Tag Archives: 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.”

[BREAK]

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.”

SIDEBAR

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.

ROBERTS: Yeah.

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.”

[BREAK]

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?”
SIDEBAR

Title:

“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.

[BREAK]
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.

 

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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.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

 

*-*-*-

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.

PRIETO: Yes.

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.

PRIETO: Yes.

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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For John Medeski’s 51st birthday, A Jazziz Feature From 2013

For pianist/multi-keyboardist John Medeski’s 51st birthday, here’s a feature piece I wrote about him for Jazziz in the May 2013 issue, on the occasion of his solo recording, A Different Time.

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When pianist John Medeski performs solo, an increasingly frequent occurrence in recent years, his usual path is similar to an hour-long, YouTube-documented recital that he uncorked last January at the Lily Pad, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Attired in a wool cap, black jeans and an untucked dark-purple shirt, sleeves rolled, Medeski begins the performance with an invocational, neo-gospel refrain, building the intensity with rolling block chords. He eventually resolves with a stark repeated cluster in the piano’s lower depths, then counterpoints with a repetitive treble vamp, over which he plays a stately, impressionistic classical melody articulated by the left hand with supreme control. Around the 10th minute, he morphs into a spiky line that seems inspired by Cecil Taylor, then spins out a long improvisation around the intervals that gradually transforms into a phantasmagoric “Giant Steps,” executed with Taylorian turbulence and precision. This transitions into a contrapuntal, stride-like rendering of Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence.” Medeski plays an achingly beautiful original, “Luz Marina,” launches an intense tribal melody blown on an elongated wooden flute, tosses off dramatic Lisztian flourishes, sets up a drone that undulates as he plays treble-register lines while simultaneously placing objects on the piano’s innards. The drone remains as he develops the theme on the thus-prepared strings, before a concluding statement on melodica. Medeski winds down the thrilling performance with a grooving blues.

“That’s pretty indicative of what happens,” Medeski confirmed in early March at the Tribeca offices of Medeski, Martin & Wood, the collective trio with which, since 1991, he has famously played acoustic piano, Hammond organ, mellotron, clavinet, synthesizers and other instruments. “I have a lot of influences. For me, the tunes are launching pads for some kind of exploration, creating different energies, a certain vibration and feeling. I might approach by starting with a pure sound and letting that lead the way. My palette, whatever I’ve studied, whatever I’m feeling, maybe the audience’s reaction, informs where it goes. I want to take people on a journey.”

Last fall, Medeski, 47, kept that notion in mind as he undertook his first solo recording over several days in the converted 19th-century church that houses Waterfront Studios in a village 30 miles south of Albany. “I practiced, learned some tunes and made a list,” he recounts. “I wanted to keep myself in a space of openness and freedom, and give myself time and space to create. I imagined I would do what I do when I play a solo-piano concert.”

The first portion of the sessions — during which Medeski, a Steinway artist, spent several hours on an instrument he hand-picked for the occasion, and another few hours on the studio’s 9-foot Steinway — produced something along those lines. “I had a record,” Medeski says. “It was a lot of stuff.” Then producer Henry Hirsch, who collects vintage pianos, offered his 1924 Gaveau, a French brand built in the pre-modern style. What resulted was the contents of A Different Time [OKeh] , a delicate recital that is the polar opposite of the florid tonal personality that he projects with MMW or in the showier sections of the YouTubed concert.

“We put some mikes on it, and I started playing,” Medeski says. “The sound of the instrument and the way I had to play directed me. It forced me to focus every second on controlling the touch. Certain pieces that had never worked for me on a regular piano, like maybe it’s too corny or something, seemed like, ‘Oh, I can really try this on this piano.’” He references “Waiting at the Gate,” which he wrote for a musical at 16, and the Willie Nelson tune “I’m Falling in Love Again.”

“When I listened to everything I’d done on the Gaveau, I realized that it had the most coherent vibe for a record,” Medeski says. “I loved the sound; it recorded better than the other pianos, at least during those couple of days. I can be really picky, take however many hours of stuff and whittle away what I don’t like, and then define a handful of good stuff. But this was easy, like, ‘This is it.’ At first, it was a little — I don‘t know what the word is — scary maybe, that this would be the record I’d put out, because it’s so meditative and gentle. But you know what? It is one of the many things that I do. It’s one aspect of me.

“The real preparation was not to have too many preconceived notions, use whatever came out best and sculpt a record. I had to have confidence that it would be OK.”

BREAK

A few years ago, MMW, which had averaged some 200 gigs a year since forming in 1991, responded to circumscribed music-biz economics, demands of family and the burgeoning popularity of bassist Chris Wood’s Wood Brothers group by scaling back its collective activity, thereby giving its members more time to pursue individual interests.

For Medeski, this development provided an opportunity to do a fair amount of guest-star sidemanning, most recently addressing Hammond B3 and keyboards with Spectrum Road, a Vernon Reid-Jack Bruce brainchild on which Cindy Blackman plays drums. Medeski also played acoustic piano in John Zorn’s Nova Quartet (Kenny Wolleson on vibraphone, Trevor Dunn on bass, and Joey Baron on drums) on Nova Express, interpreting with panache Zorn’s “hard music with complex, contemporary heads,” inspired by the writings of William Burroughs. Also with Nova Quartet (augmented by harpist Carol Emanuel), he plays piano and organ on the consonant At the Gates of Paradise and the darker, kaleidoscopic A Vision in Blakelight, both comprising Zorn’s refractions of William Blake’s mystic visual-poetic ruminations. His piano and electronics contribute to the extreme sonic tapestry Zorn presents on another Burroughs homage, Interzone.

“Zorn is a force — incredible businessman, fantastic composer, great musician and he’s supported a lot of musicians,” Medeski says. “He made a choice not to get caught up being responsible to anyone but himself. That sort of independence was always important for me, and for Medeski, Martin & Wood. How do you do what you want, stay creative and keep the spirit alive? That’s been the goal always.”

Staying creative is one reason for Medeski’s decision to focus more on solo-piano performance, and, hence, to record A Different Time to serve “as a sort of calling card.”

Another reason, he adds, is in response to “feeling that I am somewhat pigeonholed or stereotyped by certain people” for his role in producing the groove-rich, skronky, high-octane sound that earned MMW its immense popularity in the jam-band world. Even though MMW has recently issued such CDs as the 2008 studio date Zaebos, a nuanced, pan-stylistic rendering of Zorn’s “Book of Angels” corpus, and Free Magic, culled from an all-acoustic tour in 2007, the “jam band” epithet still touches a nerve.

“We were out there before that scene happened, but somehow we fell into being associated with it although I don’t think we ever did anything too obvious,” Medeski says. “We figure things out, have it pegged, and then move on to the next thing. I’ve been feeling, ‘I guess I should do that now, too.’ Even while we were exploring what we started exploring 20 years ago in this all-consuming way, I always had a piano at home. I got known for a certain thing. But I love playing piano. I did it before anyone knew who I was or cared about anything I was doing. I missed doing it, so I’ve been doing it more the past few years.

“I also like to keep people on their toes. I don’t want anyone to think they have me figured out. I realized that during an interview in Germany. I thought, ‘Wow, maybe this is my own version of being rebellious,’ even though the music isn’t that — it’s just my own thing. ‘Hey, you think I’m just going to play some groovy, out shit? Actually I do this, too.’”

BREAK

A Different Time  not only is Medeski’s first solo-piano recording, but the first leader date on which he eschews the collective context.  Indeed, in distinction to many prodigies whose skills blossom young, he has built a career around performing in situations that are not all about him.

MMW bassist Chris Wood opines that limitations stimulate Medeski’s creative juices. “We always joke that Billy is always ‘no,’ I am always ‘maybe’ and John is always ‘yeah, let’s do it,’” he says. “So when I start from scratch, like, ‘What do you think?’ he can get overwhelmed by all the possibilities because he’s such a talented musician. That carries to the stage sometimes, where if there’s any doubt about where we’re going, the best thing Billy and I can do is present an extremely clear idea that John can either obliterate by counteracting it or hopping on and nurturing it and making it into something.”

MMW drummer Billy Martin cites Medeski’s response when he and Wood suggested in 1991 that the trio take Medeski’s name. “John was the first to say, ‘No, it’s not about me, it’s not about you — it’s about all of us,’” Martin recalls. “So although we’ve gotten a lot out, I think that his really deep inner voice hasn’t been heard because he wants to do what’s right for the band. He’s an incredible piano player; this classical prodigy that he was as a child is still waiting to show his face. We didn’t develop that side of him as much as his electric side. That’s partly because he was really getting into the electronics, and also trying to find a way to speak in places we played that might have a horrible piano or no piano at all. I’ve always wondered, ‘When the hell are you going to do your own thing?’”

“I didn’t want to be a leader,” Medeski says. “I wanted to collaborate on every level. I felt that would be the most valuable thing for us to do musically and business-wise. Collaborating means being able to compromise. It takes longer to create music that way, with three people, but you end up with something you wouldn’t have come up with on your own.”

Asked to trace the source of his collective orientation, Medeski mentions to teen experiences in Fort Lauderdale, his hometown, and nearby Miami. He played classical recitals. He formed a point of view while making real-time bandstand decisions with big bands, on swinging jam sessions with world-class locals like Ira Sullivan and Dolph Castellano, in Latin bands and funk bands with horn sections, and in a plugged-in group called Emergency. Jaco Pastorius, whose brother-in-law was Emergency’s drummer, sat in occasionally, liked what he heard, and invited Medeski, then 16, to join him on tour, an offer that Medeski’s mother declined. While attending Boston’s New England Conservatory, Medeski continued to work steadily, most notably with Mister Jellybelly, a blues and jazz singer who introduced him to the nuances of the Hammond B3, but also with the eclectic soloists who populated the Either/Orchestra.

“I would always say yes to a gig, whatever it was, and figure out how to do it,” Medeski says. “I’ve always desired to be a supportive musician, and not just move my fingers around, press buttons and be a clogging force. Yeah, I can play certain stuff, but I don’t have to. Anybody I’ve played with, it’s never been, ‘Let me do my thing on top of this or in this,’ but ‘How can I add something that works within and is part of the whole?’ That’s how I’ve been able to play in situations that don’t traditionally have keyboardists, like in Afro-Peruvian music with Susana Baca or pedal-steel guys like the Campbell Brothers or Robert Randolph.

“Music is the creation of sound. Practicing in your room alone is important; you need that time to look deep inside yourself. But it’s also a language. It’s communicating. Communication involves someone other than you; if you’re just talking to yourself, you go crazy. You’ve got to see what its effect is when you put that sound out there and find that thing that happens when you play together, when you really interact.”

This dictum crystallized for Medeski during his first week in New York, where he and Wood took a two-bedroom apartment for $1,300 a month over a laundromat at Avenue A and 6th Street in 1991. “I went to a late-night jam session at the Blue Note that I’d call the night of the living dead,” he says. “There was a line of horn players who spewed whatever licks they’d been practicing, like a weird cut-and-paste of records I’d heard before, on top of the rhythm section. No interaction. It was the opposite of improvising. That turned me off the jazz scene, and I instantly gravitated to the Knitting Factory and the Downtown scene, where people were combining things and improvising — or not. Whatever it was, it felt vital and alive.”

While launching enduring relationships with musicians like Zorn and Marc Ribot, Medeski soon was in the rotation with hardcore jazz up-and-comers like Brad Mehldau and Geoff Keezer at the Top Of The Gate, a well-known piano room on Bleecker and Thompson, where he worked serial weeks in trio with Wood and a series of drummers, the last of whom was Martin. The connection was instant, and the rest, as they say, is history.

“Music has the ability to express everything,” Medeski says. “And I like to use it for a lot of things. It’s easy to hide behind what you know is hip. But this record is naked, pure music, pure feeling, purely in the moment. It’s free, in a way.”

As Wood surmises: “John is always searching for something that’s authentic, and sometimes it’s not so obvious what that is. As he gets older, he’s recognizing it, finding it in himself and in music. Now that he’s broken the ice, so to speak, I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next. With MMW, we never had any idea what we were going to do when it was time to make a new record. We just knew we weren’t going to do something we’ve already done. So I know John’s next solo record will probably be really different. Let’s hope he keeps spitting them out, because there are a lot of worlds he can get into.”

SIDEBAR

Title:

During the 1920s, Gaveau, a Paris-based manufacturer founded in 1847, produced a series of pianos with Art Deco cabinets, one of them the refurbished 1924 7-foot model with barely played original French hammers, new uncrossed strings, a wood soundboard, and original action, on which John Medeski created [i]A Different Time[i]. The design was based on the mid-19th-century principles of piano-making developed by Gaveau’s French competitors, Pleyel and Érard, both older companies that developed technology that is still incorporated in grand piano manufacture—in addition to routinizing the placement of pedals on the piano, Érard in 1821 patented the “double escapement” technology with a repetition lever that allows notes to be repeated more easily than in earlier single-action pianos, allowing double notes to be played [i]legatissimo[i] with ease. Lacking the rich harmonics of “modern” Steinway or Bösendorfer grands, they offered, as a tradeoff, more speed and lightness and clarity of sound. Camille Saint-Saëns played recitals on a Gaveau. Hector Villa-Lobos had one shipped to his home in Brazil.
“The pianos require a certain delicacy,” Medeski says. “If you hit them too hard, it won’t work; the sound is awful. So you really need to be in control.”
He referenced Frederic Chopin, whose instrument of choice was the similarly designed Pleyel, the popular model in late 19th century France. “Chopin taught that one must sing with the fingers. He thought modern pianos destroyed the touch. He’s quoted; ‘It makes no difference whether you tap the keys lightly or strike them more forcefully. The sound is always beautiful, and the ear asks for nothing more, for it’s under the spell of the full, rich sound.’ He also said: ‘On the resistant kind of piano, it is impossible to obtain the finer nuances of movement in the wrist and forearm, each finger moving in isolation.’
“I felt what it was that he liked about these little pianos. Your fingers are doing the singing. It’s pretty amazing when you play it, when you get into the physical creation of the music with the instrument — that connection with the instrument.”

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For Chris Potter’s 45th Birthday, a Downbeat Feature From 2008, a Jazziz Feature From 2006, and an Uncut DB Blindfold Test From 2000

For the virtuoso saxophone maestro Chris Potter’s 45th birthday, I’ve posted a pair of articles —one from 2008 for DownBeat, the other from 2006 for Jazziz — and an uncut version of a DownBeat Blindfold Test from 2000. Here’s a link to a piece that appeared in the December 2014 edition of DownBeat to mark Potter’s award as Best Tenor Saxophonist in that year’s Critics Poll.

 

Chris Potter DownBeat Article, “No Going Back”:

“It’s interesting how different people think,” said Chris Potter, a day before leaving New York City, his home base, for a five-week world tour. “Or, how the same thought has a different feeling from one language to another and how it’s connected. Figures of speech that translate directly into different languages, and things that don’t, and why.”

Perhaps Potter developed this idea while anticipating his impending linguistic itinerary—two weeks with the Dave Holland Quintet in Japan, South Korea and Australia, then three weeks of one-nighters in Spain, Belgium and Scandinavia with his Underground quartet.

“The way you think is connected to the way you express it,” he said. “Language is a vehicle for thinking, and there are many thoughts that we can only think because we have this tool. It’s as much about the way you organize your thoughts as it is to communicate. I see a relationship between this and music, although music is much more abstract. Rimsky-Korsakov and Duke Ellington might express a similar mood and be thinking in a similar frame of mind, but the way they express that frame of mind is determined by the musical language they work in.”

Given the events of the previous 24 hours, it was admirable that Potter was awake and lucid for a lunchtime interview, much less honing in on abstract matters. First, he was a newlywed, having gotten married on the previous morning before a Manhattan magistrate. Then he’d risen at the crack of dawn to take his wife to Kennedy Airport for a 7 a.m. flight to Budapest, her hometown, where she stayed for the duration of the tour. He had yet to pack, and wanted to buy a few books for the road. He had a gig in the evening at Iridium with clarinetist Eddie Daniels, a friend since he heard Potter, then a teenage wunderkind out of Columbia, S.C., at a jazz camp two decades ago.

Around that time, Red Rodney, Charlie Parker’s trumpet foil at the cusp of the ’50s, did a one-nighter in Columbia, invited the local hero to sit in for a tune and wound up keeping him on the bandstand for an entire set. When Potter arrived in New York in 1989, on a scholarship to the New School, Rodney hired him to play alto saxophone.

To date, Potter, now primarily a tenor saxophonist, can boast a resumé citing 14 albums as a leader, dozens of one-off record dates as a sideman, and long hauls with the Mingus Orchestra and such stylistically diverse leaders as Holland, Paul Motian, Dave Douglas, Jim Hall, Renee Rosnes, Steve Swallow and, most recently, Herbie Hancock. He’s sustained close associations—and recorded frequently—with a cohort of New York cutting-edgers, among them David Binney, Adam Rogers, Scott Colley, Alex Sipiagin, Brian Blade and Jeff Ballard. A bandleader himself with increasing frequency over the last decade, Potter, at 36, seems to be an esthetic role model for an emerging generation of musicians who admire the way he frames his singular voice—constructed on a personal distillation of saxophone dialects spanning Bird to Michael Brecker—with a 21st century soundtrack.

“A lot of people come out to hear Chris when we play,” said vibraphonist Steve Nelson, Potter’s partner with Holland since 1997. “On the road people always want to study with him, and he does a lot of lessons.”

“Chris has a dedicated young following,” Holland said. “When we do workshops, the young musicians express a great deal of admiration for what he’s accomplished. He’s young enough for them to connect to him as a peer.”

Potter looks at his perch on a new branch of the saxophone with some curiosity.

“Considering how I looked up to my heroes, and still do, it’s strange that I might occupy that place for someone,” Potter said. As he continued, he neither soft-pedaled nor overstated his talent. “I have an idea of what naturally comes easy for me, but I’ve taught enough people that I know those things don’t necessarily come as easily to them. But I also know that having natural ability is not a guarantee of making something of great artistic worth, and that not having it also won’t guarantee that you’ll make something of great artistic worth. No matter who you are, the big factor is how much work you put into it.”

Potter has emerged as a leading improvisation voice of his generation. He may or may not be any more accomplished an instrumental virtuoso than such tenorists as Joshua Redman and Eric Alexander (who won top and second prize to Potter’s third in the 1991 Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition), or David Sánchez, James Carter, Donny McCaslin, Ron Blake, Seamus Blake, and Tim Warfield. Either way, there’s almost nothing he cannot accomplish on the saxophone as he solves the gnarliest musical puzzles with a don’t-let-them-see-you-sweat sangfroid.

Drummer Ballard recalled a night, about a decade ago, when Potter subbed for tenor saxophonist Mark Turner in Kurt Rosenwinkel’s band at Smalls. “Kurt’s music isn’t something you can just read,” said Ballard, then Rosenwinkel’s regular drummer. “We rehearsed two tunes just before the gig, then Chris and Kurt went back to the kitchen and talked through the rest. Chris played the music better than we did, who had been playing it for years. He killed it! Then he was all over whatever I was inferring, whether it was Motian-esque or like Roy Haynes. He screwed me up for days afterward by being everywhere and taking what was just done, and doing everything that you could do with all of it. For the next few days, people would ask, ‘You OK?’ ‘I’m cool,’ I’d say, trying to digest what had happened.”

Veteran Potter observers like Marian McPartland and Jimmy Heath are on record that Potter displayed such legerdemain from his middle teens. Chris Cheek, Potter’s “dueling tenors” partner in Motian’s Bebop Band of ’90s, cosigns such recollections. He first heard Potter at age 16, at a Jamey Aebersold music camp, when he played duet with Dave Liebman on drums.

“We were all stunned,” Cheek said. “I remember being floored by his sound, technique, range and boundless ideas. He can play anything that comes to mind, and those things are soulful and sophisticated. He’s one of the most consistent musicians I’ve ever heard or been lucky enough to play with. During the time with Paul, we played bebop, mostly head arrangements, and he had complete command of the style rhythmically, harmonically and melodically, but without playing the licks—completely himself. He would take these incredible solos, and the place would go crazy. It was awful to follow him.”

Craig Taborn, Potter’s keyboardist in Underground, explained how Potter’s ceiling for solo development and technical command is higher than most saxophonists. “You can’t say he’s stretching his technique, because you don’t feel he’s traversed that line of technical proficiency,” he said. “It never feels like he’s showing off or always playing at that ceiling. It feels like your ideas can go beyond this point, that everything can be executed.”

Underground guitarist Adam Rogers remarked on Potter’s refusal to engage in “gratuitous technicality,” Underground drummer Nate Smith noted Potter’s willingness “to turn the beat around, play different meters over top of you,” and Holland emphasized the “clarity and continuity of his line; the thread through his solos that takes you from one statement to the next in a fluid, connected way. It’s not just a bunch of notes that are related to the song, but a story evolving.”

Trying to offer insight on how he does what he does, Potter mentioned his formative years in Columbia, where as a high schooler he participated on a small but competent local scene that included bebop jobs with trumpeter Johnny Helms, formerly with Woody Herman and Clark Terry, and guitarist Terry Rosen, a Harry James alumnus who had toured with various Rat Pack-era entertainers.

“Playing gigs in front of people from a young age gives you a certain perspective that someone who spends all their time practicing alone wouldn’t get,” he said. “The social aspect was a big part of what attracted me to jazz. Even when I was studying Charlie Parker records, I listened to how he hooked up with Max Roach. Not just the notes Miles Davis played, but the notes that Herbie Hancock responded with, and how Miles reacted to that, and it created this whole sound. I listen to music this way, and it influences how I react to situations.”

After adding that he is somewhat shy, Potter reflected that his ability to organize thoughts in musical language outpaces his verbal capabilities. “In music I can usually identify the pertinent aspects that sound correct stylistically, and then jump from one area to another,” he said. “When I was younger, I’d memorize phrases—what Ornette Coleman or Lester Young used to get that certain sound, or something that Stravinsky might write for solo saxophone—and then try to play my own thoughts that way. I don’t have the memory to learn every lick, and I don’t spend my time working like that. But it was natural for me to hear how melodies and phrasing work, to understand how harmony functions.

“I make the comparison to a great Olympic runner,” he continued. “You train for years on how to start the race, how to stride and so on. When the race happens, the muscles find a way to do it. I go from a sound, then try to figure out the specifics from looking at the big picture. I understand the idea, and then somehow in that moment I can see how to execute it, and the fingers go there, and the brain knows what to do. There are times I’ve listened back or seen a transcription, and thought, ‘Wow, that was hard.’ If I’d stopped to analyze what I played, I couldn’t have done it.”

On many of his ’90s recordings, Potter presented compositions that took him into a specific vibrational world. One tune would evoke a Brecker feel, another a Wayne Shorter ambiance, others the essence, but not the licks, of Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Joe Henderson and Eddie Harris. Each food group was a separate entity, upon which Potter wove original variations.

“I think that’s possible, but if it’s the case, it wasn’t a conscious decision,” he said. “I might have been figuring out what to do with this or that influence, and where to go from that. Perhaps it was a glimpse of the growth process, or it might be the way I am. But I hope, and have a feeling, that I’m entering a different phase where it won’t be so clear where everything is coming from, because I’ve had enough time and experience to figure out what I want to say.”

Potter used electric guitar on several of those ’90s recordings, but all were acoustic in flavor. Although odd meters entered the mix, they were swing-oriented. Underground, however, is an electric band. Taborn on Fender Rhodes electric piano and Rogers on electric guitar find resourceful ways to fulfill the bass function, while Smith anchors the flow from the drums. Potter writes scaled-down, open-ended pieces for the group—some documented on the eponymous 2006 studio recording Underground, and the 2007 location date Follow The Red Line: Live At The Vanguard (Sunnyside). Vamps, written forms and free sections serve as improvisational investigations propelled by kinetic African, Balkan, funk and hip-hop rhythms. They’re articulated with a textural palette that evokes those idioms as well as electronica, highbrow pop and ambient music.

“The sensibility that we bring to our playing—for instance, the volume or the shape of the improvisations—is not necessarily always selecting towards jazz,” Taborn said. “Different gestures enter from rock, electronic music or hip-hop—staying on grooves, but less development, or maybe no development. Maybe it gets bigger. Maybe it gets louder than normal. It goes into a sound world. It goes fully out of a sound world. A lot of this stuff is more common in the lexicon of contemporary popular music, and younger audiences instantly understand and relate to those decisions. Underground may be cast as jazz, but there are subtle differences between what we do and what would happened with the same species of musician playing the same species of music 15 years ago.”

“Chris is taking advantage of the instrumentation and strong individual styles of the players to give the band a unique sound,” Holland said. “The music has a cerebral, intellectual quality and is grounded in strong feelings and grooves, which encompasses a lot of what music should be about.”

Holland produced Potter’s other 2007 album, Song For Anyone (Sunnyside), a highly composed 10-piece suite for woodwinds, strings and rhythm section. Drawing deeply on classical music, Potter developed fugues, canons and difficult counterpoint. Rich colors abound in the voicings, and improvisations emerge organically from the flow.

“I’m influenced by classical music, and I learned a lot from the tentet,” Potter said. “It’s a big influence on the way jazz players manipulate notes, and it’s fun to explore other ways of doing it. As an improviser, thinking in this compositional way helps me take a more detailed, birds-eye view of where I want things to go. It was also a chance to experiment with some influences that might be less obvious in a jazz context—to create a fugue or employ 12-tone writing, or develop themes and figure out where to use them. I’ve studied some scores, but I’m a dilettante when it comes to classical composition. I picked and grabbed from Debussy, Berg, Stravinsky, Bartók, Bach—whomever.

“When I was 14 or 15, listening to Bird, [Stravinsky’s] “Rite Of Spring,” The Beatles and Stevie Wonder I heard that there had to be some way to make music that uses all that stuff,” he continued. “I’ve been hoping to find that thread for many years. This might be getting closer to that idea. If I wrote some more larger ensemble music, it might be more improvisational than what I did here. By the same token, I’m beginning to feel more comfortable using more compositional elements within this freer thing, too. Maybe I’m trying to fuse this language.”

As the ’90s progressed, Potter, like many of his cohort seeking to cut the umbilical cord of influence, embraced the challenge of finding rhythmic groupings that would make odd meters flow as organically as swing. At the decade’s end, he began to investigate these ideas with a working quartet of Kevin Hays on piano, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Bill Stewart. On various gigs at the 55 Bar in 2003 and 2004, he workshopped different combinations of musicians and instruments, one of which included Taborn. Hoping “to keep the group small to give everyone room to explore” and attracted to the Rhodes’ ability to project organ-like textures and a thick sonic blend with the guitar, Potter gradually coalesced Underground and wrote the music that comprises its eponymous debut.

“There was another side of my musical personality that I wasn’t letting show,” he said of Underground. “I have a conservative side that is useful in some situations, but I want to make sure that it doesn’t win out over the side that wants to stretch. I had a sound in my head that I wasn’t able to get with my other group, and felt I needed to take a chance and try to follow it. At the time, I wasn’t thinking about disbanding, but rather having more sides to what I was doing. At some point, when I can approach it with a fresh perspective, the other quartet might re-form. But Underground’s path has developed its own momentum, and it’s what I want to go with now.”

Uncorking a series of poetic, theme-and-variation declamations on bedrock jazz repertoire on Motian’s 2006 date On Broadway, Vol. 4 (Winter & Winter) and on Mark Soskin’s 2007 One Hopeful Day (Kind of Blue), Potter sounds anything but conservative. But he is adamant that the swing or mainstream context in which he established his early bona fides is no longer boundary-stretching terrain.

“The language is what it is,” Potter said. “There’s no way it’s going to go into certain areas that are interesting to me. It’s not going to be free. There’s always going to be a tempo. The harmony is going to keep moving, and you need to play over it. Not that there’s nothing to learn from it, and I enjoy being in that situation from time to time. Because I learned the underlying rules that made Charlie Parker’s music work, I bring a certain feeling to anything I play, even if the harmonic language is extended, or the actual notes I play aren’t what he would have chosen to play over standard tunes.”

“Chris is open to anything now,” Binney said. “From here on anything could happen.”

Potter does not disagree. “People are working with actual instruments and sounds that didn’t exist when I hit the scene,” he said. “They’ve internalized how to play over odd meters and are much freer with them than, say, Mahavishnu was in the early ’70s. Jazz musicians have a much more sophisticated knowledge of folk music from around the world than a few years ago, and it’s part of what they hear and draw on. All over the world, people are playing at a high level, within their frame of reference. It doesn’t matter whether it’s jazz or not. It just allows more possibilities for finding beautiful things that haven’t been explored.

“It took me a long time to realize how free I could be,” he said. “Things on the scene are much more open now than when I moved to New York, partially because of the demise of record companies. No one has any monopoly on anything; you go with what you hear. But then, I felt I needed to stick within certain boundaries to be accepted. I wasn’t trying to play bebop just like Charlie Parker. I was trying to stretch within the areas. But eventually I realized that I had created the boundaries for myself. If finding another way to approach my own music was my dream, then I should stop dreaming and make it happen.”

Four years into his Underground adventure, married and soon to be a father, Potter has weightier things on his mind than notes and tones, among them the proposition of sustaining a viable career while navigating uncharted terrain.

“Around all of the musicians who I admire, you think of a whole esthetic,” he said on a stopover in Genk, Belgium, following 10 days crisscrossing the highways of Spain with Rogers, Smith and Taborn. “You imagine their sound, you imagine everything about them. That’s dangerous in this day and age, because everything gets simplified into an image that can be easily understood. You can co-opt anything and still sell sneakers. Now, I’ve made a conscious decision to experiment and move more into exploring my own thing. If I give that up, then I’m not doing what I should.

“The best bandleaders are completely committed to their vision, and it won’t include everything,” he continued. “It’s impossible to be all things to all people. You have to find the things that turn you on the most, and not be afraid to follow them wherever they take you. I’ve felt this working with Motian and Dave [Holland], or on my more recent experiences with Herbie. But it’s different when it’s your name on the line and you’re the one stretching on the set. How can I define that to myself and establish it on my own terms so that people know, ‘That’s Chris’ sound’?”

Consistent with his practice, Potter looks to the big picture. “It’s important to remember what gave the music of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong its power. It was connected to something beyond itself, to forces bigger than we can control,” he said. “As artists, we have to respond to what’s going on and react as best we can. The technical things—theory, odd meters—are interesting, but as a means to an end. That brings us to the question of what is music about. Why are we playing it? I devote all this time to it. I lose so much sleep. I’m not home for months at a time. Why?

“Music is a mystery,” he continued. “People watch a bunch of people on a stage, making noise in an organized fashion and for some reason everyone can feel something from it. I am trying to think when I go on stage: What do I want to do? What I really want to do is get the room vibrating in a certain way that everyone experiences something together—something positive, negative, scary or enjoyable—but something real that only being in a room with people making music can do.”

In Spain the previous week, Potter had faced some challenges in realizing this aspiration. “We did several gigs sponsored by a bank that sponsors cultural events in arts centers in some of the smaller towns,” he recounted. “Most of the people in the audience were Spanish ladies in their 60s. We felt completely like fish out of water.”

Wouldn’t this be a moment for Potter to dip into his Johnny Hodges bag?

“There’s no going back,” he said. “One night I tried to play something pretty in a certain style, but it felt wrong. The band has its own energy to go a certain way. You have to follow that.”

 

———–

Chris Potter (Jazziz Article, 2007):

On consecutive Fridays in June, saxophonist Chris Potter booked himself at 55 Bar in Greenwich Village. For the second Friday, he convened guitarist Adam Rogers and drummer Nate Smith, both touring partners from February through May with Underground, Potter’s current band, and bassist Joe Martin. Toward midnight, as a long line of fans filed into the low-ceilinged ex-speakeasy for the second set, Potter unwound, sipping a beer as he chatted with drummer Billy Hart. When the leader descended to the basement to prepare, Hart moved to the bar, and, with little prompting, recalled his first Potter sighting.

The occasion was a straightahead August 1995 recording session for bassist Ray Drummond’s Vignettes, on which Potter played tenor saxophone alongside altoist Gary Bartz. “When I heard the CD, I noticed that Potter played so much better than everyone else,” Hart said with a smile. “I told Ray, ‘It was nice that you gave him extra time to rehearse,’ but Ray answered that Chris had the same three hours as everyone else. Then Chris called me for a date [Moving In (Concord-1996)] with Brad Mehldau and Larry Grenadier, and sent me a tape with the music. At the session, I asked Chris why he wasn’t using the drummer who played on the tape, who was terrific. Chris looked at me like I was nuts. Later, Larry Grenadier told me that Chris had played the drum, piano and bass parts. I was shocked. A few months later, he brought a tune called ‘Tosh’ for my record, Oceans of Time, and I asked him to rework a section. He came in the next day with a completely rewritten chart, on which the violin and guitar shared the melody with two saxophones playing a counter-melody underneath it. He did that after working late the previous evening with the Mingus Orchestra. I said, ‘How did you do this? Didn’t you sleep?’ He said, ‘It’s no problem; I’m only 26 years old.’”

A week after this conversation, Jimmy Heath, a tough critic, related meeting Potter at 15, in a Heath-conducted high school all star band. “Chris asked, ‘Mr. Heath, do you know the chords to ‘Yesterdays’?’,” Heath said. “I wrote them out, and he went on stage and killed it. We were playing in a yard as tourists walked by. Each time he soloed, everybody stopped. When the rest of us soloed, they kept walking. I said, ‘Boy, you’re E.F. Hutton; when you play, everybody listens.’”

Heath has never heard a name he couldn’t pun on, but he jested not: From 1989, when Potter arrived in New York on a Zoot Sims Scholarship to the New School, and joined former Charlie Parker sideman, trumpeter Red Rodney (who occasionally featured his saxophone wunderkind as a trio pianist during sets), everybody—elders and peers, beboppers and postmodernists, traditionalists and visionaries—pays attention when Potter plays. Now 35, he’s led dozen albums; sidemanned consequentially with Dave Holland, Dave Douglas, Paul Motian, Jim Hall, Renee Rosnes, Steve Swallow, and Rodney; and sustained close, enduring associations with such same-generation cutting-edgers as Rogers, Colley, Dave Binney, Alex Sipiagin, and Brian Blade, all 55 Bar regulars.

There are good reasons why Potter has earned such respect, among them his blend of technical derring-do, emotional projection, creative spirit and work ethic. “Chris is at the forefront of pushing the saxophone to the next level,” Binney says. “But he wants to keep stretching, even though he came up in this sort of young star thing and could easily have gotten stuck.” Rogers refers to Potter’s “endless wellspring of ideas,” while Colley mentions his “directness, his ability to focus that allows him to get incredibly deep into a tune, exploring different sounds, different textures, timbrally changing up, using the extreme range of his instrument.”

Also factoring into Potter’s transgenerational appeal is the deep-rooted jazz bedrock upon which he builds his investigations. In the liner notes to Moving In, he stated his desire to find new ways to address “the possibilities that lie in the relationship of harmony to rhythm, the way Charlie Parker put together a language that depended on landing on certain notes on certain parts of the beat.”

A few hours before his first 55 Bar appearance, he elaborated on his aesthetic: “I spent the ages 11 to 17 completely devoting myself to learning how Charlie Parker made his sounds, and I always feel I’m coming from the jazz language. But at the same time, I was listening to my parents’ records of the Beatles and Stevie Wonder, records of Chicago blues, Balinese music, Stravinsky and Bach.”

During those formative years, Potter lived—and gigged frequently—in Columbia, South Carolina, no jazz mecca, where his parents, both educators, relocated with him from Chicago in 1975. “I had certain advantages growing up there that I wouldn’t have had, say, if I’d grown up in New York,” Potter says. “There weren’t too many jazz gigs, but I was doing a fair amount of them by high school.” These included bebop jobs with trumpeter Johnny Helms, formerly with Woody Herman and Clark Terry, and guitarist Terry Rosen, a Harry James alumnus who had previously toured with various Rat Pack era entertainers. He also played with a more contemporary band whose repertoire ranged from standards to Rock to free jazz.

“I got both sides early on,” Potter said. “I also did a lot of weddings. I rented a tuxedo, sang Yesterday, and shlepped around a DX-7, which I played. I had great experiences playing gospel gigs in black churches, where I’d be the one white kid. It was a low pressure environment, and I grew up with the idea of being a working musician. I definitely think of myself as an artist. I’m trying to create something meaningful to me and hopefully to other people. But my view is also that at the end of the day, hey, it’s a gig! People should be enjoying themselves. Because I started so young, I caught the tail end of some stuff that I don’t see much any more.”

Perhaps those experiences—not to mention several years of steady work in the Mingus Orchestra next to old-school outcats like John Stubblefield and Frank Lacy—account for the go-for-broke quality that infuses Potter’s playing at brisk tempos, whether swinging as a sideman on a straight-ahead date, flowing lyrically over Motian’s ametric sound-painting, or molding his phrasing to synchronize with Dave Holland’s interlocking time signatures, or Nate Smith’s unleashed inventions with Underground. Indeed, at 55 Bar, he played structural ideas with a spontaneous elan that reminded me of an earlier Potter remark that, Sonny Rollins’ reputation as a thematic improviser notwithstanding, he considered Rollins “one of the most instinctual improvisers that there ever was; it’s like an unbroken line, like he’s not planning his next move at all, and that’s how he’s able to keep your interest.”

I asked Potter if he considered that comment to be a self-description. “Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses,” he responded. “It depends how you end up using them. Things didn’t come easy to Coltrane as a kid, but he achieved an incredible amount because he worked so diligently, and he knew his weaknesses. From everything I can tell, Sonny was a real natural and automatically got things. I think I’m a little closer to the natural thing. But that can be a trap—if you do a lot instinctually, you may have less reason to dig deeper. I’ve found that I need to put in the work, that it makes a difference to the energy you get from the end product. Even if you don’t know the particular harmonic idea I’m working with or what I’m trying to get under my fingers, you hear the dedication to achieving this level.”

[BREAK]

“My generation grew up listening a lot to jazz and spent a lot of time working on the jazz language,” says Potter, referring not only to the 55 Bar clique, but also such old friends as Mehldau, Grenadier, Kevin Hays, Bill Stewart, and Kurt Rosenwinkel. “Some of us have been able to work with the greats. But I don’t think any of us feels bound to try to recreate the past. After Wynton came on the scene, there was a resurgence in people playing straight ahead and realizing how much depth it takes to do that. A few years later, the idea was, ‘Okay, we’ve gotten back to at least this; now where can we take THAT?’”

Addressing that question, Potter, like many among his cohort, landed on the challenge of making odd meters flow as organically as four-four swing.

“In the generation after Charlie Parker, everyone suddenly understood something about the bebop language, whereas a few years before hardly anyone could execute anything like that,” he says. “Now a jazz musician is expected to be able to improvise in 13 or in 11, know something about how Indian and African and Cuban music are put together and be familiar with the sound. I wouldn’t pretend expertise in any of those fields, but I feel those influences come out—in a layman’s kind of way—when I play. I don’t have a big theoretical underpinning, though I wish I could come up with one. My approach to music has always been to learn as much as possible by ear and to experiment—and have fun. It’s more about what feels right, what feels like a way to unify all the things that turn me on, all the different music I enjoy listening to.”

