. He encouraged me to be more artistic, but through packaging and promotion, ECM has been one of the most successful independent labels in the world…

TP: You were on so many sessions in the ‘70s that their interpretation of your sound on the drums became a sort of signature for the label, it seems to me, at least initially.

JDJ: Those recordings with Miles… Manfred was very interested in getting those musicians, like myself, Gary Peacock, and Keith, and extended that kind of creativity. He really heard the nuances in my touch, my cymbals—he had another kind of sensitivity about that. From being a classical music composer, he paid attention to detail. So he brought out my cymbal work, and encouraged that. He always took great care for the sound of all the instruments, really. But as a consequence, I got a chance to play with a lot of European musicians, and get this sort of cultural exchange, musical exchange. It’s been very valuable, even to this day.

TP: Talk about the ways in which it’s valuable.

JDJ: Well, it’s left a legacy of recordings that I did there, that are still relevant, still important recordings and…

TP: Did the experience refine your sense of playing the drumkit? Sometimes there’s a feedback loop with your production. As a musician or as a writer, you produce something, you see it, it might have some residual impact on what you do the next time, and you build on things incrementally. I’m wondering if the process of making those ECM records then had any sort of impact on your conception both of the drumkit and yourself as a musician, a composer or pianist. I’d also like to talk a bit about the evolution of your identity as a leader.

JDJ: I would say in that sense, yes, hearing the drums and hearing the production definitely fine-tuned my ears to what I was doing, how I was doing it. I guess on a subconscious level it became more refined, not only by the sound quality, but what the musicians…the music that we were doing. People like John Surman and Jan Garbarek and, of course, the trio, plus Abercrombie and the Gateway Trio—those kinds of things. Then my records as a leader, Special Edition, Directions, and New Directions. So it was a place to build upon refining. The combination of making recordings and touring, making music, touring-touring-touring, playing for audiences, adjusting to different acoustic circumstances, all that works… To learn how to play the drums in concert halls. You really have to adjust your playing and make some adjustments to the drums so that they don’t ring a lot. Because concert halls can tend to be very reverberating places, even with audiences in them, depending on what materials they’re made of, what type of walls and so on. So that also had an effect on me. I took consciously the idea of playing music in concert halls and bigger halls like that, learning how to adjust my playing. You asked me about being able to play intensely without overpowering the musicians—that’s something I worked on and developed to a fine craft.

TP: Your earliest bands had guitar, saxophone, with a kind of jazz-rock vibe, and as the decade progressed, it changes tonally—Lester Bowie was playing with you, and it became more abstract… I’d like to talk about why different groups took the tonal identity they did? Do you hear possibilities maybe a few years ahead and work towards them? Do you react to circumstances and respond to that with different personnel? I’m just trying to get to why different bands take on the personalities they take on.

JDJ: Well, they take on that personality because of the personalities. The first Special Edition album I did with Arthur Blythe, David Murray and Peter Warren—I consciously hired those guys because they were the new guys on the scene, and they had individual voices, and their styles were so the opposite of each other that they complemented really well. So those personalities came across.

TP: I seem to remember a concert at the Public Theater that Julius Hemphill played.

JDJ: He filled in a couple of times. Hemphill was amazing, man. I miss him. This guy was a great composer and arranger. He arranged some 16-piece orchestra things for me, for some of my compositions, which when I go to universities and do orchestras, I take these charts. He really did a beautiful job. But the various groups, I’ve had Chico Freeman, had John Purcell, had Howard Johnson. Then later on, Greg Osby, Gary Thomas and Mick Goodrick, who was phenomenal.

TP: A very different sound with that band.

JDJ: Well, those were younger guys, and we got to electronics, using electronic keyboards and sequencers—experimenting with sound and colors. We did a few albums. We did Irresistible Forces, then Audio-Visual Scapes, Extra Special Edition. I had Marvin Sewell replace one of the horn players, and then Michael Cain came along, and we had a long, very beautiful association.

TP: It’s interesting how you’ve stayed on top of technology and incorporated new rhythmic developments into what you do. You always seem to be assimilating new information and enveloping it into your production. An interesting process.

JDJ: Yes. We can talk about that on my label, Golden Beams, on which we’ve got Foday Suso, and then had Ben Surman, my son-in-law, to remix some of the stuff. We had the DeJohnette Golden Beams Collected, which are remixes and re-remixes. Ben is just light years ahead of anybody else I’ve heard in terms of knowing how to remix. He’s a great sound engineer, and he took material that was recorded and totally reinvented it. We also have the group called Ripple Effect, which has his father, John, me, Jerome Harris, and Marlui Miranda from Brazil. We’re going to be doing some gigs in the fall. So that’s a combination of acoustic jazz, world music, and remixes, and doing improvisations on the fly, too.

TP: When did the world music element start to become a serious part of your palette?

JDJ: Well, world music has always been there since the ‘60s. I was into the Beatles, I was into Ravi Shankar, I was into listening to the Nonesuch and Folkways records. Hamzel Al-Bin(?). I was listening to that.

TP: Did you listen to Afro-Cuban music when you got to New York? On the Lower East Side…

JDJ: There was a lot of it going on. But I didn’t get into it til later, when I went to Africa and started doing things with African musicians. So that came a little later. But the Afro-Cuban thing, I really got into it, like Eddie Palmieri and Pancho Sanchez. I love the grooves with the son and the salsa and the merengue. That’s what I like about playing with Danilo…or also Gonzalo…but Danilo and John. Because John understands the clave rhythm. So we go into those feels, but we extend them. Because I like to dance. We like to move. That’s why when we play the grooves, the grooves have such an insatiable tinge to them.

TP: Danilo himself has taught a lot of musicians younger than he a lot about rhythm, showing them ways to phrase music in new directions.

JDJ: He’s a great teacher.

TP: But you’ve told me that you more take those ideas and beats more by osmosis than through an analytical process.

JDJ: Well, I guess it goes into my creative conscious brain and comes back. Because I do things which, independence-wise on the drumset, influence Danilo. Danilo says, “Man, you were doing that.” I said, “Well, because you were doing this-and-this-and-this in your left hand, so it set me off to do this.” In other words, we’re feeding each other creatively. I guess in an analytical sense, we’ll discuss it, we’ll talk about it afterwards, or sing what we did. So in that sense, the process is looked at and talked about and commented on. “Oh, man, that was a great hit, but let’s try this and this.” So we build on it in terms of the interaction musically and the interaction of talking about it. It doesn’t get intellectual. It identifies a specific thing that…

TP: Well, it is intellectual, but it’s intellectual because of the nature of what it is, not out of some intention you place upon it.

JDJ: Well, yes.

TP: Perhaps I can make a summational statement. Throughout your career as a professional musician, which spans about fifty years, you’ve been able to pull off this rare trick of being able to function as a creative musician, to incorporate all of this new information, but also be a highly visible, commercially pretty successful guy. You can fill the Blue Note for a week, you can fill larger venues, and command large fees as a sideman on arena tours by dint of your identity. So you’ve been able to balance these two very crucial aspects of a satisfactory career as an improviser, both to be creative and to be commercially successful, and live the way you want to live. Presumably you like the lifestyle in Woodstock…

JDJ: Oh, I love it.

TP: Has it ever been a difficult proposition for you to stay on that aesthetic course?

JDJ: No, I chose to do that. I consciously chose to do that. Because that’s what I love to do. It’s my passion. So I continue doing that. Now, with the climate today, the way it is, I expect there will be some challenges in the years to come. But I’m trying to stay positive that somehow the music and the environment will change to a more favorable and more balanced and more caring society. But we will see. That remains. There are a lot of challenges ahead.

TP: But with your own label, you’ve also made the transition to being an entrepreneur, as many musicians have done, and you seem to have put together a pretty good business model.

JDJ: Well, the business model is the result of my wife, Lydia, and her ability to… She’s a better business person than I. I’m very grateful to her, and also for her ability to pick the right people to run the label. Jane Chun and Doug Yoel from Now-Forward Music have been great as label manager. Jane is now a co-manager as well. So we’ve all developed and created a business situation which we feel very good about. We’re still learning how to make it be more successful, and I plan to work towards attaining that goal.

TP: Could you give me a couple of minutes to talk about the Creative Music Studio and your experiences with it? Were you pretty involved in it in the ‘70s?

JDJ: Well, yeah. I mean, of course, because I had a name, and so it drew students to it. That’s one of the good things that came out of it. Sometimes it was kind of loosely put together. But it brought together some very interesting musicians. People like Cecil Taylor came up and did concerts, and we had people like Aïyb Dieng, Trilok Gurtu, Colin Walcott…

TP: Did that influence your own absorption of world music and beats and grooves from different cultures?

JDJ: Well, yeah. Oregon, which was on the label. Oregon still is quite a world music cooperative group. It was up near Woodstock, and Karl Berger and his wife had this idea for a school, and a lot of people came from all over the world. Since then, a student has written a book about it. It was really very interesting. I think it set up an environment to bring a lot of musicians together from different parts of the world, to work together and also pass on their knowledge to students. It’s become sort of a cult icon, you know, or a cultural situation that people look back on like something special. There were times when they were struggling financially, so my wife, Lydia, and a group of other people put together a benefit concert, which I think came out as a DVD, a Creative Music Festival with Braxton, Chick, Colin Walcott, me and John Abercrombie, Miroslav Vitous, Lee Konitz.


JDJ: Chicago used to be a very stimulating musical place. In fact, people who were going to New York would come up from St. Louis, or Indiana (like Freddie), would come to Chicago, and then go to New York. There was a lot of music happening. It was a music town. There’s still a lot of music there. Joe Segal is doing his Jazz Showcase.

TP: But it seems that Chicago had a certain musical personality of its own apart from New York. It didn’t seem to rely so much on New York for musical models.

JDJ: Well, yeah. First of all, you’ve got to talk about the environment and the city’s rhythm. Chicago rhythm, Midwest rhythm is more laid back than New York. So you had more spaces, it’s more laid-out. But it doesn’t mean that the musicians who came out of there were all necessarily laid-back. Johnny Griffin, Herbie, me, Ahmad Jamal, to name a few. Ira Sullivan, who spent a lot of time there. Ira was a pretty phenomenal guy. I played with him when I was a youngster, then I went back to the Showcase and played with him. In fact, I have recordings of the Showcase with him and Von, with Jodie Christian. In fact, now that I think about it, those are historic recordings, because Jodie now has MS and it’s hard for him to play. He doesn’t go out much. But I have these recordings of Ira and Von—we’re doing standard tunes.

Now, we should talk about Wilbur Campbell, because he’s one of the legends of Chicago.

TP: Four years ago, you mentioned that he influenced you greatly, and Miles made the comment about you falling up the stairs.

JDJ: Right. Wilbur was that kind of drummer. I mean, he was a swing drummer. He played bebop really, really well, and he played marimbas—he knew harmony. Wilbur was an influence on me, in what they call…Danilo calls it “the washing machine.” Don Byron calls it this swirly, rolly kind of thing that’s not necessarily metric, but it’s really very abstract. Wilbur was the first cat I ever heard play that way in Chicago. He’d play some fours, he’d play this concept and you didn’t know whether he was going to get out of it.

TP: People say that Ike Day played like that.

JDJ: I never heard him, and there’s no recordings of him playing full-out.

TP: That stacked-rhythms approach seems to be the way he approached it, though.

JDJ: Fortunately, there are recordings on Delmark with Wilbur on them. There was another drummer named Dorel Anderson, who’s on Live at the Birdhouse. But Wilbur was special. Wilbur was like the Edgar Bateman of Chicago. Edgar’s another one who was a really unusual drummer. The same with Donald Bailey, who played with Jimmy Smith. Had some totally different stuff happening. So Wilbur I’d say was a real big influence on me in the sense of what you could play, how you could stretch 4 bars or 8 bars. I’d advise anyone to listen to those Delmark records by Ira Sullivan and Nicky Hill.

Then there was another great guy from Chicago, who if he’d left Sun Ra might have given John Coltrane some problems, was John Gilmore. Gilmore had that ability, if he’d been in another situation and not stayed with Sun Ra, and been pushed and taken on being a leader… He obviously didn’t want to be a leader, because he stayed.

TP: It didn’t seem to be his personality.

JDJ: No. But he had something special..

TP: Then there was Wilbur Ware, another one-of-a-kind…

JDJ: Yes. Then the other bassist was Raphael Garrett, who had this unique way of playing rhythmically—and soulful. He was great. He moved to Seattle later, and he started making flutes and playing the bass.


Jack DeJohnette (Downbeat Readers Poll 2005 Article):

“I’ve got just one more project to tell you about,” says Jack DeJohnette, capping a conversation about the staggeringly diverse activity of his seventh decade.

At 63, DeJohnette continues to add consequential pages to a career c.v. that exemplifies what it is to be a musical explorer. He intends to document as many projects as possible on his imprint label, Golden Beams, which he launched in early 2005 with Music In The Key Of Om, a solo drums, cymbals and tuned bells recital intended, in DeJohnette’s words, “to do something to make it nice for a person to relax and get rid of stress.” In short order, he released Music From The Hearts Of The Masters, a set of improvisations with kora virtuoso and griot singer Foday Musa Suso. He followed up in October with Hybrids, on which sound engineer Ben Surman, DeJohnette’s son-in-law, layers Techno, Reggae and African grooves onto four Suso-DeJohnette tracks and three tracks by Brazilian singer Martui Miranda.

“Foday and I mix Africa with the African-American jazz sensibility,” DeJohnette says. “It’s light and buoyant, not weighty. We’re interested in breaking out of the groove while still respecting it. We inspire each other, and our chemistry grows every time we get together. Foday gets free, and starts flying; a lot of traditional kora players would have no idea what he is doing. He has his own technique, which borders on jazz improvisation.

“Ben kept the integrity of the original tracks and made new stories out of them. Hybrids moves us into areas like remixes, special club mixes, and outlets like electronica. But where a lot of remixes are looped and repetitive, these are soundscapes that tell stories and change in surprising ways, with a great balance between acoustic and electronica. I think it raised the bar of artistic meaning.”

To raise the bar or push the envelope—choose your cliche—is the mantra of Golden Beams, which has in the pipeline a 2001 duo concert with guitarist Bill Frisell and a percussion discussion with Don Alias. These are the latest in a distinguished line of DeJohnette duos that include Ruta and Daita [ECM], a now-classic 1971 encounter with Keith Jarrett; Zebra, a 1985 worldbeat dialogue with Lester Bowie; and Invisible Nature [ECM], a hair-raising 2002 virtual concert with DeJohnette’s brother-in-law, John Surman, the English baritone and soprano saxophone master.

“You’re exposed in the one-on-one setting, and you hear differently,” DeJohnette says of his fondness for the format. “As with John, Bill and I used electronics—pre-recorded ambient things and my Roland Hand-Sonic percussion module—to get a bigger sound. Even though it’s two people, you’re still an orchestra.”

Recording duos is an efficient way for DeJohnette “get the label off the ground with projects that are doable both artistically and financially.” However, he emphasizes, “the label is meant to document new directions—although people who are familiar with me may say it’s Jack following his path. I’ve always been curious about doing different things, like an alchemist. Different genres of music have always cross-pollinated, but the rate is speeded up now.”

Speaking of hybrids, DeJohnette recently has focused on grafting various Afro-Hispanic strains. As an example, he cites a quartet with Danilo Perez, John Patitucci and Jerome Harris, who first convened in January 2005 at Manhattan’s Birdland, and will tour for a November fortnight. “I wrote some Andalusian-influenced music that needed guitar and 6-string banjo, which I thought would be perfect for a quartet setting,” he relates. “We’ll record the live gigs and see what comes out.”

A member of DeJohnette’s late ‘90s ensemble with Alias and keyboardist Michael Cain, Harris, who will triangulate DeJohnette’s 2006 performances with Suso, performed on two DeJohnette concerts this year with nuevo flamenco pianist Chano Dominguez, and Gitano singer Blas Cordoba, an association which DeJohnette plans to nurture. Also to be released on Golden Beams is the Latin Project, a clavecentric unit (Don Byron, Edsel Gomez, Giovanni Hidalgo, Luisito Quintero) devoted to elaboration and abstraction of the groove.

Uniting DeJohnette’s flights of fancy is a “universal one” concept that he began to codify while playing drums with Miles Davis between 1969 and 1971. He draws beats from African, Afro-Cuban, Indian, aboriginal, and Near Eastern sources, processes them from the perspective of his own deep roots in jazz and funk, and incorporates them within the flow of his compositions and improvisations. He emphasizes that he doesn’t study the metric systems in a systematic manner. “I can certainly analyze, but I pick things up almost through osmosis, from listening, from the feeling,” DeJohnette says. “I tune the drums to different pitches of the intervals—thirds, fourths, fifths, maybe a chord—so that whenever I’m accompanying or soloing I can build a motif or a melody.”

DeJohnette recontextualizes more familiar territory—specifically cusp-of-the-‘70s fusion a la Tony Williams, Larry Young, John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter and Miles Davis—on a forthcoming recording by Trio Beyond, a partnership with John Scofield and Larry Goldings that formed during a week at Yoshi’s in February 2004. For an-depth look at how DeJohnette found fresh solutions to merging populist and esoteric vocabularies back in the day, hear the crisply executed machine gun shuffles, polyrhythms, and rubato sound-painting that he contributes to a series of never-issued performances by Miles’ blues-fueled, psychedelic jukejoint band with Gary Bartz, Michael Henderson, and Keith Jarrett on The Cellar Door Sessions, 1970. DeJohnette and Jarrett play with uncanny intuition and sensitivity, as they have done for the ensuing 35 years, not least during a 22-year association in Jarrett’s acoustic trio with Gary Peacock.

“I’m more refined now, but much looser in another way,” DeJohnette reflects. “I’m taking in much more. My heart is more open, and I’m free to do whatever I want. So playing music is more joyful to me.

“The ability to stay open and be ready for the unexpected keeps Keith’s trio interesting. Usually we just sit down and see what happens. That’s the whole idea of improvisation—always be prepared to play what you don’t know.”


Jack DeJohnette (Sept. 27, 2005) — Downbeat Readers Poll:

TP: Let’s talk about why you formed the new label.

JACK: I’m involved in lots of musical projects. One specifically that I’ve been involved with, and it just turns out that it comes up that way, is duo projects, which consequently I’ve done some duo projects for a number of years with John Surman. Over 15 years, we’ve done 2 CDs — well, three. Two duet records, and one bigger…

TP: One is London Brass from 2003, and the second duo was from 2000, Mysterium.

JACK: Right. At any rate, then I did a duet project with…a concert with Bill Frisell, which we’ll get into later. And Foday Musa Suso.

TP: I’ve just been watching the promotional DVD for that from Montreal 2003. Very inspiring.

JACK: Thank you. Foday is very inspiring and a very innovative kora player and griot and singer. I first became aware of him with Herbie’s duo project with him in 1984, on a record called The Village. Over a period of time, I’ve followed Foday’s development. He had his own group, the Mandingo Griot Society, and did some things on Bill Laswell’s label, Axiom. I always wanted to hook up with him, and the opportunity came when we met in London. He had this idea of just doing kora and jazz drums. He didn’t want to sing, because he really wanted to put the kora as a lead instrument. That in itself is unusual, but then with me he came up here to the house a few years ago, and we spent four days, I think—a couple of days jamming, and then went in the studio. In two days, we had all this material. Right away, we had this rapport like we’d been playing together for a few lifetimes. Since then we’ve done a European tour, and we did some playing at Joe’s Pub, and we’re going to be doing a tour next year. But at any rate, the art of the duo—there’s that project, the Hearts of the Masters. Then I have a little project that will be coming out sometime next year which is with percussionist Don Alias and myself.

TP: You did a video with him as well.

JACK: Yes. That’s called Talking Drummers. That has a forward by Dave Holland and Michael Brecker. It’s on Homespun. But we’re going to tie in these…

TP: How do you see this label vis-a-vis the other recording projects that you do? Is this for special things that might not otherwise find an outlet? For particular areas of your activity?

JACK: It’s doing projects—closer to your first point. Closer to projects that are artistically doable and financially doable. That’s why we’re doing smaller projects, just to get the label off the ground. But it’s also a unique thing, doing projects that are just different… Or different in some ways to me, although people who are familiar with me may say it’s Jack following his path and doing interesting and different things. But I like to do things that captivate the listeners and inspire them, as well as other musicians.

TP: It seems to me that these projects take you in a different space than your jazz projects — to use the term broadly. Just these few. It’s not the way you play with the Keith Jarrett Trio or the way you played with Special Edition or with Danilo and John Patitucci. It’s a different orientation towards the beat and the groove and so on. It seems so to me, though it may be a superficial impression.

JACK: Well, the Foday duo is definitely interested in the groove, but also breaking out of it while still respecting the groove at the same time.

TP: That’s sort of what you did with Miles, too, isn’t it.

JACK: Mmm-hmm.

TP: You make that comment on the DVD.

JACK: Yes, it’s a similar thing. It’s a way of honoring tradition but also moving out of the tradition to something totally new and different.

TP: That’s really been your focus since you emerged on the scene, from the records with Jackie McLean and Charles Lloyd, and Miles, of course… You’ve been able to find spaces in which to apply that notion throughout your career. It’s either luck or circumstance, but something tells me it’s not just luck.

JACK: No. [LAUGHS] It’s just always interesting… I’ve always been curious. Curious about doing different things. Like an alchemist trying different things. The music seems to be… Different genres of music seem to be cross-pollinating more now than they have been before. I mean, they always have been, but I think the rate of that is speeded up now.

TP: Do you think there are more people oriented to that now?

JACK: Yeah, I think so. I think that it isn’t jazz musicians. It’s much broader than that. I think a jazz sensibility… For instance, what Foday and I bring to this music is the African and the African-American jazz sensibility. You know what I mean? I think it’s stated in a clear way between us. It’s not straight-ahead, but it has elements of funk in it and grooves in it. But it’s light. It’s not weighty. It’s buoyant.

TP: You get that counting and not-counting thing at the same time. The groove is so stated, but he also talks about how when he’s in Africa he doesn’t count. And somehow, the two of you are able to able to access both qualities.

