Tag Archives: piano

For Bruce Barth’s 58th Birthday, An Uncut Blindfold Test From 2002, the Proceedings of a WKCR Musician Show from 1998, and my Liner Notes for the Double-Time CD, “Hope Springs Eternal”

Pianist Bruce Barth, an “unsung” master, turns 58 today. For the occasion, I’ve posted a an uncut Blindfold Test  that we did for Downbeat in 2002; the complete proceedings of a Musician Show that we did on WKCR in 1998; and my liner note for his 1998 recording, Hope Springs Eternal, on Double Time.

 

Bruce Barth Blindfold Test (2002):

1. Harry Connick, “Somewhere My Love” (from 30, Columbia, 1998) – (Harry Connick, piano) – (5 stars)

I’m stumped on that one. I liked it very much. Who would have thought of playing that particular tune in a jazz style? It’s a very personal, fresh approach, a definite Monk influence, maybe a bit too explicitly so for my taste. But it’s done in a personal way in terms of the harmony and the real interesting use of the time, and just the colors of the piano. I enjoyed it very much. 4-1/2 stars. It’s really creative, thoughtful playing.

2. Peter Madsen, “A Crutch For The Crab” (from Mario Pavone, MYTHOS, 2002) (Madsen, piano; Mario Pavone, bass; Matt Wilson, drums) – (2-1/2 stars)

I found the melody very interesting. I liked the use of that triadic figure very much. I didn’t recognize the tune. [Oh, I don’t know it.] I thought it was a very interesting piece, but the soloing really didn’t have a sense of narrative flow to me. It didn’t sound that thoughtful to me, what was being played, in a certain way. There was a lot of playing, but it didn’t gel for me as a group. There’s a certain busy-ness to it, and it didn’t feel like there was a certain kind of empathy for me — or it’s just an empathy I can’t relate to. I’m sure they have an empathy. 2-1/2 stars.

3. Jaki Byard, “Diane’s Melody” (from SUNSHINE OF MY SOUL, Prestige, 1967/2001) (Byard, piano; David Izenson, bass; Elvin Jones, drums)

I hear certain elements of pianists I recognize, but I don’t recognize exactly who that was. It sounds like an older recording. I liked the rubato playing in the introduction and at the end. The solo had some nice ideas. Some of the flourishes, the very virtuosic moments, for me didn’t completely work so integrated into the line of the solo, in terms of as a statement. There’s a bit of a pastiche element. On the other hand, I can appreciate the playing. There’s a lot of nice ideas. I heard flashes of Jaki Byard, but it’s not Jaki. [It IS Jaki.] Wow… It’s interesting, because Jaki… I loved a lot of Jaki’s playing. That’s not one of the favorite things. [What qualitatively makes this differ from the things you like by him?] The story line of the solo, so to speak. [Does it have anything to do with the accompaniment of the rhythm section?] I thought it might have been Richard Davis on the bass, but I’m not sure. [AFTER] Wow, that’s interesting. Jaki could be eccentric in his playing. 3-1/2 stars.

4. Renee Rosnes, “My Romance” – (from The Drummonds, PAS DE TROIS, True Life, 2001) – (Rosnes, piano; Ray Drummond, bass; Billy Drummond, drums).

That’s “My Romance.” I didn’t recognize the pianist. I enjoyed the reharmonization. I wasn’t moved by it really. It’s pretty piano playing, but it wasn’t for me…that tune in that setting… Again, I talk about story line or melodic development; in some ways I didn’t get a sense of a strong melodic statement. A couple of things sounded like a little pastiche element — one idea, another idea. 3 stars.

5. Peter Beets, “First Song” (from NEW YORK TRIO, Criss-Cross, 2001) (Beets, piano; Rodney Whitaker, bass; Willie Jones, drums) (3-1/2 stars)

I enjoyed it. It sounded like an original tune; a tune by the pianist, I’d imagine. A nice arrangement and nice energy in the trio. I didn’t recognize the pianist; I enjoyed the performance. 3-1/2 stars. Nice sound, nice energy.

6. Mulgrew Miller, “Body and Soul” (from YOUNG AT HEART, Columbia, 1996) (Mulgrew Miller, p; Ira Coleman, b; Tony Williams, d) – (5 stars)

That’s Mulgrew Miller playing “Body and Soul.” Mulgrew is certainly one of the great pianists alive today. He’s a personal favorite, and hearing him play the solo, he has such a personal language, a very rich harmonic language that’s very much his own. I love his touch on the piano. A lyrical, beautiful performance. 5 stars. [AFTER] Now I get to chastise myself in print for not recognizing Tony. I think I would have recognized him more immediately with the stick playing and not the brush playing. But they had a very nice trio sound. They played together beautifully.

7. Fred Hersch, “Work” (from SONGS WITHOUT WORDS, Nonesuch, 2001) (Hersch, piano) – (5 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] Fred Hersch playing “Work” by Thelonious Monk. Fred Hersch is one of my favorite living solo pianists. He’s a master at treating the piano orchestrally and creating… Listen to the integration of the two hands and the variety of textures he creates on the piano. That sounds like really on-the-edge playing. He likes to take chances, really putting himself out there on the edge. He can take a song in many different direction. A beautiful piano sound and touch. 5 stars.