Potter displayed his swing fluency on the first tune during his first Friday at 55 Bar, launching an extemporaneous, explosive theme-and-variation improvisation on “How Deep Is The Ocean” with Colley on bass and Jeff Ballard on drums. Deploying his play-anything-he-hears technique, he executed intervallic zigzags and surprising resolutions with vigorous authority reminiscent of Sonny Rollins circa 1965. Like Rollins, Potter put his virtuosity at the service of a story, deploying tension-and-release strategies to construct a dramatic arc that got under the skin of his listeners.

But in conceptualizing original music, Potter these days is inclined to sublimate his swing roots. In Underground, Potter develops ideas that he began to state systematically on Traveling Mercies, his second studio date with Hays, Colley and Stewart, his working quartet from 1999 to 2003. He eschews the bass, instead utilizing keyboardist Craig Taborn to sound-paint textures and kinetic grooves over a beat palette drawn from funk, hip-hop and world sources. These propel lean-meat structures in which vamps, written forms and free sections serve as improvisational launch pads.

“It’s very difficult for me right now to make swing feel completely personal,” he says. “This is going to sound wrong, but it’s related to the cultural relevance of swinging as a rhythmic form. With Underground I think about music that sounds relevant to how I and everyone I know are actually living, the sounds you have in your head just from walking down the street in New York City. That’s not to say that swing can’t express that. But it almost feels like there’s too little space between beats. Though it doesn’t really make sense that a rhythm should have relevance or non-relevance. It’s just a pattern of sound.

“In 13, you can’t play the same safe stuff you know. To paint inside the lines, you have to place different rhythmic patterns, use different numbers of notes in the phrase. That’s one way I practice—to set up some kind of obstacle so I can’t just do what I already know. It’s like, okay, I’m only going to use triplets, or work with just groups of 5 or 7, or only play within a fifth range of the horn. I use whatever idea I can come up with that limits me, so that I have to find something that works.”

Emulating ex-employer Douglas’ proclivity for mixing and matching various musical styles, Potter will soon release an album of original music for a 10-piece strings-and-woodwinds ensemble that debuted at the Jazz Standard in May 2005. “I listen to a lot of classical music, and this gave me a chance to explore those influences and spell out my ideas completely,” he says. “In almost all the contexts that I work in, I don’t want to write too much, though. I want the band to find something.”

Which is what both of Potter’s bands did at 55 Bar, and what Underground has done during throughout its two-year history. According to Potter, there’s more to come. “Underground works for me because these guys are so wide-open,” he said. “Actually, the aesthetic isn’t so different than playing with any other group. The building blocks are different, but it’s still about improvisation and creativity and seeing what you can find every night. I’m really grooving on it.”

[—30—]

SIDEBAR:

Around 1997, when he began to play the vertiginous music of Dave Holland, Potter began to experience periodic dizzy spells that came on without warning and lasted for hours. It was diagnosed as Meniere’s Disease, an inner ear condition, and made Potter—who gave the title Vertigo to a 1998 two-tenor date with Joe Lovano, and a Kurt Rosenwinkel-Scott Colley-Billy Drummond collaboration—almost completely deaf in his left ear.

“It was an extremely stressful time, a nightmare both from the stress of, ‘Wow, I’m a musician, and I’m losing hearing,’ and, ‘Okay, I’m a traveling musician, and I have to leave at 5:30 in the morning here to travel from Umbria to Finland, and I can’t even get out of bed because I’m nauseous and the room is spinning,’” Potter says.

“I got treated, had a couple of different surgeries, but I don’t think they really helped. I think the illness took its course, and after a certain point I also realized that I somehow had to take responsibility for it myself. I decided, ‘Okay, I’m going to be cool. This isn’t going to ruin everything. I’ve lost what I’ve lost, but I’m not going to let it stop me.’ I think it’s one of those tests that we all have in various ways at various points of our lives. Something happens that isn’t exactly what you want, and you have to figure out how you want to react to it. These are the things that end up defining who you are, and although I’m not glad it happened, I think I derived some strength out of it in a way that I wouldn’t have without it. It even has its advantages. I put the drums on my left, and I can sleep through stuff.”

——————-

Chris Potter Blindfold Test:

1. Charlie Parker, “Lester Leaps In,” THE COMPLETE LEGENDARY ROCKLAND PALACE CONCERT (Jazz Classics, 1952/1996) (5 stars)

Bird! [LAUGHS] Wow. Where is that from? [The Rockland Palace, a benefit for Paul Robeson in 1952 with dancers.] Wow. That’s great. Man, that’s some unbelievable Bird. I have to check that out. There’s so much available, you never know what’s going to be what. Bird’s probably the biggest influence that I feel I have. He’s such a big figure in my way of thinking about playing the saxophone, it’s hard to even know how to start. But the thing that always gets me about it, besides just his obviously genius way of figuring out how to incorporate rhythms and harmony and make them all sort of work in harmony with each other, there’s such a joyous kind of vibe about it. That’s something I feel isn’t… You always hear about how much of a genius he was. But just the pure enjoyment of hearing that much joy. It sounded just like he was having so much fun that he was able to do that, just singing out. It’s like a kid playing in the sandbox. It’s got that kind of naive almost kind of quality to it. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing. 5 stars, if that’s all I can give. I remember when I was first playing the saxophone, I was 11 or 12. Everyone said, “Man, you’ve got to check out Charlie Parker.” At that time I was totally into Johnny Hodges. I just didn’t hear it. He’s sort of out of tune and he’s playing all these notes — what’s going on? Then one day I was ready. One day again someone said, “Bird, that’s it.” So I put it back on, and all of a sudden it was like a light went off.” It was like, “Oh, that’s what they’re talking about.” Then that was it. I’m sure at least a year out of my life almost everything I listened to was Bird.

2. Ellery Eskelin/Han Bennink, “Let’s Cool One,” DISSONANT CHARACTERS (hatOLOGY, 1998) [4 stars]

So far I think it’s Johnny Griffin, but we’ll see. Okay, definitely not Johnny Griffin. There’s something about his sound… It’s that Monk tune, “Let’s Call This” or… “Let’s Cool One.” I always get them confused. Wow. I really don’t know who it is. [He’s a little older than you, though he came to town around the same time.] Wow! [And he’s not necessarily known for playing tunes in public persona and reputation.] He sort of sounds like he might play a lot of freer music, to me. I was almost thinking of someone like Jim Pepper, because there’s something about his sound that was similar to Jim Pepper, too. But it’s not him either. [AFTER] That was very nice. It was interesting to me just to hear him play a tune. That’s tricky. I’ll say 4 stars. The only thing is, I sort of wanted it to go on longer and develop more even. Who was playing drums? Han Bennink? That makes sense. I’ve actually never heard Han play time either. But I know that’s how he started.

3. Mark Turner & Josh Redman, “317 E. 32nd St.,” MARK TURNER (Warner Bros, 1994/1998) [4 stars]

Sort of a Lennie vibe. Warne and Lee? It’s a little soon. It’s a great head. Real Warne-ish on the first solo. But it sounds like a newer record; this is obviously not from the ’50s. I’m confused. Mark and Josh? It sounds like Max Bolleman engineered it. I think it’s Lennie’s head; it’s on “Out Of Nowhere,” but I can’t place it. [AFTER] That was interesting, because I actually did think it was Warne at first, when it was Mark, and I found myself thinking, “Man, Mark really borrowed some stuff from Warne!” It was actually recorded a few years ago, right? That’s another reason I didn’t think it was Mark. I can tell from hearing him more recently, he’s sort of developed his thing a little more. It was interesting when the second solo came in. It sounded like Josh was doing the Warne kind of thing, too. Then after a couple of choruses his essential Joshness started to come out. These are obviously guys who are the same age as I am, and I can feel a certain sympathy in the fact that they’re being judged by me of all people especially! But I think that’s a good example of some early Mark and Josh. It’s interesting to me after I figured out to think about how they sound now and how they sound then. They’re more themselves now, more developed, surer of themselves, I think. That’s a natural process that hopefully happens as you get older, if you don’t lose your way. That’s just what’s going to happen. 4 stars. It was a good job, guys.

4. Wayne Shorter, “Wayne’s World,” HEROES (Verve, 1999) [J.J. Johnson, composer] [5 stars]

Wayne. I’m going to go on a limb and guess this is the J.J. Johnson record, which I haven’t heard, but I know it exists. And it’s a modern record, and it’s Wayne, and it sounds like it’s probably J.J. This might be the solo that meant that I didn’t win a Grammy! Well, that’s not exactly true. But I think this was up in the same category. [AFTER] [It sounded like it deserved a Grammy.] It did. I mean, Wayne doesn’t even have to sound good with all the stuff he’s given us. [You’re only as good as your last solo.] Well, that was a great solo. He definitely sustained his reputation on that one, I thought. That was great. I’m always looking for new Wayne to check out. He’s up there with Bird as a huge influence on the way I think. There’s something about him that I always totally dug, that he seems totally unafraid to be an individual. I mean, he’ll do just some weird stuff, and somehow it just resonates the right way. He’s obviously telling the truth about what he’s like, and you get that. 5 stars. [How is Wayne Shorter different now from 10-15 years ago?] It’s hard to really say. I think as it’s gone on, as he’s done records like Highlife and Atlantis, which I love… His thing has definitely progressed from the beginning of his career, from like a great tenor soloist… It doesn’t seem like he’s thinking in those kind of terms any more. He’s hearing everything. That’s something I always dug about him. He always had that, but I think he keeps bringing that out more and more. It always seemed to me that it almost didn’t matter that he was playing the saxophone, that he was playing jazz — that it was music even. It seems like that’s just his way of communicating what he has to communicate, and he can do it through any medium. There some sort of non-attachment or something that I get from it. It’s just the expression that I get from him. It sounds to me like he might not play as much as he did in those… I mean, he was playing with Blakey every night and with Miles. So I can hear that that level of playing comfort maybe isn’t there. But in its place is some really deep thought that keeps getting deeper for me. He’s a hero of mine, too, in that he hasn’t rested on his laurels. He keeps working on stuff, and I think we’re all richer for it.

5. Bennie Wallace, “Moon Song,” BENNIE WALLACE (AudioQuest, 1998) [Tommy Flanagan, piano] [4 stars]

It’s Coleman Hawkins. Let’s see. I’ll take a guess and say it’s Bennie Wallace. But let’s let the record state that he gave me too good of a hint. [AFTER] At first his sound seriously reminded me of Coleman Hawkins, then when he started blowing he was sort of using those arpeggiated things like Coleman Hawkins would do, but further out. So I thought, I don’t know, maybe Don Byas or someone like that. Then it got further and further out, and I went, “Whoa, this is not of that generation.” [Are you familiar enough with the way Bennie Wallace plays that you’d have known it was him?] I might not have known. I sort of have an idea of what he sounds like — and that’s what he sounds like! [LAUGHS] But I’m not that familiar with his work. I liked the song, though I don’t know what the tune is. [Who is the pianist?] It sounded like an older guy. It’s often harder for me to tell who’s playing if it’s a pretty inside kind of thing, if it’s sort of sticking to the conventional language. That can make it harder, in a way, because there’s certain conventions everyone uses to make it sound like jazz, but that can make it harder to identify, too. [AFTER] That would have been my first guess, but it’s too late now! 4 stars. I enjoyed it. This is actually something I’ve found myself working on now that I’m off the road for a few weeks. I’ve actually been trying to investigate ways you can bend the notes, shape every note so it has a character, which the old guys did. And it seems like Bennie has really checked that out. It’s not even totally in tune. It’s like out of tune in a cool way that gives it a vocal kind of quality that… It’s something I’m working on, so it’s nice to hear someone else’s approach to that, which obviously comes from the old-old-old school as far as tenor playing goes.

6. George Garzone, “I’ll Remember April,” MOODIOLOGY (NYC, 1999) [Ken Werner, piano] (3 stars)

It’s obviously a younger musician. No? I’m really not sure. I have to confess I didn’t like this as much as the other stuff you’ve had on so far. What I’d say against it is the fact that it’s “I’ll Remember April” just sort of played without an arrangement, and it was a sort of jam session sounding thing, which is cool if it’s a jam session, but if you have a chance to make a record, try to do something to enliven the arrangement a bit. And there was something about the saxophone player… What I did like about the whole thing is that the energy was really strong. It felt like everyone was sort of going for it and enjoying themselves, which obviously is a huge thing. It can be a great musician, and if it doesn’t have that, it’s not going to have anything that sort of draws you in. But it sounded a little unfocused to me, too, in terms of a conception. It sounded to me there were certain things he was going for that he doesn’t have thought out yet. [Do you know who the pianist was?] (I’m not sure who the pianist was, but I actually really enjoyed the piano solo. It was a little busy at times, too, but it seemed much more focused to me. Very smart. 3 stars. [AFTER] I’m surprised. I totally did not get Ken Werner. I would not have thought that.

7. World Saxophone Quartet, “Requiem for Julius,” REQUIEM FOR JULIUS (Just-In Time, 2000).

The only saxophone group like that I’m familiar with is the World Saxophone Quartet, so that would be my guess. I guess that’s Oliver Lake playing soprano? [That was John Purcell on saxello.] Playing the melody? [On this record they each stick to one instrument, and the instrument you heard was saxello.] Wow, that’s a cool sound. That’s really cool. It sounded a little more in, I guess (I hate to use those kind of terms), than I expected. It had more of a compositional thing. It was like a nice tune, first of all, and nice voicings for all the instruments. I was almost thinking it wasn’t them, because it was so structured, in a way. But it sounded like Hamiet Bluiett’s sound down there. That was sort of the first recognizable thing. Nice. There’s something about the sound of the saxello — obviously it’s the way Purcell is playing it — that’s really cool. Its pitch is funny, and his approach to things is sort of out there, but it sort of hits me the right way. It’s nice. It sounds human. Animal, in a way. It’s cool. 4 stars. I enjoyed it.

8. Johnny Griffin, “All Too Soon,” THE REV AND I (Blue Note, 1999) [Phil Woods, alto sax] [5 stars]

I think it’s Phil Woods. I’m assuming this is Phil’s latest record on Blue Note, which has Johnny Griffin. Griffin sounds great. That was a great performance. I’d say that was a 5 star performance there. The way that I first heard Johnny Griffin’s playing, and probably the way a lot of people did was those Monk records at the Five Spot. I heard those all the time. It’s interesting to see how he sort of changed. He always had that thing. He was playing all the bebop stuff; something about his sound, it’s sort of similar to what I was talking about earlier, bending the notes and being a little out of tune here, and a little low here and a little high there… [He’s a blues guy.] Right. He has that real vocal thing. And now that he’s older, too, to be able to play a melody and just play that simply on a ballad and have it be that much of a voice is a beautiful thing. Man, saxophone can be a beautiful thing. That’s great.

9. James Carter, “Drafedelic In D-Flat,” LAYIN’ IN THE CUT (Atlantic, 2000)

Albert Ayler? Okay, it’s got to be James Carter. This must be that new record that just came out. The intro was amazing. I sometimes get the feeling that he might be playing music for different reasons than I’m playing music — or not very similar. It’s a different way of thinking about what we think is beautiful. Especially after the band came in, I felt like he… I liked the fact that it’s at least a very strong statement in one direction or another, which I respect, but a lot of it doesn’t seem that beautiful to me. It’s not coming from a place of trying to make a beautiful thing. And I was not expecting that sound to come in after that intro. I actually dug the texture of it. I liked the sound of the tenor with an almost jam band kind of thing. There wasn’t really much of a melody or anything. That I sort of liked about it. But I probably wouldn’t choose to listen to it at home. There’s something about it that makes me feel that’s not what I want to have in my head. I won’t rate it.

10. Sonny Stitt, “I Got Rhythm,” TUNE UP (32 Jazz, 1972/1997) [Stitt, alto and tenor sax] (4½ stars)

This is the slowest “I’ve Got Rhythm” I’ve ever heard in my life. I’m assuming it goes into double time! My first thought was Gene Ammons, but I’m not sure now. Nice sound. [AFTER] Well, I actually did end up getting it. Sonny Stitt on alto. But I could not tell if it was him on tenor. I really did not think that it was him. Because his sound sounded a lot more full and focused. His sound on the alto was really recognizable, certain things in certain registers — okay, that’s got to be him. But on the tenor he didn’t sound like he usually does. He sounds great! He was always sort of… If you think about walking into a jazz club somewhere and hearing someone burn, that was him. I never got a chance to see him, but that’s always the sense I have, is just like state of the art bebop — flawless. [Talk about playing on the two horns.] That’s sort of a tough thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, too. Something about the alto, and switching to the tenor… It’s hard to feel comfortable on both horns at the same time, and it’s hard to feel comfortable on both horns, period. I’m not sure why that is, even, that it’s that similar and that different. You really have to think about it. [People say the alto needs more control.] Maybe so. Obviously, the smaller the horn, the smaller the mouthpiece… I think smaller differences in embrochure and all that are going to make bigger changes in the sound and the way that the pitch is. But it’s fairly similar. So to feel comfortable knowing what to do, how to change, how to… I mean, it’s really subtle embrochure change kind of stuff. And also the amount of air that you blow, it’s not that much more on the tenor, but it’s a little bit more. You have to be a little bit looser, but not that much looser. You have to know how to do it. It’s really difficult to feel comfortable doing both. There’s something about the register for me, too, the way that you hear the alto clearer when you play it, I feel it. Because it’s higher, and also because the bell is pointing more towards you. It’s sort of right here, whereas if you’re playing tenor it’s going out that way more and a little further down. So you’re getting a different sonic thing back when you’re playing, too, I find. 4½ stars. I don’t think you could possibly play bebop rhythm changes any better than that. That was like it.

11. Joe Lovano, “The Scene Is Clean,” 52nd STREET THEMES (Blue Note, 2000) (4½ stars)

Lovano maybe. “The Scene is Clean.” I recorded this. Lewis Nash on drums. I guess I started hearing Lovano right around the time I moved to New York, like 1990, which is when he signed with Blue Note and started to be sort of an influence on younger saxophone players. It’s been interesting to see how he has been very influential on sort of the younger generation of saxophonists. There’s someone you can really look at who is very strong about what he wants to do, and he’s put in the work to be able to do it. He’s obviously thought about having an original kind of sound. He had his own approach to things, but totally grounded in history from early infancy, I guess. It’s been a good influence, I think, on younger musicians, because it is someone who is that grounded in the whole history of it. It’s been a positive thing. But I also think it’s interesting now to hear younger players trying to sound like him. As someone in that generation, he’d definitely be one person I don’t want to sound just like. Because he has a lot of influences that I have and I think that’s the way it is for all of the younger saxophonists. So in a way, I don’t end up listening to him all that much any more, because I don’t want to have that in my head too much. I want to have sort of a different thing. 4½ stars.

12. Joe Henderson, “Portrait,” THE STATE OF THE TENOR (VOL.2) (Blue Note, 1985/1994) [5 stars]

Well, I guess, that’s Joe Henderson. This is a Billy Strayhorn tune that I can’t remember the name of. Oops! Sorry. It’s a Mingus tune. I think it’s called “Portrait.” It’s Al Foster on drums, and I’m guessing Mraz on bass. [AFTER] I have to give that five stars, too, just in terms of how big an influence he’s been on me. I don’t even know how to start. Sound, phrasing, his own language, his approach to rhythm. Hugely influential on me, and I’m not the only one. Just a master. And it was interesting for me to see him the first time. I remember seeing him probably a few years after this was recorded, and I was surprised at how soft he plays. He never seems to have to try and get beyond that. There’s something about people who play really quietly in… My own most personal experience would be similar to the way it feels to play with Jim Hall. It’s like you play that quietly, you bring people in. The fact that he seems so much like such a wise gnome — a short guy kind of hunched over — sort of brings people in, I think. That’s part of his mystique. Which is something beyond just playing the saxophone great, obviously. That’s something all these great musicians share, too. I was talking about Bird sounding just like a genius kid at play in the sandbox. Lovano has a whole different thing. He’s like BIG. He’s this big guy and he’s got this big presence With Joe-Hen it’s almost the opposite kind of thing, very soft, very quiet, and it makes everyone listen in. That’s something worthy of study, along with the way they use notes and that kind of thing, is the kind of vibe that these great musicians give out. It’s like they’re so themselves, and they never stop being themselves. 100 percent of the time you’re seeing exactly what they mean to express. Even if they mess up, it’s still them messing up.

13. Ralph Moore, “Crazeology,” SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS ARE…THE SAX PLAYERS (Telarc, 1996) [3½ stars]

Eric Alexander? This is sort of a tough one to figure, which I think is also related to that thing I was talking about earlier. It’s such a standard kind of thing. Which is sort of a criticism I have of it, too… [Well, it’s not the type of Bird tune that everybody plays.] No. There was something sort of conservative about it that I didn’t dig, but it was played really-really well. I really don’t know who it was. My next guess would be like Ralph Moore, just because of his sound. But I know his playing more in other contexts. And it could be Benny Green. It’s sort of hard to find grounds to criticize it in terms of what was actually played. It sounded great. [AFTER] Oh, that’s Ray’s record! Well, then it’s no criticism at all of anyone really, because if anyone has the right to make that kind of record, it’s Ray Brown. [Why shouldn’t people stand in there with the… It’s an interesting question for a guy who started with Red Rodney. You’ve played a lot of this music. Why do you find it a little objectionable for people to make their own statement on it?] It’s not that I find it objectionable. It’s more that I’m not interested in hearing it myself. I’d much rather hear someone do something else. Just because it’s so hard to compete with how great those original records were. Unless you’re going to really do something in a different way, have a totally different concept… I mean it’s really enjoyable to listen to. There’s nothing I can object to except to say that I’d rather hear younger players do something else, even if it doesn’t work as well. Because that’s obviously going to work. But there’s something a bit safe about it that I don’t dig. 3½ stars.

14. David Berkman, “Blue Poles,” COMMUNICATION THEORY (Palmetto, 2000) [Chris Cheek, ts] [4½ stars]

I definitely know this guy’s playing. I’ve played with him. Chris Cheek maybe. I’m not sure who everyone else is. But that was really nice. That was sort of a good thing to play after we were just done talking about I’d rather hear younger players do something else than just play tunes. That was a really good example, a well thought out compositional kind of thing which had a different kind of feel, and wasn’t just simply like swinging. Very, very nice. I know Chris’ sound so well from playing next to him with Paul Motian. I definitely learned a lot from him. He’s someone who I can obviously recognize. He definitely does things that I don’t hear other people do. He has his language which he seems… It seems like he’s not trying to do everything all the time. He’s just trying to do his thing, which is something I have a lot of respect for. And he obviously has a really strong command of the horn, too. [AFTER] I really liked what Brian did on that. I was wondering if it was him. Because it was very, very nice. He really made the tune in a lot of ways, too, the whole feel of it, changing the textures up — really nice. 4½ stars.

15. Sonny Rollins-Coleman Hawkins, “All The Things You Are,” SONNY MEETS HAWK (RCA, 1963/1997) [5 stars]

Sonny and Coleman Hawkins. That’s an immediate 5 stars. That’s a fascinating record from a psychological angle, too; what was going on in the studio, what… I do have a feeling Sonny was making sure he didn’t sound like Coleman Hawkins, and I’m also fairly sure that Coleman Hawkins was out for blood! [LAUGHS] It’s just amazing to hear that much personality in one record. That just jumps out at you. That’s some living music there. I recently rented a video of Sonny, and I noticed how unafraid he is when he’s playing. It seems to be an unbroken line. Like, he’s not planning his next move at all. It’s sort of interesting that he got so well known for being a thematic improviser, but it always seemed to me he’s one of the most instinctual improvisers that there ever was. He’s really in that moment, and it just works out to being a thematic kind of thing. That’s what he hears to play right at that moment. But that’s sort of how he’s able to keep your interest, is just because he’s on that line. He has no idea really what he’s going to play next. It sounds to me that he’s consciously trying to be out, in a way, on this record. Which could be seen as a criticism, but I actually dig it. It sounds right to me, especially in that context, as we were saying, of that psychological drama that unfolds. That makes perfect sense. It was a smart move. Because you’re not going to out-Coleman Hawkins Coleman Hawkins. He sounds great on that, too. It was sort of a good day for everyone.

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For Joe Lovano’s 63rd Birthday, A Jazziz Feature From 2000, a Pair of WKCR Interviews from 1989 and 1995, and His “Baker’s Dozen” John Coltrane Selections From 2009, and Three Liner Notes

Best of birthdays to Joe Lovano, who turns 63 today. I’ve been fortunate to have many opportunities to write about Joe and to speak with him, and am sharing a few of these in this post. First is a long feature for Jazziz in 2000. There follow a pair of WKCR interviews, one the proceedings of a Musicians Show in 1989, the second of a 5-hour Jazz Profiles show in 1995 — much interesting information in both. Then comes the an interview conducted for the “Baker’s Dozen” feature on the much missed website, http://www.jazz.com — Joe discusses 13 essential John Coltrane tracks. Then come three liner notes. Joe gave me my first liner note opportunity in 1995 when Blue Note released his seminal date, Quartets: Live at the Village Vanguard. Subsequently, I wrote the notes for On This Day: Live at the Vanguard and the debut recording of his still ongoing group, Us Five, titled Folk Art.

 

Joe Lovano (Jazziz):

He isn’t brash, he doesn’t profile, but Joe Lovano isn’t the type to blend into the background either. When he strolls into the dressing room and exchanges greetings with Paul Motian and Bill Frisell, the mood instantly lifts. Lovano’s last performance with the drummer and guitarist, his partners for 20 years in Motian’s trio, was last together eight months earlier in Rome. Now, they’re about to take the stage at Caramoor, an elegantly landscaped arts center set on a former estate in the middle of Westchester horse country, to conclude a remarkable afternoon of music that’s featured the Sam Rivers Trio and Steve Lacy and Mal Waldron in duet.

Lovano has a ruddy tan, his salt-specked goatee-moustache is trim; he’s casually dapper in blue circular shades, a bebopper’s straw beret with alternating zig-zag stripes of white and sea blue, and a silk violet short-sleeved shirt with black markings resembling musical notes draping a burly torso. As greetings are exchanged, he assembles his silver tenor and begins to warm up, effortlessly filling the room from the first breath.

A few hours before, in this same room, Chris Potter, fresh from a turbulent tenor solo with Hilton Ruiz’ band, came upstairs to say hello. I reminded him of a comment of his — that Lovano’s influence on his generation of saxophonists is so pervasive that he, Potter, is making a concerted effort not to sound like him. “That’s absolutely true,” he replied.

“What you said to Chris is funny,” Motian remarked once Potter dashed back to the stage.

“I was just in Manchester, England, and as I walked into the club, I heard a saxophone over the sound system. I said, ‘Oh, that’s Joe Lovano.’ The sound engineer who was playing the CD said, ‘No, it’s not.’ I said, ‘You can’t tell me that’s not Lovano. Lovano has been playing with me for twenty years. I know when it’s Joe. All he has to do is play two notes. I know it’s Joe.’ It wasn’t Joe.” He laughs. “I couldn’t believe it. It’s an English guy. I don’t remember his name.”

“That’s far out,” Frisell said.

“It is,” Motian shot back. “I stole the CD. After I got home, I played it; it doesn’t sound like Joe. But at that moment, I thought it was Joe. And I hear lots of other saxophone players now who sound like Joe, which I didn’t when I first met him. He sounds better now than he did then, but not that much better. He sounded good then.”

Lovano sounds good on improvisational flights to the music’s outer partials with Motian and Frisell, I thought, and he sounds just as good on, say, the inspired and thoroughly idiomatic solo he took on “How High The Moon” for a record with the Ray Brown Trio a few years back. After I said something to that effect, Motian jumped in.

“Do you know why he can do that? It’s very simple. He’s a good musician. He has a lot of experience. He played with Woody Herman and other big bands, with the organ trios, all these different groups, he can read anything, plays all the reed instruments.

“Early when the trio was first forming, we had a gig in Cleveland, and we stayed overnight at Lovano’s home, with his parents. His mom cooked up this great food. I’m sitting on the couch with Joe’s father, who says to me, ‘You know, Paul, I’m an official at the local musicians union here in Cleveland; you have to give me $8.’ So I gave it to him! And he gave me his card, which later I gave to Joe after his father passed. Up on the wall of the living room is a picture of Joe in the crib, a couple of months old, but also in the crib with him there’s a fucking saxophone! So check that influence out. That’s the thing about Joe. It just comes naturally to him.”

“He’s natural, but he works his ass off, too,” Frisell added.

In his alchemical ability to play any style — play it convincingly and retain his unmistakable identity — Lovano is the model of what today’s savviest young improvisers strive to attain. Part of the mystique involves his big, furry sound. It’s a sound that tenorist Eric Alexander, an ’80s student of Lovano’s at William Patterson College, describes as “ultra-breathy, broader and darker just about than any tone I’ve ever heard on the saxophone.” He continues, “A lot of younger saxophonists have been excited and enthralled by that sound and tried to approximate it. It’s very personal, almost eccentric. If it were 1965, and you heard that sound, it would be shocking — you wouldn’t have heard a tenor sound like that. He doesn’t sound like any of the legendary cats tone-wise. Also, the way Joe organizes his notes and phrases and shapes his lines disguises what he does. There’s clarity, but the way he outlines the harmony is almost intentionally nebulous. It sounds like I’m being critical, and I’m not; I hear that rubbing off on a lot of younger saxophonists.”

Ever since he came off the road with Woody Herman twenty years ago, Lovano developed that sound on a wild mix of jobs, not least with Motian’s Trio. He played a vast range of charts with the Mel Lewis Orchestra [1980-1992], Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, and the Carla Bley Orchestra. He worked frequently with Elvin Jones, in a remarkable quintet with Tom Harrell, in a two-tenor quintet with African drums led by bassist Ray Drummond, and, earned widespread visibility in John Scofield’s immensely popular quartet. He co-led a voice-and-woodwinds ensemble with his wife Judi Silvano, played in a European freebop combo with bassist Henri Texier and drummer Aldo Romano, and in a quartet led by Japanese avant pianist Yosuke Yamashita. One night in 1994 he spent an evening scratch improvising a series of memorable duets and trios with Evan Parker and Borah Bergman.

Blue Note signed Lovano in 1990; he’s responded with eleven albums, each different from the one before, all of which have extended his musical vocabulary. Most of these recordings incorporate musicians — Jones, Ed Blackwell, Jack DeJohnette, Al Foster, Lewis Nash, Billy Hart, Charlie Haden, Dave Holland — who, as he puts it, “play beyond technique with a sensibility of freeness.” Lovano also has collaborated with open-minded arrangers like Gunther Schuller and Manny Albam. Axiomatic as it may seem today that improvisers should experience the full range of contexts — from the most functional blues to the most intense abstraction — this was hardly the norm in the mid-’80s, when Lovano began to make his mark.

“I never said, ‘I dig this, I don’t dig that,'” Lovano emphasizes. “I’ve always lived in the different, let’s say, camps in the music. I’ve tried to be free, tried to develop my technique through the years so I could execute ideas freely and to develop ideas within the personnel in the band. I don’t come at the saxophone with one attitude all the time, which has helped develop my approach in playing a lot of different kinds of music.”

You can hear how independent-minded thirty-something tenor players like Mark Turner, Seamus Blake, Chris Cheek, Donny McCaslin and Joshua Redman have investigated Lovano’s capacious timbre and open approach to harmony on their way to finding a sound. “I don’t know any tenor player of my generation who doesn’t love Joe Lovano and hasn’t been profoundly influenced by him,” says Redman, who in June performed in San Francisco with Lovano, Wayne Shorter and Branford Marsalis. Redman was a recently matriculated Harvard underclassman when he first heard Lovano at a small Boston club on the urging of a tenor saxophonist friend. “I was completely blown away,” Redman relates. “You could hear the entire tradition of the tenor saxophone, but he had synthesized it all in a completely natural, organic and personal way, and he sounded completely modern and incredibly soulful and spirited.”

Redman has since shared numerous bandstands with Lovano, whose admiration for Dewey Redman, Josh’s father, is no secret. “Of the group of tenor players who came up in the ’70s,” Redman continues, “Joe completely embraced the modernism that came out of Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter and Ornette Coleman, but with a sound which goes beyond that and in some ways reaches further back. There’s a humanism in his sound that maybe was lacking in other guys from the post-Coltrane era. I mean sound in the larger conception — the notes he plays, his rhythmic and harmonic conception, his melody. It’s his personality.”

Lovano’s peers and elders appreciate his willingness to aim for paths untrodden in an era when the weight of the tradition intimidated so many to fall back on the tried-and-true. “What I personally dig about Joe,” says the bassist Christian McBride, who most recently played with Lovano in the initial iteration of Grand Slam, a quartet that the tenorist co-leads with guitarist Jim Hall, “is that he’s not afraid at all. He always plays with what I’d call ‘careful abandon.’ I always have been a little dumbfounded as to why one morning we woke up and Joe Lovano became this really major person on the jazz scene, because I always thought he was one of the best tenor saxophonists of all time.”

Before Grand Slam formed, Jim Hall — a native Clevelander who played with Lovano’s Uncle Carl in high school and hung out in the one-chair barbershop Lovano’s father owned in Cleveland to supplement his income as a musician — brought Lovano onto several mid-90s Telarc dates; these involved complex chord changes and intricate charts. “Joe just gobbled them up,” Hall says. “He dives into things and assumes he’s going to come out on his feet; you can put almost anything in front of him. I first heard him with the Mel Lewis band at the Vanguard, and I was impressed with him the same way I am now. He was completely loose and confident. He just sounded so confident, so completely comfortable when he’d stand up to play his solo, no matter how complicated the chart was. There was no feeling of hesitation; he just would do it.”

“Joe goes toe-to-toe with people,” says Greg Osby. The saxophonist collaborated with Lovano for last year’s Friendly Fire (Blue Note), a well-wrought hypermodern jam session which commingles Lovano’s working trio of bassist Cameron Brown and the iconic New Orleans drummer Idris Muhammad, with Osby and pianist Jason Moran. “He’s spontaneous and inventive, and he doesn’t play licks. He incorporates alternate fingerings or choking on the mouthpiece or tonguing techniques to create shadings and colors — he gobbles up the notes. He knows how to embrace the sound. That comes from listening to people play the blues, and listening to singers, how they bend notes.”

It seems each of Lovano’s colleagues finds something different to appreciate in his approach. Cameron Brown has grounded the space between Lovano and Muhammad at least a couple of hundred times in the last two years. “Joe reminds me of Don Cherry,” says the bassist, who worked extensively with Archie Shepp, George Adams and Dewey Redman earlier in his career. “Both of them are always aware that music can be magic, that something special can happen at any moment, which puts the music at a different level.”

In fact, Lovano appears to know how to create a space where personalities can blend and set off sparks in any performance situation. As Motian implied, his father began to teach his oldest son how to crack the codes of such ritual shortly after he began to walk, in a manner not so dissimilar to the way griot families in oral societies pass along information. Lovano likes to emphasize that his projects emanate from personal history, a subject he discusses with obvious enthusiasm.

Lovano’s grandparents were born in Sicily, and settled in Cleveland, Ohio, in the early part of the 1900s. Three of his uncles were working musicians. Uncle Nick, now 85, who was a dance band tenor player (he played in the saxophone section in the Sammy Watkins Big Band, which Dean Martin sang with when he was discovered) and a used car salesman, told him that his grandfather was in the Masons, who encouraged their children to play instruments so they could play for their parties and meetings. Lovano assumes that his father, Tony, got into music from hearing his older brother play. Uncle Joe played “more wedding band style tenor saxophone — all standard songs.” Tony Lovano was next, and he and his younger brother Carl, who played trumpet, came of age during the Bop era — Lovano has a recording of them playing Dizzy Gillespie’s “Dizzy Atmosphere.”

“We lived with my grandparents until I was 5 or 6 years old,” Lovano recalls. “It was a festive atmosphere, with music all the time. I heard reel-to-reel tapes of parties where my grandmother’s brother, Jim, played mandolin and sang arias and Italian folk songs. My Dad would practice in a big bathroom on the second floor; I’d listen to him all the time, and the sound of the saxophone captured me completely from when I was crawling around the pad. I had my first alto saxophone when I was 5 or 6. A year or two later the drummer my Dad was playing with bought a new drumset and gave me his drums, which I set up in my room. My Dad gave me a wonderful opportunity to explore by giving me horns and letting me have his record collection to destroy as a kid — and I went through all his records. I had a lot of favorite players when I was really young. I mean, I knew about Sonny Stitt and Rahsaan Roland Kirk when I was in fifth and sixth grade, and I knew their playing.”

Lovano’s ideas about playing the saxophone were marked early on by his intense involvement with the drums. “I felt a little pressure playing saxophone,” he says. “My Dad played with me on all my lessons, and I was trying to have him dig me. Then I would sit at the drums and have fun. As I developed more on the saxophone, I heard the solos that Max Roach played with Charlie Parker, and realized he was playing some of the same phrases and melodies as Bird. As I learned the melodies, I’d practice them on the drums as well. I’d learn all the solos that Philly Joe Jones played on a record. It opened up my awareness to be involved not only in what I’m articulating on my horn, but to try to be part of what everybody else is playing.”

Tony Lovano, who went by the nickname “Big T,” was the most advanced player in his family; as Lovano recalls, “he was a real hipster; by the late ’40s he was seriously involved in the scene.” He didn’t travel much — Lovano recalls a tour with a trio led by Nat Cole’s brother Ike — but he worked all over Cleveland, playing gutbucket, walk-the-bar saxophone in rhythm-and-blues and jump bands, leading organ trios (by the ’60s, his East Cleveland barber shop, now with two chairs, had a Hammond B3), doing jam sessions, playing in supper clubs for listeners. “He was aware of all music, and especially the music of the Fifties and Sixties,” Lovano says. “That was his generation. Tadd Dameron and Freddie Webster were from Cleveland, so were [trumpeters] Benny Bailey and Bill Hardman and [guitarist] Bill DeArango, who he was real close to, and later Albert Ayler and Bobby Few. He was coming out of the Illinois Jacquet and Gene Ammons school of playing, but he loved Lester Young, and had a beautiful ballad approach, too. He played by ear, and he created melody all the time. That was his thing.”

Through his father, Lovano internalized the notion that mastery of function is the fount of invention. “My Dad always had integrated bands with the best musicians in town,” Lovano states, “and the organ players and drummers and bassists and guitarists he played with became my teachers. My main goal was to sit in, so I had to learn the tunes they were playing, sometimes on the spot; I had to figure out how to play in certain keys and maneuver through tag endings. I had to memorize everything.”