JACK: Right. He trusts me. He knows that I’ll come up with something and play something. If he plays something, I’ll find something to play with it. And when we improvise, man, I tell you, when we played at Joe’s Pub… Foday surpasses himself and we both kind of inspire each other. I mean, he comes up with things that he really gets free, and he just starts flying. I’ll tell you, some of that stuff a lot of the traditional kora players would have no idea of what he is doing. But he’s got his own technique, and it borders on jazz improvisation.  So the chemistry between he and I grows tremendously every time we get together. The beautiful thing about it is we don’t have to go into deep discussions about it. We can get right to the core of it.

TP: You’ve utilized African beats, you’ve utilized Afro-Cuban beats, you’ve utilized Indian beats, you’ve utilized beats from all over the world within the flow of your compositions and your groups. Have you studied those beats and metric systems in a systematic manner, or do you kind of improvise-learn them, pick things up and react intuitively?

JACK: Exactly. The second statement is more accurate.

TP: Sorry to give you these multiple choice questions.

JACK: No, it is more like that. I pick these things up almost through osmosis, from listening to the music, not by trying to analyze it. I can do that, but it’s the feeling of it. What does that feel like? I use my jazz sensibility or broad perspective of jazz sensibility and apply it to a composition or an improvisation.

TP: Another project, which you’ll be touring with in November, is the band with Danilo Perez, John Patitucci and Jerome Harris. How did that one come together?

JACK: Well, Danilo, as you know, is one of the premier Latin artists who has really made a stamp from the Latin American expression on the jazz scene. He hasn’t been afraid to use his roots to expand the jazz horizons or capabilities of music. But he’s also able to stay in tune with the tradition and move outside of it. Jerome has played with Danilo and I, and the trio, and basically Danilo… So we have a rapport with Jerome and Danilo. Then I had this idea. I’d written some Spanish-influenced music, or Andalusian music, and I wanted to have guitar and 6-string banjo, and Jerome plays guitar and he plays a few other string instruments, and he got a 6-string banjo. So I wrote this music which I thought would be perfect for a quartet setting. Then John Patitucci, who is really well-versed in Afro-Cuban music and funk music, and is very broad, as well as having a really great feel and is a joy to play with… I wanted to do this with this quartet, with this group, because I felt the chemistry would come out and generate the vision I had for the music. We did a week at Birdland last January, and that was so good.

TP: How did the music evolve over the week? It’s such an interactive trio, and I suppose John and Danilo after four years with Wayne Shorter have the notion of exploding form in their bones!

JACK: Yeah, there’s a natural affinity we have. Each night got better and better actually. So now we’re going to be going for two weeks, playing pretty much every night. We’ll record the live gigs and we’ll see what comes out.

TP: Now you have the flexibility because of the label, should…

JACK: Yes, I have that. Whether it’s become a case of bigger projects… A case in point. There’s this cooperative project that I have with John Scofield and Larry Goldings, which we call Trio Beyond. Originally it was to celebrate Tony Williams, but we decided that Trio Beyond would… You know, I don’t want to be stuck with it having to be just Tony. But it was a good launching pad, because we all had an affinity and love for Tony, who was a great master drummer and composer…

TP: Did it start as revisiting and reinterpreting the Lifetime repertoire?

JACK: Yes, it did.

TP: How did it evolve?

JACK: It came together because the wonderful Montreal Jazz Festival every year has an artist-in-residency, and a couple of years ago I was called for an artist-in-residency — actually the first percussionist to be called for it.

TP: Was that 2003, where the Foday Musa Suso performance DVD comes from?

JACK: Yes. So I did four nights there with different groups. One with Herbie, Dave and myself, another with Foday and myself. I actually wanted to have John and Larry, but they were busy! But everybody got so excited about the idea of it that I said, “Okay, let’s go into a club.” So in February 2004 we played a week at Yoshi’s, and the place was sold out every night. The music evolved and evolved, and got better and better. Then last fall we did a European tour, and that was amazing, just playing this music all the time. By the way, we’re not just playing Tony’s music. We’re playing Wayne’s music, Miles music, some of Larry Young’s music, and John McLaughlin’s music, and some of our own music as well, our own originals. So it’s pretty broad. But on that tour, we made a recording in Europe, and we hope to put it out next year, and we’re going to do the summer festivals in late June-July.

TP: It’s interesting, because that’s a project that takes you back not to your earliest roots, but to your first mature professional roots.

JACK: Oh, yeah.

TP: How does that feel from this perspective, 30 years later? You never really left it, but that’s a particular time and space you’re articulating there.

JACK: Yeah, except that the space we’re articulating is in the present, not in the past. So that’s the difference. So I’m looking at it from fresh eyes. I’m not looking at it from looking back.

TP: But let’s look at how the fresh eyes differ from looking back. I’m assuming you’ve probably spent some time listening to the Cellar Door recordings, as you gave some public commentary on it. How has Jack DeJohnette of 2005 evolved from the player of 1970-71?

JACK: Well, from there to now I guess I’m more refined to some degree, on the one hand, and much looser in another way. I’m having more fun with the music.

TP: More fun?

JACK: Yeah, more fun. I had fun with it then. But it’s being older. I’m taking in much more. My heart is more open. So it’s more joyful to me, playing music.

TP: That’s a wonderful thing. Has that been a continuous process? Have there been ebbs and flows with your enjoyment with music? Has there ever been a time when music wasn’t fun for you?

JACK: Not too much. But there were times when it was better than others. which is natural in the course of life, to have these ebbs and flows.

TP: What makes it more enjoyable now? Is it that you have more freedom to do whatever you want?

JACK: Yeah. Also, the kinds of things… Yes, that’s a good answer for it.

TP: May I quote myself, then? “I have more freedom to do whatever I want.” Was Tony Williams a very inspiring figure for you when you were a young guy? You’re actually older than him.

JACK: Yes, but we’re still contemporaries, about a three year difference. But yes, he was very inspirational.

TP: When did you first see him play?

JACK: I saw him in Chicago right after 7 Steps to Heaven came out. The things he was doing — his touch, his concept, it all was different. And his drive, the way he could drive the band was different. Also some of his sideman recordings and also some of his leader recordings — his compositions were happening. I saw the Lifetime band when they did their first gig at Count Basie’s in Harlem, and that was really incredible, to see the band playing that material live. It was fantastic.

TP: Who were the people you were paying attention to before Tony? I gather you weren’t fully decided that you were going to be a drummer until fairly late.

JACK: Yes. Well, I had at some point played both of them, and then I decided to make drums the main instrument. I was listening to Elvin and Roy Haynes actually, who is still one of my favorites, who is still, I’m happy to say, going strong in his eighties, getting more attention than ever — and deservedly so. Philly Joe Jones. Art Taylor was a guy I really liked, although I never tried to imitate him, but I loved what he did on a lot of those Blue Note and Prestige records.

TP: Any local drummers?

JACK: There was a drummer in Chicago named Art McKinney who was an influence on me. Vernell Fournier was also a big influence when I started playing drums as far as brushwork was concerned. And Wilbur Campbell. Wilbur was one of my mentors. I used to hang out and watch him play all the time coming up. Wilbur had this way of playing, filling up when he took solos; it felt like somebody was cleaning out a closet and everything was falling out all over the room. That’s one of the things that kind of inspired my concept when playing the drums. I remember Miles said to me that my way of drumming reminded him of a drunk falling upstairs. Up stairs. Not down.

TP: In some of your own publicity, you very much emphasize that you never put music into categories and are fascinated by diversity. It seems so characteristic of so many musicians who came out of Chicago, particularly during that post-war period up through the ’60s. Any speculations on why that is?

JACK: Well, I don’t know. I can speak only for myself. I was just drawn to all kinds of music as a kid. I listened on the shortwave radio we had to music coming from Europe. I didn’t know what it was, but I used to listen to County-and-Western music, Grand Ole Opry, gospel music, I listened to soul music… I was curious about it. I just never put it in the category. Of course, I was listening to jazz when I was 4 or 5 years old.

TP: Was the scene in Chicago conducive to nurturing that sort of attitude?

JACK: Yeah, it was pretty broad. There were all kinds of people. We had the AACM, and then you had the regular gigs that you did, and the outlet of the AACM… In fact, I was in Chicago for the Jazz Festival there, and the AACM Orchestra was there, which had a big group of musicians — three drummers, two bass players, singers, woodwinds, brass. Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman were there as guest soloists. I was in it at the beginning, with Muhal Richard Abrams, who was also a great mentor to me and still is… He got the idea to create a viable outlet for musicians who were thinking differently and wanted to create a different language. That’s what came out of that, musicians who totally knew the tradition, but wanted to find another language to express their creative views. This was perfect for that. So Joseph, Malachi Favors, Roscoe, Henry Threadgill, Braxton, all those people were around then, and it was a very exciting time.

TP: Do you see yourself as in the same line of sensibility as those people? Do you see yourself as an AACM musician? Or did you go past it, in a way?

JACK: I think that’s all just part of who I am, part of my experience. I also was a member of Sun Ra’s Arkestra in Chicago, and also very often played with him in New York. It’s very broad. You could say I’m a potpourri of all of that.

TP: Eddie Harris was the one who convinced you to stick with drums and make it your main focus?

JACK: Yes, he suggested it. Then it was later that I decided to do that. He thought I played good piano, but he said I was a natural drummer, and that if I would stick with it, I would be more successful.

TP: He was a smart guy, wasn’t he, Eddie Harris.

JACK: Oh, he was a genius. Great guy. He played all the instruments. That’s what he said. “I play all the instruments, but I had to make saxophone my main instrument.” He had to do the same thing for himself. You have to decide.

TP: Let me ask about a few other collaborative projects. One is the Ivey-Divey record, which had a lot of acclaim, although I gather you’re not playing that gig any more.

JACK: But that doesn’t mean that if something comes up and I’m available, I won’t go out and do it.

TP: What was that project like for you?

JACK: Don and I are good friends. I love Don. He lives nearby. When we were talking about coming from that lineage, Don is extremely broad, and he has a penchant for investigating all kinds of genres of music and juxtaposing his spin on it, which is very interesting. He talked to me about this project in the sense of a great jazz trio, which was an original recording with Nat King Cole and Buddy Rich and Lester Young. He wanted to do something based on that, without a bass — although he did add a bass, Lonnie Plaxico, on a couple of tracks, and Ralph Alessi on a couple of tracks. But the primary premise was to do some of those songs that they did, but do them in the present. I think one of the reasons that came off so great is that Jason had planned to listen to that recording, but he never got around to it. Well, I think he listened to it afterwards. But it was good, because then he wasn’t pre-frontloaded about how to approach this concept. So when he got there he was fresh, and approached it with a fresh concept — his concept. As a result, it was a surprising feeling that took over the music, and it was received really enthusiastically by the critics and by the public.

TP: Now, you knew that Prez-Nat Cole-Buddy Rich record.

JACK: Yes.

TP: What was it like for you to deal with material that’s iconic? But I suppose it’s old hat for you to find fresh ways to deal with received information.

JACK: Yeah, but there are some nods to the way the drums were played in the period. Like, in the introduction, the solo I played on I Want To Be Happy, you hear that nod to that type of playing, the 4/4 on the bass drum, and playing the solo on the snare exclusively. So you’ve got to move in and out of it as the music calls for it. You have to be there right in the present with that music, and not try to duplicate what it came off before. Sort of somehow it’s going to come out anyway, the past, the present and the future, all in that instant.

TP: And you’re still touring with Keith Jarrett and Gary Peacock, so I suppose that’s another major part of your activity, at least for when the band is touring.

JACK: Yes, it is.

TP: It’s scheduled for later this year and 2006, too.

JACK: There are some things scheduled for that. I’m going to be touring with Foday in the fall of next year — October. The duo now has actually become a trio, with Jerome on bass.

TP: Do you know Jerome from Sonny Rollins?

JACK: Yes, actually through Sonny and through him playing with a lot of other musicians around New York. He’s such a versatile player and creative musician that he’s in demand all the time, and I’m fortunate to get him in quite a few of my projects. I also have a Latin project which involves Jerome and Don Byron and Giovanni Hidalgo, Edsel Gomez, and Luisito Quintero. I’ve recorded that band professionally, and I just haven’t… It’s great. I have an abundance of projects. We have another one, but before I get to that, in regards to Jerome: He just is so supportive and great as a person. He adds so much to the music. So it’s always a pleasure to work with him.

TP: Does the Latin Project have a different book than your quartet with Danilo and John Patitucci?

JACK: The Latin Project involves music written by Don, Jerome, Edsel and myself.

TP: So it’s a more cooperative band?

JACK: In a sense. I mean, it’s my band, my project.

TP: Are you concerned with playing idiomatically on that band, in other words, with not breaking clave, or are you bringing your typical expansive approach to that music?

JACK: We’re doing both things. Somebody’s always holding it together. There are grooves going in there. What breaks that is when I’m soloing behind anybody else, or if Giovanni is soloing he’ll break out of just playing steady rhythms and get abstract. I’ve noticed that… We did 8 dates for Artist Presenters concerts earlier this year, and as the band progressed, the percussionists got looser. So we do work off of the clave, but a lot of the music is written as Latin, but no straight-ahead swing stuff. It’s more or less in the Latin vein, but the way we treat it is very different.

TP: Again, we have the serious deep groove and then the elaboration of that groove. It occurs to me that you’ve played with Keith Jarrett now for about forty years.

JACK: No, it’s about thirty.

TP: With Charles Lloyd…

JACK: It’s about 30 years. A little over 30.

TP: Miles at the Cellar Door was in ’70, and you played with Charles Lloyd before that.

JACK: That was the late ’60s.

TP: So 36-37 years. It’s in my mind because I’ve just been listening to the Cellar Door recordings, particularly the ones before John McLaughlin joined in, and checking out the interplay between you when he was playing those keyboards and how open and intuitive it was, and how imaginative it was. I’m wondering how the relationship has evolved and your mutual impact on each other. I don’t know if there’s anything to say about it…

JACK: Well, there’s not a lot to say about it except that you hear it in the music. It’s a trust of each other. It’s a continuation of… I guess it’s experience that we bring together… Also with Gary, too. But the experience that we bring to the music, no matter what it is we’re playing, and the ability to stay open and be ready for the unexpected, that keeps it interesting for Keith and I and Gary to play together. We don’t have to talk a lot about the music. Maybe for tunes or about an arrangement for a piece. But most of it is we sit down and see what happens. That’s always the way it’s been?

TP: Is that what you like to have in all your projects, a sit down and see what happens kind of thing? After due preparation, of course.

JACK: Yes. Absolutely. Well, that’s the whole idea of improvisation, to be prepared to play the unexpected. Always be prepared to play what you don’t know.

TP: It sounds like you’ve really been able to move yourself towards a one-sound concept, bringing everything you know into all the projects you’re doing. It’s a very nice position to be in.

JACK:  I’ve got a few other projects I want to tell you about. There’s a project which is coming out next month which involves remixes.

TP: I just listened to it this morning, before this conversation.

JACK: Good. My son-in-law, who is Ben Surman, who is a good musician and technical sound-engineer and a great remixer… We wanted to work together, and we decided to do a project called The Ripple Effect—and of course, the title of the CD is Hybrid. Ben and my daughter, Minya, on our website who does some of the covers, came up with it. But the idea for this, as Ben puts it on the back, is to take previously recorded tracks – duo tracks I might add (I call this the Art of the Duo series) – and to be able to keep the integrity of the original tracks but make new stories out of them. This is what Ben has done so incredibly well. He’s taken four tracks from Foday and I from The Hearts of the Masters, and remixed those, and three tracks from a very gifted and talented Brazilian singer and musician, Martui Miranda, So those have been remixed. And we have one track that Ben and I did together. I’m real excited about the results of that. This is moving into different areas, when you talk about remixes, special mixes for clubs, and different outlets, like electronica. But Ben’s ability to remix in such a way that it’s not like a lot of remixes, where you put on a loop and it’s repetitive, it runs on for a long time. These are soundscapes that tell stories, and they change in surprising ways, and there’s a great balance between acoustic and electronica, and I think it raised the bar of artistic meanings.

TP: Do you listen to much electronica? Have you been?

JACK: I’ve listened to some, yeah. Some chill music. I don’t listen a whole lot, but there and then. Will Calhoun comes up and he’ll keep up to date on what’s happening.

TP: There’s also the meditation record.

JACK: Yes, the meditation is the first of these Golden Beams. Again, that’s something I did for my wife Lydia. She does healing work.

TP: So this was her commission for you.

JACK: Well, yeah. I wanted to do something to make it nice for a person to relax and just get rid of stress.

TP: Do you use it for yourself?

JACK: Yes. When I’m on the road, I use it. It grounds me and soothes me. A lot of people do that. It turned out that I passed it out to friends and people said, “Oh, this is nice,” and I thought, “Well, maybe I should put this out.” The person who took the cover photograph liked it so much, he used it for yoga. People use it for healing work, to ground people. So it’s taken on a life of its own.

TP: It might be the most personal of all the records, then, if you’re using it to relax like that. Are you spending much time on the road now?

JACK: Yes, I’ve been on the road a lot. But before we get to that, I’ve got six weeks off, which I have a lot of work I have to do. Actually, another project that’s coming out by the end of January next year is a project that Bill Frisell and I did. While I was out with Keith at the Earshot Jazz Festival in Seattle in 2001, he and I did a concert together.

TP: You’ve done a couple of records with him on other people’s projects, right?

JACK: Yes. And I did something with Tim Ries as well. Anyway, now I have to get this together by the end of next month. That will come out next year on Golden Beams, because there’s a quick window to get it in there and get it out. The label is allowing that to happen.

TP: So it just doesn’t stop for you, does it.

JACK: No, it’s great stuff. It’s just a lot of work for all of us.

TP: A musician these days has to be an entrepreneur, I suppose. You have play, you have to practice, you have to set up the gigs, you have to set up the technology, and you have to find people help you who know what they’re doing.

JACK: Koch Music will be our distributor here in the States, and in the next couple of months we’ll have European distribution. So we’re moving slowly. One other thing about the label which I think is important to mention. You’ll notice that within a span of a year, maybe 18 months into next year, there’s a lot of releases being released on this label. Normally, an artist wouldn’t do that. But the different CDs I’m doing seem to fit different areas. So we feel strongly that they don’t conflict. The electronica is one thing, the Hearts of the Masters is another, the duo with Frisell is another, the project with Don Alias will be another. The DVD with Don is about the making of that. It’s called Talking Drummers, but the CD will be called Welcome Blessing. We’re going to put that out a little later.

TP: Why do duos appeal to you so much?

JACK: They just seem to pop up that way! It’s a one-on-one, so therefore, you’re really exposed in that setting. You hear in a different way when it’s just two people playing. Like, with Bill, there’s some electronic stuff that we use that enables us to get a bigger sound, the same as it was with John Surman in the live performance, where we have pre-recorded ambient things, and I have my Roland (?)-sonic percussion module. So it gives you… Even though there’s two of you, you’re still an orchestra.

TP: I have many more things I can ask you, but not enough room to print it. We’ve covered your projects, which is what this is about.

JACK: Oh, one more project. This one is a Spanish project with Chano Dominguez. I’ve been a fan of his for quite a while. I first heard him in Cuba at the Free Jazz Festival, and Danilo Perez introduced me to him. This year I was able to do something with him, Jerome Harris, Luisito Quintero, and a flamenco singer named Blas Cordoba who sings with Chano. We did a few dates in Europe this year – one in Germany, one in Italy. We’re doing some of Chano’s pieces and some of mine, and I’m looking forward to hearing some more of that. Hopefully, I can bring Chano over to do some things in the States. So that’s another project I’d like to pursue in the future.

I’m also may be doing a project with Nigel Kennedy which may feature Herbie and Ron Carter. I’m also producing a project with Igor Butman, tentatively next year…

TP: Will that be a straight-ahead jazz project?

JACK: Yes. It’s a project of his arrangements of a Russian cartoon that was famous, and the music for that. He’s got somebody interested in seeing him record that music. Also, next January I’m going to be doing something with Chick Corea, John Patitucci, myself and a couple of guest artists. We’re going to go to (?).

TP: We need a book here, or at least a full website.

JACK: Well, that we’ve got.

TP: On your website, you make reference to your melodic concept of the drums, but you don’t elaborate on what the melodic concept of the drums is. How do you mean it?

JACK: First of all, tuning the drums, tuning them to different pitches of the intervals. In other words, fourths, fifths, thirds, or a chord maybe. It depends. But they’re tuned so that whenever I’m accompanying someone or playing a solo, I can build a motif or a melody that I can follow and somebody who’s listening can follow, so there’s always music happening on the drumset.


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Filed under Chicago, DownBeat, Drummer, Jack DeJohnette, Jazz.com, Jazziz

For Marcus Roberts’ 53rd Birthday, a Jazziz Feature From 2014, a 2009 Interview on Jazz.com, and a 1999 interview for bn.com

A day late for the 53rd birthday of the singular pianist Marcus Roberts, I’d like to present a feature piece that I was given an opportunity to write about him for Jazziz in 2014,  a lengthy March 2009 interview that initially appeared  on Ted Gioia’s now-much missed http://www.jazz.com ‘zine, and a 1999 interview for the Barnes and Noble website when selling CDs was still part of their business model.


Jazziz Article (“Visionary Man”) — Spring 2014:

Wynton Marsalis, who does not suffer fools and has built an empire doing things his way, does not readily accept criticism. But when pianist Marcus Roberts speaks, Marsalis listens.

During a 2005 interview, Marsalis enthusiastically recalled discussions with Roberts during the pianist’s 1985-’91 tenure in several of his bands. “We discussed philosophical questions about music, like whether in jazz the bottom can move like the top,” he told me. “It’s hard to create a groove with melodic motion in the bottom. So what do you do with the bass? We talked about a lot of harmony versus no harmony; atonal music versus tonal music; should we focus more on abstract concepts or on melody? Is abstraction a dead-end street or on the cutting edge?”

Two years after that conversation, in October 2007, Marsalis drove 1,100 miles from New York City to Tallahassee, Florida, to collaborate with Roberts — who teaches at Florida State University — on a range of educational activities, and to play a concert with the pianist and record in the studio with Roberts’ trio, then comprising bassist Roland Guerin and drummer Jason Marsalis, Wynton’s younger brother. Six years after that busy week in the Sunshine State, in November 2013, Roberts simultaneously released separate CDs of the proceedings — Together Again: Live in Concert and Together Again: In the Studio — along with a 2012 studio session titled From Rags to Rhythm, a 12-movement suite performed by his current trio, with Jason Marsalis and bassist Rodney Jordan. All three discs were released on Roberts’ imprint, J-Master Records.