8. Bill Charlap, “The Nearness Of You” (from STARDUST, Blue Note, 2002) – (5 stars)

This is “The Nearness Of You.” I’m not sure who it is yet. But it’s very pretty… I really like the way he or she is taking his or her time, letting the melody unfold in a very lyrical way. The performance had a very… It was a nice, slow tempo — and I really enjoy hearing ballads played at a slow tempo — but with space. But he certainly sustained the intensity. At one time they went into double-time feel, but they sustained a very lyrical feeling in terms of the ballad tempo. I was going to guess Larry Willis. No? I’m really a bit stumped on this. 5 stars for beautiful playing.

9. Jean-Michel Pilc, “I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good” (from WELCOME HOME, Dreyfuss, 2002) (Pilc, piano; Francois Moutin, bass; Ari Hoenig, drums) – (4 stars)

That, of course, is Duke’s “I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good.” I loved the reharmonization, and in some ways he or she changed the melody also. A very personal and imaginative reharmonization on the first two choruses of the melody. The actual improvisation section didn’t strike me as strongly as the statement of melody. I like the idea of a dialogue passing back and forth, but I felt particularly strongly about the way the pianist stated the head. If this were a magazine article, I’d say the solo didn’t kill me. Some of the harmonic approach sounded like Jason Moran, who I’ve never heard play a standard, but then I knew it wasn’t. It’s interesting because I’ve never heard Jason play a standard… I had a suspicion for a minute, because some of the harmonic ideas and the approach to the piano. [You’re saying that you thought in the beginning, in the melody statement that you complimented so highly that it might be Jason Moran, although you’d never heard Jason play a standard.] Exactly. [However, you realized it wasn’t once the improvisation began.] Exactly. That popped into my mind. [I can phrase that in the first person. Anybody else pop into your mind?] Not offhand. I would give it 4 stars, because I liked the statement of the melody so much.

10. Martial Solal, “You Stepped Out Of A Dream” (from JUST FRIENDS, Dreyfus, 1997) (Solal, p; Gary Peacock, b; Paul Motian, d) – (2-1/2 stars)

Some very virtuosic piano playing on “You Stepped Out Of A Dream”. A lot of interesting ideas. I’m not really comfortable with the way the rhythm section feels in the way they’re playing together. I wouldn’t venture a guess. There were interesting ideas. I didn’t like the feeling rhythmically, the way the trio played together. [Did it sound like a working trio or a one-off?] It’s hard to say. I can’t really judge. 2-1/2 stars. I respond to the emotional content of the solo, the story-line, the narrative flow — however you want to say it. I’m not talking necessarily about motific development, but a way where you feel things happen in an organic, natural, flowing kind of way, and I can’t feel it here.

11. Eric Reed, “Round Midnight” (from FROM MY HEART, Savant, 2002) (Reed, piano; Dwayne Burno, bass; Cecil Brooks, III, drums) – (3-1/2 stars)

Very virtuosic piano playing. I like the quote of “Four In One.” A couple of other quotes. Stanley Cowell? No. It’s not Rodney Kendrick? For my taste, it was a lot of notes. There were a lot of ideas and a certain virtuosity, but the content of the solo didn’t move me. The way I felt, the solo was pretty much at one level. It was pretty dense in terms of notes. 3-1/2 stars.

12. Oscar Peterson, “Sweet Lorraine” (from FREEDOM SONG, Pablo, 1982/2001) (Peterson, piano; Joe Pass, guitar; Niels Henning Orsted Pederson, bass) – (5 stars)

“Sweet Lorraine.” I’d like to say on the record that, Ted, you’re a tough Blindfold Test giver. It sounds like Oscar. Yeah. Oscar Peterson. During the intro it didn’t… It is. Right? Of course. It’s very pretty playing. With Joe Pass. It’s very relaxed and lyrical. I haven’t heard this particular record. 5 stars to my first favorite jazz pianist, when I was first learning to play. A very beautiful piano sound, great rhythmic feel, a nice swinging feeling. A lot of people talk about his virtuosity, but there’s some very pretty melodic playing that’s part of him, too.

 

*-*-*-*-

Bruce Barth Musician Show (WKCR, May 13, 1998):

[MUSIC: BB-3, “Don’t Blame Me”, BB-5, “Morning”]

TP: Let’s talk about the arc of the program of today’s show, the reasons for going in the direction you’re going.

BARTH: When you asked me to do a Musicians Show I was pretty thrilled, and also a little bit daunted at the prospect of having to pick my favorite records, because I have so many favorite records. But I thought of it in terms of groupings of music. I wanted to talk about some influences, some of the first records that I love, many of which I still love today, and also about some of the great pianists and other musicians I grew acquainted with later on. Also I thought it would be nice to play some other contemporary pianists I like who are on the scene now. And I love the whole tradition of jazz composition, so I brought along some records by different composers whom I admire.

TP: To what extent when you were coming up were records and the process of emulation with records part of your developing a style as an improviser or a sense of an individual voice that could come through the instrument?

BARTH: I think that these days records are more and more important…

TP: But for you.