Once Lovano could drive, he got his union card, and began to take on weekend wedding and dance gigs that his father got calls for but couldn’t get to, leading bands with musicians Tony Lovano’s age. “That gave me confidence about playing with older guys,” Lovano says. “My Dad taught me to survive out here as a musician, to be able to take a gig and get called back a second time! He always stressed the technical things. He encouraged me to learn clarinet and flute, which helped me later to function in Woody Herman’s band and in the Mel Lewis Orchestra. He prepared me to sit in saxophone sections by bringing me around to hear the bands he played in; soon I was playing in rehearsal bands, trying to read and integrate my sound within the band sound. That prepared me to feed off of people, to blend my tone with other tones so the sound doesn’t stick out — to find other ways to listen.

“Music was my trade. But jazz music was always art to me, too. As a teenager I played on dances in Motown type bands, and I was one of the only cats who could solo. I thought the AM, Top-40 type music at the time was sad! They didn’t play like Sonny Stitt and they didn’t sound anything like Miles. There was no art in the way they played. When I was a kid, I felt I was studying sophisticated, incredible music, listening to Lester Young and trying to execute Charlie Parker’s melodies.”

Lovano earned enough money to pay his tuition at Berklee, where he enrolled in 1971, and immediately impressed his peer group. “I loved the way he sounded then, when he was 18 years old,” John Scofield relates. “Everyone was trying to play jazz and bebop tunes, more modern things, like Coltrane and Miles from the ’60s, even some Bitches Brew type of action and Herbie Hancock kind of fusion, and free music. Coltrane was the pervasive sound on tenor saxophone, but Joe was digging into some other stuff. Joe had the same quality then that he has now, only less developed — great time and a lush sound that echoes the tenor players I liked from older records, a commitment to improvising and swinging hard, and a high standard of musicality, a strength of purpose and focus.”

Berklee became Lovano’s finishing school. He immediately caught the attention of hard-to-please instructors John LaPorta and Gary Burton; in Burton’s advanced ensemble class, he analyzed for the first time the music of Wayne Shorter, Steve Swallow, Carla Bley, and Chick Corea — “tunes I’d heard before but never really played, with different forms and more deceptive resolutions in the harmony, more polychords, different rhythmic feelings within the music,” Lovano says. “That class opened me up to the future.”

Tony Lovano had a heart attack that December; Joe flew home to finish his father’s five-night-a-week organ trio gig, and remained to help support the family. He returned to Berklee nine months later, completed one more semester, then let school slide to join the fray, eventually receiving an Honorary Doctorate in 1998. He spent the next few years shuttling between Boston and Cleveland. In Boston, he would crash “for weeks and months at a time” with friends Billy Drewes and Steve Slagle at a loft atop an office building where well-attended sessions began after work and ended in the wee hours. He did gigs around town with bands like the just-formed Fringe with George Garzone, “playing open, freer, creative music, making enough bread to survive and practice and play.”

In Cleveland he collaborated with local wildmen like DeArango, Ernie Krivda, Abraham Laboriel and Jamey Haddad, and led rhythm sections at a room called the Smiling Dog opposite people like Stan Getz and Pharaoh Sanders. Brother Jack McDuff and Lonnie Smith took him on the road for some chitlin’ circuit hits; his solo on Smith’s “Afrodisia” [Groove Merchant, 1974] became a rotation staple in mid-’90s English Acid Jazz. Both McDuff and Smith frequently came through New York, and the young tenorman spent off-hours making the rounds, sitting in and being seen at rooms like Ali’s Alley, the Tin Palace, Studio Rivbea and Boomer’s. He moved to New York in the spring of 1976, got gigs with Chet Baker uptown and with the venturesome pianist Albert Dailey downtown, and received a call that August to fly to St. Louis and join Woody Herman’s Fortieth Anniversary band.

“Woody loved Joe, because he came up from a real jazz environment as opposed to colleges, where most of the cats in the band came from,” says Bob Belden, who replaced Lovano on tenor in the band in 1979. “He was the first cat I met who had it together as a jazz musician; to me, he was always the essence and the spirit of Jazz. Woody hadn’t had a natural player like that in some time.” Lovano spent the next two-and-a-half years touring the world as Herman’s primary tenor soloist, playing charts by the likes of Ralph Burns, Sammy Nestico, Jimmy Jones and Frank Foster, backing singers like Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, Joe Williams, Mel Torme, Tony Bennett on occasion.

When Lovano reflects on that time, he remembers the lessons he soaked up. “Sitting in those saxophone sections, accompanying those great voices influenced the way I play lead parts,” he says, “feeling like I’m the vocalist out front, but as the saxophonist. I had a chance to play with and stand next to Zoot Sims, Stan Getz, Al Cohn, Jimmy Giuffre, Flip Phillips, and Don Lamond. It gave me confidence to find my own voice in this music, to feed off the music I’m playing and the feeling of the players I’m with at the moment, to create something within what’s going on around me, always with my own ideas — not copying the way other cats played, but trying to play in the idiom and in the feeling of the beat and harmonic structure of whatever tune we’re in.”

After a pause, he adds: “A few weeks ago Wayne Shorter told me something that opened some doors, and it’s reverberating in me. He said, ‘Man, don’t let the gatekeepers hold you back.’ There are a lot of different ways to look at that.”

Actually, there are a lot of different ways to experience Joe Lovano’s music. He’s participated in a staggering range of high-profile work during his 47th year. A rundown of the past year’s activity includes: gigs with Herbie Hancock’s Quartet; a collective quintet with McCoy Tyner, Bobby Hutcherson and Billy Higgins; another, quartet with John Scofield, Dave Holland and Al Foster; several three-tenor summits with Michael Brecker and Dave Liebman; work with Grand Slam and the Friendly Fire Quintet; touring with a group culled from the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra to perform Duke Ellington’s small band music; recording as a guest with Abbey Lincoln and Flip Phillips, two tunes on a festschrift for Roland Kirk, and a pivotal solo in Bob Belden’s forthcoming symphonic suite “Black Dahlia.” Also, in various venues around New York, he worked with a series of trios — Brown and Muhammad; pianist Ken Werner and harmonica legend Toots Thielemans; woodwindist Billy Drewes and trapsetter Joey Baron; trumpeter Dave Douglas (his former student at NYU) and bassist Mark Dresser.

Lovano assembled those trios to frame his full arsenal of woodwinds and percussion for four 6-hour sessions over two intense days in the studio last April, then cherrypicked from them to create forthcoming Trios: Edition Two, a document that blends as-one industrial strength declamations by the working trio, harmonic tone poems with Werner and Thielemans, nuanced free improvs with Drewes and Baron, and finely honed sound exploring with Douglas and Dresser — it places him squarely in the camp of free-thinking improvisers.

The album follows 52nd Street Themes, for which Lovano rounded up an ensemble of first-call New York improvisers with whom he shared long-standing personal histories, and deployed them in configurations ranging from duo to nonet. 52nd Street Themes is an idiomatic paean to Clevelander’s Tadd Dameron, who of all composers associated with bebop most personifies romanticism, and an homage to the “blowing” ethos of Charlie Parker. Willie Smith, a Dameron protege who led Cleveland rehearsal bands that Tony Lovano played in and brought his son to hear, arranged much of the music. Everyone in the band has a tone with personality; in tune with the music’s history, they play with the edgy spirit we associate with the years of innovation that followed World War Two.

Lovano especially, who throws down one passionate tenor declamation after another with that wispy, driving voice and unfailing melodic intent. He offers a beautifully constructed à cappella intro to the title track, Thelonious Monk’s jagged “I Got Rhythm” variation. He soars operatically over a Dameronesque arrangement of “Embraceable You” and engages long-time tenor chums Ralph Lalama and George Garzone in spirited conversation on “Charlie Chan,” a variant on the 1947 version of “Milestones” on which Bird played tenor sax. Lovano makes you hear the spaces between the notes on a vibrato-drenched rubato reading of Billy Strayhorn’s “Passion Flower” in duo with pianist John Hicks; he addresses Fred Lacey’s “Theme For Ernie” at a quicker clip than John Coltrane’s famous 1958 version, yet hews unfailingly to the yearning lyric-blue essence of the tune; he flies like the wind with Dennis Irwin and Lewis Nash on a racehorse reading of Dameron’s “The Scene Is Clean.”

“All the cats in the period between the ’40s and the ’50s had solid footing growing up in their hometowns and basically being the strongest force in their area,” Lovano says. “They were a magnet to players on every other instrument to play with and learn from, but they were also learning from everybody who came through town. Those influences were strong, because during that period everybody was traveling. They did a lot of jam sessions, and their sounds were big and strong, because they had to stand up there and be heard. It was really a nightclub world, and it was an acoustic world.” That’s the world Lovano was born to, and the ethos that sustains him as he navigates the present and looks to the future.

Lovano shares that he’s writing an extended piece called “Mediterranean Waters,” an effort to channel “the feelings and energy from the Middle East, North Africa and southern Europe from ancient times.” He notes, “I’m trying to write things that have a Folk feeling, music before swing, without a walking bass. Music that has an openness in it. Oriental music, Balinese music, African music, folk music from Sicily. In a certain way, Jazz is folk music, too. It’s music of the people, of the time. Ornette Coleman’s music is very folky to me. Don Cherry’s music. Old and New Dreams. They played with a certain kind of feeling, not just in one style or another. It’s when players don’t have to play a role on their instrument.”

Back at Caramoor, on a serene summer afternoon in Westchester, the Paul Motian Trio is in synch from the moment they hit the stage. They feel each other out with “Monk’s Dream,” stir the juices on a wild Motian original. Motian pulls out his brushes for an aching rubato version of “Good Morning Heartache.” With Steve Lacy looking on from the wings, Lovano guides his tenor into that distinctive altisimmo range, shaping lines of pure melody that could have come from a soprano horn over Frisell’s sparse, polychromatic chords. Most bands would lift the tempo, but not this one; Motian kicks off a slow, floating blues on which Lovano and Frisell weave a collective ending that makes you wonder how they got there. Then Frisell initiates an abstract intro that morphs into “Body and Soul.” Lovano pulls the iconic tenor tune into time, rocking to an unerring inner clock, ascending again into that preternaturally sweet soaring voice. The audience explodes from rapt silence.

The ritual fulfilled, the generations spanned, Lovano tips his horn, and leaves the stage with his smiling partners, ready for the next encounter…which will be that evening, when he locks bebop horns with James Moody and Phil Woods on “Au Privave,” “My Little Suede Shoes” and “Confirmation” during several hours of inspired jamming.

A few weeks later, before a whooping packed house in the Old Office, in the sub-basement of the Knitting Factory, Lovano joins master drummers Andrew Cyrille and Billy Hart for an 80-minute set of impromptu free improvisation. Shaping his lines in an unfailingly interactive way, carving drum-like phrases, he creates melodies on the spot from the top to the bottom of the horn, avoiding licks almost completely. It’s a stunning performance. Maybe it will be the starting point for Trios: Edition Three.

[-30-]

Joe Lovano (WKCR Profile, 1-22-95):

[MUSIC: Lovano/Redman, “Web Of Fire” (1993); Motian/Lovano/ Frisell, “But Not For Me” (1988); Lovano/Petrucciani/ Holland/Blackwell, “Portrait Of Jenny” (1990); Lovano/M. Miller, “Laura” (1993); Motian/Lovano/Haden/Frisell, “My Heart Belongs To Daddy” (1989); Lovano/G. Schuller, “Crepuscule With Nellie” (1994); Motian/Lovano/Frisell, “Reflections” (1988); Lovano/K. Werner, “Duke Ellington’s Sound Of Love” (1988); Lovano/G. Schuller, “Peggy’s Blue Skylight” (1994)]

TP: Listening to your music during the first hour, I’m struck both by the range of strategies you use in approaching similar material and the range of situations in which you function effectively and idiomatically. It seems almost axiomatic that improvisers should have this ability, and yet it doesn’t seem that widely practiced.

JL: There’s a lot of mysteries in music, especially in Jazz. For me, I grew up in a real creative musical scene in Cleveland, and played with a lot of different players of my Dad’s generation. My Dad, Tony Lovano, played tenor, and was always playing with great players on organ and rhythm section players, and I learned how to play by playing with all the cats that he was playing with. It really prepared me for what I’m doing now.

As far as material that I play and approach, I let the different people and personalities I play with completely feed my ideas. I just try to react to who I’m around. When I play a standard or a Thelonious Monk composition with, let’s say, Paul Motian and Bill Frisell, there’s a certain atmosphere and a feeling to draw from, but if I play that same tune with, let’s say, Mulgrew Miller, Christian McBride and Lewis Nash, the tempo is different and the whole energy on the stage is different. It’s really a challenge to play the same material in new ways with different people. The tempos that you play really create that mood, and also the different keys that you might play a tune in from time to time would create a whole different atmosphere for playing.

TP: Let’s talk a little bit about the scene in Cleveland when you were coming up, and your father’s milieu. I guess music must have been imbued in you from the cradle. There’s a photograph in one of your recent albums of your mother tickling your chin, and next to you is an alto saxophone that’s bigger than you are.

JL: I always grew up with the sound of the saxophone around me, and my father played all the time around the house. I used to listen to him practice all the time, and the sound of the saxophone just captured me completely from when I was crawling around the pad. From a kid, I just wanted to create that sound myself. The sound of the horn was the first thing that I wanted to play. Of course, later I started to actually learn about the notes on the horn. My Dad gave me a wonderful opportunity to explore by giving me horns and letting me have his record collection to destroy as a kid — and I went through all his records. I had a lot of favorite players when I was really young. I mean, I knew about Sonny Stitt and Rahsaan Roland Kirk when I was in fifth and sixth grade, and I knew their playing.

TP: Did you also have a chance to see them or meet them when they came through Cleveland?

JL: I did, yeah. When I was a teenager, 14-15 years old, a couple of clubs were happening in Cleveland, the East Town Motel and another club called Sirrah(?) House that my Dad used to play a lot. Alternate weeks, James Moody would come through, or Sonny Stitt, Dizzy Gillespie, Rahsaan, Jimmy Smith, Shirley Scott with Harold Vick. I had a chance to go to those clubs all the time, because they knew me, and I could go in and just sit in the corner or whatever.

I had a chance to meet Moody and Stitt and all those cats when I was a teenager, but hear them in the room, you know. When I first heard Dizzy in the room, heard his tone, after knowing his sound from the records, man, it really turned me on! So I realized at an early age about the different personalities in Jazz, not just the technique of playing a horn, but just the personality that can come through your instrument, and that’s what I always strived for as a young player.

TP: Cleveland has its own niche in the continuum of Jazz.

JL: Oh, yeah. From the Bebop period, Tadd Dameron, Benny Bailey, Bill Hardman, Freddie Webster were cats my Dad knew and kind of grew up under. Benny Bailey and my Dad were contemporaries, and so were Jim Hall and Bill DeArango, and also the tenor player Joe Alexander, who was one of the legendary figures that I’d never heard or met. He passed away, I think, in 1970 or something. But he was a good friend of my Dad’s, and they used to play together all the time. Bobby Few was from Cleveland, Albert Ayler was from Cleveland.

TP: Was your father open to that as well?

JL: Oh, yeah. Bobby Few played some of his first gigs with my Dad in Cleveland. I had never known that, but I saw Bobby recently in Paris, where he’s been living since the Sixties, playing with Steve Lacy and different people, and he told me that one of his first gigs was with my Dad. That was probably during the early Sixties, I’d say.

My Dad was real aware of all of music, and especially the music of the Fifties and Sixties. That was his generation. He had heard Charlie Parker and Miles play together when they came through Cleveland, Max Roach, heard Lester Young play in Cleveland. He was really on the scene. He told those stories all the time.

TP: What was his sound like?

JL: Well, he was coming out of the Illinois Jacquet school of playing, “Flying Home” and all those kinds of tunes. But he had a beautiful ballad approach, too, and he loved Lester Young as well. So I think his earlier playing reflected that more. As time went on, he got a harder kind of sound. He had a lot of different sides of his playing. But he definitely was coming out of the Gene Ammons approach.

I met Gene Ammons once. In 1970 or 1971, Jug came and played at this club, Sirrah(?) House, and my Dad took me to see him. We went in the kitchen, in the dressing room, and Jug and my Dad embraced like they were old friends. I guess my Dad had played at a jam session with him once or something, years before. It was incredible, man; I couldn’t believe it. I got Jug’s autograph. Hearing him play that night really turned me around. Amina Claudine Myers actually was playing organ with him at the time. Jug had a Varitone saxophone, which is an electric kind of hook-up on your horn, which my Dad had just gotten. He played a lot of organ gigs, a lot of organ trios, and with the Varitone you didn’t need a P.A. system, you didn’t need anything. You had this amplifier that really matched the sound of the Leslie speaker. I’ll never forget that night.

TP: Well, it sounds like your openness towards styles and musical situations is an extension of what you picked up from your father.

JL: Oh yeah, for sure. My Dad was a barber, too. He had a business and raised a family, and never really traveled that much. He toured a little bit. His trio played behind Ike Cole, Nat King Cole’s brother, for a while, and they toured the Midwest, went out to Denver, Colorado and did some gigs. He was on the road a little bit, although that was actually later, in the mid-Seventies. But mainly, he played around Cleveland.

He was a serious fan of the music, too, which really was great for me. I’m a serious fan of the music and the different players, too. I love to go out and hear people play all the time, and I’m trying to always check out everybody.

TP: Was there ever a time when you didn’t think you were going to be a musician?

JL: I don’t think so. No. As a teenager, I was really very involved in trying to get myself together and play. You know, I went to Berklee School of Music after I graduated high school in ’71, and I paid my way to school from all the money I’d made playing gigs in high school. My Dad was always working, five or six nights a week. So he got called for a lot of jobs that he couldn’t do, and he would basically send me. I was playing supper club type settings, weddings, and all kinds of different gigs. But all of the things I did at that time were with rhythm sections and one horn, and basically, I played all the melodies and songs. Very few gigs had, like, a stand-up singer that I had to accompany.

TP: Were you playing tenor?

JL: Yeah, usually tenor. I also started to play flute during those years. Flute became my first real double at that time. The beautiful thing was that I was studying standard tunes, and when I would go to a gig and play with musicians in his generation who were in the rhythm section, I would call the tunes and count the tempo off, and so forth. So I learned how to lead a gig and pace a set. My Dad taught me how to read an audience, too; if I was playing in a club where there was dancing, to play the right tempos, to find the tunes that people are going to dig. I was studying Bebop and those kinds of tunes, but usually we would just play standards when I played those gigs.

TP: So at that time your range of influences pretty much encompassed Bebop, or was it more expansive than that?

JL: I’d say at that time it was completely the Bebop school, for sure. My Dad was listening to records like Kulu Se Mama of Coltrane, he had A Love Supreme and those records, and I was completely into early Miles, and Miles with Coltrane, and Sonny Stitt, and those kind of records. But he never said anything to me like, “Man, listen to this; this is what’s happening now.” He let me discover everything myself. He was really generous with that approach.

Stitt was my first real love on record. My Dad had a lot of Stitt’s records, too, and I would just practice along with the records all the time, on saxophone and on drums, and try to learn the tunes and get next to what was happening. Stitt had a personality that he could play either tenor or alto and sound like a different player, in a way. He was playing from the same knowledge and wisdom and expression, but he really got into the different sounds that were happening on the different horns — and that influenced me from a real young age.

I had the great fortune of meeting Sonny Stitt a bunch of times. He used to come through Cleveland, but not like Coltrane and other cats who really had their own bands. Sonny never really was known as a bandleader. I mean, he toured the world always pretty much as a solo artist, and would play with rhythm sections wherever he went. In his era, he could really do that, and work a lot. But I think he was kind of frustrated in that world. I had a chance to hang out with him and sit with him a lot of times in clubs on breaks and stuff, and he was great. He was a real teacher. He’d look at you and ask you how many holes on your horn, and how many C’s can you hit. He’d start asking you questions right away. It was an education to be around Sonny.

I also had a chance to sit in with him a few times in different groups in Cleveland, with organ trios. One time he came in with Milt Jackson, and they played with a Cleveland rhythm section, I was playing in a group opposite them, and Sonny asked me to sit in with them one of the nights. It was a real thrill just to be on the stand with the cat, because he would take you through the changes, boy.

Coltrane and Stitt were definitely two of my first loves on the instrument, and I loved the music they played. I absorbed the two of them throughout their whole careers, all the different records and different periods. I was more familiar with Coltrane-with-Miles and the Prestige Coltrane for most of my young life, when Sonny Stitt was my favorite player. Then I really got involved with Coltrane’s more modern Impulse records, and once I started to get more familiar with those, it changed my concept of rhythm and the role of not just playing soloist-rhythm section. The way Sonny Stitt played, and in that whole period, you really played off the rhythm section. Your rhythm section was there to support everything you did. Whereas on some of Coltrane’s later records, it was a more collective, conversational kind of playing, and everybody fed off each other more. Elvin Jones or Roy Haynes with Trane were playing, like, the same rhythms, they were playing the same kind of phrasing. Hearing that approach to music opened up my concept, and gave my own music a lot more direction.

I also loved Hank Mobley’s playing from his records, the things he did with Coltrane together, all the things with Miles, and his own records. He was one of the first saxophonists whose tunes I really started to appreciate. All his tunes were so beautiful. At a certain time as a young player you’re so into just trying to play what everybody else is playing, and then you realize that trying to create your own music is part of it, too! That hit me. Hank Mobley was one of the first saxophone composers, both he and Wayne Shorter, who really influenced me a lot.

The trumpet was another important instrument for me in my young developing, because of its attack and a certain something that I really loved. I think I would have been a trumpet player if I’d had a different chance to do something. I just always associated with the trumpet and the rhythm. Lee Morgan and Miles were my two real favorite trumpet players. I used to listen a lot to Lee Morgan on all the Blue Note records, and things with Jimmy Smith — a lot of different things. Lee’s sound and his rhythm really got to me.

TP: Was anyone else besides your father teaching you any kind of theory when you were in Cleveland? Or did that begin at Berklee?

JL: My Dad really was my main teacher. All the theory and everything that I had studied up until I went to Berklee was with my Dad. I would say that was like the most formal.

Now, there was an organ player, Eddie Bacchus, who is still around Cleveland, a great, beautiful player. I learned a lot from Eddie, just talking to him and hanging out and checking out the harmonies that he played. Eddie is one of those legendary cats, man, who played with everyone who would come through during that certain period when there were a lot of gigs, man, and you could work six nights a week, and play two and three weeks in each town. He worked a lot with Lou Donaldson, James Moody, Sonny Stitt and Rahsaan, and a lot of cats during that one period, and he used to work a lot with Joe Alexander around Cleveland. Eddie is something else, man. He is still very active around Cleveland.

There was a cat named Lindsay Tough. There was another organ player, too, named William Dowland whose nickname was Paul Bunyan. He was this huge guy, like seven foot tall, and he played with my Dad a lot. He was great, man! He told me what records to check out. He was originally a trombone player, and he told me about the Miles records with J.J. and those things…

A few different drummers were around. Tony Haynes, Ralph Jackson, a drummer who plays with Duke Jenkins, who’s an organ player out there. Val Kent, a young drummer who was offered the gig with Stan Getz and a lot of different people when he came through town. There was a drummer around named Fats Heard who ended up playing with Erroll Garner, I think. Fats Heard in the Fifties and the Sixties would play with everybody who would come through town.

And there was Lawrence “Jacktown” Jackson, who passed away this last year. He was a beautiful drummer, man, and one of the first real Bebop drummers that I ever played with, you know, when I was 16 or 17 years old. Jacktown was from Detroit, and grew up with Elvin Jones and Pepper Adams and Tommy Flanagan and everyone, and moved to Cleveland probably in the late Fifties or so. I mean, I met him when I was in high school. My father told me stories about him, like when Miles’ group when come through town, Coltrane, Philly Joe Jones, those cats would stay at Jacktown’s house. They were all buddies. So there were a lot of cats in Cleveland during those days who played with everybody.

Hanging with my Dad’s friends was really like a school. They got me into going out, checking out different records. And I had some friends in my generation at the same time that were always hanging out with me, and coming to gigs and listening to my Dad playing. We would go buy records, man, and check out everybody.

TP: In a lot of ways, your experience hearkens back to an earlier generation, when musicians learned on the gig, when people started working earlier and so forth. And it’s one of the things that other musicians remark upon with you, as combining the spontaneity of an ear player with a command of music theory and an ability to do the heavy reading, such as on the Rush Hour CD.

JL: Well, I learned by ear first, for sure. I never considered myself a great reader, until I started to actually go and play with some saxophone sections in some big bands, and actually sit down and learn about how to play with interpretation, and not just read the notes. That also came from my Dad. He played in some big bands and rehearsal bands that he used to bring me to and I would check out.

There was an alto player in Cleveland named Willie Smith, who was an incredible writer and player — not the famous Willie Smith that everybody knows. Willie lived in Detroit for a while. He wrote a lot of arrangements for some early Motown dates, and did a lot of things. He also grew up with Benny Bailey and everybody, a real Bop player. Willie and I actually went on the road with Jack McDuff together in 1975.

We both played a weekend with Jack at this club called the Smiling Dog Saloon in Cleveland. Jack was traveling with two tenor players, David Young on tenor and Bill Cody, and he was picking up an alto and a baritone player in each town, and they would play. So they came to Cleveland, and on Friday and Saturday night they needed a baritone player and an alto player. Ron Kozak, who lives in New York now, a multi-reed player, was playing baritone, and couldn’t play the weekend, he had another gig — and asked me if I wanted to do it. I had a baritone that my Dad got me, and I was fooling around on it, but I had never played a gig on baritone before, so I was a little reluctant. Then I listened to them play a set and it was swinging like crazy. Joe Dukes was on drums and Eric Johnson was on guitar, a beautiful guitar player; David Young sounded incredible on tenor, he sounded so beautiful! So after their set I said to myself, “Okay, I’ll play; I’ll do it.” So I went home, and I practiced the baritone for two days, and found some reeds, and played the weekend, and we had a really nice time. About a week or two later, McDuff called me to join his band. So I went out to join him in Indianapolis, and I stayed with him for, I don’t know, about six months or something.

This happened right at the same time I was working with Lonnie Smith a lot, and I had recorded a record with Lonnie for the Groove Merchant label in 1974. That was the first time I came to New York and went in the studio. George Benson played on it, and Ben Riley was on drums, and Jamey Haddad was also on drums on some tunes, a real close friend from Cleveland who is in New York now, who is working with Dave Liebman and some different bands — a beautiful percussionist. It was funny, because I was on the road with Jack when Lonnie’s record came out, and it was playing on all the stations — it was kind of a far-out thing. The first times I came to New York to play were in 1974 and 1975 with Lonnie and Jack.

TP: Apparently one track from that session, “Apex,” is a staple of British Acid Jazz.

JL: I was hanging out with Courtney Pine one night in Europe, we’d played a festival together, and he told me that he knew my whole solo on this tune. I couldn’t believe it. He said they’re playing it in all the Acid Jazz clubs, and dancing to it, and everybody sings all the solos.

TP: Let’s do a chronology taking you from Berklee to your several years with Woody Herman in the Seventies.

JL: Well, the very first time I really did any kind of touring was 1973, when I played a six-week stint on the road with Tom Jones, the Pop singer. They were towards the end of a huge tour, like a six-month tour. Now, the saxophone section were all friends of mine from Boston, including George Garzone, a great tenor saxophone player who is starting to do a lot of things today, and recording, and he’s been teaching at Mannes School of Music, he’s been teaching at New England Conservatory in Boston for years. He’s really a fabulous player, and he and I go way back together, to the early Seventies. Something went down, and one of the tenor players split the last six weeks of this huge tour. So I got a call to join the band. So I flew out to Las Vegas, and started at Caesar’s Palace for two weeks, with this big band and string section and chorus, playing behind Tom Jones. I kind of had a little solo chair, so I had to do little solos and stuff. That was the first time I really worked in a large ensemble like that.

I moved to New York in 1976, and got the gig with Woody’s band a couple of months after I came to town…

TP: First, let’s talk about New York in 1976, and what a young musician coming in with some experience could hope to do and find.

JL: I had been coming to New York a little bit with Lonnie Smith, playing some trio gigs around with Billy Hart on drums. And in 1975 I came to New York with Jack McDuff, and we played the Kool Jazz Festival at Carnegie Hall, and toured with the Organ Summit with Jimmy Smith’s trio. Also on it were Shirley Scott and Harold Vick and Eddie Gladden, Shirley’s trio at that time, which was really great, man. For me, that was like the highlight of that whole tour that we did. We were on some gigs together in Philadelphia and here in New York. Larry Young had a band at that time, a bigger group that was more of a Fusion type group. Touring and playing with those guys was kind of wild. We did maybe five or six concerts together, with McDuff’s band with the saxophone section. That saxophone section was one of the first ones I played in that was really a Jazz band, where we were improvising and playing a lot of things.

So when I came to New York in May of ’76, I had been here a few times. I had already gone to some jam sessions and met Albert Dailey, and started to meet a lot of the players that I still play with today. Adam Nussbaum, for example; we met back then. Dennis Irwin was playing with Albert Dailey. When I came to town, I got a couple of gigs, and I was playing with Albert and with Carter Jefferson, another great saxophone player, and Harold White was the drummer. When I first came, I was just going around and sitting in with people. Rashied Ali had his club happening, Ali’s Alley down in Soho, and I went down there and sat in with Rashied. I was just going around and trying not only to be heard, but to play with some people that I loved.

TP: Studio Rivbea and the Tin Palace were in full swing.

JL: Studio Rivbea was happening. I went there many times, and heard Braxton play, and Sam Rivers and Dave Holland. It was before I had met Dave or anybody. The Tin Palace was a great scene, and I used to go there and play jam sessions all the time with Monty Waters, a great alto saxophone player. I first played with Woody Shaw there. There was a lot happening in New York then, in the late Seventies.

TP: What was your response when you first heard people like Braxton, or the Midwest musicians who were dealing with extended forms and different strategies?

JL: Well, I had heard them on record before I came to New York, some early ECM recordings. The first time I think I heard Anthony play was on Dave Holland’s record, Conference Of The Birds, which was one of my favorite records at the time, when it came out. I really loved hearing and trying to learn more open-formed type pieces. That was really an extension of the music that I was used to hearing from Coltrane or Archie Shepp, the first kind of freer playing music, the music that really developed from the Ornette Coleman band with Don Cherry and Blackwell and Charlie, and Miles’ band with Wayne and Herbie and Tony Williams and Ron Carter, Coltrane’s quartet. For me, all those bands, and the players that were in all those groups. was the music that really inspired me to develop a more open concept about improvising.

TP: Let’s elaborate on that a little more. I think one thing that’s not immediately apparent to the audience is that musicians are subject to a wide range of influences that don’t necessarily come out within a given situation, and so it’s very easy to pigeonhole people.

JL: Yes.

TP: So you’re playing these tenor-organ gigs, but you’re also listening to a lot of other things…

JL: …at the same time. Exactly. It was really inspiring to know that these players, like Dave Holland and Paul Motian and Charlie Haden… Man, these cats were on the scene, and I always aspired to play with them. I was trying to get myself together musically, so I could play with them — never dreaming that I would. You know what I mean? And as time went on, I really put myself in different positions to meet them and sit in and play and be heard, and things just developed to a point where I was starting to explore music with them. One thing that’s so beautiful about Jazz is that as a young player, if you’re really open and you listen and you dig all these different things, you can put yourself in a lot of different settings that will really enhance your concepts. So you don’t have to stay in one place. That was my dream, was always to play in a lot of different situations.

Also, my Dad always stressed, “Look, you have to be versatile so you can pay the rent.” He taught me clarinet, and wanted me to play flute, and be able to play in bands, and to be able to take any gig that came up. He always instilled that in me. So from an early age, I was kind of studying a lot of different dimensions of improvising and playing my instruments with those goals in mind.

TP: I guess the big bands are one of the great teachers of discipline to a young musician, and particularly in terms of playing for a function or a situation.

JL: For sure. I moved to New York in May of ’76; in August I got the gig with Woody, and went on the road, and stayed with him, like, until the beginning of ’79. So for about two-and-a-half years I was on the road. My first tours to Europe were with Woody. It was my first celebrated gig, like, at that level as a soloist. And I had a chance to play for a week with Sarah Vaughan once. We played behind Billy Eckstine once for a week. I played with Tony Bennett a number of times. I had a chance to play within some ensembles and to play orchestrations behind some incredible voices in music. We played with Joe Williams, too. I learned a lot, man, just playing in those settings, not even as a soloist. Just sitting there and playing these arrangements behind Sarah Vaughan was incredible, man.

TP: So the impact of a big band is extra-musical.

JL: Oh, definitely, for sure. And those experiences for me with Woody were incredible. That year was Woody’s fortieth anniversary year as well as a leader. So there was this huge concert at Carnegie Hall that was recorded on RCA that had all the big stars that had played with Woody through the years. So I had a chance to play and stand next to Zoot Sims and Stan Getz and Al Cohn, Jimmy Giuffre, Flip Phillips, as well, as Chubby Jackson and Don Lamond and Jimmy Rowles. I played “Early Autumn” with Stan Getz at the microphone, playing my part with him playing lead. It really taught me a lot about sound, and it gave me a lot of confidence to find my own voice in this music.

TP: After that ended, you played for years with the Mel Lewis Orchestra. You joined shortly after Thad Jones’ departure.

JL: When I left Woody at the beginning of ’79, it was right around then that Thad had left New York and moved to Denmark. So I joined Mel’s band right after Thad had split, and it had become the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. Bob Brookmeyer was back in New York and writing a lot of new music for the band, and started to work on some new concepts and different things, and he and Mel kind of added to the whole beautiful history of the book of the Thad-and-Mel band. That was right when I joined the band, in 1980.

TP: Throughout your tenure the band became a sort of laboratory and workshop for some of the most talented writers in New York, building up the huge book that it has to this day.

JL: That it has today, that’s right. I only recently left the band, I’d say in 1992 or something. After Mel passed away, I stayed in the band maybe another year-and-a-half or something. Then I’ve been just getting pretty busy as a leader, and I wanted to open my chair up for other people to experience that incredible music. When I came in, it was definitely challenging to sit in that band and play this incredible music of Thad’s that I had known from records. Thad wrote everything for the personnel in that band; he just didn’t write charts and bring them in. He wrote for specific people and for a specific record date. Brookmeyer did, too. In a way, my concept about writing and recording has developed from that experience playing with them.

Just playing with Mel alone was incredible. He was so consistent, man, and loved to play, and would feed every solo. He would play behind, like, ten solos in a row, and where some cats would be, “oh, no, not somebody else!” Mel would take on all comers, and like, he would start everybody’s new solo with a complete fresh sound — on a different cymbal, on a different energy. Mel was an amazing improviser and a beautiful musician as an accompanying drummer. Not only in a big band setting, even though he’s really most known for his big band work. But Mel played with a big band like it was a quartet. The horns were the piano, bass and drums, and the soloist. Or it was a trio to him, in a way. If it was an ensemble playing, it was like the band was the piano, and bass and drums. So he created this incredible intimacy within a big band in a way that not many drummers do.

TP: In the liner notes for your 1988 release Village Rhythm, Mel Lewis made the comment that your being a drummer, and a rather proficient one, was a great help to you as a tenor player because you’re able to play strings of notes and land exactly where you’re supposed to. Have you been playing drums along with tenor all this time as well?

JL: Well, I started playing drums when I was a kid, too. One of the drummers who was playing with my Dad (I don’t know how old I was, I was maybe 7 or 8 years old), he got a new drum set, and gave my Dad his drums to give to me. He showed up one day with this huge set of drums, like a 24-inch bass drum — a set from the Forties, you know. So as a kid, I had drums around me all the time. I have pictures of me playing those drums. And as I was starting to really learn melodies on the saxophone, I would just practice them on the drums as well. At the time there was no pressure to play the drums — when I was a kid. I felt a little more under pressure on saxophone; I was studying with my Dad, I was trying to learn everything and play and have him dig me. But then I would just sit at the drums and have fun. It was a real release, you know.

So that’s how I first started. As I developed more on the saxophone, and I started really studying records and hearing Max Roach and Philly Joe Jones, Max especially, the solos that Max would play with Charlie Parker, I realized he was playing some of the same phrases and melodies that Bird was playing. So I started to try to practice what I was learning on the saxophone on the drums. I learned all the solos, like, that Philly Joe would play on a record or whatever. I would try to really be with the rhythm completely. I think that studying like that when I was that young gave me a sense of time, and studying the saxophone the way I did, the harmonic approach and the rhythmic approach together, gave me a lot to work on and to work for as a young player.

That was kind of the beginning. Then through the years, I’ve always played them. I’ve played gigs on drums. But I would play mainly on jam sessions. I still play every day, and it’s like a part of my day that I just sit down and relax and just have fun and explore things.

TP: That’s your outlet.

JL: Yeah, it’s a real passion. Before “Topsy Turvy” on Rush Hour I had never really recorded like this, in a studio, where I overdubbed the drums. It’s something that I practice at home sometimes. If I’m writing a new tune, I’ll tape myself playing solo tenor, and then I’ll work out rhythm section parts by playing drums with the tune on tape. On “Topsy Turvy” Judi and I played the whole tune as tenor and voice first. We did the head, then she did a solo improvisation unaccompanied, and then I came and did a soprano solo unaccompanied, and then we played the head out. So the whole structure was there, and then I went back and and just laid one track down on the drums, straight across the whole thing, and I laid down the soprano part and the melodies, and then I accompanied her in her solo on the bass clarinet after I had already laid down the drums. So I just kind of played inside it. I had never done that before, but it was a lot of fun.

TP: Let’s explore the the overlap between your tenor style and your drumming proclivities a little more.

JL: Well, I feel kind of free on the drums. I mean, on the saxophone I feel like I can really play what I hear completely, you know. On the drums, I don’t really think. I just kind of play by feel completely. But I’ve had a chance to play with some great drummers, and I’ve learned from everybody I play with. One thing for sure from playing drums, that when I’m soloing on tenor, I have a real awareness of what’s going on around me. And I think practicing drums and playing in rhythm sessions and jam sessions or whatever has opened up my awareness as a soloist on saxophone, to not just be involved in what I’m articulating on my horn, but try to be a part of what everybody else is playing. I think that way of playing developed from studying drums and playing in rhythm sections as I’ve been growing up and learning, too.

TP: Were the two originals on your two recordings with Ed Blackwell written particularly with him in mind?

JL: Oh yeah. I wrote those tunes for him, and to play with him. I had never played “Strength and Courage” with anyone, or the piece “Evolution” on From The Soul. I wrote them knowing I was going to play with Blackwell, and with the expansive concepts that he plays with. I tried to really write some things that we could just hit on. In “Strength and Courage,” for example, he plays all these overlapping rhythms, and he plays some cowbell; explores all the possibilities of his vocabulary on that one tune. I didn’t really direct him in that, but the way I wrote phrases kind of directed the rhythm to go in those directions. He had the most beautiful concepts, and he had this radar that was unbelievable. He would just hit downbeats with you like out of the blue, like just…

Paul Motian is like that. Playing with Paul, the phrasing and different layers of time that happen are uncanny. I sometimes go back and listen to some of the things I’ve done with Paul that just amaze me, how we’re completely together, but we’re improvising very freely.