The Together Again albums document the Marsalis-Roberts partnership for the first time since the 1991 performances included in the Wynton Marsalis Septet’s 7-CD box set Live at the Village Vanguard. “We wanted to showcase the natural way we communicate, and we chose music you could play without much rehearsal,” Roberts says, speaking by phone from his Tallahassee home in December. “The playing is spontaneous and comfortable. We both know way more about music than we did when we were making records together. But the way we relate hasn’t changed, as it probably never will.”

The settled, old-master quality contained on the Together Again discs contrasts with the exploratory quality of earlier encounters like ]J-Mood, Live at Blues Alley, Marsalis Standard Time, The Majesty of the Blues, Blue Interlude and the three volumes of Soul Gestures in Southern Blue. Those albums represent Marsalis’ shift from the vertiginous, high-energy rhythmic and harmonic abstractions of his 1983-85 quintet (with Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland and Jeff Watts) to the blues-grounded, groove-oriented, orchestrally sophisticated, “all jazz is modern” conception that, after 1988, would define the Wynton Marsalis Septet and continues to bedrock the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

“We attacked specific problems,” Roberts says of those albums. “When I entered the band, we were playing primarily original music, but our ballads sounded terrible. I identified that to Wynton as something we needed to work on. When we played standards from the ’30s and ’40s, that didn’t sound good. I remember mentioning that we needed to play more blues, but when we played them, it wasn’t that happening either. So the blues pieces on some of those records were us working on putting more human feeling into the music, making it more accessible to lay people.

“Wynton taught me a lot about how to identify the things you work on. With his notoriety and fame, he could easily have continued in our prior vein of music. But for him — and for me — it’s always been a question of dealing with the code of ethics that the music itself imposes.”

Those ethics were already in place in 1980, when Marsalis, then 19, met Roberts, a 17-year-old senior at the Florida School for the Deaf & Blind, at the Jazz Educators Convention in Chicago. As his own career ascended, Marsalis stayed in touch, sent Roberts recordings by Thelonious Monk, brought him to various gigs to hang out and sometimes sit in. After Kirkland and Branford jumped ship to tour with Sting, he offered Roberts a job. Drummer Jeff Watts recalls Roberts’ command of the repertoire on his first gig with the band, in Salt Lake City. “What he played, I’m sure he would like to take back,” Watts says. “But he knew it cold. There was nothing that was going to prevent us from playing anything in our book. I use Marcus as an example to people who make excuses about not having one thing or another together. He is at the top with regards to work ethic.”

Himself no slouch in the hard-work-is-good-for-you department, Marsalis attested to Roberts’ diligence and his refusal to allow his disability to impede creative expression. “Marcus was still developing his playing then,” Marsalis said. “I called him because he had the most intelligence and depth of feeling and integrity — personally, as a man — of any musician I’d encountered around my age. I knew it from speaking to him, and I wanted to be around that kind of feeling. The size of his mind was good for me. I found out how serious and thorough he is about studying and learning and playing. We had long, long pieces, and he’d learn the music by ear before we could learn it by reading.

“From watching Marcus develop, I learned that your artistry is your integrity and who you are as a person. That’s the most important component, not whether you can hear chords quicker or play a more complex polyrhythm than somebody.”

For Roberts, putting in the hours is as much a matter of necessity as an ethical imperative. “Because of my disability, I’m not able to sight-read,” he says. “If I don’t learn the piece inside and out, the likelihood of something going wrong is greater. So from the time I was 12, I didn’t just learn what the piano was playing; I tried to understand the whole structure. I don’t learn music quickly; to this day it takes a long time to absorb it into my system. But when I really know something, I can hear what it should sound like based on what I can bring to it. It’s almost like I can manipulate it as I go along, hearing it in my head as I go, based on how I can use the piano to shape the overall architecture.

“After our first tour, I worked just on comping for two months, six hours a day, before our next set of gigs. I listened to a lot of Duke Ellington and Hank Jones. When we went out, everybody was shocked that I’d advanced so much in that short a time. But the bottom line was that if I was going to be out there doing it, it needed to be right. I was always taught there’s not much point in doing anything halfway. This music is only desirable to people if played at the highest level. Enlightenment comes from above, not below.”


Between 1988 and 2001, Roberts released 14 solo, trio and ensemble albums. Before the arrival of 2012’s Deep in the Shed: A Blues Suite and Across the Imaginary Divide — on which his trio finds common ground with banjo giant Béla Fleck — and the three new albums, Roberts had released only two discs since 2001.

He began his recording career as a leader with The Truth is Spoken Here, an all-star ensemble gathering, which he followed with the first version of Deep in the Shed, a suite of original music with a unit that included Marsalis and other close generational contemporaries. Then came 1991’s Alone With Three Giants, a solo outing on which Roberts found new routes into repertoire by Jelly Roll Morton, Ellington and Monk; 1992’s As Serenity Approaches, which contains solo and duo performances of original pieces and items from the American Songbook and stride-piano canons; and 1993’s If I Could Be With You, another solo recital. Portraits in Blue, from 1995, features Roberts improvising to the piano parts of orchestral works by George Gershwin and James P. Johnson, while on The Joy of Joplin, from 1998, he offers solo renderings of 16 numbers by early-century ragtime poet Scott Joplin.

On these albums, Roberts grapples with the vocabularies of the European canon and the foundational streams of American jazz, addresses the material on its own terms of engagement, interprets it with virtuoso execution and conceptual freshness, pulling a thick, sweet, legato sound from the piano. He advanced his goal of “always expanding while using the whole history of the music all the time” on a pair of late-’90s trio sessions (both released just after the millennium by Columbia, which then dropped him) with Guerin and Jason Marsalis. His statements on the 16 Nat Cole-Cole Porter-associated pieces that comprise Cole After Midnight and the 12 Ellington-inflected originals on In Honor of Duke incorporate elements of Ellington, Monk, James P. Johnson, McCoy Tyner, Kirkland and Danilo Perez.

Roberts contends that From Rags to Rhythm represents the most comprehensive realization of his aesthetic. Composed in 2001 on commission from Chamber Music America, and reworked and refined as the aughts progressed, it’s a 12-movement work with interchangeable themes that reappear in various contexts as the piece transpires. Roberts explains why it, the 2006 session From New Orleans to Harlem (issued in 2009) and 2011’s Celebrating Christmas are his only trio releases of the 21st century.

“I’m sure a lot of folks wondered whether I’d disappeared or wasn’t doing much,” he says. “I recorded a lot of stuff during this time. But I was no longer on a major label, and the industry was changing. Possibilities on the Internet had not matured. So I decided to wait while figuring out methods and strategies to disseminate my work to the public. Also, I was exploring more deeply how classical music and jazz could be presented together, so I needed to invest myself in the piano to prepare for the next big stage of my career. I was overhauling my technique, exploring a more refined approach to sound, expanding the amount of nuance I can play through voicing and pedaling, playing contrapuntally with a certain balance and articulation.

“I was happy with the trio, but didn’t want to record again until we were able to organically improvise that concept with a certain feeling. At this point it’s more a way of life, a philosophy, what we believe in. Whatever we play, it sounds completely different from night to night.”

“Marcus always plays experimentally,” says his 48-year-old bassist Rodney Jordan, who regards Roberts as a kindred spirit to a pair of his own early employers, outcat veterans Kidd Jordan and Alvin Fielder. “To my ears, he’s no different than them in terms of feeling free when you play music.”

Roberts takes the comparison in stride. “What interests me is that, whatever we’re playing, we all communicate and respond to what each person is playing, so that we can freely determine what should come next,” he says. Then he preemptively addresses brickbats thrown at him over the past quarter-century for paying too much attention to older styles and too little to bebop and beyond.

“Most people think I’ve been playing that stuff my whole life,” Roberts says, after observing that he didn’t begin to investigate Jelly Roll Morton’s music until 1988, for a “Classical Jazz” show that Marsalis presented at Lincoln Center. He notes that his formative sensibility gestated not only from playing piano in his mother’s church and accompanying her in their Jacksonville, Florida, home, but also covering ’70s hits by Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Natalie Cole. He pinpoints his jazz epiphany to age 12, when a local swing era-oriented radio show exposed him to Duke Ellington, as well as Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson and Mary Lou Williams.

“I’d never heard any chords like what Ellington played on the piano, and the sound interested me,” he says. “The music was from the 1930s or 1940s, but to me it was like new. It was modern. It was the same with Jelly Roll when Wynton got me into him, and I realized how profoundly difficult his stuff really is; it turned my approach and world of piano upside-down. As I got deeply into it, I saw relationships to the church music I grew up hearing. When I hear two styles, what intrigues me is not what makes them different, but where they intersect, how to unite those two sounds into something else.”

One way Roberts individualizes his sound is by utilizing orchestral devices initially borrowed from the Ahmad Jamal Trio. In the course of a single piece, he constantly modulates grooves, tempos and keys, plays separate time signatures with the right hand and the left, and, as he puts it, “flips around the roles of the piano, bass and drums by giving everyone an equal opportunity to develop the concepts and themes, to change the form, to get us where we’re getting ready to go.”

“I’ve always experimented with whatever music came into my environment and tried to figure out how to use it in my own way. ‘New’ is anything of value, anything that’s relevant to helping me do what I want to do right now. There’s no big agenda. The goal is just to play better every day. Your individual identity as a musician is there, just like the identity of the sound of your voice. The question is what vocabulary to use through that voice. That’s what Wynton and I always understood without having to state it. It’s never been about jazz, per se. I don’t consider myself to be a New Orleans pianist or a stride pianist or a bebop pianist or a classical pianist. I study the whole history and try to develop globally that way.”


Title: Leaning Classical

In 2012, Marcus Roberts composed a three-movement piano concerto, titled “Spirit of the Blues: A Piano Concerto in C-Minor,” dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King. He premiered it with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and his trio on April 4, 2013, the 45th anniversary of King’s assassination.

After receiving the commission in 2010, Roberts spent more than a year preparing and contemplating. “I didn’t want it to sound like a jazz guy who is dabbling in classical music,” he says. “I had Rimsky-Korsakov’s Principles of Orchestration and Samuel Adler’s The Study of Orchestration scanned to Braille, and I studied them thoroughly.”

Once the composing began, Roberts used CakeTalking for SONAR, a program developed by Dancing Dots Braille Music Technology. “I established maybe 30 tracks, put an instrument on each track, and played in what I wanted each instrument to do,” he says. “To hear what the flute is doing at measure 32, I press a command, jump to the measure, solo the flute, and hear it exactly. Once I finished each movement, I exported the file into Sibelius, and my copyist and I would prepare it to [conductor] Robert Spano’s requirements. The tempos change constantly, so they had to be communicated clearly. Since I’m a blind guy playing a new piece with an orchestra, we wanted to make sure the transitions from section to section were seamless.”

Roberts modeled each movement after iconic concertos from the classical canon. The first movement, “The Blues,” connects blues chords to motifs refracted from Beethoven’s “Third Concerto in C-Major, Opus 37”; the second movement, “The Dream,” is inspired by the second movement of Ravel’s G-major concerto; the third movement, “Freedom,” whose Latin elements and percussive textures palpably connect it to the jazz continuum, evokes both Bartok’s second piano concerto and the third movement of Prokofiev’s third concerto.

Roberts is proud of more than the notes and tones. “In a weird way, it’s symbolic that I’m representing this struggle to independently compose a piece of this scale that blind musicians have faced for decades,” he says. But he also feels that the work embodies his aim of “continuing to push the envelope in bringing jazz and classical music together.”

“The orchestra authentically plays the classical part, the trio does the authentic version of the jazz,” he says. “Hopefully I’ve written into the composition how the two forms coexist and melded them into one unified entity that represents modern life, which is global.”


Interview with Marcus Roberts for http://www.jazz.com, March 24, 2009:


Jazz criticism over the last two decades has usually ascribed to pianist Marcus Roberts the aesthetics of “conservative neotraditionalism.” But the truth of the matter is somewhat more complex.

A virtuoso instrumentalist and a walking history of 20th century piano vocabulary, Roberts is concerned with sustaining a modern dialogue with the eternal verities and transmuting them into present-day argot; abiding by the motto “fundamental but new,” he takes the tropes of jazz and European traditions at face value, and grapples with them on their own terms, without cliche.

“What I’m advocating is always to expand while using the whole history of the music all the time,” Roberts said in 1999, articulating a theme that he more fully develops in this interview, conducted a decade hence. At the time, he had recently presented his nascent, individualistic conception of the piano trio on a songbook homage to Nat Cole and Cole Porter Cole After Midnight and a suite of original music inspired by his muse, Duke Ellington called In Honor Of Duke, augmenting a corpus that included an improvised solo suite on Scott Joplin’s corpus and customized arrangements of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and James P. Johnson’s “Yamacraw.”

“As an example,” Roberts continued, “Ellington was not somebody who was going, ‘Oh, there’s Bebop; let’s throw away the big band and solo all night on ‘Cherokee.’ He was about using the logical elements of Bebop that made sense inside of his ever-expanding conception. I don’t consider myself to be a New Orleans pianist, or a stride pianist, or a bebop pianist or any of that. I study the whole history and try to develop globally that way.”

Now a working unit for 14 years, Roberts and his trio (Roland Guerin, bass; Jason Marsalis, drums) deploy that approach on New Orleans Meets Harlem, Vol. 1,”his first release since 2001. They address repertoire by Joplin, Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, and Thelonious Monk, laying down a pan-American array of grooves, channeling the essence of the old masters without regurgitating a single one of their licks.

“Marcus Roberts was a whole other whole category of musician for me to play with,” Wynton Marsalis told me a few years, reflecting on the ways in which Roberts, who replaced the mercurial Kenny Kirkland in Marsalis’ band in 1986, helped trigger a sea change in the way Marsalis viewed his own musical production. “I had never encountered a musician around my age with that level of intelligence and depth of feeling about the music. He gave me a lot of strength. He made me understand you can’t make it by yourself. You have to play with people, and his music is about getting together with other people. Marcus made me understand that if a person has a belief, that is their artistry. What Marcus Roberts told me then (and we were both very young men) is the truth: Your artistry is your integrity and who you are as a man. Who you are as a person. What you are about. What’s inside of you. That’s the most important component, not whether you can hear chords quicker than somebody or play a more complex polyrhythm. I learned that from him, and from watching him and his development.”
Is From New Orleans to Harlem the recording that you’ve been trying to find the right time to put out over the last few years, or is it very recently recorded?

I first recorded it in 2004. I edited it and mixed it and mastered it, and ultimately it just wasn’t quite what I wanted it to be, so I re-recorded it in 2006, and now I’m putting it out. It’s really the second version. I re-did the whole thing. If I’m going to put it out, in my estimation, I need to be happy with it if I’m going to expect anybody else to be happy buying it.

What dissatisfied you about the first incarnation?

I can’t even put my finger on it. I just didn’t feel that it captured where we had evolved to. By the time I’d fixed it and edited it and did all the post-production, we were playing—honestly—so differently that it didn’t feel to me as though we had captured that in the first iteration. The other issue was that the last recording of mine on a major record label, Cole After Midnight, came out in 2001, but it was actually recorded in 1998. In other words, the last anybody heard of my work really dates back 11 years.

What are some of the reasons for that gap? It’s not like you disappeared and hid in a cave. You’ve been performing a lot.

It’s been a few things. For one, after leaving Columbia I knew that I didn’t want to sign with another major record label. So I was no longer interested in going in that direction, but at the same time, a lot of possibilities now available on the Internet had not matured yet. A lot of changes were still in process, and I wanted to wait and allow us to use these different methods, strategies, and approaches to disseminate our work to the public.

The other reason was that, as happy as I was with my group, we needed to do some work to fill in some conceptual holes that I thought were there, and I didn’t want to record anything until I felt those things had been resolved.

The third reason is pianistic. I needed to look at some major things to overhaul my technique, which you really have to do every five or ten years. You need to constantly examine what you’re doing, what you think about your general approach to sound, what new technical principles you’re interested in exploring that might require real time. So I felt I needed to take some time and invest myself in the piano to prepare for the next big stage of my career.

Those were the main reasons, off the top of my head, why it’s been so long. One final one is that I took a job, a half-time position at Florida State University, my old school, to teach jazz and help them with my jazz program. I’ve been teaching young people my whole life, since I was a kid. I always liked doing it. You learn a lot when you teach, because you really have to think about what they need, what their talents and gifts are, and find a way to develop them using their skills and abilities, not just your perspective. It’s hard work if you want to be good at it, and it took a long time. I’m in my fifth year at FSU, and finally I feel I’m making a real contribution to the program.

Let me follow up on points two and three. You said the trio needed to bolster some things conceptually and you needed to overhaul your technique. What specific technical and conceptual things were you looking to do?

I was developing a real interest in exploring more deeply how classical music and jazz could be presented together. That meant I needed to invest more time. Conceptually, I was and am interested in exploring a much more refined approach to sound, which meant that I needed to pick up some old repertoire and really investigate it. Bach, for example, which is the foundation of any keyboard technique. I wanted to go back to Bach for my concept of contrapuntal playing, viewing the piano as an instrument that is primarily interested in more than one line at a time, which is one of the big gifts that the piano offers. Another issue is to be able to play these lines with a certain amount of balance and clarity and articulation—so Bach is perfect. Then, another issue has to do with balance, being able to work on voicing and pedaling so that you can increase or expand the amount of nuance that you are capable of playing on the piano at any given time. I tried to focus on making sure that, if I’m playing something soft. . .well, where is the threshold when I feel I’m starting to gain control of that nuance, of these soft colors? You can play a lot of different things when you study classical piano. The literature is clearly laid out, so if you know which things to study, you can cover a lot of territory. For example, if you’ve been trying to work on articulation and more of a light, clear touch on the instrument, you’ll play Mozart for that. If you want to deal with color and sonority, well, you can’t get any better than Debussy and Ravel. If you want somebody who is in a direct line from Bach and Mozart, but a more romantic, sensual attitude, then Chopin is challenging, because you have to be able to play things very light and beautiful, but also play certain passages with tremendous power and virtuosity.

 It’s hard to do consequential R&D when you’re on the road a lot, too, isn’t it.

Well, it is a difficult thing to do when you’re on the road. It’s difficult to do when you’re in the middle of presenting music that you’ve been playing for a while. New information reinvigorates you. Inspiration, in my opinion, is the key to a good imagination. Without inspiration, you just start playing the same old stuff, and your playing becomes, in my opinion, annoying and predictable—and I just don’t ever want to go there. I’ll stop first. There is no point putting on the stage something that you don’t care enough about to work on. That’s just for me. Whether we want to call it “new” or “old” or “innovative” or whatever else, if you’re not investing in it every day of your life, then you’re not as serious about art as some great artists have been. That’s all I can say.

Back to point two, what did the trio need to accomplish?

I have to say that they’re so talented. Jason Marsalis is capable… You might sit down with him and be playing just a regular B-flat blues, and say, “You know what? We’re going to modulate to A-minor, and when we modulate to A-minor I want you to keep the same form but play it in 7/4 time.” He has perfect pitch, so when you modulate he knows you’re there, plus he can keep track of those two time signatures at the same time. No hesitation. Roland has a different kind of natural ability to use syncopation and grooves on the bass in this more folk type of style—funk music, zydeco, Louisiana playing—and also has a love of Ron Carter’s role in the Miles Davis Quintet, and a real deep connection with Jimmy Garrison from Coltrane’s group—he’s figured out a way to put all of that stuff together. The two of them playing together get this sophisticated, more abstract view of groove and time and rhythm.

What I wanted to achieve with them was showcase that talent, write arrangements that would make it easier for them to exploit nuance. That’s one component that the public can address and digest comfortably. In the same way that when you go to a very sophisticated restaurant, you may not know the 20 ingredients in this chicken dish, but you know that it tastes good, and you know that there are some subtle reasons why. So I wanted to pay attention to these nuances and go in the direction of some of the other great trios that existed. The Oscar Peterson Trio was fantastic. Their execution was flawless. They had such a huge dynamic range. When Ray Brown would start to take a bass solo, it was a bass reflection of OP’s virtuosic piano sound and style. Or Ahmad Jamal, who right now, today, can sit down at a piano and blow you away by himself, with a trio, with his conception, with his accompaniment… Frankly, we live in a loud culture, so everybody’s view of a jazz trio is kind of, “Oh yeah, cocktail music” or “it’s kind of cute, it’s kind of nice…” Now, if we want the American people, or any other group, to take a jazz trio seriously, we have to work hard to present a group that has the same power, virtuosity and delicacy that we can find in a quartet, or quintet, or septet.

Then the second way to do it is by flipping around the roles of the piano and bass and drums. My modern view is that if we make room for the bass and the drum, they’ll be able to have equal access in bringing us where we’re getting ready to go. If Roland wants to change the form or the tempo, how do we set up a cue system so we actually can do that without the piano having to set it up? We had to figure out how to do it, and that changed the way we play.

You’ve been evolving that concept for some time, haven’t you. You were talking about this ten years ago.

We talked about it ten years ago as a conception. It became a philosophy when we really started to be able to do it. That’s the difference. The conception is always something that we can talk about, but the question is whether you’re going to really push and figure it out, or whether it’s going to be mainly conception.

Looking at the repertoire and the concept of the recording, I can’t help but be reminded of the recording Alone With Three Giantsi, from twenty years ago, on which you interpreted repertoire by three of the composers—Morton, Ellington, and Monk—whom you represent on New Orleans Meets Harlem. Let’s talk about the arc of the repertoire. It seems to represent a fairly chronological timeline from the turn of the century to modernity, beginning with Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin and concluding with tunes by Monk and your own original piece.

When you’re putting any record together, you’re trying to sequence it in a way that shows contrast and the naturalness of the set, so that when people listen they don’t get tired in the process. I’ve even listened back to some of my own records and thought it was a little too intense the whole time. Just general observations.

So you want an ebb-and-flow.