BARTH: Oh, especially for me when I came up, because it’s not that I really grew up in a thriving jazz scene. I grew up in a town — Harrison, New York — a little bit north of the city. And I could get into the city sometimes to hear music, but it’s not the kind of thing… You read about jazz greats of the past who grew up completely surrounded by the music, people who grew up in many of the jazz cities, jazz musicians coming to their house. I talked to Stanley Cowell, and he told me how when he was 6 Art Tatum came over to the house. I didn’t really have those experiences growing up, needless to say, so I relied on records a lot. I started to meet some musicians when I was in high school doing some jamming, but so much of it was on the phone, “Oh, did you hear such-and-such a record?” It was a very exciting time, because I was often being introduced… People would tell me about musicians I hadn’t even heard of. I remember one day somebody said to me on the phone, “oh, I hear Oscar Peterson; he plays so fast, you wouldn’t believe it,” and at the time I was saying, “Really? I’ve got to check this guy out.” But the same thing with other people like Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Erroll Garner. A lot of times I would go down to the jazz department at the local record store because I had heard the name, and ask the guy, “Hey, could you recommend a record by Monk or by Bud Powell?” I’d take it home, the first time I’d ever heard a Monk or a Bud Powell record. It was a very exciting time.

TP: A two-part question following onto that. You grew up not only not in a jazz bad, but when you were coming up was a time when a classic era of jazz was kind of winding down, or entering a transition, or taking very a different form. How did the jazz bug hit you? What kept you with it in terms of the type of music you play in the early or mid ’70s when things weren’t necessarily going in that direction?

BARTH: I started playing the piano when I was very young, and I started with Classical lessons. But from the time I first started playing the piano, I loved always loved to play by ear and to improvise. So when I was let’s say younger, like 10-11-12, I was always figuring out tunes. A lot of it more Pop tunes-Rock tunes, figuring out tunes by ear, figuring out at the piano. But I really hadn’t heard a lot of jazz growing up until the high school years. Actually, a big influence was my older brother bought me a Mose Allison for my birthday, I think my 15th birthday — and I just flipped over it. Several of those tunes I figured out by ear. Again, I didn’t have a jazz instructor. So I just figured things out, and I probably gave half of the chords the wrong names at the time. But I was able to figure things out.

TP: But simultaneously you were reading and playing Classical music?

BARTH: Yes, I was. I was practicing a lot of Classical music at the time. In some ways, I think it’s a good thing that I figured out a lot of things for myself. I later did study jazz; I had jazz teachers later on. I studied with Norman Simmons, Jaki Byard and Fred Hersch. But by then, even by the time I hooked up with Norman, who was really my first jazz teacher, I feel I’d already learned a lot of the basic things about playing, pretty much by listening to records, and then later on into high school I started playing with some friends and that kind of thing.

TP: Did you have people to play with in Harrison, or were you a solo pianist?

BARTH: A lot of stuff just on my own, fooling around on my own. Then later on, I started hanging around SUNY-Purchase. I remember one summer I took a jazz course with Lou Stein, and I met some musicians there. Then I met some of the jazz students who were going over there and started to play some jam sessions with them.

TP: What component of improvising in a jazz sense, if any, would you say was the biggest hurdle for you, that one you got past it you felt reasonably comfortable?

BARTH: I’d say it was just a matter of learning the language. I don’t think of myself as a super late starter, but it’s interesting… Nowadays I teach some, and just being around the New York scene where there are so many talented young players, now, of course, it’s a time with I’d say a lot more interest among young people, among young musicians in jazz than when I was coming up. But I certainly didn’t have it all together. I sometimes meet 19 or 20 year olds who are already playing great now. For me I think it was a little bit more of a gradual process to really get my playing together. I can’t say the main hurdle was a rhythmic thing or a harmonic thing. I think it was just needing the experience, playing with other people and then finally getting on gigs.

TP: Mentioning Fred Hersch and Jaki Byard, did you go to New England Conservatory?

BARTH: Exactly. I studied with both those guys up there.

TP: Let’s talk about that experience. The idea of studying jazz in college, which is a fairly new phenomenon… Not that jazz musicians didn’t have thorough music educations, but the idea of a specific jazz curriculum. And just going from that to the idea of music as your life, as not just your avocation but your vocation.

BARTH: By the time I went to New England Conservatory I’d already had a fair amount of playing experience, and I didn’t feel quit… At one point I did live in New York City, for about a year, when I was 20, and I was studying at Manhattan School, but in some ways I didn’t feel ready for the whole scene back then. The pressures of living in New York, partly the financial pressures also. Boston was a good place in that there was a little bit less pressure, and I was actually able to work more — which was the other thing. It’s kind of a tradeoff. Sometimes you go to a place like New York when you’re young, and it’s great being in that environment. I think that that’s the way to really improve the fastest. On the other hand, young musicians who go to New York aren’t really going to work too much, given the level of music here. So being in Boston, I think I was able to be a little bit more active. I was pretty active on the Boston scene.

TP: A little bit about what you did in town.

BARTH: Really briefly: I think the first month in town, I had a gig with Jerry Bergonzi and some other excellent Boston players. And I met some fine players up there. Teddy Kotick was still up there, and I had the chance to play with him. Joe Hunt. Of course, Bill Pierce and Garzone, two other great tenor players in addition to Bergonzi. And also I did some gigs with Grey Sergeant, the guitarist. So I actually had some very nice gigs in Boston. I had a steady trio gig Friday and Saturday night that lasted for two years. That’s something you don’t see around New York too much.