TP: Well, the Paul Motian Trio with you and Bill Frisell is one of the longest running groups in all of improvised music. 1995 marks fourteen years.

JL: Yes. We both started playing with Paul in 1981, and recorded a lot of different recordings, you know, playing Broadway music and Thelonious Monk’s music, Bill Evans’ music, as well as Paul’s music, which he writes and has some beautiful ideas. It’s been fabulous, man. We’ve been touring pretty extensively every year since 1981, and we’re actually just about to go to Europe next week, for a few weeks, for about an 18-concert tour all over Europe. It’s so beautiful, man, an expansive improvised setting to play with Paul.

TP: How free is it within the course of each performance?

JL: First of all, we have an amazing amount of repertoire that we do. Paul is very free about what he likes to play. He usually picks about ten to fifteen different pieces that we stay with throughout a tour. Then it’s very free to explore different arrangements and different ways of playing them every night.

TP: Frisell is a guitarist who has really extended the sonic and dynamic possibilities of the instrument. I think that can fairly be said.

JL: Oh yeah, Bill is amazing, man. And he’s really about orchestration, too. He just doesn’t play the guitar. He is so into every tone and every note I play. He voices all my notes in what he plays, which gives me a whole range of sounds to draw from as well. The way we all interact with Paul’s rhythm, and the way Paul’s rhythm changes from what we play — I mean, it’s a complete creative setting. In trios, somehow it’s really clear; the clarity is really there. The thing I love about the trio so much, too, is the intimacy that we play with. Sometimes we play, like, at really pianissimo volumes, and we really get next to what each other’s playing. It’s incredible. Bill really brings that out, too. He doesn’t just play like a guitar player. He plays like a pianist or something sometimes, with that kind of dynamic range.

TP: Well, it seems to give you a chance to explore the full dynamic range of the tenor saxophone.

JL: Yes, it does. I only play tenor with the trio, and it’s really great to go on the road and to just play one horn and to focus on one sound. With some other groups that I play in, with my own groups, I’m trying to write for more expanded sounds, using clarinets and flutes and percussion and different things. Maybe because I play only tenor with Paul, I’ve found it’s really fun and different to explore all these other sounds when I’m writing my own music. I think it’s given me a lot of ideas.

TP: Let’s discuss Paul Motian’s very distinctive sense of time and dynamics on the drums.

JL: Paul is a melody player all the way. All the music that he has experienced through the years, playing with the Bill Evans Trio and the things with the Keith Jarrett Quartet with Dewey and Charlie, those were the first things that I knew from records of Paul. I loved his playing, like, immediately. He was someone that was coming from Max Roach in the early days, but yet had his own feeling, and created his own atmospheres when he played. To play with him was a real dream of mine through the years.

I remember the first time I saw him play with Keith in Boston, I think it was in ’71 or ’72, and it was the quartet with Dewey and Charlie. Man, I went every night! Oh, man, it was the most happening quartet I ever saw live. The music just took off, every note everybody played. They were into what each other was playing. And it was maybe the first time I’d watched cats play that played like that. I was used to hearing Stitt and other groups that just played tunes that they’d known and played all their life. Keith’s group, when they played all their original pieces, the way they improvised together, the tempo changes, and just how they were listening constantly to each other, and shaping the music as a group — that was the direction I wanted to go in, right from that moment.

TP: Speaking of the Keith Jarrett Quartet, you’ve credited Dewey Redman as having had a major impact upon your concept of playing.

JL: Yeah. Well, from that time hearing him live, for sure, but also from some recordings that I had of him playing with Elvin Jones in Ornette’s band. He might have been one of the first tenor players I heard play with Elvin that didn’t sound like Coltrane or play in that kind of rhythmic way. He played longer, more open-sounding things with Elvin. Through the years, I’ve had a chance to play with Dewey a lot. With Charlie Haden’s band was really the first time. In 1987 I joined the Liberation Music Orchestra with Dewey. He’s one of those players that you don’t know what he’s going to play next. There’s a lot of magic in his playing.

TP: Universal Language features Jack De Johnette.

JL: He’s another drummer who has these amazing concepts, and hears everything you play, encompasses and circles around every phrase you play, and spells it right out with you. All the tunes on Universal Language were written for that session and for that personnel, to be played with Jack in mind, and with Charlie Haden, Steve Swallow and the rhythm section.

TP: Again, we’re getting back to individuals and personalities…,

JL: Yes.

TP: …which is the essence of improvising.

JL: For sure, man. Also, I think the records that inspired me to try to write and to give me the confidence to try to put things together were a lot of things that Wayne Shorter has done through the years, let’s say, where each record he made, it seemed like he wrote for the personnel that was on that date, and wrote tunes to be played with those cats, with Blakey’s band, or with Elvin Jones in the rhythm section, or things he wrote for Weather Report. Whatever it was, there was a lot of direction in each recording. It never repeated anything. So for each session I am trying to write for the personnel there, and conceptually it’s really happening. It feels beautiful.

Universal Language, with a front line of voice, trumpet and saxophone, was the most expansive ensemble that I’ve been able to work with so far as a leader, and I tried to write some orchestrations that were going to be free for everyone to contribute their own personality, but yet have some kind of structure and form so we had something to grab onto.

TP: I’d like to talk to you more about the dynamics of your style, the most personal thing for a tenor player, which is your sound — so if I start getting on thin ground, just tell me. But you were talking about your father’s sound as being sort of hard-driving, Illinois Jacquet, hard edges on it. Your sound is very rounded. You play a lot in the altissimo register of the tenor, the upper register, with a full sound — although you play the full range of the horn. Talk a little about the evolution of your sound in your mind’s ear.

JL: My sound has gone through a lot of different changes, let’s say, different periods. I know early on I played with a lot harder sound and a lot more, in a way, one-dimensional type sound. On the early recording that I did with Lonnie Smith, I think my sound was only one kind of beam or something, a beam of light, let’s say — it just was one direction. Through the years, in playing with so many different bands, especially large ensembles with Mel Lewis, and Woody Herman’s band, Carla Bley’s band, Charlie Haden Liberation Orchestra, where the music is always changing and there’s different feelings, rhythms and attitudes happening, my sound really went through a lot of changes. Rather than try to sound the same in each group, I would try to fit in in a different way all the time. That started this whole process of trying to open up my sound in a different direction. Through the years it’s definitely gotten wider and bigger, and I think I can play now, like, triple pianissimo with the same fullness that I can play a triple forte with. That range of dynamics, I think, was the key to starting to get my sound together.

TP: In 1994, you performed in some free improvisations with British saxophone master Evan Parker in an event sponsored by WKCR. Has that particular aspect of dealing with the language been a significant part of your experience?

JL: Oh, yeah. For years I’ve focused on improvising very freely with other horn players in duet settings. Billy Drewes and I used to play together years ago in Boston together like that, where we would just improvise and react to each other, and try to create melodies from what each other played. Billy played with us with the Paul Motian Quintet, on our very first quintet recorded on ECM, called Psalm, the first recording I did with Paul. Billy is just one of the players that I’ve explored those possibilities with. Judi Silvano and I do that with soprano voice and saxophones all the time while we’re improvising, and trying to really create melodies from what each other plays, rather than just trying to play what you play.

TP: You and Frisell would seem to do that, too.

JL: Sure. I improvise with that conception with everybody I play with. I try to do that when I’m playing with a rhythm section of Mulgrew Miller, Christian McBride and Lewis Nash, so that I don’t find myself repeating myself. I want to try to feed off of what everybody else plays so I can really explore possibilities in the music. That’s what improvising really is about for me, is creating something new.

TP: So it’s not about style, it’s not about genre, it’s about dialoguing in a situation.

JL: Exactly. Early on for me it was about style and it was about learning my horn, and this and that. But after a while, it shifted into this other place of trying to create something with what’s going on around you, and using your technique and the language of your instrument or whatever to create something different all the time.

So to just improvise in a duet setting with Evan that night was a lot of fun, man. I had known him for a while, and had heard him play a number of different times, some solo performances that were incredible on soprano saxophone and tenor.

I recorded a free improvisation with my Dad on Hometown Sessions [JSL], which I produced with him in 1986, where we were joined by Eddie Bacchus and Jacktown on most of the tracks. He was reading a part, and I was improvising all around his written part. So that was a little different concept about playing with two saxophones. Really, it was like a free-form structure. I was kind of, in a way, directing his notes, like the rhythm that he would play, and he was just kind of following me and letting me improvise between all his notes. I had never really done that before, and that was a trip! My Dad was a real open player, and he was into sounds and melodies and stuff. So it was a trip. Playing duets with my father all through the years really helped me develop a concept and get myself together to do things like that duet with Evan.

TP: Experiencing the inner dynamics of how that music was put together. Let’s hear a set of music focusing on performances of Joe Lovano’s compositions. The first track, “Luna Park,” certainly refers to Cleveland.

JL: The title refers to an amusement park that was across the street from where my grandparents had a house in Cleveland which was called Luna Park. I think it was a very famous park in the Twenties and Thirties, and then it burned down, so I never actually saw this place. When I grew up, there was a big projects complex there. But I had always heard a lot of stories about Luna Park.

This piece is kind of a carnival-type piece, and it features an ensemble that’s a working group, kind of a workshop ensemble that has been playing and doing a lot of stuff since the early Eighties. I recorded this for Blue Note in 1992, but this ensemble and this sound is a working group that I’ve been developing through the years. It features Judy Silvano on soprano voice and Tim Hagans on trumpet, Kenny Werner on piano, this track has Jack DeJohnette on drums, Steve Swallow on electric bass and Charlie Haden on electric and acoustic bass.

TP: There’s a lot of doubling going on in this.

JL: Yeah, there are some different approaches. Like, I wrote for Swallow to play within the rhythm section as an accompanist with chordal passages as well as actual bass parts. On this particular tune, he’s playing like a counter-melody in the front line with us that could almost be like a trombone type part.

[MUSIC: “Luna Park” (1992); Lovano/Redman, “Miss Etta” (1993); Lovano, “Emperor Jones” (1989); Lovano/Cox/ Blackwell, “Straight Ahead” (1990); Lovano/Holland/ Blackwell, “Evolution” (1990); Lovano/Schuller, “Topsy-Turvy” (1994)]

TP: We have cued up two earlier tracks. One is the aforementioned session with Lonnie Smith, and a track featuring Joe and his dad on a self-produced date, Hometown Sessions.

JL: Well, it’s a label that I started, basically, JSL Records. This was the first thing that we produced. It was right after I had recorded for Soul Note. I did this record called Tones, Shapes and Colors, my first solo record as a leader. I went to Cleveland and had a party with my family, and got a studio, and went in the studio and laid some tracks down with my Dad, and Eddie Bacchus on organ and Lawrence “Jacktown” Jackson, who I mentioned before.

[MUSIC: Lonnie Smith, “Apex” (1975); Joe and Tony Lovano, “Now Is The Time” (1986)]

[MUSIC: Mel Lewis Orch., “Interloper” (1986); G. Schuller/ Lovano, “Rush Hour On 23rd Street” (1994)]

TP: You had a chance to be paired with him in the 1988 recording, Monk In Motian.

JL: Well, this recording was the first one that we did for JMT Records. Up until that point, the band had only played original music of Paul’s, and then we had a chance to do this record, and the record company wanted to do more of a theme record. Paul played with Monk a little bit with Scott LaFaro; they did some quartet gigs with Charlie Rouse. And Paul was really into Monk, he’s been into Monk all his life, so he had all these tunes he wanted to do, and we started rehearsing. At first we didn’t know if we were going to just play trio, but when we started to rehearse trio with no bass the music was so beautiful. It was really different. It didn’t sound like we were trying to play the way Monk played these same tunes. So we decided to do it as a trio record. Then Paul brought Dewey in for a few tunes to join us, to play with two saxophones.

[MUSIC: Motian/Lovano/Frisell, “Epistrophy” (1988); “How Deep Is The Ocean”; “Turn Out The Stars” (1990); “One Time Out” (1991)]

TP: The next track we’ll hear comes from a forthcoming release on Blue Note, from a session last summer at the Village Vanguard that paired you with trumpeter Tom Harrell, who you’ve paired with on front lines very successfully for quite a while now, Billy Hart on drums, and Anthony Cox on bass.

JL: It’s a working quartet that we’ve been touring with and doing a lot of different things throughout the last few years. We recorded last March live at the Vanguard, and I am recording this week as well, live at the club, with Mulgrew and Christian and Lewis. They’re going to put out a double-CD package set, Live At The Vanguard, ’94 and ’95. So I’m excited about that.

This quartet played mainly original pieces that week. This week we’re doing a wide range of different compositions by other composers as well.

TP: What was interesting to me about this group when I heard it last year was it seemed a very creative extension of the Ornette Coleman-Don Cherry, or even the Ornette-Dewey Redman Quartet formulation. I guess some of this approach stems from your working with Blackwell for those couple of years in 1990 and ’91.

JL: Yes, playing with Blackwell and all the different groups with Motian have definitely influenced my writing. This quartet brings out a lot of those other sides. To play with just bass and drums and two other horns out front is a whole other energy and a different kind of atmosphere that happens in that. Tom is one of the greatest improvisers in Jazz, I think, and he has a lot of dynamic and amazing sides and personalities in his playing as well. In this particular quartet, I think for the first time he really opens up and plays very free and different.

This tune we’re going to hear is called “Uprising,” and it’s an original of mine that I wrote to play with this group. I play on C-Melody saxophone on this particular cut.

[MUSIC: Lovano/Harrell/Cox/Hart, “Uprising”]

TP: I don’t think anyone has ever quite mastered the technique of circular breathing or overtones the way he has.

JL: He’s phenomenal. He’s something else.

[MUSIC: Joe Lovano/Evan Parker, “Duo” (1994); Joe and Tony Lovano (1987)]

JL: That was a pretty wild piece there. It was exciting to play with Evan. We were into each other’s energy. We were really following each other beautifully. That was pretty far-out.

TP: Well, I think we’ve learned in the last four hours that with Joe Lovano anything is possible, and generally it’s going to work out in an extremely musical form that will then have implications for other activity. We’ve had some sense of the sort of parallel situations that continue to grow, evolve and merge. Thank you for your time, Joe Lovano.

JL: Thank you, Ted. I have to say, WKCR is such an incredible radio station, and all the shows you guys do are really inspiring. I listen to all the shows, and the birthday broadcasts, and the different profiles, and it’s really an honor to have you spend this much time on some of my recorded music.

TP: It’s quite a legacy of music, and I think we have a good three or four decades of creative music-making to come. So we’ll just take this as a signpost of where one of the most creative of the younger group of musicians is at this stage of his career.

[ETC.]

[MUSIC: Schuller/Lovano, “Angel Eyes” (1994); Lovano & Universal Language, “Josie and Rosie” (1992); Lovano/ Blackwell, “Fort Worth” (1991); Lovano/J. Redman, “The Land Of Ephesus” (1993); Yamashita/Lovano, “Kurdish Winds” (1993); Scofield/Lovano, “Comp Out” (1992)]

—-

Joe Lovano (Musician Show, WKCR, 7-26-89):
[MUSIC: Henri Texier/Lovano (Izlaz), “Golden Horn” (1988); Motian/ Lovano/Frisell, “Evidence” (1988)]

JL: I was born in ’52, so I really began playing and being around the music in the Sixties, around all the different records and things that were coming out during those years. I was really fortunate. My Dad played saxophone and was a beautiful musician, and his record collection was pretty wide when I was a kid, so I was able to hear and really distinguish between sounds and different tones on different instruments. I was able to start to recognize different players from their personality and their tone.

Q: He was a working musician in the Cleveland area.

JL: Yeah, sure. All his life. My Dad grew up with people like Bill Hardman, the trumpet player, Benny Bailey, Tadd Dameron. Tadd actually was a few years older than my Dad, but his brother Cesar Dameron was an alto player who was my Dad’s age, and they used to play a lot. Those years were really great for my Dad because he was really involved in the scene. There’s a lot of cats in New York who are from Cleveland that know my Dad, and I meet people from all around the world that have heard him play — or something. He traveled around a little bit, but he was mainly in the Cleveland scene.

Q: Well, in Cleveland and throughout the Midwest there used to be a thriving Jazz scene — Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Indianapolis.

JL: There was a circuit. I had a chance to tour with Lonnie Smith, the organist, and Jack McDuff, and a few different groups that played through that chitlin’ circuit, where you played really from New York to St. Louis, through Indianapolis and Cincinnati and all those towns. There were a lot of clubs. I caught a little part of it in 1974 or 1975 when I was like 20 years old. But throughout the ’50s and ’60s there was a real scene through that area.

Q: Joe’s first selection is one by the master, John Coltrane.

JL: This is from a record actually that came out on a reissue package with Roy Haynes on drums, McCoy Tyner, piano, and Jimmy Garrison on bass. It’s called To The Beat Of A Different Drum.

Somehow, my whole life as a player has developed in a strange kind of way around a lot of really great drummers. In the last three or four years, I’ve been really fortunate to be working with Mel Lewis. I’ve been playing with Mel Lewis’ band since 1980, and we play every Monday night at the Village Vanguard. Mel recorded with me on my first solo record as a leader for the Soul Note label, called Tones, Shapes and Colors, and I have a really close working relationship with Mel. As well as Paul Motian, who I’ve been playing with also since 1981. We’ve done a number of records, of which we’ll get to a few later, and also talk about the first times I had heard Paul play with Keith Jarrett and other people, and immediately wanted to be around that rhythm. Also Elvin Jones, who I toured with in 1987 for a two-month tour in Europe, which really was his last major tour as a leader with his own band. I mean, he’s toured with Freddie Hubbard and McCoy Tyner and a few different groups. But playing with Elvin was just an incredible lesson, man.

Q: You play some drums yourself.

JL: Well, I’ve been playing since I was a kid. Part of my whole thing with my Dad is my Dad was my teacher. We studied, we had lessons, but his lessons were he would give me a lot of things to work on, and when I felt like I was ready to present them to him… And he’d be hearing me practicing anyway. He would sometimes come down to the basement in the middle of what I was doing, and correct me or whatever. But it was a real close kind of thing. When I was six or seven years old, the drummer he was working with bought a new set of small drums, and gave his old set to my Dad to give to me. I mean, it was a huge, big bass drum, and all these drums. I have pictures of me playing these drums.

So since I was a kid I really got into the drums. I learned all the solos, like, that Philly Joe would play on a record or whatever. I would try to really be with the rhythm completely. I think that studying like that when I was that young gave me a sense of time, and studying the saxophone the way I did, the harmonic approach and the rhythmic approach together, just really gave me a lot to work on and to work for as a young player. So I know there’s been something about drummers, since I was a kid.

Now I’m starting to record and do some things on drums myself. Recently, just this last week actually, I went into the studio and did a solo-duo project where I laid some tracks down playing bass clarinet, drums and tenor, and then Judi Silverman came in and put some voice parts on some of the things, too, and we really created some rhythm sections. It’s the first time I ever did it. I brought a tape; maybe we could listen to one thing later.

But getting back to this first record, Roy Haynes has always been one of my very favorite musicians. I’ve never had a chance to play with him, but I heard him play a lot. And I really love this record. It was a real fresh… You know, after listening to so much Coltrane Quartet, this was like a little different twist with Roy Haynes on drums.

[MUSIC: Coltrane/Haynes, “Dear Old Stockholm” (1963); Sonny Stitt, “I Never Knew”, “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” (1962)]

JL: Just a little about what Sonny Stitt meant to me. Stitt was my first real love on record. I used to listen to my Dad practice all the time, and the sound of the saxophone just captured me completely from when I was crawling around the pad, you know. My Dad had a lot of Stitt’s records, too, and I would just practice along with the records all the time, on saxophone and on drums, and try to learn the tunes and try to get next to what was happening. His sound on tenor and alto… He had a personality that he could play either horn and sound like a different player, in a way. He was playing from the same knowledge and wisdom and expression, but he really got into the different sounds that were happening on the different horns. And that influenced me from a real young age.

I had the great fortune of meeting Stitt a bunch of times. He used to come through Cleveland, but not like Coltrane and other cats who really had their own bands. Sonny never really was known as a bandleader. I mean, he toured the world always pretty much as a solo artist, and would play with rhythm sections wherever he went. In his era, he could really do that, and work a lot. But he was kind of frustrated in that world, I think. I had a chance to hang out with him and sit with him a lot of times in clubs on breaks and stuff, and he was a great cat. He was a real teacher. He’d look at you and ask you how many holes on your horn, and how many C’s can you hit. He’d start asking you questions right away. It was an education to be around Sonny.

I had a chance to sit in with him a few times, you know, in different groups in Cleveland, with organ trios. One time he came with Milt Jackson, and they played with a Cleveland rhythm section, I was playing in a group opposite them,, and Sonny asked me to sit in with them one of the nights. It was a real thrill, you know, just to be on the stand with the cat, because he would take you through the changes, boy.

Q: Who would be the rhythm sections in Cleveland, by the way?

JL: There were different guys. The organ player who plays on this CD I put out with my Dad, Eddie Bacchus, would play with most everybody that came through town. But there were a couple of other organ players. There was a cat named Lindsay Tough, and this other guy, William Dowland, who everyone used to call Paul Bunyon — he was a real big cat. He used to be a trombone player, actually, when he was younger.

A few different drummers were around. Tony Haynes, Ralph Jackson, a drummer who plays with Duke Jenkins, who’s an organ player out there. Different cats, though. Val Kent, a young drummer. Val could have… He was offered the gig with Stan Getz and a lot of different people when he came through town. There was a drummer there whose name was Fats Heard who ended up playing with Erroll Garner, I think. Fats Heard in the Fifties and the Sixties, he would play with everybody who would come through town. Jacktown, who plays on the CD, Hometown Sessions, that I produced myself, was from Detroit, and grew up with Elvin Jones and Pepper Adams and Tommy Flanagan and everyone, and moved to Cleveland probably in the late Fifties or so. I mean, I met him when I was in high school. But when he was there, my father told me stories, like when Miles’ group when come through town, Coltrane, Philly Joe Jones, those cats would stay at Jacktown’s house. They were all buddies.

So there were a lot of cats in Cleveland during those days who played with everybody.

Q: Hearing John Coltrane and Sonny Stitt together is a very interesting juxtaposition, and one could say they are two very important people in the formation of your own personal style of playing, your approach to line and your approach to sound.

JL: Yeah, Coltrane and Stitt were definitely two of my really first loves on the instrument, as well as the music they played. I absorbed the two of them throughout their whole careers, all the different records and different periods. I was more familiar with more of the Coltrane with Miles and the Prestige Coltrane for most of my young life, and at that same period, Sonny Stitt was really my favorite player. Then I really got involved with Coltrane’s more modern Impulse records. Once I started to really get familiar with those, it changed my concept of rhythm and the role of not just playing soloist-rhythm section. The way Sonny Stitt played, and in that whole period, I mean, you really played off the rhythm section. Your rhythm section was there to support everything you did. Whereas some of Coltrane’s later records, it was more collective, conversational kind of playing, and everybody fed off each other more. Like we were commenting during this tune, “Dear Old Stockholm,” the way Roy Haynes was playing with Trane, they were playing like the same rhythms, they were playing the same kind of phrasing. When I started to really be familiar with that, it really opened up my concept, and gave me a lot more direction in my own music.

Q: We have something cued up by Lee Morgan.

JL: The trumpet was another really important instrument for me in my young developing. I mean, trumpet had an attack and it had a certain thing that I really loved. I think I would have been a trumpet player if I’d had a different chance to do something. I just always associated with the trumpet and the rhythm. Lee Morgan and Miles were my two real favorite trumpet players. I used to listen a lot to Lee Morgan on all the Blue Note records, and things with Jimmy Smith — a lot of different things. Lee’s sound and his rhythm really got to me. The tune we’re playing is from a record that came out much later, in the Eighties, one of the Blue Note Japanese reissues, named The Rajah. It has Hank Mobley on saxophone, Cedar Walton, Paul Chambers and Billy Higgins.

Hank Mobley, too, was… I really loved Hank’s playing from all the records, different things he did with Coltrane together, all the things with Miles, and his own records. He was one of the first ones that I really started to realize how he wrote so much, man…

Q: All those slick, subtle tunes.

JL: Oh, man, all his tunes were so beautiful. At a certain time as a young player, like, you’re so into just trying to play what everybody else is playing, when you realize that to try to create your own music is part of it, too…! That hit me. And Hank Mobley was one of the first saxophone composers, him and Wayne Shorter both, that really influenced me a lot.

[MUSIC: Lee Morgan/H. Mobley/Cedar/PC/Higgins (The Rajah) “Is That So?” (1967); Hank Mobley/D. Byrd/Cedar/R. Carter/ Higgins (Far Away Lands) “No Argument”; Rollins/Philly Joe, “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” (1958)]

JL: When I really discovered Sonny Rollins and started exploring Sonny’s records and his music, it opened up a lot of doors for me melodically and rhythmically. Sonny’s such a master of… He can take any melody and stretch it out, and play so many variations of it to develop his solos. He didn’t just try to play the right notes, let’s say. He tries to explore all the possibilities with the melody and the rhythm that’s happening. For me, he’s a real genius improviser. Philly Joe Jones as well…

Q: You said when you were a kid you copied his solos.

JL: Yeah, Philly Joe was my man as far as the melodies he played. Like, he played the same things that Sonny Rollins or Miles were playing. There’s one record, I think it was Miles’ first record as a leader, with Sonny Rollins and Bird on tenor, with Philly Joe — it’s one of his first records. Man, it’s really smoking. I mean, Philly Joe to me was one of the…

Q: “The Serpent’s Tooth,” “Compulsion”…

JL: Right. “Compulsion” is the piece I’m speaking of. But his driving style melodically as well as his swing just really grabbed me completely when I was a kid. The breaks and things he played on that particular tune always have been with me. That’s why I wanted to play that cut. That record also has Doug Watkins on bass and Wynton Kelly on piano. That date has “Tune Up,” “Namely You”…

I’d like to to get to more tunes on that, but I want to play a couple of other things with Sonny on it first. We’re going to play something from Alfie, which has arrangements by Oliver Nelson. We’re going to play “Alfie’s Theme” from this. This is a real important record for me, too. Because it was Sonny completely out in front of kind of a small big band, and the band just plays parts. It’s a great band. Phil Woods is playing, Danny Bank. Frankie Dunlap is on drums who played a lot with Monk, and in later years played with the Lionel Hampton band quite often. But all his playing with Monk was really a great period for Monk’s music as well, with Frankie Dunlap. Kenny Burrell is on guitar on this, Jimmy Cleveland, J.J. Johnson — it’s a great record. We’re going to hear “Alfie’s Theme” from this.

We’re also going to hear Sonny Rollins playing a solo, unaccompanied version of “It Could Happen to You” from The Sound Of Sonny, which also… Sonny’s playing as a solo instrumentalist and accompanying himself as he’s playing, his freedom and concept also, like, really attracted me, and it taught me a lot about how to practice and how to get next to my own sound.

[MUSIC: Sonny Rollins, “Alfie’s Theme” (1966); Sonny (solo), “It Could Happen To You” (1957); Booker Little/Flanagan/ LaFaro/Haynes, “Minor Suite” (1960)]

JL: This album by Booker Little is one of my favorite Booker Little records, and this particular cut, which he begins with an unaccompanied intro, I find really fantastic. Booker Little is one of those players that I never, of course, had a chance to hear or see live. Freddie Hubbard talked a lot about him. He said Booker scared him more than anybody just because he played so beautifully technically. I think they were on Africa Brass together; they were the two trumpet players on Africa Brass with John Coltrane. It was interesting talking with Freddie about Booker.

[MUSIC: Lovano/Harrell/Werner/Johnson/Motian, “Birds of Springtimes Gone By,” “Dewey Says” (1988), Lovano/Motian/ Frisell, “Someone To Watch Over Me” (1989)]

“Someone To Watch Over Me” is from Motian On Broadway, Volume 1. This record for me was a real breakthrough in recording, just because five out of nine tunes are ballads on this record, and it was real challenging. Playing with Charlie and Paul together with Bill was really a treat.

Q: You’ve been associated with Paul Motian for just about the whole decade.

JL: Yes, when you think about it, time has gone by so fast. We’ve been playing since 1981 together. Paul was rehearsing a group which included Bill on guitar and Mark Johnson on bass. Mark and I knew each other from playing with Woody Herman’s band, and were really close friends. They had been playing with a few saxophone players. Mark spoke with Paul about me, and hooked it up for me to make a rehearsal one day. I went up and played with the quartet, and we’ve been playing ever since.

It’s been really beautiful, because we did some quartet playing and then some quintets, which included Billy Drewes on saxophone and Ed Schuller on bass, as well as Jim Pepper on tenor with Ed on bass. We recorded some really nice albums. One record on ECM called Psalm, which has Billy on it, and then three records on Soul Note with the quintet, The Story Of Maryam, Misterioso and Jack of Clubs — actually I brought The Story of Maryam to play a tune later, with Jim Pepper on saxophone, who is one of my favorite players, a really soulful cat. Then the trio kind of emerged from the quintet, Bill and I and Paul, which we’ve been recording and playing a lot around New York.

“Someone To Watch Over Me” started out as a trio piece, which we played the verse and then the whole song, and then Charlie enters as the guitar solo begins. On this record mainly it’s quartet with Charlie, but there’s a few tunes that are just trio tunes as well.

Before that we played two tunes from my record that just came out on Soul Note label, which also features Paul on drums. Having Paul play in my band, playing my music, has really been exciting for me. It just kind of tied a lot of things together for me and my music, and for our playing together. I feel our communication was really great.

The next thing we’ll hear is some music by Thelonious Monk from a record called It’s Monk’s Time.

Q: Now, the Paul Motian Trio just recorded an album exclusively of Monk’s music.

JL: Right. We’ve been playing a lot of Monk tunes. It’s really nice, because in the trio, of course, there’s no bass, so we’re playing guitar, saxophone and drums, and we’re trying to really feel this music in a different kind of way.

Q: It’s very interesting, though, because you always stay with the chords and the melody.

JL: Oh yeah, we’re into the tunes. Those songs are real beautiful vehicles, and we want to expand on everything that’s there as well as put our own wisdom into the piece. But that was a really fun record date to do. I’ve been playing a lot with Dewey Redman, and actually this tune “Dewey Said” was dedicated to Dewey. It came from some lines or some feelings that I have felt listening to Dewey play. Some of the melodies in the piece kind of developed from listening to Dewey. He’s one of my favorite people. And he actually has a son that plays tenor who I’ve been hearing a lot about, and I’m sure everyone is going to be hearing at some point soon.

Anyway, from Monk’s Time we’ll hear “Lulu’s Back In Town.” In this particular quartet is Butch Warren on bass, Ben Riley on drums, and one of my favorite saxophone players, and someone who passed on recently, but I had a chance to really hang with a few times at the Vanguard and was a beautiful cat, Charlie Rouse.

[MUSIC: Monk, “Lulu’s Back In Town” (1963); Coltrane, “Naima” (1965), Ornette/Dewey/Garrison/Jones “Open To the Public” (1968)]

That was a really inspired take. Elvin Jones is the truth. I mean, after touring with him and being around him every day on a two-month tour, I mean, he’s so intense and ready to play… He has so much fun! Before each gig he’d be like rubbin’ his hand together, “Let’s hear it!” And you could hear it on that take. On every record Elvin pays on. I mean, he comes there to play. He doesn’t fool around at all.

Next we’re going to play something from an album that I’m on with the Paul Motian Trio with Dewey Redman Monk In Motian. I’d just like to say what a pleasure it is to play with Dewey. And I’ve been lucky enough to play in Charlie Haden’s Liberation Orchestra as well with Dewey. It’s always exciting listening to him compose.

Following that, we’ll hear two tunes from a record of mine that’s coming out early next year, with a line-up of a few people who are playing with me tonight and tomorrow night at Club Visiones at Third and MacDougal. This record, Worlds, features my Wind Ensemble, which has Tim Hagans on trumpet, Judi Silverman, voice, Gary Valente, trombone, Paul Motian, drums, Henri Texier, bass, and Bill Frisell on guitar.

[MUSIC: Lovano/Redman/FrisellMotian, “Epistrophy,” Lovano Wind Ens., “Spirit Of The Night,” “Lutetia”]

——–

Joe Lovano’s John Coltrane “Dozens” for http://www.jazz.com (June 12, 2008):
1. Good Bait, (Soultrane) Prestige, w/ Red Garland, Paul Chambers, Arthur Taylor, 100/100.

This was one of the first significant Coltrane recordings, this recording Soultrane, for me, that I lived with as a real young player, and a young listener. That particular tune, Good Bait, was written by Tadd Dameron. I’m originally from Cleveland, Ohio, as well as Tadd. My Dad played with Tadd Dameron. So I learned a lot about music and the whole history of jazz growing up, studying Tadd Dameron’s music, and hearing Coltrane’s incredible, lengthy exploration on “Good Bait” was really inspiring to me, and taught me a lot about how I would have to deal with this music, and learn to play the saxophone. It’s a timeless recording that when I listen to it today, sounds as fresh as when I was a kid.

After studying Coltrane through the years, and being a saxophonist myself, realizing all of the things that you have to deal with to execute your ideas, every stage of the way is a different development period. That period for Coltrane in the mid ‘50s, I think he was probably with Miles at the time, 1956… [That recording was ‘58. And he’d kicked heroin at the time. He did this right after he left Monk.] I see. So that experience and journey to that moment was pretty intense, as far as the study of the music, the saxophone, the people he was playing with. He had come up playing with Tadd Dameron, playing with him in his music, playing with Miles’ band, Dizzy’s band, Johnny Hodges’ band. He was just starting to form a conception about who he was and how he wanted to present himself in the music. There’s another tune on this recording, “I Want To Talk About You,” that he played throughout his lifetime and presented in concert around the world many times. One thing I learned from Coltrane is that he lived with the music that he played, and he was always developing on it throughout his career. [Anything you’d care to say about his style then? Maybe how you see his development with Monk leading him to play those incredibly lucid solos that he did on that record?] One thing, playing with Thelonious Monk got him to be even more articulate than he was doing on his own. His execution, his articulation, his rhythm, his phrasing and ideas were all one. And his tone also, at this period, was really crystallizing. He was fusing together all of the elements of playing music and playing the saxophone. He was a virtuoso on his instrument, and he was really able to communicate his ideas in lengthy open solos, and “Good Bait” is a prime example of him really stretching out and playing through that pilece of music with his own approach.
2. BAGS & TRANE, “Three Little Words” Atlantic, John Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Milt Jackson, vibraphone; Hank Jones, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Connie Kay, drums. (1959) 100/100

It’s incredible to hear Coltrane play on standard songs, and to play with a rhythm section like that, where Hank is very free in the harmonic sequence and is feeding him harmonies and voicings, and Coltrane is taking him places that’s giving him ideas and opening up what he’s playing harmonically as well. To hear Hank Jones and Coltrane together is incredible on this recording, and also, Milt Jackson is one of the most incredible lyrical improvisers in the music, and to hear them balance each other and come off of each other, and play on a tune like “Three Little Words,” and not play too many choruses, a few choruses each, just like really play through the tune and sustain the mood of that tune, was a real beautiful journey on their part, and for me, as a young musician, digging Coltrane playing standards taught me a lot about the repertoire to become a musician in this beautiful world of music we’re in. [So it was less that you were checking out Coltrane’s lines, but more that you were getting a feeling for the pathway of doing this? Or were you checking out the vocabulary?] Well, I was checking out the vocabulary of how they were all playing together. But the one thing that I learned about music listening to Coltrane, no matter what he was playing, was the depth of the repertoire that he knew, and how much ballads and the blues were in everything he played, and how it all related in his solos. He was a soloist of the highest order, no matter what he played, and his focus on the material drove him and fed him ideas. It wasn’t just what he was practicing on his horn, even though that was a big part of the way he played. The music that he played and the people that he played with really gave him direction, and you can hear it when you hear him playing on standards.
3. LIVE AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD, “Chasin’ The Trane” (master take), Coltrane, tenor saxophone; McCoy Tyner, piano; Reggie Workman, bass; Elvin Jones, drums

All the different versions of “Chasing the Trane” through the years from the live recordings hit that same incredible level of creativity on the blues. This was one of the first pieces that I heard, and didn’t even realize it was a blues, for a long time. It was a whole side of one of the Impulse records, somewhere around 1961. Eric Dolphy comes in on the last note or something, at the very end. Now, of course, later they released all these other Live at the Village Vanguard takes, there’s other takes of “Chasin’ The Trane” where Dolphy plays and McCoy plays. But this particular version, the original that came out on that recording, was one side of a record, just Coltrane’s choruses. He played from start to finish. The first time I heard that, I listened to it all day. I just kept putting the needle back at the beginning of the recording. Then after a while, I realized it was a blues. I was a teenager, and it was something else, man. The energy, the focus, and the swinging, beautiful exploration of Coltrane’s choruses on that—it was really some magic, man. Then moving to New York, playing at the Village Vanguard with the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, and then carrying on into today, presenting my own groups, and recording live there, and feeling the spirits in that room, it goes back to that first time, checking THAT piece out.

[It’s fascinating that he recorded that maybe two years after “Three Little Words” from Bags and Trane, and the sound is so radically different.]