Yes. You want people to have time to digest what they’re hearing. So we start the thing with Jelly Roll; he’s at the beginning anyway, so why not? “New Orleans Blues” I thought was a good selection to start it off. Also, we kind of used that blues by Jelly Roll to be a sort of microcosm of jazz, because the way we do it, we are able naturally to cover a broad range. From my vantage point, the 21st century in jazz music has to be about presenting or being informed by the entire history of jazz at all times, not restricting oneself to a particular ten-year period. Which may have been how the music was built, brick-by-brick. But at this time in history, we live in a collaborative community, a world community, a global community. Where technology is right now, everything moves at the speed of light, and jazz music is the one music that can keep up with it. It has everything in it. It has virtuosity. It has folk music. It has stuff from the inner city. It has grandeur and sophistication and aristocracy in it. It has democracy in it. It has perhaps even tyranny in it, depending on who the bandleader is. Everything is there.

Most of the pieces on this CD I’ve been playing for years. There’s not really a whole lot of new material. What is new about it is that it’s all trio, and the concepts are organic, because I’ve been playing this stuff for a long time, and I’ve figured out how to rebuild from the ground-up to where it has a specific individual sound. To me, that was an important component.

So your Duke Ellington homage, In Honor of Duke,” which was primarily comprised of original compositions, or Cole After Midnight, or Gershwin For Lovers, all trio recordings from the ‘90s…how do you see those now?

I don’t really see them in any particular way. A record just reflects where you are in your development. For example, Gershwin For Lovers was with Wynton’s rhythm section, not my band. That was about slick arrangements, to give a good record to Columbia that I thought they could sell. In Honor of Duke represents the beginning of my original trio conception. When you come up with a concept that you believe is different or new, you often have to use original music to bring it to the forefront, because there’s no music written for the conception yet. So I wrote that music, and also the previous record, Time and Circumstance, to represent the concept, if you will. But New Orleans Meets Harlem represents the philosophy. It’s matured. It’s grown-up. It’s no longer really a concept. At this point it’s more a way of life. It’s how we play, what we believe in.

At what point in your life did the notion of having entire timeline of jazz interface in real time become part of the way you thought? I’m sure it took a while to germinate, and once it begin to germinate, it took you a while to find your way towards articulating it. Were you thinking this way before you met Wynton Marsalis?

I guess it’s always been there. Meeting Wynton was more confirmation than introduction. But the thing about Wynton is, he’s the only one in my generation who could articulate intellectually and with any real clarity what we were doing and why we were doing it, and he was the only one who really knew how to execute and operationalize it. Again, a lot of people have great ideas, but they don’t know how to make them operational. You’ll get in the middle of it, then: “Oh, I didn’t consider it whole.” “What do we do now?” “I don’t know.” So making ideas operational is important, and as I have developed, I have had to work very hard at sniffing out how to streamline some of my concepts, to bring together an operational structure with a conceptual structure. Those are the real problems artists like to solve. For example, when you write a piano concerto, it needs to be playable. I mean, it might be difficult, but it shouldn’t have you doing something that’s physically going to hurt you. So if you play a great piano concerto, or a great piece by Chopin, what’s amazing is how well it lies within the natural reach of the hand. He’s got all these problems with thirds and octaves and chromaticism and these kinds of elements, but he also has the solution right there. You just have to practice it!

As far as when I started to think in terms of the history: Well, I’ve always been in search of one general sound that I heard in church when I was 8 or 9 or 10 years old. I can’t even explain what that sound is. From time to time, you hear and play things that have an eternal resonance. You’ll play or hear a melody, and you don’t know when it could have been written. It could have been ten thousand years ago. Somebody might have hummed that way in Africa someplace, or in Japan, or in Europe. It’s timeless. It’s beyond the scope of our understanding. It’s like a subconscious-unconscious thing. Then, there’s the conscious implementation of a design that you impose on it. That’s more “modern,” new, relevant for our time, relevant for our generation, etcetera. But to me, you need both. I’ve always thought in terms of integration—of more than one thing. That takes you into the realm of multiplication as opposed to addition. I mean, it becomes easy to play something “new.” I’ve never had any shortage of creativity or imagination. I’m sure if you talked to Wynton for any length of time, he could say the same thing. It’s never been a problem actually to find new things to do.

One thing you do that Wynton likes to discuss when he talks about you, which he says is new and is pretty distinct unto you, is your ability to play different time signatures with two hands.

That came as a result of playing with Jeff Watts. It’s a different view of rhythmic syncopation. Monk was a master of syncopation; his music has syncopation built in on multi-levels. There’s the syncopation that occurs between any two notes that are a half-step apart. That’s my real view of blues—the tension that is established harmonically between two chords that are a half-step apart, two notes that can be a half-step apart, between a rhythm that could occur on-beat and another rhythm that could occur on the end of one. Syncopation means we’re imposing something on it against the ear. The ear’s got into this, and then we’re going to change it this little bit. It could even be dynamic syncopation—your ear has gotten accustomed to something soft, and all of a sudden, BAM, here’s something loud. It could be the syncopation of two instruments playing, and now, all of a sudden, we’ve got a third instrument. It’s a real complicated thing.

When you get to rhythm, once you have the general understanding of where the quarter note pulse is, and a tempo that is carrying that pulse, then the only issue is to determine on how many levels can we interject this quarter note pulse. Tain was able to calculate and understand the real math behind these permutations. To be honest, I never really understood it the way he and Jason Marsalis do. They’re on a whole different planet as far as understanding the rhythms you can play at these various tempos against other things. So that was a big part of Wynton’s philosophy, and my philosophy with my group. I was interested in adding blues to that concept, so that always, whatever the tempo or concept, it has the real feeling of jazz. That’s that folk element I’m talking about. Like, when you hear Mahalia Jackson sing. That voice—she could have been singing it a thousand years ago. It goes way beyond the generation you’re in. As I said earlier, you want to get beyond reducing anything to a ten-year period, which is kind of what a “generation” is. When you hear a Bach chorale, are you really thinking about 1720? No! You’re thinking that it’s moving you right now. “Wow, this is beautiful. How did somebody write that?” If somebody could write a Bach chorale right now, trust me!—nobody would be mad! They’d say, “Oh, Well, my-my. Somebody can do that again?” So we’ve got to be real careful in terms of how we evaluate critically the value of something based on the time period that it took place in. That’s a delicate issue.

New Orleans Meets Harlem begins in 1905, with “New Orleans Blues,” and ends in 1956 with “Ba-lue Bolivar Blues Are.” So you’re spanning the first half of the twentieth century in American music—in Black American music. Do you have any remarks on the broader implications of this body of work?

Again, they solved problems. “Ba-lue Bolivar Blues,” or any great blues that Monk wrote, has layers of syncopation that we can look at. Monk’s music to me always sounds like poetry or real modern folk music. He’s almost a modern equivalent of Jelly Roll Morton. Monk’s music is strictly jazz. Strictly. You’re not going to confuse it with German music, you’re not going to confuse it with African music, you’re not going to confuse it with anything. American jazz. Period. If somebody said, “Give us four pieces of music that sound 100 percent like jazz,” well, you’d pick a Jelly Roll Morton piece or a Louis Armstrong piece, you’d probably pick a Monk piece, you might pick something from <i>Kind of Blue</i>. I won’t speculate on the final thing. But for sure, you couldn’t go wrong picking a Monk piece. You couldn’t go wrong picking a Jelly Roll piece or a Louis Armstrong piece. You probably couldn’t go wrong picking a Duke Ellington piece. Why? Because that music has such expansiveness. Monk, Jelly Roll, Fats Waller, Joplin, and Ellington, all were serious about the piano and serious about exploring different forms, different types of nuance, which is what I’m interested in. For me, it’s always a question of figuring out who has the information that I need to develop my artistry. That’s the selfish component. Now, I’m not necessarily going back to Jelly Roll Morton to be caught up in recreating what he did. First of all, it would be very arrogant to pretend you could do that anyway. Because you’re talking about somebody’s life’s work, what they REALLY went through. And again, these recordings are just a snapshot of part of a day of your life.

And Jelly Roll Morton had quite a life.

Man, quite a life. So I think the more relevant issue is what part of Jelly Roll Morton is also part of me and what I believe. So I’m playing “New Orleans Blues,” which is a staple piece that I always will play and always have played. “Ba-Lue Bolivar Blues,” I don’t know how many arrangements of that tune we haven’t thought up in this trio. We’ve played it all kind of different ways. “Honeysuckle Rose” is another one that we’ve played several different ways. The version on this record is not exactly the same version from 2004.

So I think the importance of all the great composer-pianists, first of all, is that they reflect a range of understanding of the piano. Scott Joplin wrote down his music. He knew what he wanted people to play. Of course, he didn’t really want folks improvising on it, but we do it anyway. But he was a serious scholar of the piano. His music, again, has this urban sound, but also this melancholy—a kind of aristocratic Folk sound. It also has this connection between pre-jazz and the classical music of Chopin. In other words, it has variety built into it. It has options built into it. It’s an operating system, like Windows XP. You can put anything that you conceptualize inside of that. It doesn’t impose the moves of what it can be, but it does say, “Well, you’d better write it in 32-bit code, or the operating system won’t acknowledge it.” There’s the science of it, and there’s the art of it, the creative element. Again, you’re always balancing the design with the conception.

Who are some of your contemporary piano influences? By “contemporary,” I mean roughly within your generation. Ten years ago, you mentioned to me Danilo Perez, and I’ve heard people who know you mention Kenny Kirkland, whose chair you filled in Wynton’s group. Are there other people within striking distance of your birthday who have influenced you?

Those probably would be the two. Kenny Kirkland, first of all, just his knowledge of rhythm, his knowledge of harmony, and how he could intersect the two using not just Latin influences, but also chordal structures taken from the music of Bartok and Hindemith. He was a modern thinker. A lot of stuff Kenny was playing was way more profound than the structure that he played in. He understood theory on an extremely high level. He’d play a chord that had a rhythmic function to hook up with Jeff Watts and a harmonic function to hook up with Wynton or Branford, whoever was soloing at the time. He also, frankly, was typically the most serious person on the stage. Kenny Kirkland was one of the most consistent pianists that you could hear. I mean, tune after tune after tune, he was swinging, playing an unbelievable modern vocabulary, a great sense of Herbie Hancock’s and Chick Corea’s conception, but again, put in this really modern but delightfully percussive manner—because it still has the theory and this European training behind it.

Danilo is someone who understood another culture’s view of our music, and was able again to interface them very organically. He could sit down with you and explain how he did it. Again, it’s that concept of making something operational. Any programmer, before they start writing code for a computer program, first has to understand the function of the process. Once we know the manual procedure, then we can automate it. Danilo understood manually each of these styles, then he figured out where they intersected, and then he picked music to showcase what he’d figured out. It’s just brilliant stuff. It’s well-executed pianistically. I personally hate sloppy piano playing—somebody who doesn’t understand that the sustain pedal is there and what you’re supposed to do with it. He’s a refined player. He understands the vocabulary of these Latin cultures, where he can get away with superimposing it, where he should leave it alone. Also, he inspires the musicians he plays with, which is another job of a pianist. You have to provide an inspirational environment for the bass player and the drummer to do their thing. You have to know when to lay low and stroll so that the piano doesn’t get in the way of what somebody else is trying to play, even if it’s your conception, your philosophy and your group viewpoint. It’s a hard job. It’s not for the faint-hearted.

You were mentioning earlier that you’ve been looking your whole life for a sound that you heard as a kid in church. One development in jazz since you and Wynton got together has been a burgeoning of black musicians with church backgrounds and southern roots. This coincides with a period when MTV and hip-hop were rising in visibility and influence, and jazz wasn’t part of the zeitgeist. Any speculations?

Well, I can’t speak for anybody else’s experience. I can only tell you that this was the source of my upbringing and what led me into the piano, led me into jazz music, and that sound spoke to me. Now, did it speak to me differently than it spoke to Charles Mingus from Los Angeles, California? Probably not. I don’t know.

I’m thinking of the time and place in which you grew up.

That’s still so personal. The only thing I can tell you is, somehow or other, you’ve got to access two conflicting things. One is the value of something that is bigger than you, older than you, greater than you; the other is the physical organization that is from your generation. That’s the issue. If you grew up in church, then you found access to it that way. If your parents were jazz musicians, like Jason and Wynton and Branford… Look, they didn’t play in church. Obviously, the church is not the only way to find it. I think the main key for any jazz artist, any serious artist of any style, is you must find a connection with the beginning of it somehow. Somehow. It is never going to be enough for it to come just from your generation. That’s never enough. You’re not going to find anything great without it.

With your own label, do you plan to document your work more frequently?

Well, I’ve been documenting a lot. That hasn’t been the problem. There are a whole bunch of records still to come out. Oh yes! But I’m just starting to put the stuff out. We certainly won’t be waiting another eight years to put out a record. It will be more like six months.

Primarily trio, or a diverse range of contexts?

It’s diverse. I have a solo piano record that’s already done. I have another trio record of original music that’s done. I’ve got some septet stuff from live shows that I plan to put out—I don’t know if I’m going to go in and redo it. But yes, I’m always trying to deal with a diversified viewpoint.

Any special projects for the spring and summer?

The most important concerts that I have coming up are with the Atlanta Symphony. [These occurred on April 4th-6th.] We’re doing Gershwin’s Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra. That’s important to me, because that’s the first major symphony orchestra in the United States that we’ve done this work with. I hit it off with Robert Spano; he’s a great conductor over there. So I’m hoping that we can do a lot more work with them. I’m talking to him about possibly trying to do the same sort of thing with the Ravel Left Hand Concerto that I did with the Concerto in F. For me, that would be a huge undertaking, and it would take a tremendous amount of time and effort to pull off. But we are discussing it. At this stage of my career, I’m interested in meaningful collaboration. It’s certainly a little more streamlined. I’m not interested necessarily in just the regular play-gigs type of career.


Interview with Marcus Roberts for BarnesandNoble.com, October 22, 1999:


TP: I would like to ask you first of all about a contention that you make several times in the press material, which is that your concept of the interactive trio and of all of the members of the trio being in a position to lead the proceedings at any given time is a new concept. You say “fundamental but new.” Now, I think the trio does it with great skill and imagination. But would you explain to me a little more why it’s a new concept, as opposed to what, let’s say, Ahmad Jamal was doing in the late ’50s and the ’60s?

ROBERTS: Well, first of all, we have to address the fact that new doesn’t necessarily mean better. “New just means that no one has done it.” If we’re talking about Ahmad Jamal, the way his trio was set up, the piano was fully out front, and Ahmad wanted space so that he could manipulate through cues, visual cues…so he could manipulate the direction of the music. What he would do is, if he wanted Israel’s voice to come out more here, he would leave space and point to him as if, you know, “Play”… In other words, he was a very-very hands-on, great trio… I mean, he put together, in my opinion, the best trio I ever heard! [LAUGHS]

TP: Was he very influential on your concept of trio playing?

ROBERTS: Oh my God, yes.

TP: Talk a bit more about the dynamics of that, and talk about your antecedent trio concepts that inflect the way your sound has evolved to this day.

ROBERTS: Well, we’ve been influenced specifically by Ahmad Jamal, and certainly Errol Garner’s playing has had a profound impact on me — that whole Pittsburgh school of piano playing.

TP: What are the characteristics of that Pittsburgh school?

ROBERTS: Well, they believe first and foremost in swinging and grooving, number one. In the case of Errol Garner, we’re talking about somebody who sort of was a transitional figure from the Big Band swing players and sort of the Bebop era. Errol became very popular in the ’50s at a time when everybody was kind of into the Hardbop of Blakey and Miles, but Errol Garner just had such a hard-driving swing. In his left hand he typically used to emulate Freddie Greene’s guitar playing in the Count Basie band, and then in the right hand he would play a lot of times what you might think of as saxophone figures or trumpet figures in a big band. So he organized this within a trio concept, and the power has always been very attractive to me — just the swing and the power of Errol Garner’s playing.

Then sort of the finesse and the imagination of Ahmad Jamal, who again influenced… Most of what Miles Davis got done in the ’50s, he got pretty much directly from Ahmad Jamal, and Ahmad’s concept of expanding the form. So Ahmad would take a tune like “Autumn Leaves” that has a pretty straight-ahead AB kind of form, and he would expand the A-section until he just didn’t have to play on it any more. He’d point and say, “Okay, now we’re going to go to the bridge.” So it was a very-very flexible way of expanding form. Now, he might put a different kind of groove on the bridge. It just brings the whole tune to life, a whole different way. That’s something that I definitely was very taken by and very influenced by, that this was just a brilliant bandleader who knew how to make the piano sound like an orchestra, how he would make a single line played in the highest register of the piano ring, and then you’d hear Israel Crosby playing all kinds of hip stuff underneath; you know, Ahmad’s left hand wouldn’t be in the way or anything with the harmonic direction that Israel might want to go in…

But again, what I think we’re trying to do is introduce a concept that has an agenda that says that there are many times where the piano does not have to be out front, and rather, there are times where you have to relinquish not only a solo space, but an actual direction, an unanticipated direction that you as bandleaders don’t control, to the bass or drums. And this just isn’t done.

TP: In some ways, this is a very Ellingtonian notion, isn’t it. I mean, Ellington always had control, but it was always control based on his knowledge of what the untrammeled imagination of his improvisers would do. It’s like his concept was built around that intimate knowledge of each of his voices. Since the recording is called In Honor Of Duke, and you say it’s not Ellington repertoire but more an impression of Ellington, the idea seems consequential.

ROBERTS: We are certainly building on very, very fundamental aspects of what Ellington did. He wrote music, number one, specifically for the talents of all the men and women that he worked with throughout his career. And I think in his case, you’re talking about somebody who certainly preferred that his orchestra vision not necessarily be expressed from the standpoint of piano alone, but typically from the expanding of other people’s ability to shine. And he gave them tremendous flexibility, but he did tailor-make the music for them that allowed their imagination to come forward. But again, Duke Ellington did typically maintain control at the piano. This is why we have typically a piano introduction, because Duke Ellington was not going to risk the wrong tempo being set — he was not going to risk any of that stuff. So he did permit imagination, but you have to understand, it was definitely from the standpoint of him making sure that the environment was how he wanted it to be for that to happen. And he had very clear visions as far as what the bass and drums were going to be doing in the big band. He wanted that foundational groove there, and not being manipulated too much.

So again, if we’re talking about the bass and the drums, this is the issue that makes this new. The issue is that there hasn’t been a band that I know of where the bass and drums can dictate throughout an evening the direction that the band goes in. I haven’t heard it.

TP: Talk a bit about the cuing system you use to keep the collective spontaneous interaction organized in some sense.

ROBERTS: Well, we can have, for example, one cue that allows for anybody to either speed the tempo up or slow it down, on any tune. We have another cue system where the tempo can be changed above abruptly at any time. Then we have the music itself, which is organized in a way where there are moments where the direction of the music is in the hands of somebody other than myself, again both in terms of tempo… For example, on two separate occasions, that particular tune, every 8 bars in every break after the …(?)…, control shifts, and it’s beyond just taking a break. Typically when you take a break in jazz, you take the break at the tempo of the preceding material. Well, in this case, we don’t feel that you have to do that. The break could be at any tempo. And you can set up a whole different tempo after your break is done for the next person, so you are dictating the tempo that they play at. So that’s just like one small example of it.

So it’s just things like that. And it’s not to say it’s new like there is no relationship to using material or concepts about the form, because that is certainly not where I’m coming from at all. It’s just a matter of trying to identify things that you don’t feel have been done that can perhaps be a contribution.

TP: A quality you share with a lot of the older piano players is a very organic two-handed conception and orchestral conception of the piano within your trio concept. I don’t know if that’s a question or not, but is there anything you care to say about that?

ROBERTS: Well, I agree with that 100 percent. I love to hear the piano explore with the sense that it could be an orchestra, because it certainly has the range to do it, and it has the ability for you to play many voices at one time. So yeah, I think that is one of the things I certainly strive for every time I play the piano.

TP: You make a comment here that as a youngster and someone with a gift for playing the piano, that Ellington was really the person who turned you around when you first heard him, when you were 12 years old.


TP: Who were some of the other pianists you encountered in your formative years, let’s say between that and going to Florida State University?

ROBERTS: Well, Teddy Wilson. Mary Lou Williams. Of course, I was listening to Classical music as well. I mean, I heard Horowitz the first time when I was 13 after one piano lesson. Art Tatum, obviously. And probably McCoy Tyner to a lesser extent.

TP: It differentiates you from a lot of your peer group who weren’t exposed to any of these prewar musicians at all until maybe later, and kind of came up with the orthodox piano lineage that’s taught in universities and academic institutions. It kind of puts you apart from a number of them.

ROBERTS: Well, the only thing that puts me apart from them, honestly, is just philosophy. You have to understand that in jazz music, typically (or more disciplines, I guess), people tend to look a generation back. That’s just what people do. Because they want to take issue with what’s been done, and either change it or agree with it or just totally reject it. So I think that what I’m advocating, and what somebody like Duke Ellington certainly advocated throughout his illustrious 50-year career, is that you should always use the whole history of the music all the time. That was obviously his conception. He was not somebody who was going, “Oh, now there’s Bebop; let’s throw away the big band and solo all night on ‘Cherokee.'” He was saying, well, let’s use the logical elements of Bebop that make sense inside of his ever-expanding conception.

TP: It was an incremental concept.

ROBERTS: Yes. And this is where I think the power of Ellington’s legacy is second to none. Because it’s always expanding based on the whole history. My philosophy is, I don’t consider myself to be a New Orleans pianist, or a stride pianist, or a bebop pianist or any of that. I mean, I study the whole history and try to develop sort of globally that way. For example, I studied Mildred Falls, so I could really understand how you should accompany a Gospel singer. She played behind Mahalia all those years; she must know something about that. So I mean, I studied her playing on about four of Mahalia’s records, so I could know, and correlate what I heard in Mildred Falls that I also heard in McCoy Tyner. What was I hearing in Teddy Wilson that was being passed down to Nat Cole and to Oscar Peterson? These are the things. Or how did Count Basie go from studying directly with Fats Waller and understanding that whole Harlem Stride thing, and then over time developing actually what a lot of people would think was a contradictory way of playing, with all this space.

TP: Actually, what I hear when I listen to you and reference older pianists is a kind of rhythmic affinity for the way Earl Hines phrases and sets off rhythms. It’s the most visceral connection I feel. Which may or may not have anything to do with your reality.