TP: I’m trying to get back into your head as a young aspirant who has something together. Would you use a gig like that as a way of, let’s say, strengthening things that you felt unsure about? How would a gig like that proceed for you?

BARTH: It was a great learning experience on a couple of levels. In terms of my own musical development, I was constantly learning new tunes. Again, it just gets back to doing things yourself rather than… I sometimes joke about taking all the real books and putting them on a big bonfire and burning them. Because I think musicians, especially young musicians, rely a little bit too much on the written music. So back then I would figure things out. Tunes I wanted to play, I would figure those out off records. So having a steady gig was a chance to try out new material, and I learned a lot of tunes in those years. It was a chance to stretch out, and also to play with a lot of musicians. Rather than having a steady trio at that time, since there were a lot of excellent bassists and drummers in Boston, I thought it would be better for me just to play with different people. One bass player I worked a lot with was Richard Evans, a Chicago bass player, who actually lived in Boston and played some gigs up there. At the time, he was one of the greatest bass players I’d ever worked with. He has that great beat, a beautiful sound.

TP: A post Israel Crosby-Wilbur Ware kind of thing.

BARTH: Exactly. He’d worked with Jamal and Dinah Washington, and of course, he worked with Sun Ra, which was one of his first gigs.

TP: Well, that must have been an education, drawing on that body of knowledge with someone like him. It must have done wonders for your time as well, playing with someone like Richard Evans.

BARTH: Very much so.

TP: Who were some of the older musicians you encountered in Boston?

BARTH: Teddy Kotick, of course, who had played with Bird; I was glad to have the chance to play with him. Bill Pierce isn’t in that generation, but certainly at the time had a lot more playing experience than I did, so the chance to work with him was educational as well.

TP: So you were simultaneously attending New England Conservatory and gigging around the Boston area?

BARTH: Exactly. Then after school I stayed up there for a few more years. I’d say I was gigging more… I was doing some gigs during school. I also had the opportunity of working with Gil Evans and George Russell. That was partly through being in the school. Gil brought in his arrangements to play with the big band at the school. It was a thrill to meet Gil Evans and play his music.

TP: He was conducting?

BARTH: He was conducting, and he also played great piano. I guess the cliche is “arranger’s piano,” not necessarily having the technical fluency you’d expect from a full-time pianist. But very interesting ideas.

TP: Did you also have an interest in electric instruments and synth and that whole sound palette expansion you can do on them? Is that part of your arsenal?

BARTH: You know, a little bit. And actually on the Gil Evans concert I played some synthesizer. Same thing with George Russell… Well, George Russell I played Rhodes and piano. But I realized early on that some people have a knack for just jumping right into it. Because so much of it is learning the technology, dealing with the manuals, fooling around with it — kind of the extra-musical aspects of it. And early on, I felt that I’d better concentrate on the piano. I felt it was enough of a challenge to try to get my piano playing together. But I’m interested in doing it; I just haven’t really been doing it in recent years.

TP: Speaking of jumping in, let’s jump into the other-music portion of the show. We’ll start with Wynton Kelly. In the liner notes to this CD, there are interviews with McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Benny Golson, Hank Mobley, Philly Joe. Bill Evans says he was almost the perfect piano player of the ’50s and ’60s.

BARTH: Wynton Kelly was my first favorite pianist. I had a friend who I bumped into who I hadn’t seen for about fifteen years. He said, “Wow, I remember you turned me on to Wynton Kelly.” I think recently there’s maybe been a lot more attention given to Wynton Kelly. At the time people weren’t talking to him that much, but of course, musicians always have admired him. What really struck me about Wynton was his beautiful sound, that really crystal-clear articulation, and the swing, a beautiful swing feel, and just great rhythm, and just the Blues, too — the bluesy aspect of his playing.

[MUSIC: WK/Burrell/PC/Cobb, “Strong Man” (1958); Bud Powell, “Cherokee” (1949); Monk, “Just A Gigolo” (1954); Erroll Garner, “Just A Gigolo” (1964)]

BARTH: Erroll Garner had a beautiful rhythmic feel, and he had a way with melody. He was such a lyrical pianist. A happy feeling, a very deep feeling all the time.

TP: You were talking about ear playing before. I think the thing about Erroll Garner that amazed all his contemporaries is that he was a self-taught player who seemed to have a natural way of harmonizing anything and could do anything in any key.

BARTH: Absolutely. Sometimes his bandmates would not know what key he would play it in. He would play things in different keys on different nights, just basically playing it the way he was hearing it.

It’s interesting hearing the same two pianists playing the same tune back to back. That’s always very instructional. Erroll Garner, you get a sense of just this rolling rhythm. People called it a guitar-like left-hand; he was strumming the left hand on every beat. Of course, Monk played it more as a ballad; Erroll Garner played it more at a medium swing tempo. But Monk you get a sense of his very unique harmonic language, very dissonant chords. Just chords that you would not really find in other pianists. He really had his own harmonic language. Not to say there weren’t influences. I think Duke Ellington was a big influence on Monk. We’ll be hearing some Duke later that had some of the same chords. But Monk very much created his own little musical world, not only in terms of the note choices in the chords, but certain effects on the piano he would use. For instance, he’ll play several notes and then release some, and you’ll be left with maybe a cluster of notes that are sustained after he had released the other notes. A very unique approach to the piano.