Mmm-hmm. Well, Trane was moving on in his playing and his approach, and becoming a leader, having his own band, focusing totally on what he wanted to play, and that in turn created a lot of ideas of how he was playing. He was always dealing with how he played, as well as what he was playing. He was definitely a dedicated, serious student of the saxophone and of music, but his approach widened through the years on how he was playing and how he was putting things together. We all study the elements in the music, and we all deal with things today that we dealt with on Day One. If you don’t do that, then I don’t think you can really play with the depth of your soul. If it only becomes a technical thing to get around your horn and to execute what you’ve practiced, you’re not really executing your feelings at all. Coltrane went through periods earlier on where he was documented, and was a very technical player. But you hear the evolution of how his feelings came out in his music in every step of the way, and that was a beautiful study also for me through the years. When you study somebody’s whole career on record, someone who recorded as much as he did… He recorded a lot! Hundreds and hundreds of songs through the years. That all came out in his playing at every moment, man, the soulfulness of it all, of his journey.
4. “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes”, COLTRANE’S SOUND

That whole recording is amazing, but “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” the form of it, the feelings, the way the rhythm shifted, and his ideas throughout the sequence of the harmonies with the different inflections that Elvin Jones was playing, and the way McCoy comped on that, little pedal points in the bass… It felt like a quartet. It wasn’t just Coltrane soloing over that tune or with a rhythm section. It really was a totally integrated quartet. This is an early record that I recognized that quality of improvising together as a unit. Some of the other things prior to that… Even on “Good Bait,” Coltrane’s playing with the rhythm section. But the interplay and the way they developed ideas and played off each other on “Night Has a Thousand Eyes” was instrumental in my discovery of the approach of playing within the group you’re in, whether you’re playing a solo or not. Also, Elvin’s playing on that. As a young player, I played a lot of drums, and was practicing saxophone and drums at the same time, and playing along with records and trying to hear what was happening. Playing along with that recording on drums taught me everything, man, about form and about following the line and the soloist, and trying to hit a groove, playing ALONG WITH Elvin and McCoy and Coltrane on that recording. That taught me a lot about everything.
5. “Body and Soul” from COLTRANE’S SOUND (Coltrane, tenor saxophone; McCoy Tyner, piano; Steve Davis, bass; Elvin Jones), Atlantic, 1960. 100/100

Studying the tune “Body and Soul” from that same recording. Studying Coleman Hawkins’ version. My Dad played Coleman Hawkins’ solo from that first big hit that he had, and my Dad knew it back and forth. I’d hear him play those lines all the time when I would practice. Hearing Coltrane’s interpretation, and his own perspective and view through his different harmonic sequences of “Giant Steps,” development through modulations and harmonies, and how he incorporated that… In that certain period for Coltrane, he was doing that on a lot of standard songs. The whole “Giant Steps” approach developed through his developing different ways of modulation through harmony. The way he put that together on “Body and Soul” was beautiful. It really taught me a lot about substitution chords, and how to incorporate those things as you’re playing through any given tune, and how it related to the blues as well. It’s one of the most soulful, beautiful versions of that tune. [Dexter Gordon incorporated those changes into his own version of “Body and Soul”] Dexter Gordon did that later on, sure. Dexter gave Coltrane a mouthpiece early on. It might have been the mouthpiece that he was playing on a certain early period with Miles. Well, Coltrane was one of Dexter’s disciples, I think, along with Bird and others. You could hear Dexter in Coltrane’s playing at a certain point, and later you hear Coltrane in Dexter’s playing a lot. That kind of mix teaches you a lot about what an amazing music this is. It’s multigenerational, multicultural. We all influence each other in different ways at different times in our careers and personalities.
6. “Vigil”, KULU SE MAMA (Impulse, 1965) (McCoy Tyner, piano; Jimmy Garrison, bass; Elvin Jones, drums) 100/100

My Dad had this recording, as he did most of these. So I didn’t have to buy it. He loved KULU SE MAMA. He listened to this all the time. Of course, I grew up in the ‘60s, so I didn’t grow up when these recordings were coming out. They were all released. I was very lucky that my Dad had a hip record collection, and had these records from the different periods of Coltrane. He met Coltrane in the early ‘50s and played a jam session with him in Cleveland. Coltrane was playing alto; he was in town with a blues band. [Didn’t Coltrane stay in Cleveland for a little bit with a guy named Gay Crosse?] Gay Crosse was the blues band that he played with. I think he was a Cleveland cat. During that time, you might stay somewhere for a month or two and play every night. Anyway, they were one year apart; my Dad was born in 1925, and Coltrane in 1926. So they came up in the same generation, the same music. My dad played at this session with Coltrane, and he never forgot that, man. He loved Coltrane’s playing, and met him that time. Through the years, he had all his records. So I grew up with Bags and Trane and Soultrane and Kulu Se Mama and Meditations. But Kulu Se Mama was one that my Dad loved to listen to. This piece, “Vigil,” is just a duet with Elvin. It was so well recorded, it was incredible. When you listened to that down in our basement, on my Dad’s stereo, at forte, it was like they were in the room with you. The sound of the drums and the way they played together was so beautiful and organic. My Dad had a nice stereo with speakers all over the basement, so wherever you were down in our basement it was great sound! That piece really captured me, man, just in a duo. It might have been one of the first times I really heard a saxophone-and-tenor duet on a recording. [Speak a bit as to how Coltrane’s music was different in 1965 than 1961.] Definitely in 1965, when this recording was made, his sound… He was playing more majestic, in a certain way. He seemed to fill the room with his tone in a different way. In the early ‘60s, he was playing through his horn and flying around his horn, and he still filled the room… When I say “filled the room,” I’m talking about when you’re listening; I was never in a room with Coltrane playing live. But in the earlier Coltrane, his sound attacked you, it came at you. As he developed more to the end of his life, his tone was much majestic, and had a much more spiritual and open feeling to it—to me. Even though he was still playing some ferocious, incredible things around his instrument, just his sound was more beautiful than it even had been. It was always beautiful. I always thought he had a beautiful sound. But it was even more beautiful. It comes through on this duet as well.

7. “Venus” (from INTERSTELLAR SPACE, Impulse, 1967] Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Rashied Ali, drums. 100/100

That’s another duet piece with Rashied Ali on drums, who plays brushes on this piece. It’s a ballad like, lyrical, rubato piece, and the way they improvise together is so captivating and beautiful. You hit the Repeat button when it finishes. You want to keep listening to it over and over again. It did that to me. Interstellar Space was a recording I brought home and played for my Dad, which then he really dug, because it was a complete LP of only duets. There are four pieces on it, four planets. Moving to New York in the mid ‘70s, one of the first places I went was Rashied Ali’s club, Ali’s Alley. I’d been playing a little with Albert Dailey, and he told me he was playing a gig with ‘Shied down there, and told me I should come. I went down and ended up sitting in with him that night. It was one of the thrills of my life up until that point, calling home and telling my dad I sat in and played with Rashied Ali! That recording, Interstellar Space, was an important record to me.

[This is towards the end of Coltrane’s life; he’d gone to another place than even on “Vigil.”] “Vigil” had a certain energy and a swing to it, and a certain drive that Elvin and Coltrane hooked up on. “Venus” was maybe a year-and-a-half later. Coltrane was dealing with a new approach to rhythm and flow and playing counterpoint within the rhythm. It was still swinging and still moving in a certain forward motion, but it wasn’t a quarter-note swing type beat. It was a very open beat that gives you a lot of room for expression. In a way, Rashied Ali was playing more like a soloist along with the soloist. But they were finding all kinds of common, beautiful unisons within the counterpoint that they were creating with each other. It’s a way of playing that from that moment on I’ve been trying to develop in my playing. Those directions put me in a path to play with Paul Motian through the years. At that same period in the ‘60s, Paul was also exploring playing a very free approach in his accompaniment on drums, flowing with the soloist and not just playing the beat that everyone expects you to play. Feeling the beat and then improvising with it. Throughout my career I’ve had a chance to play with some of the master drummers in jazz, including Elvin Jones and Rashied Ali and Paul Motian and Jack DeJohnette, Ed Blackwell, Idris Muhammad, Lewis Nash and the cats today, Brian Blade, Al Foster… It’s amazing. When I look back, I projected a lot of those things to happen from this early period, discovering all this diverse music and feelings that were executed by Coltrane and the crowd. That crowd. It all stemmed from Max Roach and Bird and Diz and Monk. But that certain crowd of players, and the way they learned from each other and developed a way of playing just captured me, and I feel really fortunate to be on the scene today and trying to execute my ideas within that world and with that crowd.

8. “Chim-Chim, Cheree” (COLTRANE PLAYS CHIM CHIM CHEREE, Impulse, 1965…) 100/100

It was an amazing version of “Chim, Chim Cheree” on soprano saxophone, the groove of it, the whole interplay, the flow of the quartet. Coltrane, coming off of playing “My Favorite Thing” and having such a success on that, and then playing an interpretation of “Chim, Chim Cheree” so wide-open and exploratory, and just, like, SERIOUS. He wasn’t just playing it to play it. You could feel that he was into exploring what could happen off of that theme, and the way they put it together is just a beautiful, joyous journey and piece of music. Also, this certain period… This was maybe ‘63 or ‘64… [I thought it was 1965.] Could be around ‘64 or ‘65. The way he was playing soprano at that time was… The later records after that, he didn’t play soprano. This was one of the later recordings on soprano, in a way—for a studio date anyway. Man, his sound and his whole approach and focus on that horn on that recording is instrumental in giving me confidence to try to play other instruments and explore the possibilities of different tonal energy that comes off of the horn you play. At that same time, for me, I’d heard James Moody live and Sonny Stitt live and Rahsaan Roland Kirk live… Of course, when I say that same period, when I heard that record and heard those cats live, I was a teenager, 16-17 years old. I was in a room with those guys. Sonny Stitt played alto, and then put it down and played tenor. Moody picked up the flute. Rahsaan played all these horns, not only at the same time, but to play as his voice for the moment. The focus of sound and energy from the instrument came through. I really felt that on “Chim, Chim Cheree” from the record with Coltrane, his focus and his sound and the energy that that instrument gave him, and how he executed ideas off that inspiration.

9. “Father, Son and the Holy Ghost” (MEDITATIONS, Impulse, 1965) 100/100.

That melody, that theme, it’s like a very simple little exercise, in a way. If you broke it down and just played it like a scale, it was a simple, little, beautiful meditation on those intervals and those themes. How he played it through all keys. That was another record that my dad really loved, and he listened to it a lot. I heard it a lot without sitting and listening to it myself. I just heard it played in our house from the basement when my dad would be listening to music. At the time, I was dealing with trying to learn how to play the saxophone, so I was more into Bird and Diz and earlier Coltrane and Sonny with Max, but I was hearing my Dad listen to that record, and this piece in particular, “The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost,” and all of a sudden I found myself practicing a different way without even thinking about—just little simple things on the horn that I was working on, but playing them in different keys, and playing them more peaceful, in a way. Practicing them in a more peaceful way, instead of just running through them technically on the horn. Later, when I reflect on it, I realize that it was kind of subliminal something from that particular recording, the way my dad listened to that record a lot. I mean, he would go down to the basement and put that record on a lot. Maybe because it was totally new music to him. He wasn’t that kind of player, really. He was a real bebopper at heart, a hard-swinging player. But he had a beautiful ballads approach. I don’t know. Something about that record my Dad just loved, and listened to a lot. So I learned a certain way of practicing that came from that recording. Also, just the collectiveness of the way Pharaoh Sanders… Also, Rashied was on that record. It was a double-drummers record with Elvin and Rashied, Jimmy Garrison, McCoy, and Pharaoh. There were some things that were in that approach that have stayed with me, and certain things that I’m trying to develop to this day.

10. “Dear old Stockholm” (Coltrane, McCoy, Garrison, Roy Haynes, NEWPORT ‘63) 100/100

I love this live version of “Dear Old Stockholm” with Roy Haynes on drums, and I listen to it a lot. There’s a certain freshness and different feeling that happens when Coltrane plays with Roy Haynes. His ideas take different shapes rhythmically and melodically. Something’s different there. That also just inspired me to realize that when you play with different people, that creates the music, really. The music within the music comes from the people that you’re playing with at the time. I recognized that at a certain point, and through the years developing with the people that I’ve played with, especially drummers, Ed Blackwell, Billy Higgins and Mel Lewis…realizing you could play the same tune, but when you have a different feeling in the rhythm section, you should play with a different feeling as a soloist. The recordings with Coltrane and Roy Haynes were really instrumental for me recognizing that, and this particular version of “Dear Old Stockholm,” the ending, the way they play over the form, the way they explore… They could have played that all day and night. From start to finish, it’s a joyous, beautiful journey.

11. “Expression” (Impulse, 1967, Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, Garrison, Rashied Ali) 100/100

This is from Coltrane’s last session meant to be released. That tune… In a way, the harmonic sequence, the melody…it’s like a beautiful prayer. That’s something we just recorded with the Saxophone Summit on our latest release, Seraphic Light. Just to play that theme, when you’re playing that theme over and over again, just alone, on the saxophone, and implying some of the harmonies and the roots, it’s like the most beautiful prayer, and it’s a continuous melodic flow that is really something. It’s one of the tunes that Coltrane I don’t think ever really explored that much in concert. It was near the end of his life, and he might have just brought it in for the recording session for the whole group, and they recorded it. Now, of course, him and Alice might have been playing it as a duet, which I would have loved to hear that. When Alice came into the band after McCoy and played with a real harp-like approach, where she was playing the full piano in her accompaniment, it seemed to give Coltrane… In a way, he relaxed and played off of more of the spectrum in the harmonies. He was playing a harp-like approach also at that point, the way he expanded… They always talk about sheets of sound. When you slow that down, it becomes very harp-like, very open. Of course, on the duets, Interstellar Space, which was done in the same month or week, he was playing through things very quick, and flurries of notes throughout the harmony, whereas on “Expression” he kind of stretched them out a little bit. I think we would have heard another side to Coltrane if he’d developed during the years after this. Because his execution on his instrument was so beautiful. He could do whatever he felt and heard. When Alice came into the band, especially on these moments with the quartet… Stellar Regions is another quartet recording from right around that time where they explored many tunes, shorter version of them, that were kind of strung together. Expression was one of the songs I think that inspired a whole way of playing, for me, and a way of playing through harmonies in a free-flowing way, without a quarter-note or metronome-type beat. An open beat, but still moving through a sequence of chords. I learned a lot about trying to approach improvising with that aspect of meter. It’s something I’m just scratching the surface on now.

12. “Impressions” THE 1961 HELSINKI CONCERT (Gambit) FEATURING ERIC DOLPHY (Nov. 22, 1961) (Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Eric Dolphy, bass clarinet; McCoy Tyner, piano; Reggie Workman, bass; Elvin Jones, drums)

I was just on tour with McCoy Tyner in April, and I found this in a record shop in Basel, Switzerland. I never saw it before. There’s a version of “Impressions” that starts the concert that’s at kind of a slower tempo, almost like the tempo they played “So What” at with Miles. It’s amazing. Coltrane’s choruses are so beautiful, just the way they play the theme together and the way Eric answers and plays in the spaces of the melody. Coltrane plays around 9 choruses, then Eric comes in and plays 9 or 10 choruses himself that are some of the most beautiful Eric Dolphy with Coltrane on record. It’s incredible, because I think this was just released now. I never heard it on any other box set from European live recordings with Coltrane. Then Coltrane comes back in, after Dolphy, and plays another 2 or 3 choruses before they take the theme out. So it’s a short version of this tune with no solo by McCoy. It’s just fantastic. It’s some of the most inspired Eric Dolphy after Coltrane plays, and while Coltrane is playing, you can feel that he’s inspired just by having Dolphy on the scene. He hands it over to him in a way where he’s saying, “Okay, man, what have you got to say?” Then when Dolphy ends his chorus, Coltrane has to come in and play again because it’s at this really beautiful place in the whole structure of the piece.

[TALK A BIT ABOUT COLTRANE DIALOGUING WITH OTHER SAXOPHONE PLAYERS]

Coltrane recorded with a lot of different saxophone players. There was a great record with Johnny Griffin and Hank Mobley. There was some stuff with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims and Hank Mobley as a quartet. There’s some stuff with Paul Quinichette and Pepper Adams, Gene Ammons—Coltrane plays alto. Coltrane came up in an era where you played in bands with other saxophone players a lot. Some of it was documented, but I’m sure through the years he was in tons of bands, and many jam sessions and situations where you shape the music together spontaneously right at the moment with other saxophone players. A lot. Of course, with Miles and Cannonball and quintets with Cannonball. Throughout his career, I think he enjoyed, which I do, feeding off of other people, especially if they have a strong personality and ideas and have their own statement. It was great to hear him with Dolphy and have Eric’s voice, not only on alto, but bass clarinet and flute. We’re lucky that they recorded and did some things, a lot more than we ever heard really that were made for release. The recording Olé was beautiful with Freddie Hubbard and Coltrane together. But something like this, which just came out, from that tour, was so fresh! It was recorded in 1961. McCoy Tyner was 22 years old, maybe 23 on that recording. It’s so great to hear the inspiration of how they played together, and how they played off of each other.

13. “Ah-Leu-Cha” (from ROUND ABOUT MIDNIGHT) (Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Miles Davis, trumpet; Red Garland, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Philly Joe Jones).

The way Coltrane, Miles, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums play on that tune, the little counterpoint on that melody… I think that tune is based on “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Scrapple From the Apple”—I’m pretty sure it was derived from that sequence. But the way it was structured with the little drum-breaks and all these little things, and the way Coltrane played with Philly Joe Jones and Paul Chambers… Of course, we’ve heard many recordings through the years with them together as that combination. That was another feeling in the beat, and the joyous journey in how they were up in each other’s music, and were moving through the harmonies with a certain feeling. They weren’t just playing over chords and playing 32 bars. They were exploring a way of playing together. It was Miles’ group, but this community of players. Someone has to be the leader, to organize things, but it’s really the community of players that make the music. I’m feeling that today in my ensembles, creating situations for the community that I live in. My nonet has a certain repertoire, a certain community of players. We’ve been playing together for years. Now, I’m the leader. I’ve organized and have developed my career to a point to be able to put it together. But it’s the community of players that is making music, too. Each one of my ensembles has been inspired by that particular realization about what is happening on the scene. Miles and Coltrane and Monk and Bird, all their records are about that. It’s a community they were living in, man, and they were living this music together, and you could feel how much they loved to play together. That comes through on this recording, Round About Midnight, with Miles Davis, and that tune, “Ah-Leu-Cha”—but on every tune. For me, that was one of the first records that totally captured me and gave me a lot of ideas, and I wore it out two or three times.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

——–

Joe Lovano (Quartets: Live At The Village Vanguard) – Blue Note:
The two quartet performances that comprise Live At the Village Vanguard represent the latest installment of Joe Lovano’s ongoing dialogue with the Freedom Principle and the Tradition. 42 years old, at the peak of his powers, where vigor complements wisdom, Lovano is as comfortable playing improvised duos with English Free-Jazz-Master Evan Parker as in-the-pocket bebop with an organ trio. His solos display the spontaneity of an ear player, but behind them is the urbane sophistication of a conservatory-trained musician with twenty years experience interpreting difficult charts in big bands ranging from Woody Herman to Carla Bley. Fully conversant with the harmonic vocabulary of Coltrane, Shorter and beyond, he is able to navigate complex structures with an uncannily relaxed rhythmic facility and big furry sound at the most intense outer partials.

Lovano inherited his open, pragmatic attitude from his father, Cleveland-based tenor saxophonist Tony “Big T” Lovano. Papa Lovano worked a day job as a barber and played every variety of gig at night. Coming up in the 1940’s, Big T looked up to Clevelanders Tadd Dameron and Freddie Webster, played around the city with the likes of Bill De Arango, Jim Hall, Benny Bailey, Joe Alexander and the legendary blind organist Eddie Bacchus. Later, as a main man on the Cleveland scene, he knew and played with outcats Albert Ayler, Frank Wright and Bobby Few in their formative years. The likes of Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, James Moody and Roland Kirk considered him a peer, and he took his son to Cleveland spots like the Smiling Dog or the Sirrah Club to hear their live sound. When young Lovano was practicing to Sonny Stitt records in the family basement, his father had John Coltrane’s “Kulu Se Mama” or “A Love Supreme” on the turntable upstairs.

When Big T was too busy to make a booking, he’d often send his son. “I paid my way to Berklee School of Music from all the money I made playing gigs in high school,” Joe recalls. “I learned all the standard tunes, how to lead a gig and pace a set. My Dad taught me how to read an audience, too; if I was playing in a club where there was dancing, to play the right tempos, to find the tunes that people are going to dig. My Dad always stressed, ‘Look, you have to be versatile so you can pay the rent.’ He taught me clarinet, and wanted me to play flute, and be able to play in bands, and to be able to take any gig that came up. He always instilled that in me. So from an early age, I was studying a lot of different dimensions of improvising and playing my instruments with those goals in mind.”

Tony Lovano’s sound spanned a wide dynamic range, from the alligatory roughness of Illinois Jacquet to the expansive melismas of Lester Young and Ben Webster, and he bequeathed that range to his son. “My sound has gone through a lot of different changes,” says Joe, “or different periods. Early on I played more one-dimensionally, with a harder sound. On my first recording with Lonnie Smith in 1975, my sound was only one beam of light, let’s say, just one direction. Through the years, in playing with so many different bands, especially large ensembles where the music is always changing with different feelings, rhythms and attitudes, rather than try to sound the same in each group, I would try to fit in in a different way all the time. That range of dynamics started the process of trying to open up my sound in a different direction. Through the years it’s definitely gotten wider and bigger, and I think I can play now, say, triple pianissimo with the same fullness as a triple forte.”

A drummer friend of Big T’s gave 7-year-old Joe a set from the 1940’s, including a 24″ bass drum, and Lovano has played those drums for serious relaxation ever since. On saxophone, his phrases consist of long strings of notes disjunctively accented in dialogue with the drums, cliffhanger lines that seem fated to hurtle over the edge, but inevitably land squarely on the one. “Playing drums,” Lovano comments, “opened up my awareness of what’s going on around me when I’m soloing, to not just be involved in what I’m articulating on my horn, but try to be a part of what everybody else is playing.”

Tony Lovano also introduced his son to the revelations of free improvising; they recorded a free duet together on Joe’s self-produced two-tenor date with Big T in 1986. “For years I’ve focused on improvising very freely with other players, like Billy Drewes and Judi Silvano, in duet settings, just to improvise and react to each other, and try to create melodies from what each other played. I’m into performance, I’m into playing with the personalities I play with, and I improvise with everybody from that conception. I want to try to feed off of what everybody else plays so that I don’t find myself being repetitive.”

“For me improvising really is about creating something new,” Joe emphasizes. “Early on it was about style and learning my horn, but after a while it shifted into this other place of trying to create something with what’s going on around you, using your technique and the language of your instrument to create something different all the time.”

The March 1994 set features the powerful unit of Tom Harrell, Anthony Cox and Billy Hart, who had worked together off and on for two years. The most explicit antecedents are Sonny Rollins’ various trio recordings and the Ornette Coleman Quartet, but Lovano also cites John Coltrane’s music and Miles Davis’ various bands as inspirations. “Whether Miles’ group was a quartet or quintet or however big it was, it would come down to a trio sound a lot, the bass, drums and horn. I think that’s the essence in Jazz, and there are certain feelings that happen in that intimate setting.” The music was recorded on the week’s fourth night.

“In a quartet like this, with two horns,” Lovano continues, “you have the opportunity to change the orchestration as you play, to play backgrounds, to cut in on each other, to trade, to create a real ensemble sound as four people. I was able to write some new music and orchestrations that gave everyone freedom, a fresh approach to play together. The collective dialogue was unique, with a lot of explosive energy, and everybody’s attitude and personalities shaped the pieces. I think that’s why the chemistry worked. Each musician is in tune with the history of this music and tries to draw from it in a very personal way.”

Tom Harrell and Lovano have worked in each other’s bands since around 1987, when Lovano recorded Village Rhythm for Soul Note. Known for his exquisite improvising in “harmonic type music with piano or larger groups,” Harrell plays with extraordinary force in the freer setting, spontaneously co-composing arrangements with his horn-mate on every song, conjuring poised melodic sequences on every solo. Listen to the way he mimics the multiphonic burst that concludes Lovano’s solo on “Fort Worth” to segue seamlessly into his statement, or his ravishing solo on “Sail Away.”

Though Lovano first knew bassist Anthony Cox from casual sessions in the late Seventies, they established a real connection with John Scofield’s Quartet in 1989; in 1990-91 Cox worked in Lovano’s trio with Ed Blackwell. “Anthony is versatile and can play very freely within structures and forms and harmonic sequences with imagination and intuition,” Lovano states. “He’s a strong melodic rhythmic player who brings a lot of ideas into the tune, but always drawing from the tune itself. That’s the kind of bass player you need in a trio sounding group such as this.” Hear his leadoff solo on Cleveland composer Emil Boyd’s “Blues Not To Lose,” how he meshes with Billy Hart in articulating theme and variation on the tune’s striking melody.

On Joe’s first gig in New York with organist Lonnie Smith in 1975, Billy Hart played drums; they’ve since collaborated in many venues. “I first heard Billy with Herbie Hancock’s sextet in the early Seventies, and the first time I heard him, man, I wanted to play with him!” Lovano remembers. “In every situation Billy is open and inspired. He tries to get into everyone’s personality, plus he brings in his own incredible energy. In this quartet I wrote some tunes to feature him and let him explode and explore, give him freedom to shift tempos and to play however he wants, to listen and react. I think Billy Hart today is playing fresher than ever.” Hart’s dynamic range and command of timbre complement every beat of the set; hear how he complements Lovano’s trademark pillowed, honey sound on the 12/8 treatment of “Birds From Springtimes Gone By,” his impeccable brushwork on “I Can’t Get Started,” the quiet fire of “Sail Away,” and the controlled fury of every stroke on the Colemanesque “Uprising.”

Volume 2, from January 1995, features the dream team rhythm section of Mulgrew Miller, Christian McBride and Lewis Nash, the pianist, bassist and drummer that any bandleader would want on their gig, in a follow-up to Tenor Legacy, Lovano’s two-tenor collaboration with Joshua Redman for Blue Note.

“I wanted to make a counter-statement to the first quartet,” Lovano says, “and not just be throwing some tunes together. For the Vanguard, I wanted to play some classic things in my own way and in the group’s way, how we play together now. We challenged each other throughout the week on each tune. It didn’t matter what the tempo was or what key it was in or what the tune was. We could have played ‘Happy Birthday’.” Instead, Lovano chose compositions by John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and Charles Mingus, a standard by Gordon Jenkins, and an original. As on the March 1994 set, the sequencing represents the actual set order.

Many pianists you talk to cite Mulgrew Miller as their model on the instrument; “one of the most elegant, swinging, tasteful pianists today,” comments Lovano, who met Mulgrew around 1974 when both were students in Boston. “He plays with an inner beauty in his sound and whole flow, and he’s one of the most swinging accompanists around. When he comps, he’s so much a part of what everybody else is playing that you’re not really aware of what he’s playing somehow. He’s so in touch with everything.” His ferocious, idiomatic solo on “Little Willie Leaps” marks a profound accomplishment; the duos with Lovano in the opening and closing verse sections of “This Is All I Ask” are lyric wonders.

At 23 years old, Christian McBride already has established his place in Jazz history for the quality of his tone, his deep center-of-the-note beat, virtuosic bow-work and imaginative soloing. He’s already appeared on about eighty recordings. “Christian is an incredible young musician who is deeply involved in the whole recorded history of music. He knows a lot of tunes, and he memorizes things immediately. You can play anything with him. After the first time through he plays it, SNAP, he knows it, he’s got it, he immediately grabs hold of what’s happening and hits a serious groove from beat one.” Listen to his solos on “Reflections” and “26-2” and his rhythmic interplay with Lewis Nash throughout, and you’ll see what the buzz on him is all about.

“The word ‘elegant’ applies to Lewis Nash’s playing, too,” Joe continues. “He is one of the most tasteful drummers, swings so hard, plays with complete precision with a heavy beat that never gets bombastic — he’s not just banging around. He articulates everything like a horn player, and it’s fun to play with him and interact with his articulation, the way he plays phrases at you and counter-phrases. He’s very clear. You can hear everything he plays like you’re snapping your fingers. It’s beautiful to play with a drummer like that, because you can play tight together.” Note the incredible swing Nash generates on “Lonnie’s Lament” and “Reflections” at the top of the set, or the ingenious 12-bar drum breaks between the melodies and solos of “Sounds of Joy.”

The contrasting styles of the two state-of-the-art drummers evoked different approaches from Lovano. “Lewis plays very differently than Billy,” he comments. “Billy plays really loose and flowing and strong and explosive, and takes big right turns and sharp angles. There’s a lot more angles in Billy’s playing. With Billy you’re listening deeply, and the interaction takes a different shape. You have to be very free as an improviser to create a solo that can shift and change with his accents and tempo. The piano quartet is about swing, and it’s about the rhythm section, the soloists, the tradition of Bebop. It’s really about flow and straight-ahead. They say, ‘Straight ahead and strive for tone.’ That’s the essence of that group. We hit a heavy groove and just sailed with it.”

“I played completely differently with the two groups, in two different attitudes, and I think you can hear that when you listen to each recording. My solos in the quartet with Mulgrew are a lot longer and a lot more involved with playing a solo. In the group with Tom and Billy and Anthony there’s more interplay, a lot more dialogue between all of us. I’ve played in both those schools my whole life, and I love them both.”

The Village Vanguard’s legend was built on performances like the two snapshots presented on this double-CD. Lovano’s intense consciousness of the room’s remarkable Jazzcoustics, “its intimate sound and clarity, like playing in a studio somehow,” began as a teenager, when repeated listenings to the Vanguard recordings by Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley and Bill Evans helped deepen his sense of how Jazz should sound. His live connection with the Vanguard began in 1976, the year he moved to New York. He drank in Dexter Gordon’s tone during Homecoming week (“I came home and practiced for hours and hours after hearing Dexter in that room”), sat in with Elvin Jones and Bill Evans. Lovano worked there almost every Monday night during the 1980’s with the Mel Lewis Orchestra, worked week-gigs with Elvin Jones, Charlie Haden’s Liberation Orchestra and the Paul Motian Trio. And since 1991, when Lovano embarked on the leader path as a full-time endeavor, his various groups have been a staple of the Vanguard’s roster.

So recording Joe Lovano at the Village Vanguard was a natural. Rigorous and hot, Live At The Village Vanguard is contemporary Jazz at its finest.

—–

Joe Lovano (On This Day: At The Vanguard) – Liner Notes:

“I’ve always lived in, let’s say, the different camps in the music,” Joe Lovano told me a few years back. “I’ve tried to develop my technique so I can execute ideas freely and within the personnel of the band and not come at the saxophone or the music with the same attitude all the time.”

That credo accurately describes the ambiance of On This Day (At The Vanguard), recorded on the final night of a week’s residence by Lovano’s nonet at New York’s Village Vanguard. As Lovano is at pains to note, it documents a working band in a continual state of evolution.

“I don’t want a bunch of horn players repeating arrangements that are rehearsed and set in stone,” Lovano says. “I want a band that creates music, with a structure that is secure and solid, but with freedom for everyone’s contribution to take shape and crystallize as we play. All the cats have played in great bands; they’re mature improvisers and serious ensemble players who shape their approach in the moment. This is how we put together our music for every concert. Each performance stands on its own. This is how we’re playing tonight!“

The core of Lovano’s first nonet album, the Grammy-winning 52nd Street Themes, was that branch of bebop gestated by the singular melodies, voicings and harmonic progressions of Tadd Dameron [1917-1965] as filtered through the sensibility of arranger Willie Smith, once a Dameron associate. Three years later, Lovano and his gifted cohort – propelled by the extraordinarily inventive and empathetic drumwork of Lewis Nash – pick up where they left off and stretch the form. The ensemble renders with heart and precision Smith’s luscious arrangements of Dameron’s “Focus” and the classic noir ballad “Laura,” while all members speak their piece on a rollicking “Good Bait” marked by an ebullient shout chorus. “At The Vanguard” is a Lovano-penned stomp (guess the source) with a Monkish connotation, while the leader offers an impassioned, reflective reading of John Coltrane’s “After The Rain,” and ends the set with a mellow quartet fantasia on Billy Strayhorn’s “My Little Brown Book,” made famous by Coltrane on his iconic 1962 encounter with Duke Ellington.

“I grew up with Coltrane’s recordings of these tunes,” Lovano says. “It’s a challenge to try to make them my own and not copy the way he played them.” That Lovano meets the challenge with such a palpably individual voice is attributable to early hands-on encounters with bebop signposts like Dameron’s “Lady Bird” and “Hot House,” a process that launched him along the same path that his heroes followed during formative years while carving out their own inimitable tonal personalities.

“Playing the inner parts and original harmonic structures of Tadd’s music influenced Coltrane’s early tunes,” Lovano states. “Although Coltrane was always moving forward rhythmically and sonically and in everything else, he always dealt with everything he ever studied. Even on the duets with Rashied Ali, he’s still dealing with ‘Giant Steps,’ still dealing with all these things that vibrated in his body. That simple melody on ‘A Love Supreme’ has the same intervals as on ‘Locomotion’ from Blue Train. With people like Coltrane or Miles, their surroundings changed, but what they played came from their entire lives.”

Lovano fully expresses his penchant for eliciting creative dialogue with the jazz lifeblood on the title track, a free kaleidoscopic journey built on a hymn-like 9-note melody [“on-this-day-just-like-a-ny-oth-er”] over an ametric pulse, and a second 8-note theme that echoes the syllables Bil-ly Hig-gins, the late drummer to whom Lovano dedicated the piece, and whose alert, relaxed essence Lewis Nash channels throughout. In their explorative solos, George Garzone, Steve Slagle, Barry Ries, John Hicks and Lovano develop and elaborate upon the shapes and moods, sustaining an emotional core and creating magic.

They embody the notion that the title of this special album refers not only to a snapshot of a work in progress, but to a philosophy of life.

“This music is honest and true,” Lovano says. “You can’t tell lies when you play it, because it’s already been documented. It isn’t just technical, but exists at a beautiful spiritual level also. ‘On This Day’ is about how cats from the inner circle – Coltrane, Monk, Mingus, Miles, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Don Cherry, Ornette, Keith Jarrett, Billy Higgins, Max Roach, Paul Motian, Art Blakey – played with such consistency every time you heard them. Long before I became who I am as a player, they inspired me to develop that attitude to the art of improvising, and also to play with them. They gave me confidence to be myself, to put together an ensemble like this, with so much trust.”

———

Liner Notes (Us Five: Folk Art):

It is entirely characteristic of Joe Lovano that he would use his 21st recording for Blue Note, released amidst the fanfare of the label’s seventieth anniversary year, to introduce a new ensemble, Us Five, deploying a fresh approach towards exploring his music.

To be specific, Us Five: Folk Art comprises ten compositions. Lovano plays tenor saxophone, straight alto saxophone, alto clarinet, tarogato, aulochrome, and percussion, joined by James Weidman on piano, Esperanza Spalding on bass, and Otis Brown and Francesco Mela on, to use Lovano’s nomenclature, drums and cymbals. He explores a wide spectrum of “colors, sounds, and feelings,” organizing the flow into passages for quintet, quartets, trios, duos, and solos within the unit, fully exploiting the various rhythm section possibilities that the two-drummer format affords. The better to coax the music onto unexpected routes, Lovano offers his collaborators wide latitude to interpret the raw materials “with freedom to take shape and crystallize as we play.” He himself navigates the fluid terrain with utter authority, consistently projecting the vocalized tone, uncanny time feel, and interactivity that mark his entire Blue Note corpus.

“I’ve always tried to be very free with inside approaches, and to be really in there on freer music, what they call ‘outside,’” says Lovano, noting that the unit, which first convened in the fall of 2007, honed their collective perspective during a week at Manhattan’s Village Vanguard directly before the recording session.

“The music comes out of our individual roots, and the combinations emerge. Francesco Mela is from Cuba; Otis Brown is a real New York drummer; Esperanza has a beautiful lyrical approach; and I love the way James conceives jazz music with blues, gospel, and freer forms. It’s an ongoing study on how to play together with mutual respect and an egoless approach.”

Except for Weidman, whose c.v. includes long stints with Steve Coleman and Cassandra Wilson, Lovano’s new partners are “people who aren’t my generation, haven’t totally developed their approach, are experiencing things for the first time. Everyone has fresh eyes and ears, and this gives me compositional ideas that I had never played with anyone else before. Everybody is on their toes.”

They have to be to keep pace with Lovano. The composer describes the opening track, “Powerhouse,” as “an original harmonic structure that combines things I study and work on all the time—trying to combine the turnarounds and resolutions of Bird and Coltrane in my own way, and working with Ornette Coleman’s harmolodic ideas, changing the meaning of notes as you play them by shifting color and key as you move along.”

Consider how “Folk Art” develops—Lovano states the theme on straight alto saxophone over a polytonal vamp, evolves the flow in configurations that shift from quintet to drum-duo and back to quintet, switches to tenor saxophone as the harmonic material takes a more straightforward direction, and moves to more open-ended polytonal exploration on the final theme. “That approach for me is what jazz is,” Lovano says. “It’s a real folk music, and you can play a multitude of influences from your experiences in the world of music in your improvisation and composition.”

The ebullient ambiance of invention never stops. The spiritual aura of late Coltrane permeates the ballads ‘Wild Beauty’ and ‘Song for Judi,’ the latter—dedicated to Lovano’s wife (“and inspiration”), singer Judi Silvano—containing three different key signatures that prod Lovano to extend and elaborate while also living within the lovely melody. Lovano plays tarogato (he describes the Hungarian folk instrument as “half-clarinet and half soprano saxophone, with many colors and a human voice sound”) on “Drum Song,” and aulochrome (a double soprano saxophone with one keyboard down the center) on “Dibango,” a funky line dedicated to Cameroonian saxophonist-vibraphonist Manu Dibano. He plays alto clarinet on the stately, folkish “Page Four,” and launches the open-form “Ettenro” (“Ornette” spelled backward), on alto saxophone before switching to tenor for a summational statement after Weidman, a force throughout, says his piece.

As do his twenty previous Blue Note albums, Us Five: Folk Art illuminates Lovano’s unique position as an artist who authoritatively deploys the tradition as a tool to point directly to the future.

“Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff wanted cats to find themselves and to realize that they had beautiful original music,” Lovano says of Blue Note’s founding fathers, expressing a sentiment equally applicable to Bruce Lundvall’s quarter-century at the helm. “Carrying on in that tradition of being a player-composer is the legacy of Blue Note for those of us who record for them today.”

[—30—]

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Filed under Bill Frisell, Jazz.com, Jazziz, Joe Lovano, Liner Notes, Paul Motian, Village Vanguard, WKCR

For Roswell Rudd’s 80th birthday, An Interview from 2005 and an uncut Blindfold Test From 2001

Master trombonist, musical conceptualist and  free spirit Roswell Rudd turns 80 on November 17th. In anticipation of the occasion, I’m running an uncut interview that was boiled down for a brief piece in Jazziz in 2005, and an uncut Blindfold Test for DownBeat from 2001.

 

Roswell Rudd Blindfold Test (8-9-01):

1. Bill Harris, “Bijou” (from Woody Herman, Blowin’ Up A Storm: The Columbia Years, 1945-47, Columbia 1945/2001) [Ralph Burns, composer] (5 stars)

That was “Bijou” with the Woody Herman Orchestra, featuring Bill Harris, the great trombonist, one of my favorite singers on the horn. Arrangement by Ralph Burns; it’s really a gem. A Latin flavor. I don’t know if at the time… I think this is late ’40s. I don’t really know how many American swing bands were doing Latin-influenced music. This may be one of the first things like this. Ellington had one called “Flaming Sword,” which was a Juan Tizol vehicle. In terms of the ’40s, there were Latin bands, but non-Latin bands getting into African-influenced rhythms, Caribbean rhythms, Latin American rhythms… This is a wonderful early example of that.