ROBERTS: Well, Earl Hines, man, that’s…again, that’s another… I try, you know. But I think… See, a lot of the young pianists that I talk to, they pick, like, an era that they’re into, or they respond to a particular philosophy that they don’t want to be associated with. You have some kids who maybe they’re just into claiming that they are expanding based on the 20th Century view of the European piano is what they’re doing, or some people make it clear that Bebop is what they’re interested in. Whatever it is. I mean, that’s fine, whatever a person is into. But I just encourage them to get as much information from the reservoir as you can.

TP: Which certainly puts you on a similar track to Wynton Marsalis, and hearing you say that makes it clear to me why the two of you have been so close over the years.

ROBERTS: Well, yeah. But again, like I say, we have a model far greater than Wynton and myself in Duke Ellington. We have a very clear example of somebody… Or Thelonious Monk. We have figures where this is not some newly discovered fact. I think in most disciplines, this is how things work. Now, we aren’t really suggesting that Einstein wasn’t influenced by Copernicus or Newton; we’re not really suggesting that. So to me, it’s kind of basic, kind of fundamental. I think that Wynton, certainly, just based on how he hit the scene and everything… A lot more is made of that really makes sense to me, but maybe that’s just because that was my experience and I was there.

TP: Let’s talk about your trio. You’ve been together four years now?

ROBERTS: Mmm-hmm.

TP: A few sentences about their individual qualities and the blend you’re able to get.

ROBERTS: Well, I think that first of all if we were to begin with Roland… Roland likes to groove. He comes from a generation where he’s got Parliament-Funkadelic records and Earth Wind & Fire records and all that stuff. He’s a lot like Reginald Veal in that he just loves to groove. Anything that’s got a groove on it, he’s interested. So he actually likes the traditional role of the bass and drums as just laying that groove down. In a strange way, that’s sort of what helped unlock this new way of thinking, to sort of fluctuate between those states in a seamless way. And he has, over time, developed a very-very strong solo vocabulary and has a lot of really nice things that he does, like with slapped bass based on Slam Stewart, and taking that to another level that I haven’t heard. So he brings strength and just a whole lot of soul and grit to the bandstand.

In the case of Jason Marsalis, this is just like a brilliant, genius kid who can hear three or four tempos simultaneously. He’s somebody who has a completely perfect photographic memory. You can tell him to play “a Roy Haynes conception, but I want the touch to sound somewhat like Tony Williams, and then when you come out of it I want you to play like Baby Dodds but in five.” So you can tell him that…

TP: Is that the way you talk to him?

ROBERTS: Oh yes. I can look right over to him and just say, “Baby Dodds,” and he will go immediately into like a modern depiction.

TP: So the image is correlated into a sound for him.

ROBERTS: Yeah. I mean, he’s a genius. I have no idea how it happens, but I can tell you it’s like split second. A lot of it honestly is just there. I mean, from what I understand, he knew the solo to “Giant Steps” when he was 4 years old. I mean, he didn’t go to school and somebody teach it to him. Nobody knows. I mean, he’s somebody who just has an unusual, tremendous amount of natural talent.

But the other thing about him is that he is very dedicated, and in terms of this particular trio he has gotten very interested in taking a very active role in helping to develop it. One of the things that he told me that he’s doing… I asked him. Like I say, I’m not interested in me dictating every step. He’s interested in taking a lot of the drummers who were not trio drummers, like Max Roach and Elvin and Tony, and using their concepts in a trio context. A lot of drummers, if they play trio, they build pretty much from what we consider to be the traditional trio figures — Ed Thigpen, Vernell Fournier, etcetera. What Jason is saying is that he wants to contribute a modern dialogue with the vocabulary of some of the other drummers who are not associated with trio, and put it in that context.

TP: Just as those drummers would do when they found themselves in a trio context. Because Elvin and Tony and Max Roach and Roy Haynes all did play trios, but they weren’t “trio drummers.”

ROBERTS: Well, no. And I mean, they didn’t play trio in the way that Vernell did. They were not known as helping to develop a particular trio conception. But I think what he’s talking about is developing an identity inside of a trio that is based on not just the standard trio figures, but is (?).

TP: Was all this music more or less collectively developed over time? Talk about the process of composing the music for this trio.

ROBERTS: Well, the music for this trio really began with Time and Circumstance. That’s where my philosophy about piano, bass and drums really is put on record the first time.

TP: With another bassist.

ROBERTS: Well, it was recorded with another bassist, but actually I’d worked on a lot of that stuff with Roland. Roland was not on the record, but believe me, he was very instrumental in the development of the music. Then it sort of went there. Time and Circumstance was composed probably over a 5 to 6 month period of time. In Honor of Duke was done in a 2-1/2 month period of time. But the key thing is that it was written specifically for those two improvisers, and that it was written specifically — honestly, from the very beginning — with the concept: How can we bring the bass and drums more up-front? How can we sort of flip-flop these positions, so that the position of the piano is not lost in power, and we’re not just having these sort of generic, traditional ways at times of playing behind bass players, which I hate. It’s like every time a bass player starts to play somebody starts playing on the sock cymbal. There’s nothing wrong with that. But why is that the only way that we can think of to play behind a bass solo? It’s ridiculous. So we try to find different ways to accompany instruments that are typically not out front.

TP: You use a lot of Latin flavors on this record, explicitly and implicitly. There’s specific clave and then that sort of New Orleans inflection which has an inherent Caribbean feel. Have you been exploring Latin rhythms a great deal in recent years?

ROBERTS: A lot of that has to do with having heard Danilo Perez play. I love what he’s doing. We sat down and played, and I explained some things to him about the sort of straight-ahead piano philosophy, and how he can continue to develop his very incredible, hip, innovative Latin was that he takes a lot of the jazz standards and things; and then he shows me a lot of the basics of Latin playing, and explained to me some things that I can do to sort of bring that into what I was already doing. What I figured out is that it’s another huge reservoir of material and conceptual knowledge out there about that. So that’s why you’re hearing that. It’s something I’m feeling very driven to explore.

TP: Is composition a constant process for you? Are you always writing, or project-driven?

ROBERTS: Well, both. I have an arrangement for Trio and Symphony Orchestra of “Porgy and Bess” that I’m almost done with. That’s really consumed a lot of this year, along with the Ellington. I have a solo record that I’m working on for Columbia of all ballads, because I haven’t ever done a record quite like that, solo. I’m always trying to think of different things to do, to sort of do two things. To keep me in touch with the Folk foundation of life, but also to always stretch my imagination, always stretch my mental intellect. Because I think it’s really the combination of both things without losing one or the other that keeps progress in modern thinking kind of moving forward.

TP: In terms of your own pianism, what do you feel you need to work on? I’m assuming you’re never satisfied with what it is you do, but I assume there are certain aspects of what you do that you’re more comfortable with than, let’s say, others — or maybe I’m wrong.

ROBERTS: What I’m working on is trying to get to the point where my playing is, for lack of a better word, beautiful and poignant and clear. Balanced. Playing of Bach and Beethoven sonatas and Chopin. Those are the things that right at the moment I’m interested in doing. I have not had a whole lot of time, but I am very interested in just playing through a lot of those things. Because, see, a lot of the European masters did write specifically for the development of piano. So it’s one of the few instruments that has such a huge history both in Europe and America, you see. It’s a huge history. So to the extent that I can understand as much as I can, that’s what I plan to do. I don’t know how much better I’ll get, but that’s essentially what I’m driving by.

TP: Do you see the European Classical tradition and Jazz as a seamless entity in your mind, or are there separate personalities that come out for you?

ROBERTS: For me it’s seamless in that it’s all put and organized in a context that is jazz-based for me. I’m not interested in playing note-for-note the Beethoven Third with the New York Philharmonic. I have no real desire to do that, because I don’t have the hours and the days that it would take to really authentically represent that repertoire. But I am interested in writing music that will showcase the piano in a jazz context, but being drawn from a lot of European roots and Latin roots and other sort of merging of sensibilities.

I’d like to mention that the music is always ultimately only valuable if there is an audience for it that you can reach. That’s the most important (?) thing of any of it.

TP: And therefore the extent of your educational activities.

ROBERTS: Yes. And not only that. You are being educated. When people spend two hours getting dressed up and showing up to your event, they are just as interested in communicating with you as you are in communicating with them. I think this is where Jazz music has introduced a whole nother element, this interactive element, which I think has had a tremendous impact on how quickly jazz has moved in the past hundred years.

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For Dafnis Prieto’s 42nd Birthday, A Jazziz Article from 2012, An Uncut Blindfold Test From 2009, and an Interview conducted for a 2013 Jazz Times article on Musical Education in Cuba, and a 2001 Interview for a Short DownBeat piece




Jazziz, 2012 Feature

Late last September, not long after Dafnis Prieto was awarded a $500,000 “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation — to be distributed at quarterly intervals over the next five years — the virtuoso drummer discussed how he intended to deploy the funds. Tops on Prieto’s to-do list was to issue a recording a year on his imprint, Dafnison. The first of those recordings would be by the Proverb Trio, in which, for several years, Prieto, keyboardist Jason Lindner and vocalist Carl “Kokayi” Walker have conjured tabula rasa improvisations that, as Prieto says, “create a sense of compositional music.”

Eleven months later, not long after two sold-out nights at the Jazz Standard to support the just-issued, eponymously titled CD, the 38-year-old Cuban expatriate compared the “nothing preconceived” imperative that drives his newest project to the carefully roadmapped compositions he presents with his sextet, (documented on the 2008 date Taking the Soul for a Walk) and his Si O Si Quartet (which recorded Live at the Jazz Standard in 2009). “When Proverb Trio does a concert, I don’t know what’s going to happen, whereas with the other bands, a certain amount of what we’re going to do is written,” Prieto says. “There I want to [i]write[i] and interpret music separately from playing standards or anything else that’s been done”

In the Proverb Trio, Prieto says, the interpretative flow emanates from a mutual “chemistry and empathy” that “lets us be the way we want, express anything we want, fully accept who we are. It’s more about listening and reacting to the sounds than playing jazz or any other style that involves a lot of improvisation. Any path could be the path we develop. It’s the joyful journey of the real unpredictable. To behave that way is a basic element of life. Otherwise we become a computer which only reacts to whatever it is designed to react to.”

The opening invention on night two at the Jazz Standard reasonably represented how this aesthetic could operate in real time. Lindner, stage left, began the sonic conversation with musique concrete chords from his synthesizers, to which jockey-framed Prieto — in a lime-green, short-sleeved guayabera, chin uptilted — deployed his mallets, uncorking rolling, wave-like tom-tom beats. Lindner, the brim of his black cap almost perpendicular to the keyboard, stated a percussive response. Kokayi — burly, full-bearded, skull-shaved — shifted weight from foot to foot like a pendulum, then declaimed about texting and tweeting in a sweet tenor not unlike Sting’s. The discourse transpired within the rhythm, which Prieto had morphed into a clave with a mallet on a small bell-like cymbal while executing a counter-rhythm on the snare drum with a stick.

The performance proceeded along principles similar to those followed on the 12 pieces comprising Proverb Trio, for which Prieto juxtaposed edited-down open jams from the first portion of the sessions with shorter, more focused tracks from the second half. Each tune sounds structured, but certain giveaways — Kokayi’s abstract permutations of lines like “I got a little bit … got a little bit … little bit to say”; Lindner’s intuitive voicings; Prieto’s polyrhythmic refractions of rhythms drawn from hip-hop, funk, and the folkloric rituals of Cuba, Brazil, India and parts of Africa — bear out the extemporaneous back story.

From start to finish, Prieto showcases his extraordinary control of the drumset — the micronic precision of his subdivisions, his ability to play at different tempos with different limbs simultaneously, his refusal to sacrifice orchestration for technique. But he regards the Proverb Trio’s primary achievement as conceptual. “Most people think of ‘spontaneous composition’ as music that’s hard to connect to,” Prieto says. “It can be very introverted or follow a specific style, like Ornette Coleman or the latest period of John Coltrane. The musicians enjoy it, but not the audience. We are creating a fresh strategy, a new sound that people can enjoy.”

That strategy, Prieto notes, gestated in 1996, shortly after he graduated from Havana’s National School of Music, when Kokayi traveled to Cuba with Steve Coleman for a large-ensemble project. “I was impressed by how he incorporated hip-hop freestyling with Steve’s music, improvising with words and using a lot of rhythmic elements outside the regular beat we’re used to hearing in the hip-hop style,” Prieto says of Kokayi. After Prieto emigrated to New York City in 1999, he and Kokayi worked together on several Coleman ventures, including a 2004 engagement in Saalfelden, Austria, where they were invited to do a separate duo performance. “We learned to listen to each other on that gig,” Kokayi says. Prieto adds, “That was the birth of it —trying to interact with as much freedom and sincerity as possible.”

Sporadic work ensued, sometimes with Coleman or Henry Threadgill, himself a Prieto fan and employer, as were, during the early 2000s, Andrew Hill, Eddie Palmieri, Michel Camilo, Brian Lynch and Claudia Acuña. To have a wider range of sounds to draw upon, Prieto decided to recruit a permanent third member. In 2010 he started calling Lindner, with whom he’d previously played in Acuña’s band, in Lindner’s big band at Smalls, and in his own Absolute Quintet (the latter group documented in 2006 on Absolute Quintet).

Lindner says that the Proverb Trio offers “the thrill and challenge of getting to play everything I’ve ever learned in my life — and everything I’ve never learned in my life.” He credits Prieto for being “completely open to letting things come to him. He’s probably evolved a lot as a person to decide to have a group like this, where every night he’s making it known that we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

In Kokayi’s view, that spontaneity emanates from a “hive mindset” through which the band establishes a shifting narrative that draws on their “collective memory,” accumulated from “conversations we’ve had during travels, what we said over lunch or in the dressing room or on the phone.” He continues: “We don’t live within the confines of the paradigm of what is supposed to be jazz music. We all have this lexicon of music language, and we’re a sum total of our experiences. I don’t just listen to hip-hop. I listen to punk and rock, and I’m heavy into go-go. Jason listens to a huge bunch of stuff. Dafnis can play a rumba, a son, a guaguanco with the best of them. When he’s with Si o Si, he’s not bringing the funk and the hip-hop; he’s ‘Let me play the shit out of this Cuban music.’ But with us, he let’s go of everything and leaves his influences out.

“Dafnis has the biggest name right now. But he isn’t arrogant, like ‘This is the me show.’ It’s an equally distributed thing. Anybody can lead at any time. Anybody can set the rhythm. When everybody is allowed to contribute, you get what you have now, which is a big-assed pot of sounds and people being able to freely give of themselves and receive the messages and share information all at the same time, without pulling down trousers and see who got the biggest penis.”


Last September, Prieto mentioned that, with the MacArthur funds, he hoped to publish a book, in the works for several years, about his “personal relationship and love for the drums, the passion that I have felt since I was little.” The experience began when Prieto, who is of Spanish descent, was a 7-year-old guitar student at a music school in the predominantly black, working-class Condado district of Santa Clara, an old colonial city primarily devoted to the processing and distribution of sugar cane. When his teacher decided to organize a combo to play traditional Cuban music, Prieto opted to play bongos.

“I’d seen the bongos, and they felt natural to me,” Prieto recalled, noting that he’d frequently observed rumberos and parading carnivalistas on the streets around his house. “One day, the person who was playing the clave and singing didn’t show up for the performance, so I ended up playing the bongos with my hands and singing the clave with my mouth. The teacher told my mom she had to put me in percussion.”

At 10, he enrolled as a percussion student in the Santa Clara conservatory. At 14, he matriculated at the National School of Music, where he taught himself to play the drum set, conjuring home-grown methodologies (for example, enhancing independence by playing études from a snare drum book with his left hand while adding a clave or cascara or cowbell pattern with his right). In the course of teaching over the past decade, whether at NYU or at various clinics and master classes, he began to reflect upon and codify these practices.

“Before I started playing the drums, music for me was sound,” Prieto says. “I walked around the streets in Cuba and related to everything around me — the music, my friends, the way they talk, nature, buildings. What I am trying to re-create is somehow the way I grew up — very intuitive, very innocent, feeling the music [as though for the] first time [], as well as playing it. I was playing the rhythm of the clave; I didn’t know there was a clave rhythm. The name itself wasn’t relevant. For me, it was the content and the meaning.

“I look for different sounds in the drums, and develop a technique to get it. Sometimes I try to make drumming an inner step into the abstract zone of emotions or intellectual images or ideas. Rather than melody or rhythm, I think of visual art, form or a structure or visual illusions. I might want to re-create an idea of thunder while I’m playing a rhythmical structure, and insert different combinations to transmute and transform that idea into sound.”

Prieto began conceptualizing those ideas during his late teens and early 20s, on tours with Chilean pianist Carlos Maza, an admirer of the m.o. followed by Brazilian composers Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti, whose own drummers played from an orchestrative, textural perspective. He further exercised his imagination on late-’90s gigs in Havana with Columna B, an experimental quartet that springboarded from Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s dense, plugged-in ensemble music of the latter ’80s, Coleman’s odd-metered structures and the jagged tumbaos of timba. As his horizons expanded, he felt increasingly stifled. Unwilling to play commercial jobs, Prieto left the island, moving first to Barcelona and then to New York City.

“The alternative scene in Cuba was very small,” he says. “I was listening to Ornette Coleman and Coltrane and Monk and Indian music, and connecting on a deep level. When I got to New York, I felt like a fish in different waters — and I liked those waters and finding myself within those waters.”

Liberated from quotidian concerns by the MacArthur funds, free “to not have to accept gigs, to give more attention to what I really want, which is to be as sincere as possible within what I do,” Prieto intends to continue the process of self-discovery. Toward that end, he’s privileging self-development — “as an individual, a player, and a musician” — over composing new music for his groups. But he’s leave all options open.

“It’s like having two babies,” he says. “One appeals more to you one day, the next day the other kid does something you like. I’m always carrying with me my tools and strategies, the visions that I had before, and I’m always open to new ones. I am trying to be as sincere as possible, to play what I really feel the music needs. If I’m in a band that needs a specific music content, that’s fine, even though I’ll always be trying to develop my own voice within that.

“I don’t take styles for granted. To be myself touches those styles, or might resemble those styles, but it’s no longer those styles. I don’t live like the Funkadelics or Sly and the Family Stone or James Brown. How can I play the same as somebody else if I’m not them?”


“I really never see myself as a Cuban player,” Dafnis Prieto says. “I see myself the same way I hear my voice. It doesn’t matter what language I speak, it’s going to be the same sound.” Still, he adds, the rhythms and sounds of Cuba are inside him, both via osmosis and close listening to predecessors and peers, several of whom he discusses here.

Juan Carlos Rojas (“El Peje”) — “He was one of the first drummers I saw and heard live in my hometown of Santa Clara, particularly with a big band named Orquesta de Música Moderna. He’s an extremely musical drummer. He’s played with Chucho Valdés since 2006.”

José Luis “Changuito” Quintana — “His great sense of innovation and knowledge of the tradition always inspired me. He is the main person who created the rhythmic structures of the congas and drums and timbales in the songo style. I got to record with Changuito and Tata Güines on a big-band record by pianist Hilario Duran.”

Giraldo Piloto — “When I heard Piloto the first time, he was playing with NG La Banda. Then he started doing arrangements — which are unbelievable — and his own compositions, and created a great dance band called Klimax. He has done what I consider to be part of my dream: establish a band with a sound that is yours.”

Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez — “In Cuba, I saw El Negro a few times with Gonzalo Rubalcaba. I like his subtle, fluid, relaxed, interactive playing. And his independence. He can play the clave with the left foot while playing something else with his other limbs. He’s incorporated a lot of Cuban traditional patterns into the drum set. I didn’t meet him until I came to the States, and he was very welcoming. He loaned me a set of drums, which I’ll never forget. I consider him a friend.”

Ernesto Simpson — “Ernesto’s musicality, his touch and beauty and tastefulness, always amazes me. He knows how to move from one style to another in a subtle, integrated way, and always plays from the heart. He’s a fluid, natural player with great talent, ears, technique and maturity.”


Downbeat, 2011 Feature


The penultimate track of Dafnis Prieto’s first self-released recording, Taking The Soul For A Walk, titled “You’ll Never Say Yes,” is a rubato, ostinato miniature with a beautiful line and a floating, ambiguous feel. Prieto—who immaculately directs and entextures the flow from the trapset—described it at the time as reminiscent “of the old Paul Motian-Keith Jarrett approach of open sound.”

“It reflects the emotion of frustration I feel of always trying to break the wall,” Prieto said in 2008. “It’s not specifically related to the music business—it could be a personal thing also. I’m trying to show people what I’m doing and I have inside myself the thought that they will never recognize it—they will never say yes.”

He was reminded of this remark three years later, a week after the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship named Prieto one of 22 “genius” awardees of their annual, no-strings-attached $500,000 gift.

“I’m honored and happy to have been selected,” he responded in the living room-practice den of his Washington Heights one-bedroom. “But I want to work, and it’s hard for me to feel like the MacArthur is going to be the answer.” Legs akimbo, Prieto sat on a small sofa in his living room-practice den, which held an upright piano, an electronic drumkit, a Macintosh desktop with a huge screen, and various artwork, artifacts, small instruments, books and CDs. He’d performed the night before, and his drums, still packed, were on the floor.

“I will feel much better when I see that presenters notice what I’m doing, and start to open their doors for my music,” he continued. “But why do I have to wait for a MacArthur to get attention when I’ve been doing as much as some people they’re already booking? Sometimes it seems the only way to get to those places is if somebody is behind you with a very recognized name, maybe George Wein or some guy who looks like a padrino.”

In point of fact, on the previous evening, Wein had witnessed Prieto’s first New York concert since the MacArthur announcement—a mindboggling scratch-improvised duo encounter with tabla player Pandit Samar Saha, out of Benares, India, a master practitioner of Hindustani classical vocal and instrumental forms.