TP: Bud Powell was Monk’s protege.

BARTH: Very much. I very much feel I learned to play jazz from a couple of Bud Powell tunes, one of which is “Cherokee.” Just the beautiful line of the bebop musicians, like Bud Powell and Charlie Parker. These musicians brought the art of line playing to such a high level. I think of it as the Bach of the jazz world (I know that’s also been said before) in terms of the most intricate relationship between the line and the harmony that underlies it, doing it in a very graceful way and a very interesting, creative way. Of course, there’s also an element of virtuosity, in that not many people played the kind of tempos that Bud Powell could play.

TP: Bud Powell swings in a very particular way as well. Is there any way you can put words on that?

BARTH: It’s very hard to put into word. It’s harder to say on an up-tempo tune. On a medium-tempo tune, somebody like Wynton Kelly, the eighth notes are a little crisp., while Bud Powell’s eighth notes would tend to be a little more even. So less of a long-short feeling in the eighth notes. Then Bud Powell will lay back a little bit on those medium tempos.

It’s interesting you bring up the idea of the swing feeling. We just heard four pianists, and each has not only a very unique rhythmic feel, but a very unique articulation. I think when you’re talking about pianists on this level (these are clearly some of the great jazz pianists), they are such individualists… Of course you can sometimes point to their influences. But each of these musicians has really carved out his own approach to the music, and I think that’s in a way the thing, even apart from the wonderful elements of their playing… You can talk about their great rhythm or their great harmony. But just the fact that they are such consummate artists in the way that they have created their own approach to the instrument and their own approach to the music.

TP: Well, maybe the mega-influence of jazz piano, maybe even to this day (and not just piano, but Charlie Parker and Don Byas), is Art Tatum, who was playing things in the early 1930s that people still have to grapple with. Talk about how you discovered Tatum, and how a contemporary pianist can usefully assimilate the information drawn from him.

BARTH: Tatum is such a monster of a pianist that for me it’s a little bit daunting to say I’m going to try to assimilate these aspects of Art Tatum. I’ve grappled with a couple of these tunes. Of course, people talk about his amazing technique, which has been pretty much unsurpassed in jazz — his left hand which is faster than most people’s right hand. Also, apart from that is Tatum’s incredible imagination, especially harmonically. He does things that sound so modern. Things he recorded 50 years ago sound like they could have been recorded yesterday. A very adventurous harmonic spirit. And I think finally, in more recent years, he’s starting to get his due as one of the great influences. People often talked about the innovators of Bebop, they talked about Monk, Bird, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie. But like you say, Tatum back in the ’30s was doing a lot of things that the Bebop players later assimilated. The use of sharp 11 chords; harmonically very rich, very dissonant things.

TP: [START OF SIDE B] …being, as they might put it, not imaginative enough, saying that he would play set pieces and have his own set thing, and would rely on some of these incredible virtuoso turns that he invented as licks. It brings up an interesting thought on the nature of improvising and what actually it entails. I don’t know if that’s a question or not, but do you have any thoughts.

BARTH: One thing before I get to that, that’s interesting, which is a little hard for us as Jazz musicians in the ’90s to relate to: Back then, a lot of these jazz tunes, jazz recordings were big hits on jukeboxes. Horace Silver once told me you could sometimes tell when something was going to be a hit, and then it would get played in jukeboxes all over the place. Of course, now popular records will get played a lot on the radio, but it’s maybe not quite the same as things being in the jukeboxes. I think it has the same relationship to its audience as Pop tunes have these days, a Pop hit. So in those days, people would come to the club and they would know Tatum’s recording of a certain piece, and they’d kind of expect to hear that. Not that they didn’t want to hear him improvise, too. But there were certain tunes Tatum had had hits with, and he would actually play them the same way. Which is a little hard for me to imagine, because I don’t know how he played it that way in the first place.

But in terms of the things he came up with, it’s sometimes interesting to hear a well-known standard, even a tune… We could listen to, say, Tatum’s “Jitterbug Waltz,” which was a Fats Waller tune, and Tatum would often say that “I come from Fats” in terms of his influence on the piano, and then hear Fats’ version. Just the wonderful things he does with the harmony and the form. It’s hard to imagine someone saying he’s not creative.

TP: On a more general plane, and again dealing with the process of a contemporary improviser assimilating information: What do the older piano players have to offer? Everybody acknowledges that the older musicians were great. But you rarely hear contemporary improvisers on any instrument really taking them as source material for the way they’re functioning right now. Any thoughts on that?

BARTH: Could you clarify that?

TP: Well, when saxophonists come up, you won’t often have someone bring in Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young or Ben Webster as an influence per se. If they’ve heard them, it’s sort of through someone else who had heard them as an influence. I’m interested in the assimilation of information from the older musicians particularly pre-war, on a contemporary improviser.

BARTH: I think one big element, even… It’s interesting speaking about the sax players. A lot of younger sax players are very drawn to the harmonic innovations of Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, that kind of thing. So a lot of times they’re looking to those musicians for inspiration. But of course, there are those elements you get from the older players, the melodicism, the warmth… Not only the warmth of the sound, but something about the whole manner of playing. I’m speaking in really general terms, but there’s a certain warmth that often you don’t find in younger players. It might be just the society they came up in. It was a different world back then in a lot of ways.