Bill Harris, when I was about 11 years old or so and started hearing this stuff on records… The quality Harris had of attacking certain notes and making them swell, like Flamenco singers… I was over in Portugal and I heard a couple of good Fado singers, and they do this with these longer notes that they sing; they start soft and then they fill out. There’s a crescendo. It’s uplifting. It just grabs you, takes you out of your seat. Then when they go into a string of embellishments after that and bring the line down, they’re with it all the way. But that swell into the first note is the launching pad to a lot of the phrasing in that music, and I’m sure it’s in a lot of other places, too.

I can’t say enough about Bill Harris and the great Woody Herman bands at that time. I’m not sure who the other people were in the band, for instance, if it might have been Dave Tough on drums, who was a very innovative man in this day, or Chubby Jackson, another innovative guy. I think it was Woody Herman playing the alto sax obbligato there. A wonderful thing. A real gem. It makes you thankful that there are ratings. 5 stars.

2. George Lewis-Bertram Turetzky, “The Ecumenical Blues” (from Conversations, Incus, 1997) (5 stars)

To me, this was a wonderful example of two people listening closely to each other and making music through the process of their interaction in the moment, a wonderful sort of crossing-over by the trombonist into the realm of bowed string colors, how he could complement those on his instrument. I loved that great nasal sound the trombonist had at the beginning, kind of matching the sound of the bowed contrabass. A little later on, if he had a mute in there for that…he took the mute out and got a different color at one point, and carried that through to the end. It was a nice changeup in his color, and it also was a way of complementing the bass. I use this technique myself with a single mute, which is a Harmon mute that I’ve loosened up with a screwdriver, so that if I turn the outer part of the mute a certain way, it’s very loose and it sounds like a giant kazoo, and if I turn it another way it tightens up and it sounds more like a bad Harmon mute. But this business of imitating each other’s sounds, like a cross-gender kind of playing, is a wonderful way of developing textures in music.

I also want to say that aside from these two performers being so beautifully attuned to each other, as far as dealing with sound, getting into the sound and letting the sound tell them what to do, the content of the trombonist’s playing was beautiful, too. There’s some good blues in there, a kind of lament. It was a bit like Bill Harris at the beginning; the kind of tone production that the trombonist was getting could relate very strongly to that. Very vocal. Somebody singing, somebody talking. It’s beautiful, very beautiful. 5 stars. But I can’t tell who it is.

3. Jimmy Knepper, “Invisible Lady” (from Charles Mingus, Tonight At Noon, Label M, 1961/2000) (5 stars)

That was a quintet — bass, piano, drums, baritone sax used very judiciously — and it just has to be Jimmy Knepper on the trombone. Because nobody else can do what he can do, the way he does it. It’s masterful continuity that I love, and the way he sequences his lines, where you have the sudden doubling up of tempo in the middle of a phrase… It’s the tempo acceleration thing that was so prevalent in Charlie Parker’s playing. I think Jimmy was one of the first people to pick up on what the Bird was doing. It was really a heroic musical achievement to take this concept of Charlie Parker’s saxophone dexterity and apply it to the trombone. Jimmy was one of the people that really freed up the instrument and at an early time. I don’t know when this is done. But it’s the 22nd Century as far as I’m concerned! So expressive and so… Again, pushing the instrument to places where it’s never been before and keeping the emotional musical content wherever he goes with his dynamics through phases of tempo modulation. He’s just a master. Absolutely 5 stars.

The portimento is the word that should be in here. It means that the line is unbroken even though it’s going through these incredible transformations. It’s the mastery of the breathing.

4. Conrad Herwig, “Africa” (from The Latin Side of John Coltrane, Astor Place, 1996) [Eddie Palmieri, piano]. (5 stars)

Nice African rhythm section. It’s a theme that I associate with Coltrane. I like the way that the trombonist built his chorus. He opened up with this long lip trill that gradually crescendoed, then there was some linear improvisation, some shouts, and he reached a point where there was a nice kind of drumming on two notes a minor third apart, very effective, and some more shouting, and playing on either side harmonically of the drone. I think it was a great effort.

Just sticking to the piece the way it is, and without saying I wish there could have been more or less of this or more of that…checking it out the way that it stands, it holds up. Somehow…it may be the result… If it was a live recording perhaps, the profile of the trombone gets lost in there sometimes. But he’s there, he’s staying with it, and he brings it up front again. I’ll give it 5 stars, because I know what kind of energy and ears and knowledge it takes to do this kind of thing.

Who it might be? I can’t say. Steve Turre maybe? Barry Rogers? Fine, fine playing. The clarity of the recording somehow bothered me, because he was doing interesting things but they got kind of masked out. This is just the way things go sometimes. But if I listened to again or maybe a third time, I would try to go further and further inside the sound of the recording and then be able to get behind the mask a little bit in those places. But this was a tour de force.

5. Julian Priester-Sam Rivers, “Heads of The People” (from Hints On Light and Shadow, Postcards, 1996) – (5 stars)

What I notice so far between all these examples we’ve listened to is the infinite possibilities of trombone. Because every player brings a different thing to the instrument, and most of these players are composers, too, so it’s not just bringing a new voice, a new personality infused into the instrument, but also beyond that, into the other components in the performance. Here we have a beautiful tension built up between maybe a prerecorded tape and… Really nice. It sounds like an African sound system. You get some terrible sound systems over there, as you do in other places in the world; but in Africa the sound system becomes a part of the music. As beautiful as the balafon and the great stringed instruments and the tuned drums sound acoustically, it all goes into this sound system and comes out sounding another way totally! What’s going into the system is so good to begin with, that when it comes out, it still comes out good; even though the system has got it completely screwed up,. it still has a beautiful structure to it, but the original timbre has completely disappeared. I got that effect from the taped part of this.

There was a nice tension built up, because the trombonist stayed in the same mode throughout. He was just playing the blues in one place and keeping it there, changing the register from time to time, and he had his timing so that the prerecorded part shone through all the time and maintained that tension between a kind of moving, weird jumble, street-sounding, sound-effects-sounding wall that was going on behind the trombone, and he never attempted to imitate any of that. He never attempted to go across and into the taped part, for instance, the way that George Lewis did with the bassist, where they really reversed their roles and exchanged roles as far as the sounds of their instruments go. On this, the trombonist created a tension between himself (or herself) and this background that was kind of in flux all the time. It was very interesting for me.

It’s uneven, in a way, but that’s part of its beauty. The main thing is that it works, that it has moments which are unachievable any other way. It’s real, and if they performed it again it would be different. But the concept of creating a tension was fundamental to the success of the music here — the music being interesting, the music having impact. Beautiful. Beautiful execution. Again, putting yourself in a corner and coming home with the goods. I’ll give this 5 stars, too. I was going to say maybe not 5 because it was uneven in places. But I realized at the time I really need to have those other places in order to have moments of impact. So it was a fluctuating thing, with this very static quality in there, too… I think there was good interplay between those two elements. Yeah, I’m going to give it 5. I was going to take it down a notch, but I’m going to give it 5.

It might be Julian Priester, because he used to do stuff with tape — just some sound, something to create another component — and let it run and just work with that.. It reminds me of what Johnny Dyani used to do. He used to turn the water on in the sink in the bathroom just to hear the sound of the water running, and off the harmonics of that he would practice his bass and play along with it. Again, it wasn’t exactly the same as this… I’m just talking about the nature of the components here. Because Johnny would play inside and outside the sound of the water, but he wouldn’t play as if he was in a different room than the water, which is more the effect that we have here of these two different things going on simultaneously and the tension that’s created between them. But hearing this brought that situation with Johnny to my mind.

Oh, it was Julian? 5 stars for the adventure, my man. It was beautiful.

6. Ray Anderson, “Green Eyes, Fireflies” (from Bonemeal, Raybone, 2000) [Mark Helias, bass; Matt Wilson, drums] – (4 stars)

Quartet — guitar, bass, drums and trombone. I think it might be Ray Anderson; it sounds like plunger things I’ve heard him do in the past. I don’t think this is as successful as other things I’ve heard by him. But he’s a great humorist, and he has so much heart in his playing, he can bring it off. I would have loved to hear this melody played a little straighter. It was kind of a Strayhorn-influenced thing, and I was frustrated, in a way, that I couldn’t hear the actual pitches. There was so much siding off the preconceived melody, if there was one, and I missed knowing specifically what that might be. That in a way is the reverse magic of the thing, like: Damn, I wonder if he was going to score this, what the actual notes were. So the sliding around effect had a way of making you wonder what was the real melody. I enjoyed that kind of inversion. It was pretty successful, because he was consistent with his inconsistencies. But it frustrated me because I know there was a beautiful melody there, and I wish I could have heard that, too. But maybe it’s up to me to take this and factor it down to what I might conceive of as the real melody, because there’s so much playing around something there. My trip would be to see if I can average it out to something that I could just pick out on the piano as a beautiful melody. I don’t know if I’m making myself clear, but let’s leave it at that.

I would say 4 stars in relation to other things by Ray that I think were just clearer to me. But I’d say 4 stars for not coming up to other things that he’s done, but 5 stars for the attempt at this kind of inverse humor — if that’s okay for a rating.

7. Steve Turre-James Carter, “Eric The Great” (#6) (from TNT, Telarc, 2001) – (5 stars)

That was a beautifully conceived track. I love the very minimal horn playing with the sax and the trombone, and featuring the bass at the slow tempo, and then the change of tempo. It sounded to me even though it was measured, that it was free harmonically. And I enjoyed the continuity of the trombonist. He went to a lot of different places, but he remembered where he was. The saxophonist made just a great entrance that marked a special place in the performance, and he, as the trombonist, went to different places, but kept a continuity. The recapitulation back to the first section after the fast tempo was very effective. Was it Steve Turre? I want to give it 5 stars for the concept and something… I don’t know, some ingredient was missing there in the playing. But the experience of hearing these different trombonists…. I realize how great they are and what a great instrument it is. All these voices are so distinctive, and it’s the same old B-flat trombone. It’s amazing. But something was missing, some kind of heart-sincerity thing. It was kind of stiff. It may have been the intention of the players, but I felt it kind of stiff at times, kind of dry. I didn’t get the personality, the warmth part of it. But they were executing the concept, and I have to give them full credit for that.

8. J.J. Johnson, “How Deep Is the Ocean” (from Vivian, Concord, 1992) – (5 stars)

Hearing this melody played, “How Deep is The Ocean,” I’m trying to put my finger on the composer. He’s one of America’s greatest songwriters and he lived to be 100 years old. I can never remember his name…Irving Berlin…even though I can play 50 of his songs or whatever. And to hear it played so statuesquely on the bone made me realize what a great legacy we have in American melody. Sometimes I thought it was J.J. Johnson, sometimes I thought it was Bennie Green. I wasn’t quite sure. It was maybe somebody right in between those two people. But the phrasing was fine. It had the kind of clarity that J.J. brought to his performances. He’s so sorely missed. And Bennie Green’s kind of intonations, and the way that he would alter the density of his sound from time to time, and his phrases. It’s probably neither one of these guys, but well-done.

It’s J.J.? Was it recent? It’s a little flawed in places. But there’s only a couple of people who can really play this way. A lot of people who try to play like this, but there’s really only a few who really do it — who innovated it actually. That’s the important thing. We’re talking about somebody innovating this style which is something we think was brought about collectively, the work of many hands. But when you think about people like J.J. and Monk and Louis Armstrong and so forth, they innovated this stuff. We just take for granted that it came from many, many people. Maybe it did, but it all came through one person. This approach to performance on the instrument was the creation, was the invention of one person. 5 stars.

9. Carla Cook-Craig Harris, “Dem Bones” (from Dem Bones, MaxJazz, 2000) (Fred Wesley, composer) – (5 stars)

It seems to me that Joseph Bowie does something like this. Maybe it’s him, and he could be overdubbing himself. I love the concept (I do a couple of these things myself) of songs about the trombone, and featuring the trombone. The one that I do, “Slide, Mr. Trombone.” Dinah Washington used to do one. It’s great. It’s like a novelty thing. The singer was into it. I think the novelty part of it was achieved, and the humor was great, especially when the trombone was in the foreground toward the end with the mutes and the gutbucketing and the hooting and heavy breathing… I love it. So I think it achieved its intended effect. I felt that as far as the blues part of it went, there wasn’t too much depth to that. When you’re ripping and you’re playing modal phrases, it’s difficult for me to separate the content of this kind of melodizing from…to strip the content out of it and just play the notes, kind of. I felt that it was just kind of playing the notes sometimes here, without the feeling going into it. So I missed that. You could knock off a star for that. But then, you have to say that on the whole it achieved its effect as a novelty and just getting people up off of their seats and getting them to dance and getting them to move. It had a nice invitational thing going on that way. I found it attractive that way. Even though taking the soulful phrases and just playing the notes without having the feeling in there put me off a little bit. But you can do this in music. You can lift notes off of the feelings, and you can play them dispassionately and create a certain effect that way. Put them in another context. This is all going on. It always has. It’s part of the continuity of musical progress in the human race, the way it fuses and defuses and disconnects and reconnects. It’s all part of the process. I think the recording achieved its purpose, and I’m fine with that. So I’ll give it 5 stars for achieving its purpose as I hear it.

10. Wycliffe Gordon, “Ba-Lue Bolivar Blues” (from The Search, Nagel-Heyer, 1999) – (4 stars)

“Ba-lues Bolivar Ba-lues Are,” a Thelonius Monk masterpiece. Good execution and good interplay between the sax and the trombone. I like the way they break it up with each other. I like the different voices that they change into on their instruments the different colors that they get from time to time. It makes you think there are different people who just walked in to play 8 bars and disappeared again. It’s a great effect. I had a problem because I heard the composer play this a number of times, and there are some things happening in the structure of this particular blues that I think it’s helpful to deal with when you improvise on it. Working with Monk’s variables is often very helpful as far as building a good foundation in your own playing. So not to take advantage of them, it seems to me that you miss the opportunity here to really… There are many ways to improvise. But one way that really interests me is if you know the structure that you’re coming from, and you deal with the ingredients of that structure, you get a certain kind of continuity that you don’t get any other way. .. And having done this with Monk’s compositions for some time, it’s hard for me to approach them in any other way. I would give this 4 stars, because I think it achieves the humor that they found in the piece. I just wish they had dealt with the musical variables of it a little more. But they were great players. Could that have been Bill Watrous? Curtis Fowlkes? It might be somebody I just don’t know. Wycliffe Gordon? I’ve never heard anything by him. He’s new to me and I have to check him out.

11. Quentin “Butter” Jackson, “To You” (from Duke Ellington Meets Count Basie, Columbia, 1961/1999) – (5 stars)

Thad Jones-Mel Lewis? Is it Thad’s arrangement? I don’t know who the trombonist was. Let’s see, who could do this? Booty Wood? Or Britt Woodman, who recently passed. Oh, he had people who could do this. It wasn’t Lawrence Brown or Tricky Sam or any of those guys. It was I think a younger guy. [AFTER] That was Quentin Jackson? Wow, I missed that. I feel bad about that. 5 stars.

12. Vic Dickenson, “Squeeze Me” (from Art Hodes Blue Note Jazzmen, Hot Jazz On Blue Note, 1944/1996) – (5 stars) [Edmond Hall, clarinet;

[INSTANTLY] Vic Dickenson. You know it right away from the sound. Every note that he plays. He’s got so much personality. This is something you find in the older players, that every note they play is imbued with their own character. I guess it breaks down to where nowadays it’s hard to separate people by the particular personality that they have in their sound. But back in the days when there were fewer people doing this, there was more identifiable individuality. But now so many more people are doing this that it becomes harder and harder to identify the individuals. But they’re still there! I’m telling you. And especially on this instrument, which is all about imbuing the sound with your own personality so that you can be identified just from the sound of a few notes that you play. Edmond Hall on the clarinet, who I played with at one time. He’s the same way. You know who he is right away. I don’t know whether it’s because I was there or I grew up on it. But these sounds are so distinctive, these voices. Vic Dickenson liberated the trombone into linear improvisation the same way Jack Teagarden did, and this was a heroic thing. There’s some of Vic’s humor. The name of the tune is “Squeeze Me,” written by Fats Waller. This is great free counterpoint. We’ve heard some good free counterpoint today. I think this is something that trombonists know how to do. It’s in our blood. We love collective improvisation. We know how to find the part. We know how to share with other people. We know how to complement. We know how to play behind. We know how to accompany. We know how to go out front and solo. 5 stars.

 

 

Roswell Rudd (Feb. 15, 2005) – (Jazziz):
TP: When I was assigned this piece, the editor initially wanted me to talk to you for their Traditions issue, but this now will be in the World Music issue. But it seems to me that both would work, because it seems that over your 45-50 years playing professionally, everything you do is informed deeply by transmuting traditions into the present tense, whether those are the traditions of American jazz, or ethnomusicology… What I’d like to do now is start with some concrete facts and figures about your current projects, and extrapolate out. We should probably start with Malicool. How did it begin? I gather you went there in 2000?

RUDD: I would go back a little farther and say that I started collecting African recordings back when I was in college. I was fascinated with what I could understand about the sounds of these recordings. Folkways and labels in Europe, notably France, where they did a lot of recording of West Africa, and the Hugh Tracey records. Whatever I could get my hands on. Then I went to work as an archivist for Alan Lomax, and I did that on and off from 1964 until shortly before his death. I would work occasionally for him, and I got quite a bit of exposure that way to what was available in the way recordings from all over the world. But I didn’t start really playing with musicians in Africa until 2000. I want to say that the inspiration for doing it… It’s been a dream to travel there and play with some of the musicians. Toumani Diabaté is someone Verna turned me on to, and I thought it would be out of this world to try to do some stuff with him. So we went over in 2000, and jammed a little bit, and did a concert of… I mean, it was basically a spontaneous concert. The chemistry was so good that we decided we’d come back a year later and try to do a recording. That’s the Malicool recording. It was first out on Universal, and a couple of years later came out on Sunnyside here.

TP: Before going there, had this been building up in you for years? Did you have a sense of what you wanted to do when the opportunity arrived?

RUDD: Yes, that was the point I was trying to make. My curiosity was really piqued by this time, so that the opportunity to travel, which I really hadn’t been able to do, came along at just this time. We were able to go over there in 2000 and spend some time informally, and then go back in 2001 and take into the studio in Bamako, and record with the musicians there. We’ve been back… I took the Shout band over there to play on the desert last year. This year I just spent a couple of weeks in Benin with some brass players, with a brass band…

TP: A local band, from Benin.

RUDD: Yes. They’re all from Cortino(?). I just don’t have words for it. The young lions in Africa on these horns. Forget it. And the drumming is just… I can’t believe how young the people are who are playing this stuff. The old masters are there, and they’re touring a lot. They’ll come through the States and they’ll be in Europe and Japan and so forth. But these kids, these African kids, are playing so much great stuff.

TP: It’s an interesting phenomenon to be at the stage of life and intellectual development that you’d achieved by 2000, when you were 64-65 years old, had taught ethnomusicology, had been listening to African music for about 45 years (if you started doing it in college), and you have a certain point of view on what African music is. But you haven’t been there. And now you go there. What surprised you?

RUDD: What’s missing with recordings, wherever they’re from, is the context. I’m talking about the cultural context —the smell of the place, the feel of the place, the vibe from the people. 99% is missing. This gave me a chance to go to one of the older places in Africa where there’s still a homogeneity to the sound of the place. It’s not so barraged by Western media that there’s just a morass of all kinds of music in the air. No, it’s basically Malian music that’s in the air. I mean, traditional music. There’s a tonal system to this music which you can hear wherever you go in Mali. You can relate to it right away. You know that it’s from there. I’d never been in a situation like this before, where thousands of people are in this system, and there’s very little disrupting it. That’s the first thing that got to me. Then the more I got inside of that sound, which was in the environment all the time anyway and with the people I was playing with. Then I started to feel that way and hear that way, and I was really trying my hand at expressing myself in that system.

It’s something that is a great challenge for improvisers. Basically that’s what I am. I don’t consider myself a jazz… I only consider myself a jazz musician in the sense that I am an improviser—basically an improviser. The challenge in America always was to be able to play with different people, to be able to fit in—into the old music, into the swing music, into the now music, into the future music. The thing was just to be able to go from the sound, play from the sound of what’s happening, and develop that, make a performance out of it. Basically that’s what I’m doing when I go to Africa.

TP: But it was never quite so spontaneous as that. If you’re going to sit in one of those situations, you seem pretty prepared. You’ve had one famously documented master-apprentice relationship with Herbie Nichols, and I’m not sure what other master-apprentice relationships you’ve had… Have you had anything like that with the African musicians?

RUDD: Well, see, there we go. Context. This is one context. New York City, the boroughs. That’s kind of one context, and it’s a myriad of styles. Herbie Nichols, he had this thing going. One guy with a universe. Then the more I explored around here, I realized that there were many musical universes walking around.

TP: You got into Monk’s universe in a similar manner.

RUDD: Yes, I followed him around. That’s another universe. So it’s all in the boroughs here. But believe me, there is to me a tremendous difference between Herbie Nichols and Thelonious Monk. It’s almost the same difference as playing in Bamako with Toumani Diabeté and playing with a Dixieland band here. Worlds of difference. That’s always been the most satisfying thing to me, is to go into these different musical worlds and try to find myself in them.

TP: What do you do to ground yourself so you can function.
RUDD: [POINTS WITH BOTH FINGERS] Ears. And the acoustical experiences that are built up inside of you. That has everything to do with your ears.

TP: Do ears come before systems, or scales, or…

RUDD: It’s hard to say. It’s a chicken-and-the-egg argument. But I think a lot of what your vocabulary is musically… [PAUSE]

TP: We’re talking about grounding yourself within the improvisational context.

RUDD: It all collects inside of you, all of your experiences with different players and different bands. It can be in your locale, where you were raised, and it can be in other other cultures, in other continents. The way that you adapt, I think, has to do with your collective experience. It’s not easy to adapt. Playing with a Mongolian band, which I’ve done recently…

TP: There will be a record out in the Fall, right?

RUDD: Yes. There will be a recording coming out of some things that we’ve collaborated on. Even though that was happening here. They came here. I was able to work with them here and record with them here. This was really an extreme adaptation for me, because this is basically a five-tone system. Africa allows for a little bit more than that. So coming out of the Malian system, that was a new parameter for me. But you see, every time that you are in a different system, you could call it the limitations of that system, but it brings out certain kinds of unlimitedness in yourself that you haven’t explored before. That’s what I love about this. So it meant that with the Pentatonics… We call ourselves the Pentatonics, because we’re basically working with a five-note system. We get the effect or the richness of a larger tonal system through the kind of embellishment we do, and the kind of bending, sliding, all of that very-very musical stuff that goes with just exploring with sound, playing with sound. Those kinds of things. The nuances. You discover nuances. It brings out your ability to nuance, the more that you limit yourself away from chromaticism and…

I can’t wait to get to India. That’s the next thing I’ve got to do. I’ve got to get to India. I’ve got to get to China. Because these people really know how to embellish. If they only had two notes to work with, they would be able to… They could keep you happy for hours exploring the sound of just two pitches, and with all that rhythm and sense of color and dynamics… Oh, man! This is what I live for. This is what improvisers dream of. Going into situations like this and just having to find in yourself the resources to blend with what’s going on. I love this. That’s basically what I’ve been doing here for 45 years, from the time that I was playing along with Spike Jones and Duke Ellington, up until now.

TP: What initially sparked your interest in African music when you were at Yale? By the way, what was your major?

RUDD: I was liberal arts. I wanted to major in music composition. But my professor in freshman year, my theory professor did me a favor. He didn’t know it, but he did me a favor. I was prevented from majoring in composition. So I put together a curriculum for myself out of what was being offered in the way of theory and history courses at Yale, which was very European. There was very little about traditional music in the curriculum. Yale was all very European. They didn’t get into the European folk music at all. It was just European composed music from the earliest notations up through the present, up through Webern and Stockhausen, the big maestros of the 20th century.

TP: So what spurred you to start listening to African music and other things?

RUDD: Curiosity. Because I knew that a lot of American music came from other places, and I was curious about these places, these other cultures. Sifting through the record bins in stores where I would go, occasionally I would find these things.

But the real breakthrough for me was working as an ethnomusicologist with Alan Lomax at a time when he was putting together an archive of field recordings. He had contacts with people who were doing their theses out in the bush somewhere, and they would be sending back very bad recordings of what was going on around them in these communities. It was my job to analyze a lot of this stuff, according to this cantametric(?) system that Victor Grauer put together for Lomax. I was just learning a great deal about what I wish I had learned in college. I was finally getting an education in traditional music, which I think is really important for people now.

It’s time. We had a lot of American music that never got into the educational system until recently. Now I think it’s important to expand from there and maybe get more of the world into the educational system. Because for a long time, if you wanted to study traditional music, you had to take anthropology, and that way you would get into comparative musicology. You would be able to get maybe an inkling of the vastness of musical tradition that was going on in the planet. Otherwise you would just be doing your Mozart and your Brahms and your Stockhausen. You would not be getting down into the roots of this stuff, where all this stuff is coming from for millions of years. I mean, hey! I used to get really bummed at these professors who’d say, “Ro-co-co” your ass off. But where are these guys getting their stuff? It’s got to be coming from a lot further around than their associates and their little tradition that they’re building up here. There’s a hugeness to this thing that we’re not looking at, that goes beyond this stuff that you’ve picked out.

TP: Now, I’d assume a traditional musician like Toumani Diabaté has some knowledge of jazz and other forms by dint of living in Paris, where so many worlds are converging.

RUDD: Toumani’s been out of Mali. He’s been over here, he’s been in Europe a lot.

TP: But how does that interaction impact the different traditional musics? Do you focus on that dynamic when you play with these musicians? Or are you trying to get to some essence within the root or pristine condition of… Do you see this music existing in some pristine way, or do you see them as evolving musics?

RUDD: I see the music in terms of the carriers of the music. That’s something that I was turned on to with American music when people were categorizing our classical music here, or when they were saying there was this era and that era, and now here comes the New Wave and the Avant Garde and so forth. I was saying, “No, really, it’s just about Charlie Mingus. It’s about him. It’s about his music. It’s about Ornette Coleman’s music. It’s about Ornette Coleman, this thing coming out of himself, and orchestrating other people into that to make the music.” It’s really about the carriers.

So going to work with Toumani Diabaté, it’s about him. It’s about what’s inside of him. Not everybody is a great improviser. It’s not only true here. It’s true anywhere in the world. But there are improvisers out there everywhere you go, to some degree or another. Toumani Diabaté, in his culture, is a great improviser. And there are not that many people in Africa who can improvise on his level, believe it or not. With all that incredible drumming and singing, the Djeli improvising new lyrics every day for what they’re doing, extemporizing their asses off… There are really supreme improvisers and there are improvisers just on a simpler level, people who are just making a few variations from day to day. But somebody like Toumani Diabaté is a formidable improviser. I can give him a theme or a form, and he’ll work with it, take it apart, and put it back together again until he’s got it inside of himself. Then he’ll really be able to speak, not only himself, but in terms of this form, in terms of himself. It’s both things.

But when we started talking about this, it’s not so much about… I think these categorizations of traditions and trying to corner them and put a label on them… I think that maybe is a way to start; it may be a way to start learning from a distance. But what it always come down to is the players. The play is the thing, the players are the thing. The guys that have the music in them. The living repositories. That’s where I think…

TP: When you were in a position of having to set up a curriculum and a pedagogy yourself for six years, what did you do? What were your first principles? Apart from faculty politics and everything else. Just in terms of trying to communicate information to six new classes of students, who were sort of blank slates, what were your first principles?

RUDD: As I said, from a distance you have to work with whatever information you have—the books, the recordings. You try to bring some players in, some living examples of it. But you’re at a disadvantage. You’re thousands of miles from the actual people who are part of the tradition or living in a different culture musically. I did enough. I think I inspired people enough, opened them up enough by bringing in American improvisers. And they got into the spirit of what it is to do something spontaneously, wherever you are, in whatever culture you are. Again, it’s a combination of what you’ve been taught, what’s in your environment all of your life, and what you can pull out of yourself. It’s a combination of those things—what’s been put in and what’s in there, what’s churning around in there. I don’t know what the process is, really, that’s going on inside of me, but I keep coming up with stuff. That’s just my thing. That’s what I was put here to do.

TP: I was at a concert you did last fall at Merkin Hall on Ornette Coleman’s music, where Wynton Marsalis played the second set. Very interesting concert, in the contrast between the first and second half. You were mentioning Mingus-Ornette-Diabaté as the carriers, and there’s something very fundamental and universe-unto-himself about Coleman’s music. I’d like to ask you two things. What was your response to Ornette’s music when you first heard it, and second, what was your approach to addressing and interpreting it.

RUDD: That’s a good question. Yeah, he opened up at the Five Spot on my birthday in 1961, so I was there. I guess I played a couple of his songs, took them off the recordings… But I’ve listened to a lot of his music, and I could sing parts of his music through all these intervening years. Then this opportunity came to do a concert of his music, and I found out that really this was the first time that I seriously went into 10 or 12 of his songs, and had to learn them from the inside. But you know something? It really helped to have been singing those things to myself, what I knew about them, just in my blood from those days. It was like a ticket. It was like a ticket into the inside of the music. It made it so much easier at that time last fall to inhale so many details that you have to do when you are really performing somebody else’s music, especially music that is as individual and as original as Ornette’s. You’ve got to learn a lot of detail. But just having a sense of his music and having heard it for so long, and just enjoying it that way as a listener, made it much easier, I think, to apprehend a lot of detail, enough to do that concert.

TP: What spoke to me most was the way you and Marsalis draw out the folkloric elements, these deep southern roots—the stomps, the deep blues tropes. Drawing out the folk forms, and extrapolating them into the narrative you were expounding.

RUDD: That’s beautiful, what you said about the tropes. Because the tropes are the things that I knew from the music. That’s what you remember as a listener. When you spend an evening listening to somebody’s music, you go out troping, you go out on the riffs that you remember. These are the things about Ornette that were kind of in my blood. I knew these stylistic features of his, the feeling of them. It was just a beautiful opportunity. I have to say that there never would have been this concert if… Greg Cohen, the bass player, knew that I was desperate to get together with somebody before this thing, and to work out some of these songs, work out some parts, make it more than a jam session. Sick as he was, he came over here the night before that thing, and we ran down a dozen songs from the inside. That is what enabled that concert to happen to the extent that it did.

TP: Did Marsalis have charts? It looked like he did.

RUDD: No. The only music we used was stuff I had taken off his recordings. I had spent a little time transcribing parts of these things. But I was desperate to get together with somebody else before this, and not have to just go on total recall to do these things. So I have to say that Greg Cohen is my hero.

TP: Herlin Riley’s uncle was Melvin Lastie, who was Ornette’s friend, and his grandfather, who raised him, grew up in the foundling home with Pops. So he comes from a very specific, deep New Orleans tradition, and Ornette is kind of family to him. And Wynton’s father was very close to Ornette and to Blackwell. What was the interaction like?

RUDD: Herlin Riley is exceptional. This guy has precognitive hearing. This is what you look for in improvisers, people who are waiting for you in an unknown situation. They’re there. They know the space. They know it ahead of time, and they’re there. I was getting a sense of that from him. That was great.

Wynton Marsalis plays the most perfect eighth notes I’ve ever heard. You just can’t carve out better eighth notes. So it was a unique experience for me to play some counterpoint with him. Because my eighth notes are… I’ve got different kinds of eighth notes. But Wynton Marsalis, boy, he’s got the eighth note to the Nth degree. I have to say, he really astounded me from that point of view. Something about his mechanical perfection as a player was very meaningful to me. And he’s a very broad musician. But when you get into a free counterpoint situation with somebody, it’s about their rhythmic orientation and how you express this. It’s the temporal thing that you’re going from. And to have a great drummer and a great bassist at the same time… Whoa! We were getting into it.

TP: During your hiatus, when you were off the scene, doing the shows in the Catskills, teaching, etc., was that to your benefit as an instrumentalist? Did you firm things? Were there certain things you could work on and get together that were to your benefit when you began to perform again on a more regular basis?

RUDD: Let me say this in regard to that. I’m one of these people since I was a kid, really, where I had to play every day. It didn’t matter what I was doing with the rest of my life. I pretty much managed to find a way to take time out every day, and blow a horn, or sing, play some piano, dance around, scat—find a way to express this thing inside me. So that regardless of whether I was teaching, or playing commercial music, or driving a truck, or working in a store, or working in a hospital… I’ve done a lot of different things. But the thing that’s been a constant line through all of this, and where I think the effect of a lot of this living experience has gone is into this… What would you call it? It’s like a musical lifeline of just playing every day. I said to someone that the reason is that it’s my therapy. He said, “No, you’re wrong. It’s your practice. It’s not your therapy. It’s your practice. So you’ve been practicing since you were a kid every day.” A lot of it has just been pure improvisation, coming home from a day’s work, and just letting the feeling that’s accumulated from the day come out in some kind of acoustic expression.

So I’m telling you that all the musical experiences I have had informed me. This is true of the Catskills show band. There was a lot of great Dixieland and sight-reading, working with comedians and fire-eaters, puppeteers and dancers… Life is about learning, and learning is essential for growth. Man, there’s nothing like growth.

TP: A lot of the older musicians with whom you played when you were a young guy came up in tent shows, where they had similar experiences. A lot of them played circuses and were on the trains and did that sort of stuff. The territory days.

RUDD: That’s true. The vaudeville, the standup… This is a great tradition. This is the old travelling carnivale outfit.

TP: We’re talking about context again.

RUDD: There’s a context here, and this is definitely a part of it. Any way that you can inform yourself about this is helpful. But I think this was missing in my experience, that vaudeville thing. I got a little bit of it through the Dixieland. But in the mountains, the whole show was there. You’ve got the tummler, the standup guy or standup lady, whoever it is. You’ve got this person sort of playing the audience, playing the musicians, and getting the whole thing into this wonderful complementary uproar. So pretty soon, the whole place is improvising. This is the great thing about that tradition, that it really is… Or there was. I don’t know much of it is left. But there was, at the heart of it, a great spontaneous and improvisational essence. The success of the show largely was dependent upon that kind of energy. Unknown things happening, coming out of the wall, coming out of people, and somebody who knew how to play off that and make that develop.

TP: Did you have anything analogous to that in the ‘60s and ‘70s in your quotidian life as a musician?

RUDD: Oh my goodness. I would have to say that the musical associations that developed from the earliest time that I came down here to live in the late ‘50s… These were improvisational hangs. The thing that I developed with Herbie Nichols was really, in large part, an improvisational thing. He would throw his compositions into it, and that would just be more fuel for me, because I would have to bring my creative thrust into his kind of format. You need those two things to create a compound, to get more. The thing with Steve Lacy… We started off with a lot of different music, and we ended up just pursuing Thelonious Monk’s compositions because they were the right… It was the right music for this instrumentation. The soprano sax and the trombone resonated with Monk’s tunes more than any other music. These were just the right tunes for the soprano saxophone and trombone. So there was a whole unknown thing flowering out of that.

Particularly with Lewis Worrell, John Tchicai and Milford Graves, that was all improvisation for quite a while, until songs, little tunes kind of congealed from all the improvising. But that was just getting together. Even if all of us couldn’t make it, we did it, 1’s, 2’s, 3’s, in different configurations, and just kept a spontaneous conversation going on. We were never able to work that much, but what we were able to do…

TP: Was Milford still playing a snare drum then? [END OF SIDE A]

RUDD: …but rather than a snare drum… Although I think that was there from time to time, the snare drum effect. But he could have been inventing that. But it seems to me that the tuning of the drums was very important, the tuning of the whole set. Well, Milford Graves, we could talk for a few hours on that…

TP: What’s occurring to me is that all of the different musics you approach, whether musical carriers or systems of music, you seem to approach in some sense from an ethnological perspective. I don’t mean that in a dry sense.

RUDD: What does that mean, “ethnomusicological.”

TP: I’m simultaneously writing a piece on Nguyen Le. His parents emigrated to Paris from Hanoi in the ‘50s. He started off playing jazz, playing Hendrix, played in an African fusion band, and then in the early ‘90s, when he was in his early thirties, he hooked up with a traditional Vietnamese singer and began to bring those influences into his composing, and then he started bringing North African, particularly Gnawan influences into his music. So now, within one personality, you have Gnawan music, traditional West African music (possibly some of the Malians you know), Vietnamese music, jazz musicians like Art Lande and Paul McCandless, and he just did a record on Hendrix’s compositions with Terri Lyne Carrington. He spoke of approaching Hendrix, and all his records from an ethnomusicological point of view. But it isn’t schematic…

RUDD: Each of these people carry a certain amount of their cultural context with them, but they carry their individuality, too. But the culture rubs off.

TP: What was your cultural context that made you so open to the different musics you encountered when you arrived in New York?

RUDD: The thing I tried to tell you before is that the improvisation was the thing that was there in Spike Jones and in this old jazz that I grew up with. There was a mystery. There was an unknown variable drifting through this music that somehow flourished and kept it alive for the 3-minute 78 experience, and going beyond that, and hearing these people performing live, doing concerts and playing in clubs and stuff… It’s the energy, the spontaneous expression, the individuality, the thing that’s inside people having a chance to come out. Their individuality. That’s what you hear in that old music. You hear the individual voice. That somehow affects everything else that you hear. I was disappointed because I couldn’t find that in a lot of music. It kind of narrowed down what my alternatives were as far as enjoyment goes, because from an early age, that’s what I was listening for in the music—the voices and the individuality. I know at the same time that everything I’ve experienced ,acoustically and otherwise, in America since the time I grew up… I also know that if I jumped into another country somewhere, they would probably say, “Oh yeah, he’s American; you can tell by this or that.” But I can’t, man.

That’s why I asked what you meant by ethnomusicological. I think I can perceive it better if I go to another world than I can in my own. Although New York is a great place, because the whole world, in a sense, is here. So people do stand out. Believe me! Herbie Nichols really stood out. Spending a day with him was like going into another galaxy. So you don’t have to go that far to find individuality or other musical universes. But ethnographically, I would have to say Herbie Nichols is New York. That’s what he represented to me. All of the West Indian, European, Hispanic…the mix of all of this place… There’s so much. It’s just hard to sort it out and say, “This is that…”

TP: It’s all coming at you at one time here.

RUDD: Yeah. Your culture is you, kind of. It’s what’s been pouring into you from the time you come out into the world. Your family and then beyond the family into the culture at large. Maybe that’s been defined by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. I don’t know.

TP: Your father was an amateur drummer, so you heard music. Your grandmother was a choir director, I think. She liked the spirit of jubilation, you said.

RUDD: Yeah. When I was a teenager, and having kids come to my house to jam… And believe me, it was raw. It was horrible. But she was there. And to her, that was like religion. It was the same thing that she went to church for, was like the joyful noise, the exaltation, just people pouring themselves out in a very naive and joyful way with the sounds. Yeah, she really encouraged me. My parents kind of hated to see me… After going to college and everything, they were really concerned about my future when I decided on music. But not my grandmother. Man, she said, “wow, if you can just do this, it’s enough.” I think the clincher was being at one of Armstrong’s performances at the Paramount Theater when I was a kid. That really clinched it for me. I couldn’t think of anything else for months after that. That made such an impression on me.