For the first forty minutes, a packed house at the Cornelia Street Café saw the protagonists trade solos of gradually increasing length. Navigating a drumkit setup that includes a frying pan amongst the cymbals and a conveniently positioned pair of orange jam-blocks, Prieto, keeping a clave metronome on the hi-hat, developed polyrhythmic designs with a “melodic” connotation reminiscent of a Cuban Max Roach. Saha established his own terms of engagement, then Prieto, deploying brushes, alternated swish and stutter patterns. Saha emulated them with the right hand on his dayan drum, punctuating with the left on the bayan. Prieto established another clave, displaced it with surging, wave-like embellishments. Saha rendered the patterns with his own ideas and subdivisions as Prieto kept the pulse; he withdrew as Prieto postulated a rumba, establishing and sustaining three independent lines. The mind-reading continued over a sequence of exchanges—Prieto, barely moving a muscle above his elbows, soloed at length on the ride cymbal and hi-hat, crisply executing intricate figures; Saha turned the bayan on its side, extracting a rich tapestry of rhythm-timbre from its metal skin; Prieto’s riposte seemed to elicit all the colors of the kit before he stated a tumultuous cumbia over which Saha improvised.

Neither drummer seemed to have broken a sweat, but they decided to take a breath. “This is a pretty interesting fusion you’re hearing,” Prieto remarked, as he picked up two super-sized mallets. “Now we’re going to get a little bit wild.” Positioned over the drums like a jockey steering a thoroughbred, he unleashed a volcanic wall of sound, then set up juxtapositions between rolling thunder and whisper, playing soft with the left hand, loud with the right, and vice-versa. Mixing percussive hand chops with skin-to-skin rubs, Sala transformed his drums into animistic sound containers. Prieto responded with long cymbal washes, complemented by feathered bass drum beats; using his tuning fork as a mallet, Saha explored further overtone combinations. Then they stopped.

Over the past decade-plus, Prieto has made it his business to investigate the correspondences and distinctions between the drum languages of India and his native Cuba, where he lived until 1998, when he was 24. Indeed, as we spoke, he was preparing for a November to mid-December residency at the Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music in Mumbai.

Questioned on the subject, Prieto answered, “Right now, it’s harder to separate things in my brain than to put them together.” Then he gave it a shot.

“One general similarity is that each culture contains a very wide possibility for improvisation,” he began. “One difference is that we work a lot with intuition, while they are really conscious of the mathematical, scientific aspect of rhythm—where the note is played inside of a bar or inside of a certain length. In Cuban music, each instrument plays an intricate melodic line. The pulse is there, but the beat doesn’t need to be heard. In most Indian music, the solos are very sophisticated, but without that intricacy in the melodic lines between the instruments; the connection between the three is in relationship with the beat.”

During the performance, Prieto continued, he’d “mixed everything,” sometimes manipulating folkloric Cuban rhythms—played “in the most personal way I could play them”—with tihais, a North Indian technique that involves three verbatim repetitions of a structure and landing the first beat.

“I never see myself as a Cuban player, or Latin player, or Swing player, or Fusion player,” he said. “My voice is not anybody else’s voice, and it doesn’t matter which language I speak—it’s going to be the same sound. My idea of soloing is the freedom of the possibility to play anything you want, manipulating the sounds you’re able to execute while developing your ideas thematically. Those are the two basic elements of improvising—creating something in the moment, while being simultaneously aware that you’re creating a bigger compositional structure. I like the idea of trying to do more with less—using one single phrase or rhythm for the structure and getting many different meanings out of that same idea.

“We all manipulate sounds, and we have the right to feel a relationship with those sounds. Sometimes, I look for a sound in the drums and that gives me the technique to play it. Sometimes I see myself doing something I haven’t seen before, and it gives me the specific sound I want to play. I’m not necessarily thinking in melody or in rhythm—sometimes it’s visual art, form, or a structure, or developing some philosophical or conceptual ideas about objects, or even visual illusions. Any information I see that’s interesting, that I feel comfortable with and connected to, I will transmute and transform into sound.”

Prieto’s heritage-meets-modernity aesthetic took shape during formative years in the predominantly black Condado district of Santa Clara, an old colonial city primarily devoted to the processing and distribution of sugar cane. Himself of Spanish descent, he internalized the language of rumba from carnival musicians on the streets outside his home, and received formal instruction on bongos and congas at 7. At 10, he entered the local conservatory to study classical percussion, teaching himself to play trapset on the side; at 14, he matriculated at the National School of Music in Havana.

Through his four years at ENM, Prieto absorbed the idiosyncracies of Cuba’s state-of-the-art percussionists and drummers—trapsetter Enrique Pla from Irakere, congueros Tata Guines, Changuito, and Miguel “Anga” Diaz. He freelanced, playing post-timba “Latin-Cuban Jazz” in units with Irakere trumpeter Julio Padron and pianist Roberto Carcasses, as well as pianist Ramon Valle’s Keith Jarrett-centric trio. He made his first trip to Europe with a Pan-American oriented ensemble led by Chilean pianist-guitarist Carlos Maza, who drew deeply on Brazilian visionaries Egberto Gismonti and Hermeto Pascoal, invoking imperatives of playing feelings, telling stories with sounds and beats. Further stimulation arrived in 1996 when Steve Coleman bivouacked in Cuba to do fieldwork on a recording project, bringing information on South Indian music and ways to render astrological and numerological principles in notes and tones.

Soon thereafter, Prieto joined the road warrior rank-and-file with Jane Bunnett’s Spirits of Havana ensemble. He also workshopped with the experimental band Columna-B, with Carcasses, saxophonist Yosvany Terry, and bassist Descemer Bueno (best known for his involvement in pan-Caribbean hip-hop band Yerba Buena), which refracted Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s plugged-in ensemble music of the latter ‘80s and Coleman’s odd-metered structures, augmenting the mix with jagged tumbaos, and elements drawn from Hip-Hop, Funk and the Euro-Classical canon (Enclave [Mas, 1998] documents an unbridled recital).

As his conceptual horizons expanded, Prieto felt increasingly stifled. “There were only a few musicians I felt the empathy to play with,” he recalled. “I was treated like a crazy guy; some people felt I wasn’t representing their idea of how to play the tradition. But the way we see tradition sometimes is just a premeditated idea of what it really is. Don’t get me wrong. Since I was little, I played dance music and popular music—which is the same thing in Cuba. I love a lot of dance bands from Cuba. Once in a while I like the experience of playing drums with Los Van Van. But after I got into jazz and into more avant-garde or contemporary music, the idea of playing music for dancers was already washed out.”

On tour with Bunnett in 1999, Prieto, by then a Barcelona resident, moved to New York City on his work visa. Soon thereafter, he took an engagement with singer Xiomara Laugart on which trumpeter Brian Lynch—with whom he’d played the previous year at Stanford University, while in residence via an arts grant to attend a master class with Billy Higgins and Albert Heath—was present.

“Just from that gig, I thought this guy has more happening in terms of playing Afro-Caribbean music with a real jazz sensibility than just about anyone I’d heard,” Lynch recalled. “He had the chops, the finesse, the dynamics, the reactivity, the feel, the swing. It was like, ‘Oh, this is the cat.’ There wasn’t a doubt about it.”

Others felt similarly. Springboarding off a weekly hit with Lynch, and gigs with Coleman and Henry Threadgill’s Zooid ensemble, Prieto quickly became one of New York’s busiest sideman, accumulating a c.v. that, by 2002, cited consequential engagements with a diverse cohort of challenging leaders—Eddie Palmieri, Andrew Hill, the Fort Apache Band with Jerry and Andy Gonzalez, David Samuels and the Caribbean Jazz Project, D.D. Jackson, Michel Camilo, and Peter Apfelbaum—as well as a trio with John Benitez and Luis Perdomo, and numerous ad hoc gigs at downtown musician hangs like the Zinc Bar and the Jazz Gallery, where he also played his first American gigs as a bandleader.

“New York is a functional place,” Prieto said. “You get to meet a lot of people, most importantly—if they are interested—the people that you really want to meet. In order to play with Steve Coleman and Henry Threadgill, to connect with them and experience their music one-to-one, you most probably will have to be here. Steve’s approach to rhythm will challenge any drummer who wants to do it right to develop skills of coordination and independence. With Henry’s music, I learned that each tune should be developed as much as possible in the diversity of sounds, that each should have its own character with different structures and instrumentations. I had an opportunity to exercise my imagination, to represent the music, like acting. You have to own the character and the intention, and put your own voice on it.”

As he soaked up information, Prieto began to refine his instrumental voice as well, mining Cuban raw materials in a systematic, meticulous manner. “I started looking at everything that came from my country as an observer,” he said. “Now I have an enormous amount of different sounds at my disposal. Sometimes I play things that represent or imitate the sound of the congas, or the batas, or timbal, or bongos or maraccas—or from inside myself.” He trained himself to make the instrument an extension of his brain—he speaks the rhythms, speeds them up and slows them down at will, plays and subdivides any theme on any limb at any time. “I’ve heard that idea of intricacy of lines—having one theme in the bottom that becomes the top theme later on—in ancient African music and also in the Baroque,” he says.

He called on all of these attributes in guiding his sextet and quartet through cohesive suites of music on, respectively, Taking the Soul For a Walk and Live at the Jazz Standard, both on his imprint, Dafnison. “The rhythm is usually really important and strong, and he guides the band on the drums,” said Manuel Valera, who played piano on both dates. The compositions have very strong melodies, with no frivolous notes. Each has its own character, and is fun to play over. It’s definitely rooted in Cuban music, but less like the Latin Jazz tradition, and more compositional, with rhythms from Cuba that people don’t really use here. The group orchestrations are unconventional, and he has an interesting approach to orchestrating his compositions on the drums, certain grooves and colors that are perfect with whatever the tune is calling for.”

With the MacArthur funds, Prieto intends to record the Proverb Trio, a collective improv project with Jason Lindner on keyboards and vocalist Kokayi freestyling on trans-Yoruban chant, hip-hop, contemporary R&B, and jazz.

“It would be almost impossible to make music this way with other musicians,” Prieto said. “We completely accept each other; I feel open to express anything I want, and so do they. We are not trying to do anything. We are just doing it.”

Inevitably, he continued, that expression will reference Cuban roots. “This is not clothes that I put on and take off,” he said. “This is the way it is. It’s the resonance of a specific attitude and a specific meaning that I’ve captured from when I was a child until now, and is still inside me. Like talking. Certain words mean something specific. It’s the same thing in rhythm.”

Prieto added that the MacArthur provides him funds to publish a method book—in English—that “explains some of the things I did in order to develop independence and conceptualize my ideas. It’s about my passion for the drums. It’s analytical, it’s instructional; in a way, it’s poetical. It’s a result of all my teaching experiences in clinics and things like that, and my experience of teaching in NYU for six years, which helped me organize information that I already knew intuitively. Somehow, it reflects all these things.”

But above all else, he reiterated, “I want to keep playing my own music as much as possible. I’ve already played a lot of other people’s music, and I’ll keep playing with people like Eddie Palmieri and Jerry Gonzalez because they’re still open, and make me feel challenged and encouraged. But I am not the kind of musician who only assumes that music is a job, and I have to do anything to get money. When I play music I don’t like, I go home and I don’t feel good.”


Downbeat, 2009 Blindfold Test:

1. E.J. Strickland, “Asante (for the Tribes of Ghana)” (from IN THIS DAY, StrickMusik, 2009) (E.J. Strickland, drums, composer; Marcus Strickland, tenor saxophone; Jaleel Shaw, alto saxophone; Luis Perdomo, piano; Hans Glawischnig, bass)

This is a very light groove. It’s nice to hear a 6/8 pattern really light. I don’t know what to say about a piece like this. I can’t really recognize the album. Maybe that’s Luis Perdomo. I haven’t heard Luis in a long time. It is Luis? It’s not his record? It might be David Sanchez’ record? Miguel? Not David or Miguel? Then I can’t recognize it. I like the tune, but it’s very simple. It has the specific idea of what you hear the horns doing against thing, but there’s not really a B-section or any kind of sophisticated compositional elements in it, at least from what I heard of the tune itself in the beginning. Sometimes this kind of tune sounds to me like an excuse to improvise. The tune itself is not really that developed in how many things you can do on a compositional level when you write the tune. I have to say that a lot of alto players are very influenced by the M-BASE—Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, and things like that. The drumming and the percussion is really supporting the tune itself. See, the tune is a vamp; it’s a redundant melody. Which is fine. It gives this effect… It’s kind of tender. I can’t recognize the drummer or the two sax players. I liked it. It has a lot of improvisation, really nice trading by the two horns. Somehow it’s a very settled or normal kind of tune. I liked it. More than a band itself, it sounded to me like a record date. For me, it’s a difference; a record date and a band. I don’t want to insult the band, if it is a band, but it sounded like a record date more than a band. 3½ stars.

2. Gerald Cleaver, “Isobel” (from Yaron Herman, MUSE, Sunnyside, 2009) (Herman, piano, composer; Matt Brewer, bass; Cleaver, drums)

Very groovy, the drummer and the bass player. The bass player sounds great—a very nice sound. I like the bass player. Is that Jason Moran on piano? Then it could be Jean-Michel Pilc maybe. Whoever it is, the pianist is very together. I don’t know. I was trying to get the… The tuning of the drumset itself, I don’t know if he uses… Maybe there is solo drums here. Oh, the tuning the bass drum, the skin is loose. Besides… I haven’t really heard…I don’t remember any guy who plays this style that uses this kind of drumming. There is a guy named Keith Carlock who plays this kind of bass drum, but he plays a different style. It’s a very rhythmic line there, the piano. The trio sounds very together. I couldn’t recognize the drummer, though. He sounded great, very groovy, very supportive of the tune itself. Strong. 4 stars.

3. Arturo Stable, “Call” (from CALL, Origen, 2009) (Stable, percussion, composition; Francisco Mela, drums; Javier Vercher, tenor saxophone; Aruan Ortiz, piano; Edward Perez, bass)

It’s a blues form on top of a bata rhythm. They’re putting a 7/4 pattern on top of the 6/8—the bass line he has. I like the fact that it’s evident to have the batas…the elements that they’re using in the tune itself are very evident, have this open sound, this loose sound with the drummer on top of the batas, kind of an avant-garde sound in the soloing—but not in the tune. The soloing goes more into that mode of freedom principle; it reached a freedom of playing it on top of the batas and stuff. I couldn’t say who… The only guy who comes to mind is David Sanchez, but the saxophonist doesn’t sound like David. I mean, it sounds like a Coltrane tune. I like the fact of that tension of contradiction that comes from having a really steady rhythm in the batas and having the drums filled with more free adventures sonically on top of it, following the improvisation of the tenor, which in this case is the only one soloing. It comes through very natural, so I liked it. 3½ stars.

4. Bill Stewart, “Incandescence” (from INCANDESCENCE, Pirouet, 2008) (Stewart, drums, composer; Kevin Hays, piano; Larry Goldings, Hammond organ)

That must be Brian Blade? It isn’t? I like the fact of the emptiness of space. That emptiness of space lets me think that they’re doing that as accompaniment to a solo which is not there. It sounds like they’re doing the backup soloing for somebody else, but it’s not there. The effect is nice. I like the effect of somehow not having all the information in there at once. The drummer sounds very fluid to me. He sounds open and groove at the same time, which are two boundaries that sometimes it’s very hard for a drummer to get together. I can think of Nasheet maybe. No? I don’t know. I liked it. 4 stars. [AFTER] Bill is a great drummer. Sometimes the kind of sound… That’s why I got it confused with Brian Blade. The sound of the drums, sometimes it can be… Just the style is different, because Brian, for my taste, uses more surprise in his playing. For doing really little of something, going all the way to the maximum of the expression of the sound of the drums, that’s Brian Blade. I always have the tendency to see that from him. But the two of them have a very distinctive sound when they play the cymbals and the toms. Obviously, they know the tradition and the jazz sound of drums very well, and they have it incorporated in their playing.

5. Nasheet Waits, “Bowie” (from Dave Douglas, SPIRIT MOVES, Greenleaf, 2009) (Douglas, trumpet; Luis Bonilla, trombone, Vincent Chancey, French horn; Marcus Rojas, tuba; Nasheet Waits, drums)

That’s Dave Douglas’ stuff, the brass and drumset thing. So that’s Nasheet playing drums. I like Nasheet’s drumming. He’s always looking for the polyrhythmic thing, like playing the bass drum and the snare at the same time, which are things that a normal drummer will think of in a more melodic way—which is great. Using two sounds at the same time, like the bass drum and the snare drum, things like that. It’s very compositional. Everything was arranged until now, when the trombone solo comes over the swing. I like the experimental thing with the tuba. It reminds me of when I worked with Henry Threadgill, who had done this for a long time already—working with a lot of horns. It reminds me of European music. It reminds me of parade music in a more open way. I’ve seen a lot of that kind of sound connected to music that you see in the parks in Europe right now, this kind of experimental sound. It sounds very European to me. It’s cool. They used actually a few things reminiscent of some other tunes. 4 stars.

6. Horacio ‘El Negro’ Hernandez, “Free Latin” (from ITALUBA, Pimienta, 2004) (Hernandez, drums, composer; Ivan Bridon Napoles, keyboards; Daniel Martinez Izquierdo, bass; Amik Guerra, trumpet)

[IMMEDIATELY] That’s El Negro’s stuff. That’s Negro. I don’t know which album this is, but that’s El Negro. The drum sounds big! Sounds like a Cuban band to me! Negro is a very strong player. He has this quality of having a big sound. Well, he uses big drums, so it sounds big. The tune itself reminds me of the sound of jazz music that was happening in Cuba in the late ‘80s, this influence from Chick Corea, the Gonzalo thing using the keyboards, having the same pulse but incorporating a lot of different things with the bass and the drums in different places than the melody line, and sometimes joining them together and stuff like that. It’s a rhythmic approach more than melodically. Then he has a vamp at the end, and goes to the last part of the thing. 4 stars. [AFTER] I’ve known Horacio for a while, he’s a good friend, but I met the others about two years ago at the Northsea Jazz Festival.

7. Tyshawn Sorey, “Somewhere Between Dreaming and Sleeping” (from John Escreet, CONSEQUENCES, Posi-Tone, 2008) (Escreet, piano; David Binney, alto saxophone; Ambrose Akinmusire, trumpet; Matt Brewer, bass; Tyshawn Sorey, drums)

I love that drummer. Very sensitive, but he’s very swinging. Let me see if I can get it. Sounds like Tain to me. It’s not? [AFTER] I liked the piece. I liked how it unfolded, the different sections in it, and the surprise factor. I really liked the drummer. I don’t know if it’s Tyshawn or Marcus, but I think it could be one of them. There is a big difference between the two of them, but it’s really hard in context, but sometimes one specific kind of music will make you feel a certain way and you’ll become more aggressive, and then it becomes confusing to identify who it is by the sound. It’s Tyshawn? I really like him, his inner sound. That’s why I got confused about Tain, who gets a powerful, aggressive sound on the drums on the drums as well? Was that Tyshawn’s record? No? Vijay’s. No? Greg Osby? No? Wow. Then I don’t know. 4½ stars.

8. Eric Harland, “Treachery” (from THE MONTEREY QUARTET: LIVE AT THE 2007 MONTEREY JAZZ FESTIVAL, Concord, 2009) (Harland, drums, composer; Dave Holland, bass; Gonzalo Rubalcaba, piano; Chris Potter, tenor saxophone)

I recognize this. It sounds like Chris Potter, and by the playing, I think it’s the band with Dave Holland, Gonzalo and Eric Harland. I really like it. Eric Harland is one of my favorite young drummers. I like the way he interacts with the music, besides the fact of how much he can play or not the drums. What is happening at the moment in the music, the way he actually interacts with the music, I really like that. You have to use different textures and techniques to make that happen, but… He’s a very open player. He can be a very open player, he can be very straight. He’s very versatile. An exciting drummer. I like Gonzalo here, but for my taste, Gonzalo has been getting a little bit too conceptualized in his own music. It’s a very recognizable sound, the sound of Gonzalo, the sound of Chris, and… I like the band. It’s a challenging idea. Sometimes it doesn’t really work when you put those kinds of characters together. But Dave is a really strong bass player. I think the four of them blend well. 4½ stars.

Lately, I always want more from Gonzalo in his playing. I want more digging in the piano, digging in ideas. It’s not necessarily the chops, but the ideas itself, on an emotional level. Nothing against what he’s doing now, but lately I think his playing is more in the context of conceptualized things and ideas. Obviously, he plays great piano, but for some reason… Like, Chris Potter right now is expressing himself, he’s putting it out. Sometimes Gonzalo gives me this… I miss the old Gonzalo sometimes.

9. Marcus Gilmore, “Smoke Stack” (from Vijay Iyer, HISTORICITY, ACT, 2009) (Iyer, piano; Stephan Crump, bass; Gilmore, drums; Andrew Hill, composer)

That’s very Monk-influenced playing. I liked it. I liked the involvement of the piece. The involvement of the three of them playing is very nice—it’s a nice trio. I don’t know if it’s Vijay or Jason Moran. It’s hard to tell. They have sometimes a mutual place. But I don’t know. Maybe the drummer was Marcus Gilmore, but the sound of it…it’s hard to… He’s a very versatile player as well. He’s very supportive of the tune itself. I really like his drumming; it’s really good. I liked the piece. So it’s probably Vijay’s record. 4 stars. I liked it. This is a very involved tune, and the drummer really has to be on top of it in order to make it happen. Not so much the virtuosity of what you play, but the meaning of what you’re doing there. That’s the nice thing when you hear a trio working together, because there’s only three elements, and it’s very easy to identify what they’re doing and what they mean. It came out nice here.

10. Antonio Sanchez, “Fat Cat” (from DECLARATION, Sunnyside, 2009) (McCaslin, tenor saxophone, composer; Edward Simon, piano; Ben Monder, guitar; Scott Colley, bass; Pernell Saturnino, percussion; Alex Sipiagin, trumpet; Chris Komer, french horn; Marshall Gilkes, trombone)

I cannot recognize the band or the players in this case. I like it. It sounds kind of evident to me, the sound of the tune. Evident. Something that you’ve heard before, something that is not really personalized that much. I mean, the tune is good. But this is my personal thing. I couldn’t really get who was the drummer, or the percussion player. 3½ stars.