In the case of Tatum it’s interesting, because he goes back to… When you talk about let’s say some of the early tenor players, people like Trane definitely brought the language to a modern state. In the case of Tatum, it’s interesting, because he played back then, but he sounds so modern today. So maybe the pianist equivalent would be somebody like Teddy Wilson, who was from that period, had that approach, didn’t play necessarily the modern things that Tatum played. I’ve listened a lot to Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller… The thing about pianists from that period, they really played the whole piano. A lot of the Bebop players concentrated more on the right hand. I think what happened is that a lot of the more modern pianists have gone back to that whole piano way of playing.

TP: Which Ahmad Jamal seemed to help bring back into a modern vernacular in certain ways.

BARTH: I think so.

[MUSIC: Tatum, “Tenderly” (1952); Fats, “Russian Fantasy” (1935); Duke/Strayhorn, “Tonk” (1950)]

TP: You can’t do a Musician Show without including your own favorite by Charlie Parker. Bruce is choosing Bird with Strings, “Temptation.” Talk about the role Charlie Parker played in the development of your aesthetic.

BARTH: For me, I would say that Charlie Parker is one of my very favorite jazz musicians. I love him as much as I love any pianist. Bird had it all for me in terms of… I guess the basic thing is such a depth of feeling, which came out even more so with some of the string recordings, which he loved. He said how much he was thrilled to play with strings and hear that accompaniment behind him. Charlie Parker had a great way of phrasing. Of course, he’s one of the innovators of modern jazz. He created his own language. For me it’s a matter of the phrasing, the great rhythm and the creativity. It’s interesting, too, when you hear alternate takes, and you really see… Talk about a creative player. Playing different things in different versions. Always fresh, always creative.

TP: You were talking about things Art Tatum played in the ’30s that still sound modern. There’s a school of thought, and as I continue to listen to music I agree with it more and more, that says Charlie Parker has never been surpassed in the originality of his concept, particularly in the rhythmic aspect of what he did. Any comments?

BARTH: There is a real rhythmic freedom and a real looseness, and he’ll play some wild rhythms that really make you turn your head. The same thing harmonically. He was playing certain substitutions that I don’t think anyone… Well, Tatum, of course, like we were saying, played really innovative harmonic things. But in terms of horn players, I think at the time no one had played the kinds of things that Bird played, in terms of some of the harmonic substitutions. I guess it almost goes without saying he’s been such a huge influence on all the subsequent…not only horn players, but pretty much musicians of all instruments, all jazz musicians who’ve come after him.

[MUSIC: Bird, “Temptation” & “April in Paris” (1950)]

BARTH: To me, it’s like listening to Bach for me. Brilliant, creative and beautiful — lyrical. He had it all.

TP: We’ll enter some more modern, or post-Parker players, we’ll call them, beginning with Herbie Hancock, who influenced just about every pianist of your generation.

BARTH: Yes.

TP: You as well?

BARTH: Yes. Again, the element we were talking about — creativity, spontaneity. You never know what Herbie will do. Once again, he’s a musician like Bird in that there are so many facets to his playing. Great rhythm, great swing feeling. Again, in terms of the sophistication of his harmonies and his rhythms. Another two-handed pianist. Way beyond just right-hand line, left-hand comp, but a wide variety of textures and rhythmic devices on the piano. He’s been a huge influence. Many of these things he came up with. He’s a real innovator of the modern piano.

[HH/RC/TW, “Dolphin Dance” (1977); KJ/GP/JDJ, “Prism” (1983); Bill Evans solo “Here’s That Rainy Day” (1968); McCoy, “Peresina” (1968)]

BARTH: Four great pianists. Again, we’re talking about musicians who aren’t just great pianists, but very unique musical personalities. All four have been very influential pianists and all four pianists that you can pretty much instantly recognize.

McCoy Tyner has been a huge influence for me. Not that I try to play like him, because I can’t. Who can? But he’s an example of a musician who created completely his own language. Great innovator. His whole manner of dealing with the harmony, using the pedal points. Just a big, powerful sound. But also, as we heard on “Peresina,” there’s a very lyrical, tender side to McCoy also. It’s a very lyrical melody. McCoy has been a great influence, as much the things he’s played… He once told me that it’s a matter of trying to take a chance, not being afraid to just try something different. He has very much created his own way of playing, and he’s been immensely influential on many people.

Before that we heard Bill Evans. Beautiful touch on the piano and great solo player. It’s nice hearing the freedom of a solo pianist because they can change keys. In this case he actually played the melody in one key, soloed in another key, and then took the melody out in yet another key. I’m not saying that not only from the point of view of understanding the technical aspect, but each key has its own color and its own feeling. So I always have very much admired Bill Evans, his harmonic language and his touch on the piano.

I think harmonically he influenced Herbie Hancock, whom we heard earlier on the set, and who I think is one of the great pianists, who also influenced me quite a bit. That’s a particularly free-blowing version of “Dolphin Dance,” the trio stretching out and playing with a lot of energy and getting into some great stuff.

Sandwiched in there we also heard Keith Jarrett, a very lyrical pianist. “Prism” is a very lyrical piece, with interesting harmonic changes, too.