TP: It sounds like you had a sense of music as a ritual from the very beginning, in the same way that Diabaté’s music emanates from ritual, and in the way a lot of the musicians you were performing with in the ‘60s were trying to achieve with their music. The notion of music being a spontaneous conversation, a lot of it comes from trying to reimagine the ritual that some of the black musicians got in the church when they were young. Sounds like you had that, too, in your own way.

RUDD: Ritual. Yeah, let’s just talk about ritual. Because it is. Daily ritual. That’s great. Can we leave it right there. I’d like to leave it with ritual. That just summed up our whole conversation, man. Thank you. Thank you for ritual. Is improvisation a ritual? Because if it is, that’s my ritual. That could be a very basic ritual, improvisation. That can be a personal ritual, improvisation.

TP: But of course, we’re speaking of music that emanates from social ritual. Black church. Village functions.

RUDD: But Ted! The individuals that comprise the black church. The individuals. My grandmother, God rest her soul, she was the highest voice in the church. That was her thing. Descant. Back in the day, and even in the black church, you’ve got to have somebody that can get up over everybody else and be the voice in the sky that just puts the top layer on it, that clinches it. That was her thing. This is the Protestant church, a New England kind of energy. Compared to a black church, it was pretty toned down. But that was her function in the church. This is the musical ritual that she carried in herself. Then there were a couple of other good singers there, and a good organist and so forth. But to me, if you can look at the individuals down in the heart of these great traditions that were built by the work of many hands, so to speak… If you can get down into the individuals, then I think that’s where you’ll find, like, the improvisational spirit and the people who are really carrying this thing, really shouldering this load.

Cecil Taylor! Whew! This guy can comp for 15 musicians, and lift the whole room.

TP: Do you see yourself in any way embodying these New England traditions? They are kind of at the core of a certain level of American identity. Emerson, Thoreau…

RUDD: Oh, the Transcendentalists?

TP: Is that encoded in you on any level?

RUDD: Yeah. I get a good feeling about Transcendentalism, what I pick up about these people and what I’ve read by them. Yeah, there definitely is an effort about perception Beyond. Trying to get closer to the unknown. Trying to get closer to the mystery. Trying to have a more open perception of the energy, of what’s coming, of what’s around us. Yeah, I definitely get that. So those guys have always been a lift for me. Yeah, I think that’s one of the positive things in what you could call that New England culture.

But there’s another side to that, and that is a lot of repression. That comes from… I think we’d better stop before I get into historical precedents in the roots of New England life. But there was the other side to it, thankfully, that I was exposed to through my father and my grandmother. Once people instill that in you, once they let you know that there’s another world besides this, that sets you on your way. You’re on your way. You’re a seeker. You’re a seeker from that point on. That’s always what I’ve been. I’ve just been investigating the hell out of it. As far back as I can remember, when my father got on those drums, he changed. His expression changed. He was a different person. In fact, I liked him better when he was doing that. So I knew that he went somewhere else, and it seemed like a good place to go.

Louis Armstrong lived there. Louis Armstrong had a foot very solidly in both worlds. But you see, my father had to kind of suggest it to me, and then other people made it plainer and plainer, that that was the reality.
Ritual! Ritual, man. Ritual on the one hand, and ethnology and this other stuff… Ethnology. Study of ethnos. I’m down on the individual ritual. I’m more down on the individual ritual than I am in the big stylistic contours of continents and all that stuff. Lomax did some great studies, I’d have to say. After all that analysis of all these little performances, he was able to actually make a statement about big prehistoric cultural traditions, like the great American Indian tradition. Incredible. When you think about all the individual contributions inside of that big-big-big tradition that goes all the way around the planet. Millions of individual carriers making it possible for him to make this big general statement about it. So I think the general statement may be where you have to start, from a distance, when you’re looking at this. But when you get down in the forest and into the individual trees, that’s more where I am. That’s where I’ve been.

TP: Except that there’s an element of your personality that comes out in your writing and your discourse on music that’s intensely analytic. You break everything down into its constituent components. Your improvising is not coming from nowhere.

RUDD: This is what improvisers do. This is how you get in there. This is what I do. This is my ritual.

[—30—]

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Jazziz, Roswell Rudd, Trombone

For Sonny Rollins’ 85th Birthday, Three Downbeat Articles from 2000, 2007 and 2009 and a Jazziz Article from 2005

Sonny Rollins, who turns 85 today, hasn’t played in public for several years, and it’s unclear—though much wished for by his international cohort of admirers—that he will  be able to do so again. I’ve had the extraordinary opportunity to write about him on a number of occasions since 2000. I’ve posted four of these pieces below. The first, for DownBeat, was a long overview, framed around the 2000 studio recording This is What I Do (this is a “directors’ cut”). https://tedpanken.wordpress.com/2011/09/07/its-sonny-rollins-81st-birthday-two-interviews-from-2000/ In the second, done in 2005 for Jazziz, Rollins spoke about the death of his wife, Lucille, his up-close encounter with the events of 9/11/2001, and his decision to begin to release the first of the Road Shows series, documenting his personal creme de la creme choices from concerts on his own label. The third reports on his 2007 Carnegie Hall concert with Christian McBride and Roy Haynes.  The fourth is a piece for DownBeat‘s 75th anniversary issue in 2009, in which he responded to his quotes in DB articles about him from 1956 until 2005.

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Sonny Rollins (Downbeat-2000):

It’s Saturday night, and Sonny Rollins is about to emerge for his second set at B.B. King’s Blues Club on 42nd Street. The joint is jumping. A rainbow coalition of hardcore fans, package-deal customers off the tour bus, critics in various states of rapture, and renowned saxmen looking to pick up a little inspiration pack the capacious theater basement, which offers good sightlines, a competent sound system, bordello-red wallpaper, a bar as long as a city block, and an admixture of straight tables and strategically placed semi-circular banquettes. Like the theme-park-like facades that line the sidewalk above, B.B. King’s oozes the unsettling aura of virtual reality; it’s a fresh-scrubbed replica of the inner city lounges around the country where the licensor and the evening’s featured act paid their dues as aspirants in the years following World War II.

A hip filmmaker might want to dress the customers in period attire and transform B.B. King’s into Club Baron, a spot on 135th Street where gangsters and glitterati mixed during the Harlem Renaissance, but whose glory days were long behind it in 1948, when Rollins — a teenage devotee of Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas, Lester Young and Charlie Parker — led a trio there opposite Thelonious Monk. “Monk heard me then,” recalls Rollins, “and saw something in me that he liked. Then he sort of took me under his wing. I began to go to his house and rehearse with his various bands. Guys would say, ‘Man, it’s impossible to make these jumps on the trumpet’ and all this stuff, and then we’d end up playing it.”

Executing the impossible — shaping cogent, poetic musical architecture on the tenor saxophone while navigating the high wire night after night — is the operative trope of Rollins’ astonishing career, and although he recently turned 70, his audience expects nothing less. Some already are familiar with his latest album, This Is What I Do [Milestone], a mellow, reflective recital on which the maestro places his singular voice — gruff, burnished, passionate — at the forefront throughout, soloing with transparent vigor on three new originals and three tunes from the ’30s Songbook. He seems to have reached the grail of being able to transmute the most abstract ideas of rhythm and harmony and form into a stream of pure melody, as if you had given Louis Armstrong a saxophone and extrapolated onto his consciousness the last fifty years of jazz vocabulary.

None of these effusions mean much to Rollins, who cites Armstrong as his idol, and is acutely conscious of his reputation. “If I am to believe my press, I am supposed to be a legend, right?” he had asked rhetorically over the phone from his Tribeca pied-a-terre several weeks before. “Or an icon, which is even worse. When I come out on the stage, it can’t be, ‘well, okay, he’s an icon, folks,’ and that’s it, good-night. I mean, I’ve got to do something in between being an icon and them leaving the hall. I don’t like to take money when I don’t earn it, and I don’t like people to be disappointed when they come to see me. In fact, people being disappointed coming to see me is why I ended up going on the bridge in 1959.”

The reference is to the Williamsburg Bridge, a nondescript symbol of urban decay which connects Delancey Street in lower Manhattan to what presently is a wildly gentrified area of Brooklyn. Then a 29-year-old Loisida resident at the top of his game (several bootlegs of March 1959 performances in Europe affirm the assertion), Rollins appropriated a secret alcove there which for two-and-a-half years he used as a private rehearsal studio “to shore up some fundamental technical things on the saxophone.”

His sabbatical generated extraordinary consternation and speculation within the jazz community. Rollins already was a stylistic role model; had he never again picked up his horn, he would remain a major figure in jazz history. By his 25th birthday, the Harlem native had recorded and gigged as a peer with Monk, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and J.J. Johnson, composed still-enduring jazz originals like “Oleo,” “Airegin” and “Doxy,” and fought down a serious heroin addiction whose consequences led to incarcerations in 1950 and in 1952. In December 1955, Rollins left Chicago — where he worked as a factory janitor and lived in a room at the YMCA at 35th and Wabash while getting himself together — with the Max Roach-Clifford Brown Quintet. He proceeded to record a succession of enduring masterpieces — including the aptly titled “Saxophone Colossus” — which showcased an immense, speechlike tone, elastic time sense, an unfailing penchant for melodic invention that revealed a romantic sensibility completely devoid of bathos, a sense of humor that some called sardonic, and a seemingly intuitive grasp of spontaneous composition.

“A lot of people couldn’t comprehend why I would stop playing,” says Rollins, whose imposing frame, larger-than-life appearance and relentless style belie the notion that demons of doubt could ever have gnawed at his innards. “But I know I learned something. I felt it was a necessary thing for me to do to have the kind of confidence I need in playing music like this. It was very good to be able to show that kind of resolve, because it was against the grain of public opinion. So outside of the musical benefits, it was also good for my soul.”

Between 1962 and 1964 Rollins released six divergent albums for RCA-Victor, which presented him with a $90,000 advance and unlimited studio access; in 1965-66 he cut three intermittently brilliant albums on Impulse. Picking up on procedures he’d implied on his pioneering trio recordings of the late ’50s (see Way Out West, Live At the Village Vanguard, The Freedom Suite), he documented his exhaustive investigations of the instrument’s sonic possibilities, and moved inexorably towards the principle of improvising from a tabula rasa. In listening to his flights of fancy from this period, it’s interesting to consider that Rollins, who like fellow saxophone visionary Wayne Shorter, was a gifted cartoonist and watercolorist in his youth, noted in a mid-’50s interview that he had only recently definitively decided that music would indeed be what did.

“I liked painting a lot,” he muses, “but of course there was no money in it. I was getting out of school, and in music I was able to play jobs and make some money; there was the promise that this might be a career. Then, of course, as my idols began showing interest in me, I said, ‘Gee, I must be okay.'” Perhaps his roots in shaping imagery and design explain why — as guitarist Jim Hall, his 1961-62 quartet partner, once noted — Rollins began to deploy a sort of synesthetic mojo during the post-Bridge years, exploring motifs from every conceivable angle like a cubist painter, imparting to his phrases vivid splashes of timbre with balladic nuance at the fastest tempos.

Rollins built his far-flung abstractions upon formidable bedrock. I convey to him alto saxophonist Gary Bartz’s description a few years back of hearing Rollins at the Village Vanguard during the mid-’60s. “What impressed and helped me,” Bartz recalled, “is that one night Sonny would play like Lester Young all night; he’d play songs like ‘Three Little Words’ that were associated with Prez, and play Prez’s solos sometimes note-for-note with Prez’ sound before going off into his own solo. The next night, he might do the same thing with Coleman Hawkins. Then the next night he would be Sonny. So I used to go every night, as you see!”

Rollins emits a hearty guffaw, and responds bemusedly: “I didn’t approach it that analytically. We were young and didn’t always get an opportunity to see our heroes in person, so we learned a lot by listening to the records and copying the solos. Well, I’d get as close to what they did as I could. I could never copy a guy note for note, because for one thing it’s very difficult to do. In trying to get the style of Prez or Coleman Hawkins, I would try to inhabit their soul, feel what they felt, interpret music the way they did.”

As band-members Stephen Scott and Bob Cranshaw note, Rollins continues to pay private homages to his idols during soundchecks, which certain obsessives in the crowd at B.B. King’s might prefer hearing him do to having sex; they might even sacrifice their left nut to hear him return to his interactive, anything-goes-at-any-time ’50s-’60s style. But although Rollins is the most Proustian of improvisers, able to download at Pentium speed deeply embedded fragments of musical memory which morph into stunning spur of the moment theme-and-variation disquisitions, reenacting times past has never been on his agenda.

“Sometimes I think I would help myself if I listened to some of my old playing,” Rollins muses. “Every now and then, when I listen to something of my own, I hear things I used to do that I forgot about, and think, ‘Wow, I should do that again.’ But I shudder when I hear myself; I’m always saying, ‘Gee, I should have done that’ or ‘I don’t like my tone right there.’ I don’t deny that it would be instructive and constructive to listen to myself objectively, and it probably would help me play better. But I haven’t been able to climb over that particular hill. Certain things I don’t want to analyze too closely. I’d rather they just happen.”

That’s the procedure Rollins followed after emerging from a second lengthy hiatus during which he spent long stretches in Japan and India, explored Buddhist precepts and learned to meditate. Following the lead of Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, he turned his attention to contemporary music, adopted a more pronounced vibrato, electrified his band sound and layered it with rhythmic texture, added to his arsenal tunes that featured heavy electric bass vamps and funk beats, addressed a repertoire that comprised more melodic, dance-driven content mixed with exquisite balladry. After releasing the majestic “Horn Culture” [1973] with teen chum Walter Davis, Jr. on piano and the powerful live document “The Cutting Edge” [1974], Rollins issued a frustratingly inconsistent succession of albums, proffering attenuated, self-conscious solos on attractive tunes whose authoritatively played heads barely hinted at the life force he imparted to them when performing before an audience.

“I’m often criticized about the ’70s and ’80s because I used a backbeat and guitars and all, but I don’t understand a lot of it,” Rollins says crisply. “Jazz has to be alive. This gets back to what I said about playing like somebody. If you can appreciate what someone is doing and try to get their essence, then it’s alive. If you copy them to a tee, it probably wouldn’t sound alive. In the ’70s I was trying to find different ways to make my music relevant. I’ve never thought of myself as being on some pinnacle where I can’t play a calypso or a backbeat. I’m surely very honored that a lot of my fans think that one period puts me up there with great people and all that, but to me it’s always been trying to get to It, and It is a thing which is alive and is fluid. This is the way I play. The music I am trying to get to is probably like my politics. It’s anti-industrial. But what It is, I don’t know. Every now and then, I’ll get a glimpse, but I can’t get to It as often as I would like. Until I feel satisfied, you’re not going to hear me play exactly alike any time.”

Whatever one thinks aesthetically of Rollins’ populist, vernacular-oriented path between the mid-’70s and “Falling In Love With Jazz,” the 1989 album that marked his recorded return to hardcore jazz values, it’s of a continuum with his earliest experiences. “I like dancing and I like playing for dancers,” says Rollins, who remembers going to Calypso affairs as a small boy with his Virgin Islands-born mother. “In our teens we did a solitary dance called the Applejack where you’d just do moves to the music. It’s what Monk did when he’d get up from the piano to dance. I remember going to see Dizzy’s band a long time ago at the Savoy Ballroom; Dizzy thought of himself as a good dancer, and I guess he was. He would dance the Lindyhop with a chick, and they would really be going to town, with the people crowding around them in a circle.

“When I was coming up with Jackie McLean and Arthur Taylor and Kenny Drew, playing for the people and playing whatever I was playing was one and the same thing. Mostly we played either a club with a dance floor or what we called a function, where everyone was dancing. Sometimes in Harlem we had to play Caribbean-type tunes for dancing only, but a certain musical element was foremost — that’s why I still play those Caribbean tunes. I always did my own variations, tried to change things around a bit. I play a style of calypso which is different from the authentic stuff I hear when I go to the Caribbean, and it may be that Caribbean people who hear me play think that I’m not really playing calypso. I never broke rhythms down in a methodical way. Anything that I wanted came to me intuitively. I’d say, ‘I can use that’ or ‘that sounds right to me,’ and I just did it. What I do is completely natural, basically off the top of my head; I’ve never had the skill of being able to play the same thing from night to night. Not that I’d want to. I respect the skill of people who can do that, but I think I prefer to be who I am.”

Playing Harlem dances with the likes of Max Roach and Art Blakey, or sessions in late ’40s Chicago with drum legend Ike Day, undoubtedly honed Rollins’ preternatural rhythmic facility, which is one aspect of his magic that even he doesn’t soft-pedal. “I could give Elvin Jones a run for his money, right?” he jokes. Getting serious, he continues, “I remember playing with Art Blakey once at Birdland, and the rhythm got off some kind of way; after he came off the stand he said, ‘Boy, Sonny, you didn’t let that mess you up; you were really right on it, didn’t bother you.’ That gave me more confidence.

“Sonny likes to have the time solid, so that he can juxtapose playing across or under or through it,” says Jack DeJohnette, who first recorded with Rollins in 1972 on “Next Album.” “He is complete; he hears the drums, bass and piano in him, and he plays by himself.” That’s why Rollins has employed bassist Bob Cranshaw off and on since 1959, and why the R&B influenced drummer Perry Wilson has lasted with him for three years. “Bob is a steady player, and as abstract as I often like to get, I’ve always liked to contrast abstraction against something steady,” Rollins states.” “I play a lot of different stuff — Caribbean things, straight-ahead, a little backbeat — and I need a drummer who has a little bit of range, who isn’t locked into one style of playing. A lot of jazz drummers are great at straight-ahead, but if you want to go into something else the feeling is not quite as genuine. Perry has the range that’s needed to play with Sonny Rollins. I demand that the basic pulse and the chord structure be present throughout; I always have the song in mind regardless of what I do.”

In the manner of his role model Coleman Hawkins — and slightly lesser hero Gene Ammons, with whom he jousted on various visits to Chicago — Rollins is peerless at the operatic, heart-on-the-sleeve approach to balladry. “I love ballads,” he says. “Growing up, I loved a lot of people singing, Of course, I like Nat Cole, the way he phrases and seems sincere and gets it over. Even when he did some things in his later years that were thought to be overly commercial, they didn’t turn me off because it was him. I liked the Ink Spots and I liked Bing Crosby, who I saw in a lot of movies, which might have reinforced my admiration for him as a performer. We had a windup victrola on which I heard some of those old RCA Victor Carusos. I remember as a kid going to the City Center in New York and hearing operettas; when I was really young, maybe 2 years old, I saw a performance of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Pirates Of Penzance” in Harlem, and later on in junior high school we had to go through “H.M.S Pinafore” and all this stuff. I was the youngest child, my oldest brother was a good violin player, and I’d hear him studying and playing all the time, and my sister played piano in church — so I imbibed a lot of music from them also.”

I ask Rollins to elaborate on his church background. He responds: “I was brought up in a sect called the Moravian church, where I went to Sunday School and got confirmed and so on. It was very straight-laced, with an organ playing hymns and Bach Cantatas. But my grandmother used to take me to a church run by a woman named Mother Horn right there on Lenox Avenue. It was one of these real sanctified churches that had band instruments playing, and it made a big impression — I remember hearing a trumpet player who was really swinging.

“I went to Chicago for the first time in 1949 with a friend who played trumpet in a gospel group; he and his sister were in a sanctified church, and I used to go there every week, which I enjoyed because the music was so animated. Chicago was very exciting. It was earthier and more blues-oriented than New York, and they had clubs where people would play 24 hours a day. I spent a lot of time there, and met and played with a lot of musicians. It was a very formative period in my life. When I lived there in 1955, trying to get straight and get my life together, an interesting thing happened. I got up early one morning to catch the bus at 35th and State Street to get to work, and I saw in the window of a little record store on the corner a record I had made with Monk, ‘Just The Way You Look Tonight,’ and I was on the cover. An interesting pull.”

“We’re here in the year 2000, so let’s forget the good old days,” says an avuncular Rollins, elegant in a black ensemble, horn-rimmed shades, and liberally salted beard, midway through the second set at B.B. King’s, reacting to exhortations from the happy throng after he executes a dramatic downward swoop with his horn to state the final note of his passionate cadenza to “Moon Of Manakora,” an Academy Award winner in 1937 written for the Dorothy Lamour movie “Hurricane” that is the final track on “This Is What I Do.” Then he kicks into “St. Thomas,” his variation on a melody that he first heard at one of the Calypso dances that he attended with his mother which has been a staple of his repertoire since he waxed it in 1956 on “Saxophone Colossus.” He then croons the theme of Irving Berlin’s “They Say It’s Wonderful,” from “Sonny Rollins + 3 (1996), before hurtling into a lengthy abstraction on which he plays endless games with the time over the surging rhythm section until there’s nothing left to say.

Rollins concludes with “Don’t Stop The Carnival” (“What’s New,” 1962), a Calypso-Highlife hybrid that he uses as a frequent concert-closer. He roars like a lion through a succession of choruses, fingers popping in a St. Vitus dance over the saxophone keys, firing out cascades of notes from the bottom of the horn. Occasionally, for emphasis, he splits the reed to jackhammer precisely calibrated low overtones that seem ready to blast through building’s substructure and onto the tracks of the subway line that runs below 42nd Street. On the final chorus, as his parting shot, Rollins quotes Denzil Best’s “Move” — parrying pianist Stephen Scott’s witty reference to the bop staple in the kickoff solo to “This Is My Lucky Day” 90 minutes before — before a final cadenza on which he states “There’s No Place Like Home.”

“Hardcore Jazz is political,” Rollins had said during our initial conversation. “It’s real art, and it’s got a lot to say about things that are really happening. Unfortunately, a lot of forces out here want to divert people, don’t want us to think about anything; everything is all right, don’t think about the environment, don’t think about any kind of social problems — just go along and consume and make money. That’s what Hardcore Jazz is up against.”

Rollins seems primed for the battle. This Is What I Do caps a decade-long succession of magnificent albums on which the aging titan has confronted his past head-on with a sound that subsumes his entire history — the oceanic linearity of the ’50s, the expressionist timbre of the ’60s, and the groove-oriented populism of the ’70s and ’80s. Rollins lived what’s now called the tradition; he grew up immersed in it, he played no small part in creating it, his memories of it provide the narrative subtext for the vivid declamations he continues to spin. Significantly, he dedicates two originals — “Have You Seen Harold Vick?” and “Charles M” — to colleagues passed on.

“It’s good to honor and recognize fellow musicians,” Rollins declares. “Somebody needs to chronicle the guys that contributed to the whole nation’s musical history and never got heard of, who made life good for a lot of people but never get talked about. Harold Vick was a good player and was beloved by his colleagues. Why not talk about these guys? Why just let life rush on, rush on, rush on as if these things don’t matter?”

He proceeds to reminisce.

“Mingus and I were kindred spirits. We had a lot of problems dealing with the acceptance of the music and the way minorities are treated — the usual crap that people go through every day. He always wanted me to do some things with him, but they never panned out. I did play with him a couple of times. He would come by the RCA studios on 24th Street to play piano with me. And I remember when Eric Dolphy was giving him some kind of trouble, so he brought me down to the Five Spot on Eighth Street to play with Eric; in Mingus’ mind it was something like, ‘Man, I’ve got Sonny here, so you’d better be cool.’ I never got around to recording any of his tunes, though I wanted to record one that Miles did called “Smooch,” which was reminiscent of a ballad called ‘Time’ that Richie Powell wrote when I was with Clifford Brown and Max Roach.

“My relationship with Miles continued forever; we were always tight. Once Miles was playing with the group he had with Wayne Shorter at a place in Brooklyn called the Blue Coronet. I hadn’t seen him in a while, so I went by and came in the club, and he didn’t see me. The guys said, ‘Sonny’s here, and Miles almost jumped out of his skin! It touched me, because I realized how much he thought of me. I was surprised, because Miles is one of our idols. I wasn’t putting myself on his plane; I would never do that. But he thought a lot of me.

“When I was growing up, we went to high school with a fine trumpet player whose name was Lowell Lewis, who played with Jackie McLean and all of us. When Charlie Parker came out with “Now Is The Time” and “Billie’s Bounce” in 1945, he heard it and he liked the way Miles played. I liked him, too, actually; he took such a poetic solo on one of those tunes. When Miles played with Bird, he took a different tack. Of course, Bird was my idol and my hero and everything, and at that point we began thinking of Miles in that rarefied atmosphere. He was a god. But he was only four years older than I, which is why I think my relationship with him was more like one of a peer. Dizzy was much older. Monk was older, but Monk was different, because Monk kind of took me under his wing. Of course, we know Bird was into his own thing. It was really hard to catch the Bird. Chasin’ the Bird…heh-heh. But he was very generous to us and very avuncular and everything.”

Rollins hasn’t stopped working since 1972; as he enters his eighth decade, a Buddhist practice as homegrown as his music helps him maintain focus. “I retain elements of different kinds of Buddhism,” he notes. “Trying to draw specific lines to it I’ve found doesn’t work for me. I’ve studied some Zen and I’ve studied Yoga. What I’ve got out of it is that my music is my yoga. That’s the way I practice. That’s the way I meditate. That’s the way I seek enlightenment during this lifetime, like the Buddha. And I’ve found out that to play my instrument, to concentrate and get inside of that, which is getting inside of myself, is my way of doing all of these spiritual things. I’m trying to get some understanding of life and how people interact with each other, to get beyond jealousies and hatreds and envies, all of these little things in life which are so stupid and inconsequential. This is my great work, as far as I’m concerned. I’m so happy that I have the instrument which is giving me sort of a path to travel with.”

“You have to stay on it, you know,” he adds, referring to a clarion Tadd Dameron line that Dizzy Gillespie recorded with his big band in 1947. “Dizzy played a beautiful solo. It was very informative, and it taught me a lot about playing. Everything about it was very logical, and I like logical playing. It had all the other elements of great jazz playing, and it made a lot of sense, the way he played with the band, on top of the band, the way he came in and the way he left space. It was just perfect.”

Which is what a good portion of the crowd must think of Rollins as they bask in the afterglow of the performance. Reality beckons as they file up the stairs and into a wee hours drizzle on 42nd Street, a mere ten blocks from the legendary 52nd Street clubs Rollins played when breaking in, and two stops on the A-train from 125th Street and the Apollo Theater, where a post-adolescent Rollins would go with “an astute bunch of young guys on my block who knew all about Ben Webster and the Ellington band.” He emphasizes, “We were all into jazz as opposed to guys that, say, were into rhythm-and-blues at that time. I mean, rhythm-and-blues was okay, but we knew the real stuff. I thought of Jazz as something which was extremely special. Yeah, that’s the word. It was special. Everything about it was great. There’s nothing bad about jazz. This is what I picked up then as a kid, and this is the way it is. It’s still so true today.”

 

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

Sonny Rollins (Jazziz, 2005):
Last December, not long after the death of Lucille Rollins, his companion since 1959, his wife since 1965, and his business manager since 1971, Sonny Rollins decided to conclude his current contract with Fantasy Records by releasing Without A Song (The 9/11 Concert). It documents a Rollins concert at Boston’s Berklee Performing Arts Center in Boston on September 15, 2001, four days after Rollins, whose highrise Tribeca pied a terre was a few blocks due north of the World Trade Center, found himself in the middle of a disaster.

Rollins remembers that he was in no mood to do the job. “My legs were wobbly and I was mentally disjointed,” he says over the phone from his upstate New York home. “I told my wife, ‘Let’s cancel.’ But she convinced me that we should do it. Lucille was a very straight, Middle American-values person, and she hated to renege on a contract in any form. That might have been part of why she insisted. I’m sure there were more noble reasons. Some people suggested that my playing would help other people, which I don’t know if she thought of or not.”

Perhaps no one in the house benefitted more than Rollins, who, on the fateful morning of Tuesday, September 11th, was preparing to run some errands when he heard Flight 11 pass directly above his roof. “Then I heard a big POW!!!!” he recalls. His apartment looked north, up the Hudson River, and he thought a small plane had crashed along the waterfront. He turned on his black-and-white TV, just in time to see Flight 175 slam into the South Tower.

“Then I went downstairs,” he says. “The streets were bedlam, women running around screaming. When the South Tower came down, we started to run, because we thought it would take everybody if it fell over. Since it imploded on itself, that didn’t happen, but a tremendous amount of toxic dust filled the air.”

Downtown Manhattan was already sealed off, and, for lack of a better alternative, Rollins decided to take the elevator back up to his apartment. The phones were still working and he called his wife. Then he started practicing.

“I was definitely in shock,” he says. “Even when I heard the North Tower come down over my radio, it didn’t seem so bad, but even if it was, I was going to practice anyway. I didn’t think it was anything the government couldn’t handle in some manner or form.”

By now, the power was off, and Rollins, who had just turned 71, was marooned. The next morning, a National Guardsman climbed to the 39th floor, found Rollins and three other residents, and ordered them to evacuate. Rollins gathered what he could carry, not neglecting his tenor saxophone and a flashlight, and negotiated all the steps down the dark, narrow stairwell to the street.

“It was like a scene from a World War 2 movie about the London Blitzkrieg, where the place has been bombed, everybody’s out, and the sirens are going off,” Rollins recalls. “There were so many ambulances, firefighters going into Stuyvesant High School for oxygen and new guys coming out. Everybody had to put on masks, because the air was acrid with toxicity.” A CNN cameraman caught Rollins, gear in hand, walking to a bus, which took him to Washington Irving High School, near Union Square Park. There Rollins called his driver, who came in from the Bronx, picked up his charge, and took him home.

The Boston concert was imminent. Rollins arrived there on Friday afternoon, and convened his band at soundcheck the next day. “Everyone seemed more contemplative and thoughtful than usual,” he says of his band’s comportment. “I suppose they were shaken, and the fact everybody knew I was in the middle of it might have contributed. It seemed everything was much more serious and purposeful. Although I hate to think that any other time we play is not purposeful.”

In truth, nothing much happens on Without A Song until the 25th minute, during the final third of “Global Warming,” when Rollins responds to the beats of hand drummer Kimati Dinizulu, his regular percussionist since this engagement, and channels the gods on a 6½ minute statement, transforming the lower depths of his instrument into—for lack of a better analogy—a swinging, melodic drum. He spins a three-minute classic on A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, developing and resolving several themes simultaneously, breaking the bar lines, accelerating and decelerating the tempo, veritably speaking through the instrument. He uncorks another amusing, cubist, high-velocity declamation on Why Was I Born, interpolating Stephen Foster quotes into the line. Similar pyrotechnics stamp his opening inventions on “Where or When,” before Rollins begins to lose his embouchure and concludes the proceedings.

Such transcendent moments are not uncommon in Rollins’ concert performances since 1972, the year he returned from a three-year hiatus spent primarily in India and Japan, and began to record for Milestone. But on studio recitals, as observers often remark, the saxophone colossus has resembled Atlas chained more than Prometheus unbound, projecting nowhere close to the creativity and life force he emanates in live performance.

“I think there’s a lot of credence to that,” Rollins comments on the concert-studio issue. “Something about the interaction of human being to human being creates a tension, and I get more involved, which probably changes what I’m doing. I’m not conscious of it. But once I’m out there, those forces obtain.”

Rollins channeled those forces admirably on a succession of masterpieces that established his legend between 1955 and 1966, and began to reestablish studio consistency on Sonny Rollins + 3, a well-wrought 1996 combo date with old pal Tommy Flanagan, and on This Is What I Do, a melody-drenched recital from 2000 that finds the maestro in poetic voice.

“For a long period, the studio was a big inhibiting factor,” he acknowledges. “But I’ve begun to bring that thing from live performance into a studio a little more easily. During my early career, I didn’t feel so inhibited playing on the records with Miles and Max and Monk. So I think it’s just a phase. I don’t know what brought it about. Perhaps it’s because I realized that technology had reached the point where you could overdub and change things, and it was easier to reach for a more ‘perfect’ solo and all this crap.”

That being said, nowhere on the aforementioned sessions does Rollins scale the Olympian heights he accesses on Without A Song, which is one of several hundred privately recorded Rollins concerts, primarily from the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, that capture Rollins navigating the high wire. Carl Smith, a Maine-based archivist of this material, has given them to Rollins in hopes that he will approve their public release and thus clarify the scope of his achievement during the second half of his astonishing career.

“Lucille would have killed this guy,” Rollins says with a chuckle. “I am not quite as adamant as she was on that issue. I would have to listen to them, which is hard for me to do, but perhaps that’s another phase I can overcome, as I think I have about recording in the studio. I don’t want to compete with myself, but I’m not averse to releasing some of those in a judicious manner if I hear something really good.

“In fact, I’ve been taping my own performances. This was a point of contention between Lucille and myself. We were at loggerheads. I did it, but she didn’t want me to. Someone else was recording it anyway. I tried to explain that someone like Pat Metheny records all his performances, but we still couldn’t quite agree. I don’t understand exactly why she felt that way. That’s one of the things that she left me here to ponder alone.”

With his wife making the decisions, Rollins was allowed “to play my horn and read my books, and sort of live the leisurely life of a baron.” He pauses for several seconds, and sighs. “It’s all over now.”

Nearing 75, Rollins, in his words, is “just getting into the business aspect,” a tricky proposition for a man who doesn’t operate his fax machine, doesn’t use email, and doesn’t have a cell phone. He gets help from his nephew, trombonist and band-member Clifton Anderson. Still, Rollins says, “I’m doing a lot of things I had never had to deal with before. I’m in a whirlwind right now. There are so many disparate things that I am obligated to do, and I’m trying to get them all done. It fills up 24 hours a day.”

Asked if there’s a therapeutic aspect to immersing himself in mundane details, he responds: “It may be a good thing that I’m able to interact on some things. I grieved for a long time. I’m still grieving, because it hasn’t been that long. After she left me here, I couldn’t play for a long time, man. I took my horn out and tried to play a little bit, a few minutes at a time. Gradually, as I began to accept engagements again, I got back to practicing a little more.”

The words burst forth. “I want to go through the rest of my travails on earth,” he says. “We lived together a long time. I’m laying on the bed my wife died in, and she was right next to me, and I was trying to do things for her, and I’m still here. I don’t need to leave that. Going out and playing is enough contact with people. I feel I’ve had a successful life, and I don’t need to get involved in any other phase of life.

“As long as I am able to play, I’ll be playing. I still have my challenges to surmount. I’m still practicing, I’m still studying, and I want to synthesize what I’ve learned in a way that might affect my playing. I still have the same attitude to music.”

Rollins has chronic dental problems, and whether he will be able to actualize that attitude to his satisfaction is an open question. “Physically, you need your teeth to play,” he explains. “It’s frustrating to want to do certain technical things, to have the physical strength, but not be able to. It’s an extra impediment on top of everything else. But look, man, life is frustration.”

This summer Rollins will undergo “procedures that my dentist assures me will enable me to practice when I want.” If the dentist is wrong, Rollins is well aware that he will face another crossroads in this time of tribulation and transition.

“I never want to get to the point where I’m doing nothing,” he says. “I’m trying my best to do something which I know I should be doing better. If I feel, ‘Gee, this is five concerts in a row where I sound like shit’—no. Then I would probably forget it and stay at home and practice in my studio, and just play for myself. Things have to end. Yeah, there’s nothing like getting to some musical point where you feel satisfied—reasonably satisfied—and having people appreciate it. Although you can’t go by that. People will smile in your face and say, ‘Oh, you sounded great,’ which I know is a lot of crap, because I know how I really sound.

“Probably nothing will fulfill me as much as trying to create music on the stage, with all that entails. But should I have to stop, I can’t be, ‘Oh, my life is over.’ I would go on and do whatever else there is to do. I don’t believe in suicide. I believe we’re put here for a reason, and the reason is to go through all these things we go through. You can’t cut it off by your own choice. So whatever happens, I’ll go through it like everybody else.”

 

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

 

Downbeat Readers Poll Feature, 2007:

“Let’s put Roy in the middle,” said Sonny Rollins, evoking his leader’s prerogative, as he, Roy Haynes and Christian McBride convened for a photo shoot near a piano, not in use during their afternoon rehearsal at Avatar Studios for a Carnegie Hall concert on the next evening.

“Why?” Haynes responded. “Because I’m the littlest one?”

“Little in the middle,” Rollins said, and Haynes acquiesced. “That looks better!” Rollins said.

“Damn,” said McBride. “The mob!”

“Sugar Hill, man,” Haynes chimed in, referring to the Harlem enclave where Rollins, 77, spent his formative years in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and where Haynes, now 82, settled when he moved to New York sixty years ago. “Me and Sonny Rollins, from Sugar Hill. Shit.”

“The Hill!” said Rollins. “You dig?”

“I’m not from there,” said McBride, 36, a Philadelphia native. “But I lived there for a minute. That can count, right? I lived on Edgecombe.”

“Is that right?” asked Rollins, who as a youngster lived on Edgecombe Avenue, down the block from the old Polo Grounds.

“Sonnymoon for Three,” Haynes quipped.

Photographer John Abbott machine-gunned the camera for a minute or so.

“You got the gig, John,” McBride said.

“That’s what Prez told me, man, after I played two tunes with him at the Savoy Ballroom,” Haynes recalled. “He said, ‘You got the gig. But I won’t tell you the words, because they may put it in print.’”

“Are you going to sing ‘Some Enchanted Evening’?” McBride inquired, referring to the ballad on the trio’s program.

“‘You got your slave,’ right,” Rollins replied, reciting the lyric.

“‘If you got eyes, that slave is yours,’” Haynes shot back. “You can only say that if you know what you’re saying, though.”

“Mmm-hmm,” Rollins agreed.

Rollins planned to sandwich “Some Enchanted Evening,” a song from South Pacific that he had never recorded, with two long-standing hits: Kurt Weill’s “Moritat,” known popularly as “Mack The Knife,” from his 1956 breakthrough record, “Saxophone Colossus,” and “Sonnymoon For Two,” a discursive Rollins blues signifying on his first marriage that he most famously recorded on a November 1957 gig with Wilbur Ware and Elvin Jones that produced Live at the Village Vanguard. Several weeks after that 1957 date, Rollins played those tunes at a Carnegie Hall benefit concert—his first appearance on the hallowed stage—with bassist Wendell Marshall and drummer Kenny Dennis, sharing the bill with Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie with Austin Cromer on vocals, Ray Charles, and the Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane. Carnegie Hall recorded the proceedings, and the Library of Congress unearthed them in 2004, yielding the Blue Note’s big-seller, Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall. That release coincided with the death of Rollins’ wife and manager, Lucille, and briefly preceded Concord’s purchase of Fantasy Records, the corporate owner of Milestone, his label since 1972. Concurrently, Rollins launched his own label, Doxy, under the imprimatur of Oleo Productions, both entities named after original compositions that Rollins recorded with Miles Davis in 1954. Now an entrepreneur, Rollins decided to throw a concert commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the event, and to release both the 1957 and 2007 performances on a single CD, following Sonny, Please, his first Doxy title.