11. Steve Gadd, “Matrix” (from Chick Corea, SUPER TRIO, Mad Hatter, 2006) (Corea, piano, composer; Christian McBride, bass; Gadd, drums)

[at 9:30] Sounds like Steve Gadd! It’s not the regular sound of the drums that he’d normally use. Normally, I don’t recognize him doing it in this context. This is a very open set for him. For what I’m used to from him, it’s a more precise sound. The bass player is killing! Is it Miroslav Vitous? It’s Christian McBride! Who is the piano player? That’s a trio with Chick and… At first, I thought it was the old trio with Chick and Miroslav and Roy Haynes. But then I realized it wasn’t Roy at all. I like that they’re going through different phases in one piece. Because the piece has changed like five different times already. It seems more like a jam than a tune itself. The drummer just grabs whatever is there, and having a piano player like Chick, who is a very leading voice, helps to organize it. That’s the convenient thing about having the leader play a harmonic and melodic instrument. It’s hard for me when I have to do it myself on the drums. 4 stars.



Dafnis Prieto on Cuba Educational System, Jazz Times (May 14, 2013):
DP: There are different ages that we start in the school. I believe actually 7 years old is when you start in the school with violin and piano. Those two instruments are fundamental to start at that age in the school. I started school when I was 10, which is most of the other instruments… I started at 10, and pretty much I would say 90% of it is related to Russian or Eastern European classical training.

TP: On violin and piano, you mean.

DP: Violin and piano, and every other instrument as well. There are some French influences as well in terms of the program when we’re talking about saxophone and horns and things like that. But pretty much all the education that we get there is classical training, and because of the circumstances after the ‘60s we became somehow in relation with Russia politically, and that affected actually the educational aspect. We got a lot of influence, and teachers that were coming to actually work and teach in the schools of Cuba. So we got people from Russia and the Eastern European Socialist countries.

TP: May I ask… You went initially to a local school, and I think you were also able to study percussion there.

DP: Well, here’s the thing. Also there is something that the translation to English would be House of Culture, which in Spanish is casa de la cultura. That I started when I was 6 or 7 years old. That is a completely paid program, subsidized by the state. I was around 7 years old. What I did there, I was interested at the time to play guitar. I was playing acoustic guitar. I learned a few Cuban songs from the Cuban tradition, like guaracha, guajira, son montuno, things like that, those kinds of styles. After that, then we got into the more classical-oriented thing. But still, both of the programs were integrated into that early stage. I was like 7.

TP: So you were doing two separate program?

DP: Well, it was integrated. It was part of the same thing. That is something very interesting that I always saw from my early ages in music in Cuba, is that I always integrated kind of everything instead of putting on, playing a Russian composer, …(?)… and the whole thing… I mean, there is an attitude behind the music, etc., etc., but in terms of the program itself, in the House of Music, that was part of it. It wasn’t like “this is classical music and this is Cuban music.” In the same class, you had both.

Then, when I went later on to a school of fine arts in Santa Clara when I was 10, we had specific classes for different things.

TP: Did you move from a local school to a regional school to then the national school?

DP: Exactly. The House of Music that I first went to is not really a school… I mean, it is a school, but it doesn’t really have that many students. We were 6 or 7 students in one class, almost the same age, everybody. This is actually the reason I became a percussionist. It was because we were saying we wanted to have a Cuban band for certain activities, that were going to happen as cultural events in the town. Then everybody decided to play the other instruments, so everyone chose, and I chose to play the bongos, since I was already somehow exposed a lot to a lot of percussion because I was living in a neighborhood where there were a lot of rumba and things like that. Therefore, I did the bongos, and that was how I became a percussionist.

TP: Are these schools also used to track kids? In other words, you displayed a lot of ability right away. Were you then tracked the way athletes are here or in Cuba, as a musician? Were you being identified as someone who was going to continue along this path.

DP: Yes, in a way. But that didn’t necessarily mean… I mean, somebody recommended you. A teacher at that time recommended you to the next level, which is the School of Fine Arts. But that didn’t necessarily happen. I kind of made my own connection, in terms of, you know, the teacher told my mom that had a special aptitude, and I seemed to enjoy it very much, etc., and therefore my mom went to the school and asked for when the admissions were and things like that, so I did a whole process of it. I actually did on the side…I kind of got a tutor or something like that, to prepare me for that examination which I need to go into the fine arts.

TP: When you went to the school in Santa Clara, was it more of the same, but more advanced?

DP: Not really. Percussion in itself, I didn’t know anything about…

TP: Oh, you went to Santa Clara as a percussionist.

DP: Yes, that’s what I did. Drumset in itself, I’m completely self-taught. What I did specifically, when we got into the school I started doing the technique. I did actually one of the most important technique books from an American percussionist by the name George Lawrence Stone. He did this magnificent stick control book, a very famous stick control book. Anyway, we had some material. We had a lot of material from Russia also. We had a book called Polansky(?), and we had so many other things. So we had both information somehow…

For me, the special thing… Maybe this is going a little bit ahead. But the most wonderful thing that I found about how Cuban musicians come to be very powerful is because of the combination of the technique that the Russian and Eastern European countries brought into Cuba together with the culture that we already have musically. Which doesn’t take away the technique. It has its own technique. But it’s just different. So I think the most fundamental thing that happened in education in Cuba is that we have the culture, which is very strong, with the technique aspect of those things. Musically, too. So I think that marriage of culture and technique, plus the culture of the Russian and East European.

TP: What is it about the Russian pedagogy for percussion that’s particularly distinctive?

DP: Well, it gives you a very elegant and functional technique, control of the instrument… For example, I did… They started focusing in the beginning with the snare, just the snare. You spend a lot of time on the pad, getting control of your hands. So then you go to the snare, and you do all these classical pieces on the snare. Then they introduce you to a set of percussion, which can include timbales, bongos, bells, and things like that, just like a classical set, and you play different pieces, the classical things and from Cuban composers as well on those kind of sets—and I did play those, too. Then after that you go the tympany. So you start developing little by little, and by the end of the four years, you know how to play very decent a snare tympany, set of percussion… Not necessarily a drumset, but I did a drumset, and I wrote some stuff actually for drumset as well. But the drumset itself wasn’t taught at the school. It was there physically, but there wasn’t really a teacher. Some of the teachers played, but they weren’t really teaching you; you’d just hear it. I don’t know why.

TP: I recall you told me that you developed your own techniques on the drumset. Were they also teaching you theory?

DP: Yes. Theory of music was very important, too, because that’s what’s brought from the academic style… And we had solfegge. We had the harmony. We had counterpoint. And we have history of European music and history of Cuban music, and Latin American music, too.

TP: Were you also being taught the liberal arts or sciences?

DP: We did. From 10 to 14, we had chemistry and we had biology. Also, in music, we also had to take complementary piano lessons, which included mostly classical music.

TP: You’re 38 now. So you’re doing this from 1985 to 1989. That coincides with the last years of the Soviet Union, and the Empire, and the economic impact on Cuba was considerable.

DP: Yes.

TP: Was education politicized in any way? As you describe it, it doesn’t sound like a particularly ideological education.

DP: Well, inside of it, we also had somehow philosophical classes. We learned about Lenin…

TP: Marxism-Leninism and aesthetics.

DP: Yes, and also in literature, classes of literature. We were exposed to Eastern European writers and that new wave of belief.

TP: For instance, was the folkloric music of music looked favorably upon, or was anyone talking about jazz during those 10-14 years?

DP: Yes. I was very captivated by the Orquesta de Musica Moderna. It was kind of a jazz band that played Herbie Hancock’s music and some Maynard Ferguson music. It wasn’t like a big band in itself. It was actually like an orquesta, which means it has…almost the Irakere size, but I think it had more horns. I don’t remember the specific amount of horns, but it had a drummer, a percussionist, an electric bass player. By my time, I think that idea of restriction in terms of listening to jazz music specifically, or the Beatles, or that thing, it was already gone.

TP: Paquito described there being a certain party line during the ‘60s about jazz being unacceptable.

DP: Yeah, I’ve heard a lot of stories about it.

TP: At 14, then you go to the national school, La ENA. Talk about the continuities of the pedagogy and how it was different?

DP: Then the next step was for me to go to Havana, and the whole thing got a little bit wider. There I was introduced to… Actually, there was a class in percussion. It was about Cuban percussion. So we learned the patterns of the congas and the batas, and a more Cuban thing also. I will say that it wasn’t enough. I would love if there would have been more, actually.

TP: More percussion instruction.

DP: Yeah. I would have liked… Coming from Cuba at that moment, it wasn’t really that much of a pedagogy in the school of our tradition. It was still oriented… But I was more free, and I played whatever I want. I’m just telling you what the system was giving you in that way.

TP: What was the attitude towards playing outside of school, and towards artistic freedom, for that matter?

DP: At the moment that I was there, as long as it doesn’t affect the school, you’re good. They’re serious. The whole thing is that most of the people who get into the music school, they had their own experience…but most of the people who come there, it’s because they really want it and they really express a talent. Teachers don’t want to be wasting their time in that way. If you’re there, it’s because you mean it. Otherwise, you shouldn’t be here. You’re not paying, so what is the big deal? This is about being…

But yeah, it wasn’t a big deal at that moment. Actually, that’s the way I made my way through into becoming a professional musician, because what I basically did was everything that… Mostly everything I’m doing now is what I did on the side of the school, as a consequence as well of… I took advantage of what was given to me.

TP: So the school gave you the tools to experiment and find what your voice actually was.

DP: Yes.

TP: Did you graduate?

DP: I did graduate from the National School of Music. I had to do a presentation of… You select a program and you do a presentation. I played something on the tympany called “Molto Perpetuo,” and I have no idea who wrote it now—I’ve completely lost track. I played “The Venice Carnival” on the xylophone. I played a piece on the snare called “The Train.” And I played a piece that I wrote for drums, four horns, and a bass player. I actually got the music from one of the bags that I found in my house in Cuba; I found some of the charts of that music. So yes, that was the program that I did on my recital. Five things.

The drummer in Orquesta Musica Moderna was one of my big influences at the time, my first influence of seeing somebody playing the actual drums in front of me. His name is El Peje, who is one of the drummers who used to play with Chucho. Through them I started hearing more than just Cuban music, but American or any other kind of music played in front of me. So I used to follow them a lot, just to hear. They sounded good.

TP: You seem to have balanced your time… there’s an element of the conservatory musician in you and an element of the street musician in you, just using the words roughly.

DP: Yes.

TP: Did a new type of Cuban musician start to emerge in the ‘80s because of the development of education in the conservatory?

DP: Yes, I think so. See, the thing is, you either receive an education from your house or from your very close related family, or you go to what the system offers you, which is to go to these kind of places. There are a lot of musicians who are I guess self-taught, in a way, in Cuba, that they didn’t go to a conservatory. But in my case, going to the conservatory was the way for me to develop myself as a musician. Everybody was looking for that, because that was a very good system. So I think yes, the generation that came after Paquito and after all those guys… That was even including… Well, Gonzalo is 12 years older than me, and El Negro as well. That generation I think also took a lot of… I think Gonzalo would be…

To tell you the truth, I didn’t get really good results when I got into the school. Not at the beginning. For some reason, I don’t know…

TP: Are the people who come out as jazz musicians somewhat misfits in the conservatory system?

DP: I wasn’t sure what got them… There seem to be a few stories of people… I heard also a story about Anga, that he had a problem… I don’t know if he got fired or he got a problem with something, because they said he didn’t have an attitude to play percussion. [LAUGHS] So it goes from the very subtle and naive to the most sublime and ridiculous.

TP: What are musicians being trained for in Cuba? What purpose are they seen as serving?

DP: The purpose is to really be good at playing… Eventually, we play Cuban music, or you will become whatever. But it is focused on classical music. It is classical training. That’s for sure.

TP: Has that changed? Is jazz in the curriculum now?

DP: At this moment, there is something open in the schools that they teach, like, jazz harmony or jazz history or whatever it might be, related to any other kind of culture that is not classical or, in a small degree somehow… Maybe more now they do teach Cuban music maybe. I think so. There are a lot of summer camps and things that happen also. Now there is more than when I was at the school.

TP: There are also these cultural exchange programs, like Jazz from Lincoln Center going over. Or Steve Coleman, for that matter.

DP: The story of Wynton or Steve or all those guys going now…it’s very different from the story that Paquito is saying. It’s not that they did it on purpose. That something has changed. Time goes by and things develop, and hopefully develop for the good. And in that case, it did develop for the good, because we opened up ourself to those…

TP: Can you describe to me… Around 1990 or so, things started opening up for Cuban musicians to start to travel, which you were able to do later on. Can you say something about the history of how that worked, what you had to do to go out on the road and the live elsewhere? What they asked of you, what sort of bureaucracy you had to go through to do it?

DP: Yeah, it was… For most of the people, there was a system created where you actually become an employee of… You have a salary a month for being part of a band or for teaching or for anything. You have a salary. You have different entities that represent music and culture. So through them, they organize tours and things like that, and that’s the way a lot of people traveled outside of Cuba when they started opening it up. I never was really part of any institution there, after I finished my school studies. I was completely independent since then. I was somehow playing with some musicians who were part of this orchestra, especially ….(?—28:56)…. and this organization, and I came to know the director. Then whenever I had a trip, I arranged it through him. For most of the people, when you’re going outside the system, you’re going with a very specific salary. I am not really sure what the salary was, because I didn’t experience it myself. But they had a very specific salary. There were some people traveling with them who were part of making security for them and making sure…

TP: That they don’t defect.

DP: Both. Yes, that they don’t defect, and they’re being their road manager and their management, period. I don’t know the amount of people that… But that was the way they did it. I didn’t do it that way. But it did exist, and some of my friends did it.

TP: Let me get to some more general questions. You touched on this earlier, but the ways in which your experience in the Cuban educational shaped your attitude towards music, helped you move in the directions you’ve moved in. I don’t know what you would have done had you not been in the system. You were self-taught. I’m sure you would have been a musician. But have you been shaped by that experience?

DP: Oh, yeah. I got to know classical music, which is a very fundamental… This is the music that came before. If we have to put a tradition on the podium, that is part of our tradition, in a way. The music in the world. Not in Cuba itself, but in the world. I got to listen to Johann Sebastian Bach…from Bach to Schoenberg.

TP: Would this be one reason why you were so open to someone like Henry or Andrew Hill…

DP: When I was in the National School of Music, I heard a few things of Andrew, but I heard Henry’s music much later on. I was already… I hadn’t heard Henry’s music when I was in the school, but I heard it maybe 17 years ago, something like that.

TP: That’s around when you met Steve.

DP: Exactly. Kind of the first person that I met from outside who was doing something, where we created a link, and we interchange ideas, and we actually played together… We were having the band Columna B. Steve came to Cuba, and he jammed with us, and I got to know his music. But then through that…then I came to Canada, and I heard Henry’s music, my searching for …(?—33:26)….

TP: Do you think the conservatory experience enhanced your ability to play the folkloric music?

DP: Not necessarily at the period I was in. Maybe now, when… I have a feeling that now, somehow, our popular tradition (I like to call it popular tradition more than anything else, which includes all the percussion…Cuban instruments, coming from our African heritage) is more integrated now into the system. But at the moment when I was there, it wasn’t integrated into the system.

TP: Why do you think that is?

DP: I don’t know. I think there was somehow a misleading perception about differentiating too much between the two of them. I think now everything has become more integrated, in a way, and the system has accepted more Cuban music as something that could be taught and something that could be part of our academic system. Before it was more of people who were on the street, and musicians self-taught, differing approaches… There have been musicians, earlier musicians who were trained on those European terms, as we know…

TP: Well, Cachao was one of them…

DP: Well, Ignacio Cervantes or Manuel Saumell, which were early Cuban composers. Those are the ones who created a nationalistic Cuban music in the period of nationalism. But it wasn’t… I don’t believe at that time, and I’m talking about the beginning of the 1900s, or actually… Anyway, there were people who had their own thing. But I don’t believe it was a music academy. I don’t know if there was a music academy at that moment in Havana.

TP: Also, being in the conservatory, you developed the techniques of composition and so on.

DP: The thing is that music is how we get to organize sound, and we learn in the schools how to organize and appreciate sound, and that becomes a form of knowledge that is very necessary in order to be conscious and have different ways, different paths, and different alternatives, and different strategies of how to make music. That’s what it is, and that’s why the academic world… As I said before, in my experience, it really was significant, because I wasn’t coming from a musician family. So I had to go and get other studies in order to do what I really want to do.

TP: There’s certainly that tradition of families bringing forth several generations of musicians.

DP: A lot of people came from it. That’s a completely different thing, even though they went to the school and it was completely different.

As time goes, you see a journey of how that system kind of changed. At the beginning, it seemed to be very rigid, and at the end everything got somehow integrated. That’s how I see the whole picture.




Dafnis Prieto (5-19-01):

TP: You’re 26, born in 1974. Where in Cuba?

PRIETO: In Santa Clara, right in the middle of the island.

TP: Is there a drumming tradition from there?

PRIETO: Not really. It’s good, you know, the drumming in Cuba, in the whole place. But it’s not really specifically a heavy point in that place, no. Not really.

TP: Tell me about your early years in music, and how you found your affinity for the drums and developed as a musician.

PRIETO: I started young, like at the age of 8 or something like this, to start playing guitar. But then I changed I think when I was 9. We had a children’s band, like Cuban music, and nobody wanted to play the bongos. So I said, “Okay, I’ll play the bongos.” Then it became a strange situation, because I started doing… In one concert that we had, the guy that played the claves didn’t show up, so I started doing the claves with my voice. [REPLICATES THE SOUND] I made the clave sound. Then I started playing bongos. Then the director of the band looked at me, and he said to my Mom, “You have to put this guy in the school now.” Even when I came into the school I was in guitar and percussion, but my mind was like percussion-percussion-percussion.

TP: So when you were 9 or 10 years old, your musical talent was discovered, and then you were sent… How does the schooling work?

PRIETO: At 10 years old I started to go to a school in Santa Clara, for four years. They call it a FEVA school, like for education. I did four years there. . In this school you just learn classical music.

TP: By vocational school, they teach a number of trades, including music.

PRIETO: Definitely. Half the day you do music, half the day you do the other part of the studies.

TP: Was it a school for the region or for the city of Santa Clara?

PRIETO: In the city of Santa Clara.

TP: How big is Santa Clara?

PRIETO: It’s not that big. I don’t know.

TP: Did you learn classical music and Cuban music…

PRIETO: Well, the thing with the Cuban music… I don’t know if at some point Cuban people need to have this in the school, because you’ve got so much on the street… Just washing your face in the morning, and you hear the neighbors and stuff, and then at the same time you’re in the school and you see people playing. It’s easy. If you are interested, it’s easy to get that kind of knowledge from the street. But they don’t teach that much Cuban music at the beginning, in those four years. After that I did ENA (Escuela Nacional De Artes), which is the national school in Havana.

TP: That’s the high school that the most talented musicians on the island go to when they’re that age.

PRIETO: Yes. You have to do an examination after you finish the four years. For example, in my case in Santa Clara, after I finished I did an exam, and I was 14-15 years old, and then I went to Havana for four more years.

TP: You were playing drums at ENA?

PRIETO: Drums.

TP: Was it developing yourself on hand drums, orchestral percussion, trap drums?

PRIETO: In the beginning at the school, I started learning the classical stuff. . Then I started playing more congas and percussion during the first four years in Santa Clara. Then I started really playing the trapset at the end, during the fourth year, before I went to Havana.

TP: I gather around 1990 records started becoming more available — Los Van Van, Ritmo Oriental, Irakere. People were able to get these more than they had ten years before.


TP: And did you listen to this stuff?

PRIETO: Yes, I listened.

TP: Were these the records that influenced you, gave you ideas or models to follow?

PRIETO: Well, there are records from Emiliano Salvador, like “Nueva Vision.” I really liked that stuff… There was a generation that did the Revolutionary part in the music in Cuba. That band included Pablo Milanes, Sergio Rodriguez… They were called La Nuevo (?). The band was really good musicians. Emiliano was in that band, and a really good bass player who played with Pablo Milanes. Many musicians in that period that did the classics of the Revolution… It was a consequence also of the Revolution. They sing, and some of the songs are revolutionary songs. Singing about revolution and freedom and these kinds of things.

TP: The bands in the ’60s..

PRIETO: Yes. The ’70s actually was the more developed stuff.

TP: You’re listening to Emiliano Salvador, and his records are an ingenious synthesis of modern jazz harmony, like Woody Shaw, with very advanced Cuban rhythms and playing polymeters and all this stuff. Then you’re saying that you went back from that and listened to older records by the people he was playing with?

PRIETO: I’m just saying at that at the same time, in that period, like in the ’70s, then there was this new…the same people… The contemporaries of Emiliano Salvador. They did a band together that was including Pablo Milanes, Sergio Rodriguez, (?), and the music was happening.

TP: Were there any drummers in particular who influenced you?

PRIETO: Actually I listened a lot to Los Van Van. In the beginning I went for that kind of thing, like the root part. Because I started playing percussion, I started listening to more Rhumba than the other things. So the Rhumba is the street stuff. So I start listening to this, and then in Havana I start listening to Coltrane and all this jazz thing. But from Cuba, Changuito, Tata Guines, also Enrique Pla who is the drummer from Irakere.

TP: Then Ignacio Berroa had left Cuba, I guess.

PRIETO: Right. Well, I didn’t hear much of Ignacio Berroa. I just met him like four years ago. Maybe I heard him on some record that I didn’t know he was playing on, because in Cuba the kind of information I got in that time was from underground tapes. It didn’t have credit.

TP: So by the time you were in Havana and studying classical music, you had the street music just from living in Cuba and paying attention. That was a given. Then you were able to develop your techniques and get a universal sense of approaches to drums while you were in the high school.

PRIETO: Yes. I started at 15 years old to play trapset.

TP: Around this time is when the Timba style starts to become popular. Can you speak to how that affected the way you think about music? In other words, from Son and Rhumba the songo rhythm evolved, and from that feeling comes the virtuosic Timba style. Were you playing all of it? Were there functions for you to play the whole timeline of the music?

PRIETO: Definitely. The thing is that the Timba includes… The thing with the rhythms is sometimes that it’s not a rhythm that you’re playing. It’s a rhythm that you’re feeling. This is kind of an abstract thing, kind of philosophy shit! But I’ve talked to some drummers about this. Because sometimes we’re feeling so many things, and we’re playing short stuff…

TP: You mean you’re editing yourself to suit the function of the music?