TP: What are your feelings about playing solo piano for yourself, the special challenges and daunting qualities of the form?

BARTH: I think the big challenge is keeping it interesting. You don’t have a rhythm section, so you have to keep it going. That’s one thing. For me it’s not as much a problem of keeping it going rhythmically as just having something that is interesting and multi-faceted enough to sustain the interest. There is obviously such a history of great solo playing. On the other side, the rewards of solo playing are, of course, the freedom. You can do things that are difficult to do with a rhythm section. You can go out of time, you can suddenly decide to stay on a chord, you can go to a different key. It’s that kind of freedom that I think all the great solo pianists have taken advantage of quite a bit. We heard Tatum before; hearing Bill Evans now. Some of it is in tempo, some of it’s rubato. He started that melody pretty much at a very deliberately slow, steady tempo, and he soloed in kind of a double-time feel. Then when he took the melody out, he went to a third key, as I mentioned, and then it’s rubato but moving the tempo along. People often think of rubato playing as having to be solo playing, but rubato can be fast as much as slow. It can very much be faster than the original tempo.

TP: I’d like you to elaborate on McCoy Tyner’s comment about taking a chance, not being afraid to fail. Again, there’s a commonly expressed school of thought about, let’s say, post-Coltrane music, that jazz hasn’t gone past the information that Coltrane laid down, that it’s all been laid down in such a compressed space of time that people are still dealing with the implications of it.

BARTH: I think that’s a really good point. It’s interesting, because we played the Art Tatum solo piano, and I feel I could spend a lifetime trying to understand what Tatum was doing. Apart from the challenge of trying technically to play the things he played, just to understand what he was doing harmonically — his kind of voicing his kind of chord substitutions. The same thing with someone like McCoy. People talk about McCoy in a basic sense, the kinds of fourth chords he uses in the left hand, the pentatonics in the right hand. But it’s a very-very-very sophisticated language that he created. You could superficially say that McCoy uses pentatonics, he uses these voicings. But the relationship between the hands is so subtle, and the way he goes in and out of different tonalities, it’s just very complex — it’s brilliant. So it’s an example of a lot of harmonic information to try to understand. For me, it’s basically a process… You could, in fact, spend a lifetime studying one figure, one musician like McCoy.

For me, the challenge is pretty much taking a look at some of these things, but also trying to find out what I want to say about something. I’ve done a lot of listening. But then a lot of it is just a matter of trying to create something that’s personal, and take these influences and hope that they somehow churn around inside of you, and then you’ll play something that sounds like yourself. The way to do that, of course, is just to spend a lot of time exploring… For me, I spend a lot of time exploring my own ideas. If I might be practicing or playing, and I’ve come upon a certain chord that I like, I’ll explore that, see where I can go with that.

TP: Will you do that on the bandstand as well?

BARTH: Definitely. My approach to playing, I really like to keep things spontaneous. There are many different schools of thought. Some musicians like to play on solos. Of course, you can hear that if you hear a musician on a few different nights playing on some of the same material. For me, one reason I like some of these pianists… Herbie for me is an example of a very spontaneous trio player. He might have a head arrangement or something that happens, but in general, once the head is over, you have no idea what he will do. So I really try to keep things open-ended personally when I start soloing, not having an idea, “Oh, I might do this, I might go into this area,” but more try to keep a wide-open mind and see what develops.

The other big aspect of that is listening to the players, especially… I’m going to have the pleasure of playing with Al Foster next week, and when you’re playing with someone like Al, it’s so inspiring to hear the kinds of things he’ll play on the drums. For me, being on the bandstand, listening is a big part of it. Because really, the main thing about music is communicating with the people you’re playing with.

TP: I’d imagine that playing with someone like Al Foster would make you feel like you could go absolutely anywhere and still stay cohesive, because his reflexes are so instantaneous, like a great hockey goalie almost.

BARTH: That’s a great image. That’s the kind of drummer that he is. He’s very wide-open. He’s got a great groove; at the same time he’s wide-open. He’ll do all kinds of things that you’re not expecting. I say “you’re not expecting,” but yet they all fit the music. He’s a very musical drummer. He’ll never do things for the sake of doing them.

TP: In your recent session, Don’t Blame Me, did you follow the dictum you just stated of open spontaneity. It doesn’t sound quite arranged, but has a very thoughtful quality, which I find in your playing always.

BARTH: I try to basically have an approach for songs. So in a sense, I do think about… It’s not necessarily wide-open. In the case of my recordings, I’ve never gone into the session and said, “Okay, let’s play this tune.” That would be interesting to do. I tend to record tunes that I’ve developed an approach to over time. It might be, in the case of “Don’t Blame Me,” some reharmonization and some rhythmic things, some changes of groove throughout that we kept for the solos. So it’s basically having, you might say, an angle or a general approach to the tune. But within that framework, I really like to keep things fresh. I don’t really practice things. I don’t go into the session knowing that… Sometimes, of course, there would be security in knowing, “Well, this would work here, this would work there.” You could get security from that. But it’s a little scarier to go in there as a kind of blank slate. But that’s really the way I like to work, because then I feel that I’m more in the moment in terms of seeing what might occur to me and also being able to react to the other musicians. I think if you go in there with an agenda, it’s harder to really be fresh, to respond. Because you may have an idea of what you might like to play, but the drummer or bass player might do something that suggests a different direction. I think if you can be open to that possibility, you’ll end up with music that’s a lot more interesting and more vibrant. Because it’s more what’s happening in the moment.