At the time of the 1957 concert, Rollins was already a stylistic role model—Miles Davis, Bud Powell and Horace Silver had named him the “Greatest Ever” tenor saxophonist in a poll conducted the previous year by Leonard Feather. But although his immense, voice-like tone, elastic time sense,.penchant for melodic invention, seemingly intuitive sense of structure, and relentless swing thrilled his devotees, Rollins was looking for a [context]. Increasingly, he was finding it by eschewing the support of a chordal instrument.

“Trio playing has been a big part of my musical life for a long, long time,” Rollins had related a few days before the rehearsal  during an extended interview on WKCR. “As a matter of fact, in the late ‘40s, Miles Davis heard me playing with a trio to open for a group of all-stars at the 845 Club in the Bronx, and asked me to join his band. I always can get into myself just playing solo, and when I was a kid, just starting, I’d practice in my room for hours and hours, and I’d be in my paradise. ‘Sonny, come on, time to eat.’ I’d be in my reverie. So the idea that I needed other people to fulfill my musical ambitions came reluctantly. So playing by myself or with as few musicians as possible—with trio—was a normal and natural thing.”

Such tunnel vision perhaps explains why, over the next dozen years, Rollins played so much extraordinary music with trios and two-horn quartets (in addition to the aforementioned, personnels on albums and bootlegs during the period included Ray Brown and Shelley Manne; Max Roach with Oscar Pettiford or Jymie Merritt; Paul Chambers and Haynes; Henry Grimes and Pete LaRoca, Kenny Clarke, Joe Harris, or Billy Higgins; Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones; Gilbert Rovere and Arthur Taylor; even Ruud Jacobs and Han Bennink on a confrontational 1967 performance). Freed from chordal constraints, he explored motifs from every conceivable angle like a cubist painter, coloring phrases with vivid splashes of timbre even at the hottest tempos. It may also explain why it was complex for [Rollins] to retain personnel.

“I’m not like that any more,” he said on WKCR, responding to an observation that he has been famously particular about drummers, to the point of firing individuals, themselves no slouches, a day or two into a week-long gig. Indeed, Rollins now is sufficiently solicitous that, before committing to play publicly with McBride and Haynes, he asked the permission of his working band.

“Whether people appreciate it or not, I am deeply involved with my own group and in trying to get a certain thing happening,” Rollins said. “That is my primary focus.”

Rollins has worked hard to realize this aspiration since he began taking a more populist direction in 1972, after a long hiatus during which he explored Buddhist precepts and learned to meditate. When they’re available, he works consistently with guitarist Bobby Broom, bassist Bob Cranshaw, the versatile trapsetter Steve Jordan, hand drummer Kimati Dinizulu, and— returning to the tenor-trombone front-line format he experienced frequently during his early career with J.J. Johnson and Bennie Green—trombonist Clifton Anderson, his nephew, who works closely with his uncle on business matters.

“Clifton’s role has evolved,” Rollins said. “He’s got a big, beautiful sound, and he knows what to play and where to play it, which I never told him how to do. He just knew how to support me, and what notes to play that would complement my saxophone lines.”

“There are times when I can hear a piano, and other times when I can relate better to a guitar, which is a little less invasive,” he continued. “Bobby is an excellent accompanist for me, because he plays together with the rhythm section and I don’t hear it. If I did hear it, he’d be doing something which would be jarring to me. When I’m soloing, I don’t want to hear anybody. I just want to hear the beat, the groove, the pocket, or whatever way they describe it these days. That’s why I’ve always used Bob Cranshaw on bass, because of his strong foundational beat. With that steady pulse, I’m free to manipulate the time or do abstract improvisations, or anything else I want to do.”

[BREAK]

“Playing with Sonny today, I can’t describe the feeling,” Haynes said at Avatar. “We’re talking to each other musically, and I’m feeling this, feeling that, and he’s listening, I’m sure. The idea that we were together earlier in our lives, and we can do that now is precious.”

“There’s very few people from our era who know what that whole thing is about,” Rollins chimed in. “I’ve played with Roy from the beginning of my career. We speak the same language. We understand each other.”

“Mmm,” Haynes agreed. “That is really something. We’re talking, man, and even when it’s silent, there is some shit going on.”

“Oh, yeah,” Rollins said emphatically. “I’m listening CLOSELY.”

“I could feel that,” Haynes said, placing his hand over his heart. “It’s something spiritual that comes from here.”

The veterans first played together in 1948, on a Capitol recording by bop vocalist Babs Gonzalez; the following year with Bud Powell and Fats Navarro on the Blue Note date that produced “Dance of the Infidels,” “Wail” and “Bouncing With Bud”; and on a 1951 Prestige session led by Miles Davis, with John Lewis and Percy Heath.

“I was hearing a lot about Sonny Rollins up on the Hill,” Haynes said. “I didn’t realize that this was the guy who had come by my house with another friend of ours.”

“Lenny Martinez,” Rollins interjected.

“During that period I was either with Luis Russell or Lester Young,” Haynes said.

“You were with Prez when I was coming by your house,” Rollins said. “I saw Roy play at the Apollo with Luis Russell’s band. I asked him a lot about the singer.”

“Lee Richardson,” Haynes states.

“I’ll always remember he made a tremendous impression on me, because he really had a good voice, good pipes.”

“I didn’t know that Sonny was playing an instrument until one night shortly after that visit, when I saw him with an alto at a restaurant on St. Nicholas Avenue where we used to eat after gigs on Saturday night,” Haynes said. “I said, ‘You play saxophone?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I have a little gig.’ There was another guy who played tenor, who walked slew-foot, bandylegs, and didn’t make it. All the time when people said ‘Sonny Rollins,’ I thought this other guy was him.”

“Will the real Sonny Rollins stand up?” joked Rollins. “Right.”

“Right! You stood. I do remember one gig in the late ‘40s where I hired Sonny. It was the Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X got finished. They used to have Sunday afternoon gigs there, two o’clock high and all that stuff.”

“People could dance in the back.”

“That’s what was so great about those days.”

“People would be doing the Applejack in there,” said Rollins, referring to the steps that Thelonious Monk, his early mentor, used to do after his own solos.

“Oh, that’s right,” Haynes said. “Especially at Minton’s sometimes, they’d come up when anybody was soloing, and sometimes when a drummer was playing a solo, people could dance to it. Today, man, they’d be crying the blues, complaining.”

Asked if he’d seen Haynes play with Monk, Rollins responded, “I don’t think so.”

“We played together with Monk for a minute at the Five Spot,” Haynes corrected. “I remember one night Monk said to me, ‘Roy Haynes. You play better when you wear that suit. You agreed with him, too. I had a black suit with stripes on.”

Rollins guffawed. “Well, that sounds like Monk. One of Monk’s pronouncements. Monk got the best people he could. But it wasn’t just getting the best. There were only a few people that could cut the gig. Just like today, there’s only a few musicians that can really do the music as it should be done, so these people are at a premium. I mean, there’s only one Roy Haynes.”

He pointed at McBride, seated quietly at the piano, taking in every word. “This gentleman here is a young chap, I’ve just met him, but he’s on his way to becoming a legend and a ‘one-of’ guy. This is the way it is. It’s not like the old days, man, when Roy and I would get on a gig at the 845 Club, and it would be Lucky Thompson and Bud Powell and Fats Navarro and Bennie Green and J.J. Johnson. Things began changing. In a sense, for the better.”

[BREAK]

Until September 11, 2001, when he had to give up his pied a terre four blocks from Ground Zero, and decided to live full time in the house in Columbia County in upstate New York that he purchased in the early ‘70s to ensure that he would not have to climb a bridge or enter a park to practice at his leisure, Rollins rehearsed his bands incessantly.

“The type of music that I play, guys need to be able to complement where I’m going, and I do best with that kind of intimacy,” he said. “Now, I’m not Count Basie’s orchestra, who would be making precise hits and like that. We try to get inside the music in a much less industrial way. Everybody has a beat center, and I want to hear where that is for Christian and Roy.”

Towards that end, Rollins had called McBride to work through the tunes 48 hours earlier at a Chelsea rehearsal studio, and the bassist was still on cloud nine.

“I’m sure I’ll create a lot of enemies, people knowing I got to play a whole day of duets with Sonny Rollins,” McBride joked before the photo session. “He was practicing on some sheet music when I walked into the studio, and when I asked what it was, he said, ‘These are just some little patterns and scales that I worked out.’ This is the greatest living improviser, and it’s amazing that he’s never rested on his improvisational genius, that he’s practicing with the same fervor that he did forty and fifty years ago. With any giant or icon, if you jump on the end of the train, you can miss the path that got the person to that level of greatness. For example Sonny does these rhythmic things that are far beyond what seems to be happening with the bass or the drums. There’s playing free, and then there’s playing without any sense of the rhythm or the feel of the tune. A lot of tenor players do THAT. Whereas when Sonny Rollins does that, it comes from a place that’s so grounded and rooted. He sounds way different than he did on Way Out West and Live at the Village Vanguard or East Broadway Rundown. Imagine all those years of growth on top of that, and practicing at this still mega-level of intensity.”

As for Rollins, practice time is less a burden than a lifestyle. “I can’t practice maybe 16 hours, like I used to, but I do whatever I can,” he said. “It’s fun. If I don’t practice for more than three or four days, I begin to get physically ill. I think, ‘Gee, what’s wrong?’ If I practice, bang, I’m back in the stream. It’s my form of meditation, my form of prayer—it’s the whole thing. But playing is something else. You can learn more in two minutes on the stage than from practicing maybe five weeks; in a subliminal way, all these things happen, and you really learn.”

He was also learning that entering the brave new world of self-production carries extra-musical challenges. “I’ve played with Roy from day one, Christian has played with Roy, and we got together easily because we’re trying to do the same thing,” he said. “The challenges have been taking care of the business aspects—worrying about tickets and logistics, and also doing a lot of media. I’ll try to change that if something like this happens again, because it occupies a lot of space in your mind, and takes away from the music part.

“But I’m expecting it to be very exhilarating and rewarding. These people are of a high caliber, and I’m looking forward to hearing some things that I haven’t heard before, and being in the middle of the jazz experience, which is what it’s all about. This is the instant creation. It’s like food to me. This is why jazz is the music of today, tomorrow, and forever, because things are happening right then.”

[BREAK]

A rainbow coalition comprising hordes of hardcore fans and more eminent musicians than you could count as the paying customers—as well as an assortment of freeloading critics—turned out for the rare opportunity to hear Rollins return to his interactive, anything-goes-at-any-time style of the ’50s and ’60s. They got exactly what they came for.

From the very beginning of “Sonnymoon For Two,” Rollins developed and resolved several themes simultaneously, breaking the grid, accelerating and decelerating the tempo with sleek lines as long as a rambling freight train, punctuating them with multiphonic honks and long held notes, downloading deeply embedded fragments of musical memory at Pentium speed and interpolating them into the flow. Playing the room magnificently, Haynes tap danced complementary rhythms with his sticks. Facing Haynes directly, with McBride centering the action with impeccable taste and requisite force, Rollins engaged him in a series of exchanges that further developed the themes they had both stated, and provoked more dialogue for another ten minutes or so, until he concluded the journey with one last harmonic abstraction.

With Haynes now wielding mallets, Rollins addressed “Some Enchanted Spring” in the key of A, and bellowed the gorgeous melody like a tenor singer in an operetta, floating gruffly over Haynes’ [richly textured], not quite rubato beats. Upon conclusion, they launched directly into “Moritat,” immediately embarked on improvised dialogue, and sustained the postulations and responses at the highest level for 15 minutes or so; it seemed like they could have gone on all night, but Rollins, aware that [he had another set to play with his band], arbitrarily halted this exemplary demonstration of what an equilateral triangle might sound like in musical form.

That set was another story. While giving his men much rope, Rollins generated sparks on the melody statement of the set-opener, “Sonny, Please,” but blew only perfunctorily on the remaining tunes, “Nu-Nile,” “Biji,” and even “Don’t Stop The Carnival,” on which a mighty dialogue by Steve Jordan and Kimati Dinizulu could not generate further heroics from the leader. Carnegie Hall’s notoriously indifferent jazzcoustics sound didn’t help It was a disappointing, anticlimactic conclusion.

“I was trying, in the back of my mind, to keep track of the time, but had there been no time constrictions I would like to have gone on a little bit with Christian and Roy,” Rollins said a week later, after playing concerts in Portland and Monterrey. “That wouldn’t have happened in a nightclub, which is why people prefer nightclubs to concerts. In the concert we played at Monterrey, I myself played more. We closed out with one of these festive numbers, and the people went crazy, with the girls standing up twirling their torsos around. At Carnegie Hall, with the time factor, I wanted to make sure everybody had a chance to play.”

Rollins’ commitment to his group might discourage him from booking further explorations with the extraordinary trio. But he’s certainly thinking about it.

“I might have to go in a different direction, which would open up some interesting musical vistas, shall we say,” he said. “Things happen with musicians of that caliber. With the drum and the bass, the primacy of the beat didn’t play as big a part. Velocity and volume level is different, and this dictates that the music go in other directions. I have a different role to play.

“When Christian and I played together on the first rehearsal without Roy. I said, ‘Wow, we should do something with just you and I,’ because we were interacting in another way. That is also a possibility sometime in the future, because I heard something with just him and I playing together where we began feeding off of each other. It was very interesting, and portended things to come.”

A fortnight before this conversation, towards the end of his three hours at WKCR, Rollins, who had earlier asked that the monitors be turned down while his music was going over the airwaves, smiled and swayed his shoulders as he and Max Roach threw melodies and rhythms at each other on “Someday I’ll Find You, a Noel Coward song that appears on the B-Side of his classic album, The Freedom Suite, recorded within five weeks of the 1957 Carnegie Hall concert.

“I liked that!” he exclaimed, before realizing he was on mike. He recovered quickly. “This is supposed to be secret. I’m not supposed to enjoy myself, and I usually don’t. I don’t want to give the false impression that I enjoy my own work. The guys that I played with are like redwood trees. I have a high standard to keep up with the people that I’ve been associated with. So I hear my shortcomings when I listen back to myself. Hopefully, too many other people don’t hear them! But I hear them. It’s okay, though. I’m still playing, so there’s still a chance for me to [reach] perfection. As long as I’m still practicing, I have a chance to get closer to my own nirvana, so that’s cool.”

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

Sonny Rollins DownBeat 75th Anniversary Article (#1):

Several hours into retrospecting on a half-century of Downbeat’s copious coverage of his career, Sonny Rollins paused. “I hope you understand that it’s emotionally jarring to go over your life,” he said.

That qualifier aside, Rollins treated the process with customary thoughtfulness and good-humor, offering blunt self-assessments and keen observations on the changing scene described within the seven articles in question. His comportment brought to mind Joe Goldberg’s remark (“The Further Adventures of Sonny Rollins,” August 26, 1965): “It is almost impossible to talk superficially to Rollins. He examines whatever is under discussion in much the way he examines a short phrase in one of his solos: over and over, inside out and upside down, until he has explored all possibilities.”

Rollins will observe his 79th birthday in September. Even in his Old Master years, a life stage when artists of parallel stature—filmmakers Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman come to mind—pare down to essences, he continues his efflorescent ways, applying his singular mojo towards imperatives of (as I wrote in Downbeat in 2000) “shaping cogent, poetic musical architecture on the tenor saxophone while navigating the high wire night after night.” In his maturity, as documented on his most recent studio CD, Sonny, Please [Doxy] and the 2006 concert performance documented on the DVD Vienne [Doxy], it seems, as I wrote in 2000, that Rollins has “reached the grail of being able to transmute the most abstract ideas of rhythm and harmony and form into a stream of pure melody, as if you had given Louis Armstrong a saxophone and extrapolated onto his consciousness the last fifty years of jazz vocabulary.”

“It’s like Lionel Hampton,” Rollins joked over the phone. “You’d bring him in the wheelchair, help him up on the bandstand, and BANG, he’s a 20-year-old kid again,. To some degree, it’s like that. Once I start playing, I lose track of the time.”

Over the years, Rollins’ larger-than-life appearance and relentless style belied the notion that self-doubt could ever impede his forward motion. But much of the Downbeat narrative describes a character around whom Bergman might have framed a film—a gifted artist less than fully confident that his abundant talent suffices to satisfy his aspirations, engaging in a continual process of introspection and self-criticism, and, furthermore, possessing the courage to act upon his convictions by removing himself from the public eye during three extended sabbaticals. In short, as Downbeat’s reportage makes clear, the progression of Rollins’ musical production is inseparable from the development of his spiritual life.

How consistently Rollins hewed to his path is clear from a comment that Nat Hentoff places at the end of his 1956 cover story, “Sonny Rollins,” which appeared a mere 11 months after Rollins, already dubbed “saxophone colossus” at 26, had left Chicago, his home during his first self-imposed hiatus. “I was thrown into records without the kind of background I should have had,” he told Hentoff, expressing a concern that his career was developing too fast.. “I’m not satisfied with anything about my playing. I know what I want. I can hear it. But it will take time and study to do it.”

This theme would recur in different variations over the next quarter century, as would several others expressed in Dom Cerulli’s 1958 followup. By then Rollins had already investigated the possibilities of the pianoless tenor trio on Way Out West, Live at the Village Vanguard, and The Freedom Suite, each an enduring classic. He explained this direction as a response to his difficulty in finding band personnel who could fulfill his vision, noting a particular ambivalence about playing with pianists who were not Bud Powell. He also elaborated on the pros and cons of nightclub performance vis-a-vis the concert stage, expressing concern about “setting aside enough time to keep up to his horn” and his “hang-up” with “finding time to rehearse,”

Certainly, Rollins circa 2009 connected to concerns expressed a half-century ago. “Everything here seems like I could write it today.” he stated. Not least is his remark to me in 2000 that “there’s nothing bad about jazz. This is what I picked up then as a kid, and this is the way it is. It’s still so true today.”

Nat Hentoff, Sonny Rollins – Nov. 28, 1956

“Next year I may take some time off, go back to school, and stay away from the scene until I’m completely finished. I’ve continued studying off and on by myself and with teachers. I’ve just started. I’ve just scratched the surface. That’s an honest appraisal of myself, so I don’t dig this being an influence. I’m not trying to put myself down or anything…”
Dom Cerulli, Theodore Walter Rollins: Sonny Believes he Can Accomplish Much More Than He Has To Date – July 10, 1958

“Right now, I feel like I want to get away for a while… I need time to study and finish some things that I started long ago. I never seem to have time to work, practice, and write. Everything becomes secondary to going to work every night.”

ROLLINS’ RESPONSE:

“I’m vindicated. I always claimed that my motive for going on the bridge was as I stated, but people said, no, Sonny’s just going on the bridge because of the ferment in the music world, the competition from new people coming to the front, like Ornette and Coltrane. Everything I said in 1956 and 1958, I still speak about. I still practice every day. I still have a vision which I haven’t yet achieved in my improvisations. I mentioned that I always wanted formal music training, which my brother and sister had. I didn’t. I was always trying to catch up on my education.

“This shows my conscience about the clubs, as well. They were great, and I played in them until I was able to realize my ambition. But they were problematical because of the lifestyle—and also I thought that doing concerts would elevate the public perception of jazz.”

BILL COSS, The Return of Sonny Rollins – January 4, 1962:

“A few weeks ago, tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins returned to the public jazz world from which he had voluntarily retired two years ago. On his opening night at New York’s Jazz Gallery, the large audience had an unabashed air of expectancy more familiar to a football stadium than a night club… When he…moves toward the bandstand, there is a ripple of sound and movement preceding him, shouted hellos and exhortations. It is reminiscent of a championship fight, as Sonny is reminiscent of a championship fighter… Nowadays he even sounds like ex-heavyweight champion Gene Tunney, advocating clean living, study, lots of exercise. ‘I’ve stopped smoking,’ he says, ‘and cut down on the drinking, and I lift barbells every day.’ Then he begins to play, and he wins every round.”

“In order not to disturb others, he looked long and hard for a deserted enough place to practice while he was retired. ‘Then I discovered the Williamsburg Bridge,’ he said. ‘It’s right near where I live. It’s amazing. Very few people walk along it. Probably most people don’t even know there’s a sidewalk on it. But the ones who did walk there paid very little attention to me. You’re just suspended out there. You feel as if you’re on top of everything, and you can see so far and so much, and so much of it is beautiful. I can blow as hard as I want there and be impressed. It gave me a kind of perspective about music, people, everything, really, that I never had before. Everything began to jell afer that. When I quit, I suppose I had the intention of changing myself drastically, my whole approach to the horn. I realized after awhile that that wasn’t what was needed or what was bothering me. So instead, I began to study what I had been doing, and explored all the possibilities of that. I knew I was beginning to control my horn.”

ROLLINS’ RESPONSE:

“In 1956, I moved to 400 Grand Street, between Clinton and Norfolk, a block below Delancey Street. I was walking on Delancey Street (do you remember the film Crossing Delancey?), shopping in that area, and I looked up and saw the steps leading up to the bridge, and sort of thought about it, ‘Gee, where does that go?’ I walked up there and said, ‘Wow, that’s it.’ There was my place to practice.”

“I didn’t do any performances during those years, although I did go out a couple of times to clubs. I went to see Coltrane at the Jazz Gallery. Steve Lacy had a loft on the Bowery, and I might have gone there. I heard Ornette at the Five Spot when they first came to town. I met Ornette and Don Cherry and Billy Higgins when I went to California for the first time, in March 1957, at the time I did Way Out West. I hadn’t known them before. They all came out, and we got tight and practiced together. After I began to want to change the Bridge group, I remembered their playing and called Don and Billy.”

“Opening night was rough. There was so much hoopla, so much press buildup that I was doomed to fail. But I had to do it. Like Bill wrote, I was fighting like I always do—trying to get something happening.”

Joe Goldberg: The Further Adventures of Sonny Rollins –August 26, 1965

“Rollins showed up to take me to his home. He was wearing blue jeans, a t-shirt, and a baseball cap, was smoking a cigar and driving an Impala. He negotiated the heavy traffic with the ease of the cabdriver he once was. He lives in a Brooklyn apartment near Pratt Institute with his wife, Lucille, and two German shepherds named Major and Minor. The decor consists of paintings by the Detroit painter known as Prophet and souvenirs from overseas trips. The music on the phonograph ranged from old Basie records with Lester Young through Indian and Japanese music to operatic arias.”

“‘The average Joe,’ he said, ‘knows just as much as I do—he knows more than I do. I’m the average Joe, and I think people recognize that.”

ROLLINS’ RESPONSE:

“I never actually drove a cab. That might have been a little exaggeration. A job was offered to me, but I never did consummate the act, if I can put it that way.

“I really had it together. My wife Lucille, and two German Shepherds named Major and Minor. A Chevy Impala. Nice paintings on the wall. It was a nice, big apartment. I didn’t look like I was suffering any.”

“ I think ‘average Joe’ is an exalted term. To me, it’s really Everyman. What I meant is that the audience is pretty savvy and not to be downplayed. They know what’s happening. The audience pays their money, and it’s up to me to give them what they paid for. If I have a night when I am more or less satisfied with my work at any particular concert performance, the audience is satisfied. Now, there are some nights when I am not satisfied, but the audience may still be satisfied to some degree. That’s ok, because I am always my worst critic.

GOLDBERG:

“Rollins said he never particularly wanted to be a leader, that he would have been content to remain a sideman with none of the non-musical worries and responsibilities that go along with leading and stardom. ‘You’d be surprised how many very famous people told me not to become a leader, you’d be surprised if I called their names.’”

ROLLINS’ RESPONSE:

“I’d give a yes and no to that remark. In the kind of music we play, where everybody is extemporizing and has their platform, you have an advantage over the leader. A sideman can play great or not so great, without responsibility. A leader has to play great all the time. On the other hand, everybody has enough ego to want their name in lights. Furthermore, the fact that you devote your life to creating this music and want acceptance for creating something personal is also a big ego trip—hopefully in a less negative sense. I believe some of my religious teachings that we have to be very careful about the ego, so I try to be careful of THAT. See, I don’t want to be just be playing for vanity. That would be a worthless life. I’m trying to get to somewhere musically, and create some music that I think I hear every now and then. I’m trying to get to that place.”
IRA GITLER, Sonny Rollins: Music is an Open Sky – May 29, 1969

“Rollins had played a very short set, and then emphatically gestured that the curtains be closed. The audience, stunned for a moment, instigated a concerted clamor, and after a few minutes Rollins reappeared, saxophone in hand. His fans, eager to showcase affection on him and listen to more of his music, began calling out their favorite selections. Sonny, at odds with himself and his adulators, responded with halting words of explanation and then played snatches of various standards and an abortive calypso. It must be said that he made an effort, but a lot of disgruntled people left Town Hall that night.”

“…after the concert…at the Village Vanguard, he exhibited that staggering brand of gigantic tenor that makes you feel as if you are the instrument being played. The music does more than surround you with grandeur; it gets into your circulatory system and courses through your body.”

Rollins’ response:

“This is what makes Sonny Rollins’ career so…well, interesting or so different. Once I got a name, everything I did wasn’t a success. I had a lot of unsuccessful concerts, like this one, which was a big venue, Town Hall. I had to regroup and come back. Most people, once they’ve made it, then it’s all staying on that level, or going uphill. But Sonny Rollins was, ‘Oh yeah, Sonny Rollins, terrible concert; gee, how can he recover?’ Then ‘oh yeah, good concert.’ I can create a scenario of what happened on the concerts that were not successful. Technical matters probably played a big part—preparation time, interaction with certain other members. But in exceptional times, I can overcome a lot of things.”

GITLER:

“Constant shifts in personnel has become the expected pattern within Rollins’ groups. Players come and go like guests in a hotel for transients… ‘There are a lot of guys I can work with, and who can work with me,’ he said, ‘but until I get a steady itinerary and offer steady work…’ Why doesn’t a major figure like Rollins work more frequently? In the past, he has chosen to take sabbaticals of varying length, for reasons ranging from dissatisfaction with himself to disenchantment with the jazz scene. One factor these days is salary. Rollins has spent many years to reach his high plateau of artistry, and feels that this entitles him to a certain basic compensation…”

“The saxophonist began studying yoga on a formal basis when he went to Japan in 1963. During the next five years he maintained contact with his teacher, Master Oki, and with the Yoga Institute of Japan. When he returned at the beginning of 1968, he visited temples and shrines and spent time at his teacher’s school in Mishima, near Mt. Fuji. ‘The atmosphere creates an attitude for meditation,’ Rollins said. ‘There is a feeling of peace. Some of the students were jazz fans.’ The Japanese experience led him to India and an ashram—“a religious colony of Hindu monks and women, yoginis”—on Powaii Lake, about an hour’s travel from Bombay… He meditated and took courses in Vedanta philosophy.”

Rollins’ response:

“Business problems certainly would be part of my Sonny Rollins story. I felt always that jazz musicians not only should be appreciated more, they should be paid better. I certainly expressed that, and maybe Ira was right that I was pricing myself out—he might have been close to some of these club-owners, so they may have confided that to him. I consider myself an open sky, and I am open to all kinds of stuff; I’m not a moldy fig, so I felt a fairly substantial amount of interest in everything that was going on, especially Miles—I’d played with Miles. The business was fracturing around that time. A lot of other influences were coming in, and mainstream jazz (if I can put myself in that category) was not getting accepted. Well, it was never accepted, which meant things were even worse for jazz musicians. Everybody knows how the music business is.

“When I first came out on my own, I worked for Joe Glaser, from Associated Booking, and he had an agent handling me who had also worked for boxers in the fight game. He told me, ‘Sonny, I’ve been an agent in the fight game, I’ve been an agent in the music game. The music business is worse.’ So those were the conditions that we had to work under, and I was getting disillusioned with it. Somebody else might feel, ‘This is just the way jazz is.’ Well, I might take it a little more seriously than other people, and want to fight back. I felt that my name would give me the wherewithal to do something. Also, I was getting more and more deeply into my spiritual quests. So that was a perfect time for me to get to India. I’d been there already, because I had been studying a lot of yoga books, and I wanted to see if I could get involved with the schools of some the people I was reading about. Paramhansa Yogananda’s wonderful book, Autobiography of a Yogi, really touched me (I still have an original copy in my library), but he had passed on. But there were other people. Spirituality and music are very close together, and it’s sort of looking for more of a meaning out of life.

Gordon Kopulos: Needed Now: Sonny Rollins – June 24, 1971

“With just two or three other living tenor players, Rollins shares the distinction of having an original tone. It is deep, strong and full-throated, even in the upper register. In the lower ranges, it is reminiscent of Coleman Hawkins, and occasionally in the middle octave he calls Ben Webster to mind. His tone is certainly not without its influences, but the way he twists or bends about every third note sets him apart from everyone else in the known universe. His tone is breathy at times, too, particularly on ballads… Though the full tone isn’t exactly popular, traces of the Rollins approach are discernible in some contemporary saxophonists: Archie Shepp, for instance. Pharaoh Sanders, too, has recently displayed a tone much fuller than the one he was using with Coltrane… [Rollins’] contribution consists of much more than just this, though. Rhythmic innovators in jazz can be counted on two hands with fingers to spare. Rollins is one of those who must be counted… His use of space is possibly the greatest imaginable object-lesson in how to make the absence of sound create rhythmic and melodic tension… Even if Rollins decided to hereafter play only straight melody, he would still be a creative jazz musician. Because by the time a melody has undergone his singular treatment of singing tone and organismic rhythm, it is infused with a vitality that renders it a new thing… Rollins’ experiments in harmony helped to clear the trees for the present harmonic daring of the avant-garde.”
Rollins’ response:

“So far, I like this one the best. Some of the things he’s saying in there are not conventional wisdom. I think he’s very prescient and right-on.

“My sense of time is probably unique to me. The things he says about my tone could have been written any time; I’ve been working on my sound all the time. I really got into harmonics through studying Sigurd Raschèr’s book, Top Tones For Saxophone. He’d demonstrate with a saxophone that had no keys, and would play all these notes to demonstrate the way the harmonics fell in. I wasn’t working so much with multiphonics, which is a term used more by guys who created fingerings that allow them to play two tones at one time. That was a worthy technique, except you couldn’t really control the volume. But I was working on breathing and embouchure to play the natural harmonics, playing two notes at once, to increase the vocabulary of the instrument, and enhance my own expressiveness.

“There is something avant-gardish about my playing, even though people might think of me in terms of Ben Webster or Coleman Hawkins, or more conventional playing terms like bop, hardbop, and so on. Ornette put out a record on tenor, and everyone said, ‘Gee, that sounds like Sonny Rollins.’ People look back and say, ‘Well, he played like this in 1948, and then he played like this in 1953, and he played like this in 1965.’ Well, I have to accept the fact of my history in music. It’s on record…if you’ll excuse the pun. Somebody might hear me today, and say, ‘Oh, Sonny’s gone back and he’s playing tunes again.’ Which is ok. Yes, I was playing tunes at that time. But I’m not going to play the way I did in 1948 or 1965. I don’t like to be caged. I might feel like playing tunes, but then at another moment I might not.. There’s a lot of things on my mind. I need to learn and increase my arsenal of things to do. Performance is when you get a chance to go through the attic, and I can’t perform as much as I’d require to really stretch out and do all the different things I want to do.”
Tam Fiofori, “Reentry: The New Orbit of Sonny Rollins,” October 24, 1971

Q: What were the influences responsible for your playing tunes like St. Thomas and Brownskin Girl?

SR: My mother is from the Virgin Islands, and when I was fairly small I remember going to dances with her and listening to some of this type of music—Brownskin Girl, St. Thomas and calypso things. Of course, when I got into playing jazz they were not thought of as being jazz music, and a lot of people would even try to make a big separation, and I did, too. I didn’t actually begin my jazz career playing those types of songs. I just began to really incorporate that at a later stage. But the fact that I had heard a lot of them as a child made it so that I was able to play them particularly well. Then I felt that it was good if I could play them and people liked them, and it was something I could do in a natural way and it proved to be a sort of a trademark. Then again I’ve heard some African music which is I think somewhat similar to calypso in a way…some of the music they call Highlife… I think a lot of [calypso] and [Bossa Nova] and [rock] rhythms are being used a great deal more, which is good.

Rollins’ response:

“I would say that it’s unfortunate for Sonny Rollins that I made such a searing impression when I came out on the scene, like that was me. Because that’s not me. I’m a very eclectic player. I’m open to a lot of things. Music is an open sky—back to that again. My first guy that I liked when I started playing was Louis Jordan, a real rhythm-and-blues man. I’m a little like Dizzy. I’m serious, but my music is… Dizzy did a lot of things like, “Who Stole My Wife, You Horse-Thief” and so on. I tend to go that way sometimes, and I don’t feel that it diminishes anything else I did, just like it didn’t diminish when Dizzy was playing ‘Groovin’ High.’ So in the period after that article, I might have gone that way, but that was part of me. I didn’t decide to do anything that was antithetical to what I believed in. I’m not a good enough musician to do that. My playing is too natural. If I play some kind of way, it’s got to be that I have a deep feeling about it.

“In the ‘50s and ‘60s I was talking about needing to get away from music for different reasons. Well, during the ‘70s I moved out of the city. I got the place where I live now, where I could practice more or less whenever I wanted to, away from the madding crowd. So I was able to stay ‘active’ and still have the chance to meditate and do the things that I needed to do, but couldn’t do in the ‘60s because I was right in the middle of everything, and had a lot of pressures and so forth. Lucille and I made it so that we didn’t overwork. The booking agency used to call my wife ‘Mrs. No.’ We wouldn’t work that much. We’d only take things that we thought were really good in many respects. That’s probably why I haven’t felt the need to take sabbaticals away from the music scene.

FIOFORI:

Q: Do you think that the music has by now severed most of its ties with Western music other than environmental ones?

SR: “There’s nothing Western about the way I play in the least. The only Western thing is that I play some Western songs.”

Rollins’ response:

“Of course today these guys can probably write down what I do. But the point is well-taken. I’d say the same thing now.

“I think I’m like a diamond in the rough. That’s what George Avakian used to call me. I’m a very rough player. I’m not a polished player, although I’m trying to be—but I’m not. That’s why Fiofori probably had an affinity to what I was doing, because he’s from a Third World African country, and he heard something in my playing, besides some of these calypsos, which probably was reminiscent of that way of playing.”

Bob Blumenthal, Sonny Rollins Interview – May 1982

BB: I hear you’re producing your next album.

SR: I have been thinking about producing for a long time. I was listening to Roberta Flack talk one night, and what she described was similar to me. She was actually producing her own albums; she was selecting the material, picking the people. What I haven’t been doing is talk to the people on the date about money and various arrangements. The rest is something I think I should be doing—it just means more control over what you do. It’s a logical conclusion to end up producing your own things. It’s more responsibility that I should be handling myself.

Rollins’ Response:

“I began to trust my wife’s judgment, which helped me move more or less seamlessly into that side of the business. I was able to listen to her a little bit, and, ‘ok, I won’t get angry if you pick out what you think is the best of what you’ve heard.’ I’d listen at the end, and if it wasn’t intolerable, we’d let it go.”

BLUMENTHAL:

BB: It has become a cliche that Rollins albums don’t capture the spark of Rollins in live performance. Does this mean anything to you as a player-producer?

SR: I’ve accepted the fact that I’ve got to concentrate more on making a studio date have a certain pizzazz, a zing to it that performances would have by virtue of the people and I interacting. That’s something I’ll deal with this time. It’s also a psychological thing on my part, about going into a studio and playing as much like I usually play as possible.

Rollins’ Response:

“I’ve thought about this a lot. When I first started recording in the ‘40s, I’d go into the studio, say, with J.J. Johnson and do two takes. There wasn’t any chance to do it over. As time progressed and the possibility of overdubbing arose, I began to think, ‘Gee, maybe it can come out better.’ That had a big influence on why it became more difficult as the years went on. I’ve gotten past that self-doubt; I don’t feel I have to overdub everything. I’m more confident that what I play is the best that I can do at that time, and I won’t feel the need to do one take after another. Of course, live, you don’t have to worry about doing take after take; hence, my live stuff always gets more acclaim.”
Bob Belden, Sonny Rollins: The Man – August 1997

“…when I found out about Coleman Hawkins, I was attracted, I think, to his sound, and then it just seemed like he knew so much music. Just his mental thing and intellectual approach really got to me. Coleman had harmony down to a high art… Hawkins is the one that gave me the sense that this is something beyond even the feel-goodness of music. Not that there’s anything wrong with the feeling-good aspect of music.”

Rollins’ Response

“Music is so fluid. I practiced today, and things came to me that didn’t come to me yesterday. But I am deeply embedded in my roots. Coleman Hawkins, Louis Jordan, Lester Young, all these people that I’ve heard. People I’ve played with. Coltrane. Bird, of course. So yeah, I think I’m close to those people. Sometimes, in soundchecks, I’ll play like Don Byas. This is rudimentary for me to get my chops up. Everything I do is involved in what I’m doing now, and I’m not trying to play like Coleman Hawkins. I don’t consciously think too much about these people unless I’m listening to something by them. But I’m sure the fact that I knew Coleman Hawkins and have tried to play like him, is involved in everything I do. I did a seminar with Gary Giddins last year, and a young guy asked me what I think about the jazz of today. I remarked that…which I thought about later; it wasn’t a complete enough answer…but it may have been… I said that as long as whoever is playing this music thinks about Lester Young in what they’re doing, I would give it my seal of approval.”

John McDonough, September 2005

“Sonny Rollins finds himself on yet another bridge these days. On September 7th he turns 75, and within the last year his wife, Lucille, died. The two had been married for about 40 years.”

“‘I’ve been suffering from an overload,” Rollins says in a husky, hoarse voice, apologizing for being late for this interview. “I lost my wife, and she did most of these things. I’ve been completely swamped with interviews, appointments, taxes. I don’t like to operate like that. When a time is set, it’s not my usual method of operation to be late.”

Rollins’ Response:

“I’ve always been a guy who’s stood out, who’s pretty much been my own man. At this age, it’s better for me to keep everything more compartmentalized, and reduce the things that I have to do so I can just concentrate on my music. I can only practice about two hours a day now. I have a group of people that I feel fairly comfortable working with; it’s somewhat of a loose family, and it makes life a little bit easier. But I still have to oversee everything. I can’t not be involved, like I was when my wife was with me and I could live like a baron and just go out to the studio and play all day.

“You never want to get too accustomed to any other person. We’re born alone and we have to leave the planet alone. So it’s a matter of adjusting to life’s different knocks. I’m able to deal with things a lot easier now than four years ago. I never feel that the burden is too heavy. Obviously, I’m in a very privileged position. I don’t live like a baron now. But I’m making my own statements and doing what I want to do.”

 

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