PRIETO: Not really, no-no. It’s that sometimes you don’t play what you are feeling. You are just playing the essence. So in those terms I am talking about the Timba thing. For me, the Timba is the consequence of all these things together. It’s a feeling. It’s the same thing as the Songo. The Songo, after a while, became like categorizing, and they put it in the books, like “Songo number 21,” that kind of thing. But when Changuito started playing Songo, he just started playing what he was feeling inside. So it’s kind of the same feel. Changuito is a Rumba guy also.

TP: So it all comes out of Rumba.

PRIETO: Well, the Rumba is really deep stuff. And the Timba is including the Rumba inside it anyway.

TP: So you go to the high school, then you’re 18-19, and it’s 1993-94. Apart from going to school are you playing in bands?

PRIETO: Yes, definitely. When I was 15 and started in school, I started playing… Well, I played in a band by Julio Padron, the trumpet player. He was playing with Irakere for a while. That was a kind of Latin Jazz group.

TP: Does “Latin Jazz” mean something different to you than “Rumba”?

PRIETO: Yes, definitely. The instrumentation is different, and harmonically and everything you can really go wide-open. The Rumba mostly is congas and singing and claves and stuff. You can put something on top. Some people have done that.

TP: Some Latin musicians say that Clave is much freer in Cuba than in other areas? Can you comment on that?

PRIETO: Yes, definitely. Well, the same thing I was talking to you about the Songo. It’s a feel. In Cuba, when you play the clave, we are not thinking on 3-2, 2-3 or how many beats, or even the people in Rumba don’t know how to explain it. It’s a feel. They trust the music first of all, because they feel it. It’s not because of their knowledge.

TP: So it’s more of an art and less of a science in Cuba.

PRIETO: Yes. Well, I think that the science is a consequence of other things actually. But people here at the end, to analyze the clave, they put it a second away, so people are starting to classify the clave like in 2-3, 3-2, and all these kind of things. But in Cuba, as soon as a guy gets a clave, they don’t know where… It’s just they go. The music, it goes. That’s what these people mean when they say it’s more free.

TP: also in the early ’90s, ’93-’94-’95, a lot of the younger generation of American musicians starts coming to Cuba. When do you start interacting with American jazz musicians?

PRIETO: In Havana at the jazz festivals.

TP: Do you remember when?

PRIETO: Actually I don’t have my curriculum in front of me. I don’t remember that much.

TP: Around ’94-’95?

PRIETO: Yes, I think so. Around ’94-’95 I started playing at the jazz festival. Then I saw great musicians. Airto Moreira; I was fascinated with his playing. Chico Freeman. Dizzy Gillespie I saw earlier. Not that much, but some.

TP: When did it start to be in your mind that you would like to come to New York and play with jazz musicians? How did that develop?

PRIETO: In 1994 New York wasn’t in my way of living or in my way of thinking to do. But I saw those guys, and I really wanted to do something like this. But I didn’t expect…

TP: Because of the politics.

PRIETO: Well, at some point… I didn’t have the politics in my mind. Actually, I came to New York twice before I decided to stay here; the first two times I didn’t feel comfortable. The first time I came with Jane Bunnett, and the second time with Columna-B, which Yosvany played in and Roberto Carcasses.

TP: So you were playing with Yosvany at this time, and Julio Padron.

PRIETO: Yes. That was out of the school, although we practiced in the school in the nighttime.

TP: What were you practicing?

PRIETO: In that period, I started listening more to Coltrane-Elvin Jones’ stuff, more Tony Williams’ stuff, and I really liked it, and I started to go to this position(?) at some point.

TP: What are the complications for someone whose first language is clave to adapt to a 4/4 feeling. There are confluences, Elvin Jones has a triplet feeling. But are there complexities to play swing properly?

PRIETO: Yes, there are. At some point, it’s a different… It’s an attitude thing. When you’re playing different kinds of music, in your mind you have to accept different attitudes at some point. Mostly when you’re a drummer, because you have to keep the strong rhythm part, and it’s… It gets different at some point when you’re playing jazz and when you’re playing clave, definitely! The clave stuff and the rhythmically Cuban stuff is really complex. The jazz could be as complex as these kind of things. It depends who plays. The things that Charlie Parker and Max Roach and all those guys did… They did some research.

TP: Well, Max Roach spent time in Haiti.

PRIETO: Yes, I know. Those guys were doing music 24 hours a day.

TP: By the way, did you play also in santeria functions? Can you talk about the spiritual aspect of Rumba and drumming in Cuba?

PRIETO: Well, the difference between the Rumba thing and the other thing is that the Rumba you can get on the street. You don’t have to be part of the Santeria stuff, even though most of the Rumberos are part of it. But I didn’t have that much contact in Cuba with the Santeria stuff. When I was living there I started playing with different cats, but doing a mix of stuff, like I was doing with Jane, with Pancho Quinto and Lucumi(?) and Pedrito and all those guys that play the Santeria stuff. But I just started playing it consciously when I left Cuba actually.

TP: When did you move here?

PRIETO: I came here in October ’99. How I got here is a story. I was staying in Barcelona. I started to go out of Cuba, because my wife was in Barcelona at that time; I was touring Europe with Columna-B, and I decided to stay in Barcelona. That’s a real avant-garde Latin and jazz band.

TP: So you were touring in Spain with that band, and you’d been here earlier as well. You get to Barcelona and what happens?

PRIETO: It was getting really boring for me. So I came to Canada to do a tour with Jane. I was doing a tour with her in Europe, Canada and the United States. Then at the end of that tour I was trying to decide to go to Spain again, because I was supposed to go back, but I got some visa problem. I wasn’t able to go back to Spain in that period. Actually, Spain is part of the G-7, and they denied my visa to go to the Northsea Jazz Festival. So I couldn’t go back to Europe. It was a really fucked-up situation.

TP: So Spain has passport restrictions on Cuban citizens also?

PRIETO: No. The thing is, I left Spain without having a residency. It took so long that I had to leave! So I left without any legal paper in Spain. So they didn’t let me go back that year. Then I decided to come here, because I didn’t want to stay in Toronto, in Canada. So I decided to come here with my heart! [LAUGHS] So after I came here, I started feeling really good. It was completely different than before. Maybe it was my difference. But I started seeing everything in a different way. For me before it was all too aggressive.

TP: In Cuba did you listen to the great Salsa bands from New York, or the Fort Apache Band or bands like this, and did they have anything to do with the way you thought about music?

PRIETO: I didn’t hear the Fort Apache stuff, believe it or not, until a week before I had to play with them! I’d heard the name, Fort Apache, and I had met Jerry a couple of years before that. But I didn’t hear the records.

TP: From your perspective as a Cuban and from the first generation that had freedom in some degree to travel, what do you think of the way Latin music has developed in New York in the last 15-20 years?

PRIETO: I think it’s really nice. I really love the stuff that all those guys in the ’70s did — Hector Lavoe, Eddie Palmieri, Mario Rivera. I think they made some innovations, mostly harmonic. They have more knowledge in some points because they have lived here. So they started mixing the harmony stuff with the Cuban thing in the… You know, the same thing at some point as Benny More in Cuba. He did a big band with Perez Prado. But I think it was really developed for those guys. I really like what they did musically. It was fresh in that period. And if you listen now, it’s great. When I hear Hector Lavoe, Mario Rivera, all those guys, man, I say, “Fuck!” It was nice arrangements. And you didn’t miss the Latin part. They were doing that approach to the jazz stuff. It was interesting.

TP: So from the mid-’90s on you were hearing a lot of bands around the world.

PRIETO: Yes. But there’s one part we’re missing. I met a guy named Carlos Maza at the school. He’s from Chile. He had really different ideas. He was listening to the more avant-garde stuff, like Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti. I really enjoyed those kinds of things, and I started hearing different kinds of drummers with more freedom.

TP: Yosvany sounds very comfortable with avant-garde music also. It seems it must be because of the level training you get, being in the conservatory and learning so much music. Do you think that intensive training may differentiate you from other musicians in Latin America?

PRIETO: Definitely. Because you do four years at the school, and you have time to practice if you want. If you want to practice, you practice. My friends have a really high level musically, but they do not like the avant-garde stuff or they are not interested in that kind of thing, and they keep going in maybe the Salsa stuff or jazz in the Latin way. So there are differences in taste.

TP: But you became interested in Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti, and playing feelings, and the science of sound.

PRIETO: Yes. I really like that approach.

TP: Do you have an abstract turn of mind? Sometimes there are correlations between musicians who think like Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti with physics and mathematics and so on, and I wonder if you have a bent towards that.

PRIETO: Actually I work with that. I have been doing some research with Steve Coleman also about all these things. We’ve been doing some work on South Indian stuff. Working with him, this kind of approach numerically and philosophically also… We were doing some work with the relationship between the Moon and the Sun and that approach to music.

TP: You mean how music relates to the angles and gravitational pulls of the universe.


TP: Did you meet Steve in Cuba?

PRIETO: I met Steve in Cuba.

TP: Were you part of his big project?

PRIETO: Not at the beginning, no. I just played with him a year ago.

TP: Has he been an influence on you?

PRIETO: Yes. Big. I was really interested in the odd-metered stuff, and he is one of the more developed guys on that kind of thing. He started playing me records that he’d heard a lot, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, different, and I liked them.

TP: Probably Von Freeman, too.

PRIETO: I met Von Freeman. We played together in Chicago with Steve Coleman actually. He’s really great. He did a nice duet with a mrdingam player. It gets a similar sound to the tablas, but it’s kind of the bata. In a way it’s like a sitting drum.

TP: A lot of Latin musicians in New York heard Steve Coleman’s record with Cuban musicians and didn’t like it because it wasn’t idiomatic enough. They felt he took liberties. But you had no such feeling.

PRIETO: Right.

TP: But you know what I’m talking about.

PRIETO: I know what you’re talking about. I’m still hearing that, but I liked it. I think everything you do that somebody can learn from, it’s good to have had it. [LAUGHS] Nothing is perfect in this life, and maybe the people who talk about those things, they don’t do that much.

TP: When did you start composing music?

PRIETO: I started composing music when I started doing the thing with Columna-B in ’96 or ’98, something like this. I did a piece, and then we did some arrangements together with the band. But now I’m really interested in composing.

TP: Tell me about the musicians you started to form alliances with in New York. John Benitez is crucial, Luis Perdomo seems crucial…

PRIETO: Brian Lynch.

TP: Talk about how you started making your inroads. I guess the first time I heard your name was with Brian.

PRIETO: Yes. Well, after I’d been here for about a month, I went to Brian’s gig at the Cherokee-Phoenix, and it was good. Antonio Sanchez was playing drums then. I met Brian the year before that, when we did a concert at Stanford University with Conrad Herwig. When I saw him here, I sat in, and I said, “Man, if you need a drummer…” The next week Antonio couldn’t make the gig, so I did it.. And I started doing that gig for something like two months.

TP: Was it different music than you’d played?

PRIETO: Yes. Brian’s compositions has a specific kind of tone, like more Palmieri stuff, that kind of influence that he has. And I didn’t play that kind of stuff before so much. At some point, it could be really Latin — the way of forming the melodies and the harmony. I really liked doing that gig, and I still do it. We’re doing a concert June 16th at the Jazz Gallery.

TP: One thing I’m trying to get is how forward-looking musicians from Latin America are converging in New York, and what sort of music is evolving from it. Every time I hear one of you guys it doesn’t sound like anything I’ve heard before.

PRIETO: As I said before, I think my main influences musically since I started playing music (I can tell you right now from the bottom to now): I started listening to the Rumba thing, Changuito with Los Van Van, Tata Guines doing other stuff; some of Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s stuff…

TP: The things he did with his quartet.

PRIETO: Yes. Some tunes I didn’t understand that much about in that period. But I saw what’s interesting. I liked all the time things that I didn’t understand, so I have to work on that. So Gonzalo’s things, Irakere, Chucho, the whole thing. Then on the other side, as I said, I met Carlos Maza, and I started to hear Hermeto Pascoal, Egberto Gismonti…

TP: So meeting him helped you get a pan-hemispheric attitude.

PRIETO: Yes. When I met Carlos Maza I started to hear all this avant-garde stuff, and different things, more South American stuff, like Joropo, Venezuelano(?) and Querqua(?), and… All these rhythms. Different things. Ornette Coleman. I was also listening to Coltrane. All those guys. I played with Carlos Maza for four years; he plays piano and guitar also.

TP: Did the music sound like Egberto Gismonti and Hermeto?

PRIETO: At some point, yes. He used that approach. Then I played with this piano player in Cuba also named Ramon Valle. In some points he has an approach playing in a Cuban feel and in the jazz stuff, an approach like Keith Jarrett, not that much classic, and at the same time more… This approach, the way of playing. I did a trio record with him at Egrem. I think we did that record with PM Records, Pablo Milanes’s record company, when he had it. He doesn’t have it any more.

TP: Ramon Valle, Columna-B, Yosvany, and Roberto Carcasses. What is Roberto’s sound like?

PRIETO: He’s a great piano player. He’s a great musician also. He does arrangements and he’s really good.

TP: Then you’re here and playing with Brian Lynch, John Benitez…

PRIETO: I played with Yosvany Terry’s quartet also. Eventually I did this stuff with Andrew Hill. That was a great experience. I came in after Nasheet Waits, and I did a big band with him at the Jazz Standard. We played for three nights there, and then on June 14th I’m doing a concert with him in Philadelphia with the sextet. His music is really fluid. One of the first things that I asked him, on one tune, “What kind of feeling should I put here?” And then his answer was, “that’s the reason you’re here, to show me the feel.” [LAUGHS]

TP: He speaks in code, too.

PRIETO: Yes. I like that code!

TP: Then you started playing with Henry Threadgill.

PRIETO: Yes. That was before. Actually, Andrew Hill came to Henry Threadgill’s performance at the Knitting Factory where I was playing.

TP: How did this happen?

PRIETO: Steve Coleman called Henry and told him he had to check out the Columna-B band. We came here and did a performance at the Knitting Factory and also… The day I met Henry, he came down to the Zinc Bar to the Columna B concert. He really liked the way I was doing stuff. Then I left for Cuba, and when I was staying in Barcelona I received a call from a friend saying that Henry Threadgill was looking for me to invite me to play here in New York. At that time I couldn’t leave Barcelona because of the papers. Then one the first things that helped me decide to stay here was, “Dafnis, if you want to do that kind of music, you should stay here!”

A year before I met Henry, I heard one of his records at a friend’s house in Canada, and I said, “Man, who is this guy?!” He was doing some crazy shit rhythmically and harmonically, like Henry’s stuff. I really liked it. I really feel sensitive with those kind of things. Then I met him.. I think it’s a really sensitive music. It contains so many specific things. I really feel comfortable with that kind of idiomatic musical language. I don’t know how to describe it technically. But definitely he has his own way of harmonizing things and for orchestrating the stuff. He writes out the whole orchestration. If you put a harmonic chord, like five notes, he probably will give one note to each member of the band. I mean, his own particular way of doing that.

TP: Did this influence the way you write? Henry sounded so comfortable playing your music.

PRIETO: I don’t do that much this approach. I’m trying to get in touch with myself, trying to be sincere with myself. But I definitely have influence from Henry and from Andrew also.

TP: That brings me to this question of how being in New York and interacting with the cream of musicians from around the world on a regular basis is affecting your path.

PRIETO: New York has a really high level of musicians. The people who come here have in some way this feeling that they can do something. That makes it a kind of challenge musically, because you can see formidable shit, really nice stuff, and a really high level of people playing.

TP: When you’re playing Latin or pan-diasporic music… You’re from Cuba, John Benitez is from Puerto Rico, Luis Perdomo is from Venezuela, Carlos Maza is from Chile. Each country has a specific folk tradition, then they have a specific way of playing salsa or clave. But here people are coming together. There’s someone like Edsel Gomez or Ed Simon or David Sanchez, El Negro, all these different people. First, you keep your own identity and your own path. That’s always going to be with you. There’s a set of influences and experiences that you’ve had. I guess this is another one that you’re responding to. But there’s a sound to the music that all of you are doing that seems very New York in some way. I’m wondering if you could give me your impression is of what that quality is that is New York in what you’re doing.

PRIETO: I was talking to Yosvany about this actually. I was saying to him that I’m happy to be here, because I feel we have a generational thing happening now musically. Luis Perdomo, Miguel Zenon, David Sanchez. At some point, we are this generation that has, as I said before, knowledge about different cultures. It’s not about just Latin things. When you go to a concert, we are not just playing Latin stuff. We are mixing all the things we know and putting it in one language — music. If it’s Latin rhythm, we’re doing a Latin rhythm, but we can do it in the jazz style, in the swing shit, and also be free like Andrew Hill could be. It could be as wide open harmonically as Henry can do. You know what I mean? All these influences that I feel are with me personally, but at the same time, because I’m playing with them, we’re sharing the same thing. So I was talking to Yosvany about this generation that is coming now, between 25 to 35…

TP: Like Gonzalo and Danilo Perez on the front of it, down to you guys.

PRIETO: Well, I don’t know if I want to say that. I don’t know Danilo that much. I can’t say anything about him. Danilo doesn’t live here either. I haven’t got the chance to play with him.

But I think it’s a generation that has many questions to ask and many answers to respond at the same time. This is really fun. I get together with Yosvany to do some research, the same thing I do with Steve Coleman and with Miguel Zenon. We get together in my house and hear some music together and analyze it. I enjoy that part.

TP: So you’re able not just to play, but to get together and think as one. And in Cuba, you might have an opportunity to do it because people come to the school from all over Latin America, but it would be a different context. Have you been back to Cuba since you moved here?

PRIETO: No, I haven’t. I have a (?). It’s a permit you get here in the United States to travel out of the United States. So I may go this year to Cuba to visit my family.

TP: I gather that the situation in Cuba started changing in the early ’90s, and they started allowing musicians to travel out of the country and not give back all the money that they made, or to keep a good chunk of it.

PRIETO: In Cuba, when you become a professional musician, you have to become part of the Impresa…

TP: The union?

PRIETO: Well, it’s not a union thing. They have different ones. They control you definitely!

TP: They tell you where to play?

PRIETO: They’re supposed to. But sometimes it gets so disorganized that they don’t even do that! For example, all these musicians are part of the “Impresa” thing. I don’t know to describe “impresa.” A company.

TP: Like a guild maybe.

PRIETO: Something like that. So you’re part of that. And through this company you can make your papers to go out of the country. So sometimes you have to give them part of the money or a benefit or that kind of thing. Most of the travel that I did through that company, one of them, I did it because I was a friend of the director of that company. At some point, he helped me out. But I wasn’t part of the company. I don’t know for what reason, but I’ve always been kind of a revolutionary in that sense!

TP: You mean being a sort of free agent within the structure?

PRIETO: Yes, I like the freedom shit. I like to be freelance.

TP: Does that make it hard to function in Cuba?

PRIETO: Yes, it really makes it hard! Well, you know. In Cuba, Jazz doesn’t have much support. The only thing that happens in Cuba with jazz is a couple of concerts a year, and that’s mostly the same thing — Chucho Valdes, Gonzalo. When we were there, we tried to make some stuff. We did some. But we want to do more.

TP: So part of being here is being able to express yourself, even beyond the politics. Although there were the jazz festivals, and you could meet Roy Hargrove or Steve Coleman, and they could meet you. And tell me about some of the venues in New York. It seems the two primary ones have been the Jazz Gallery and the Zinc Bar.

PRIETO: The first things I started to do was at the Zinc Bar. Then at the Jazz Gallery we did many things with Yosvany.

TP: It seems you’ve developed an audience, and it’s a very international audience on just Latin. It’s interesting to hear a young, hip audience come out to hear some jazz of any sort, and you’ve drawn a lot of people.

PRIETO: Well, as I say, maybe they identify something with themselves about this music. That’s one of the reasons I think this is happening about this. At least myself, I am not interested in doing just Latin music or Jazz. I don’t even want to categorize the music that I play.

TP: So you’re a musician of the world, and there are a lot of musicians like you now.

PRIETO: Yes. The contact with the other side of the world is getting easier. The influences culturally. You can now get how many books you want about India or how many books you want about Greece or Asia, and you can start by your own. I like the studies that people do because they want to do it, and they do it on their own. They don’t go into school and do this and that because the professors told you to. I like the research that you’re really interested in, and you get the opportunity to do research on your own. You navigate with your own luck.

TP: And also, you can hear any music you want. Are you mostly listening to music from India and Egypt, rhythms of the world — folkloric music. [Yes.] Classical music?

PRIETO: I love classical music. That was my training for eight years. I couldn’t leave it.

TP: You left school at 18, didn’t go to the conservatory. The training must be good for you as a composer, knowing the harmony..

PRIETO: Yeah, definitely. And the way of writing and all this stuff. So you make the sections clear in your mind. I think the classical training… I was talking to Clarence Penn, and I said, “Man, I feel good because I have the classical training, and now I can appreciate different things.” I think it gives you a really good basic knowledge of the music. Even if the music that I sometimes am trying to reach now is…it gets in a different way… Like, the Indian stuff has different melodies, different scales, different rhythmic patterns. Different culture.

I said also about my influence of Elvin Jones, Tony Williams and Doug Hammond. The first time I heard Elvin was really inspiring for me, because it was really powerful rhythm and at the same time it could get free. But there was a real rhythmic thing going on that I enjoyed from him, the stuff he did mostly with Coltrane. With Tony Williams, he’s a really technically developed drummer in a musical way. He’s a very musical drummer, and he can do melodies on the drums. I’m really influenced by him also.

TP: You did a solo the other night where you sounded like about four drummers. I was trying to figure out what instrument you were striking. It sounded like you had three hands. What was interesting was that you had the timbre. Usually when drummers try to do that, they get the rhythm but not the timbre.

PRIETO: It’s good you talk about this. I’ve always been interested in European Baroque music, because it has the same melodies repeating in different places. At some point I like to do that in my drumming, doing the same phrase in different places, and explaining this phrase in different ways. That kind of thing.

TP: Is your family musical?

PRIETO: No. My mother works in an office, and my father is an elevator engineer. They like music, but they are not musicians at all.

TP: They are hard-working people.

PRIETO: Yes, people from the people. From the Bushmen. I played with Essiet at the Zinc Bar a few weeks ago, and he called his family the Bushmen.

TP: You look like you’re from a Creole background.

PRIETO: Yes. But the neighborhood I was born in at some point you could call a Black neighborhood. I grew up in that kind of situation.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, Cuba, Dafnis Prieto, Drummer