[BB, “Evidence”]

TP: Coming up is a Wayne Shorter segment.

BARTH: I thought it would be interesting to hear records several years apart. Wayne is one of the great jazz composers, a brilliant composer who not only has created his own language harmonically and is a great melodist, but also in his work over the past several years he’s created large forms and rich, multi-faceted work bringing in several elements. The best analogy I can think of for some of Wayne’s recent work is that it’s like a Classical symphony. The compositions, for instance, on his last record, Highlife, involve some of his most elaborate compositions to date. We’ll start with early Wayne from his first date as a leader on the VJ label. This is typical Wayne, in that even though it’s in some ways more conventional than the compositions he later developed, it’s already very unique in terms of his approach to harmony. It’s the kind of tune where you think you’re starting in one key, but you’re actually in another key. A beautiful lyrical melody, “Pug-Nose.”

[Wayne-LM-WK-PC-JC, “Pug-Nose” (1959); WS-FH-HH-EJ, “Wildflower” (1964); “At The Fair” (1995)]

BARTH: The music on Highlife leaves me speechless. As I said before, the only analogy I can really think of is a symphony or a complex orchestral work. In this case, this tune, “At The Fair”… First of all, the whole record, which is mostly new compositions, but then reworkings of “Virgo Rising” and “Children of the Night”… But the whole record works as a suite, where certain themes might be introduced in one composition, and then come out in a more developed form later on, and then certain instrumental combinations recur throughout. Even in terms of this first tune, it’s basically two themes. On the first tune we first hear it on guitar and tenor, then the second theme is brass [SINGS REFRAIN]. Those are the two basic themes, but then with a lot of motivic development, other thematic material also. Even the way Wayne deals with those two themes, there’s such a rich variety of orchestrations, his ear for color. And it’s very contrapuntal music. There was one section where a lot of the ensemble dropped out, and the music became highly contrapuntal, different lines being woven together.

Another thing that’s fascinating to me about the way Wayne developed the music for this record is the use of the sax as a solo instrument, very much interwoven into the texture of the composition. This is such an extreme departure from the idea of head-solo-head format. Even with this intricate writing, there’s not really one pronounced solo section, but several short places where Wayne might take 8 bars, 16 bars, or there might be a solo section put in between two more composed sections. On this tune, like many of the other tunes on the record, he solos on the same tune on both tenor and soprano. So there we hear him just playing beautifully and really soloing like a composer, the solo being another element of the composition. It’s so well-integrated and it’s so rich and multi-faceted that it kind of leaves me in awe. The way Tatum might leave a pianist in awe.

TP: Has anything like what Wayne Shorter is doing orchestrationally been done before in jazz?

BARTH: I think there are great orchestrators. Mingus… Unfortunately, we didn’t hear Mingus’ music because we ran out of time. Mingus’ tunes are very interesting harmonically, with many sections. Mingus did not really write as much for a big band. Epitaph was for a larger ensemble, which was reconstructed by Gunther Schuller after Mingus’ death.

TP: His music certainly lends itself to ingenious orchestration, as you know first-hand from playing a fair amount with the Mingus Big Band.

BARTH: Yes, very much so. It’s great big band music, and there are a lot of nice arrangements. The music is perfect for big band music because there are so many elements to it — interesting bass lines, interesting counter-melodies and different things. And of course, some of the great things of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn have many things going on. So I’m not saying Wayne created this stuff completely out of thin air.

TP: As a composer, would you say that Shorter, Mingus, Ellington-Strayhorn are the main influences for you?

BARTH: They’ve been big influences for me. I’ll just mention that something I’d like to do more… Some of the recent pieces I’ve written have had two themes, and I’m very interested in the idea of not everyone necessarily soloing over the same set of changes. I’ve written a few things recently (which I don’t think we’ll get to hear today) that have two themes, with one section that one soloist plays over, then another section the other soloist plays with. I’d very much like to have the opportunity to do more writing for larger ensembles, and again to try to write more contrapuntally and find different ways of having the solos more integrated into the composition, rather than just the head, then the solo.

[MUSIC: Strayhorn-C. Terry, “Chelsea Bridge” (1965)]

TP: …that was a different tempo than we’re used to hearing “Chelsea Bridge.”

BARTH: Yes. And Strayhorn, as you heard, was doing some very interesting comping things, little rhythmic things. He was a great pianist, very original.

[MUSIC: BB, “Days of June”]

*-*-*-

 

Liner Notes, Bruce Barth, Hope Springs Eternal (Double Time):

“I practice and study music by a philosophy of preparing myself to play in the moment, to be at-ease at the piano, to be able to go in different directions,” is how Bruce Barth summarizes his aesthetics. “When I start a solo, I like to have a clean slate, see what develops, react to what the other players are doing. I think of it as playing without an agenda, with nothing to prove.”

It’s an optimistic credo, to which Barth hews throughout his remarkable new recording, Hope Springs Eternal. Barth doesn’t need to prove a thing to New York’s demanding community of improvisers; he’s one of the jazz capital’s most respected pianists, equipped with capacious technique equally applicable to spontaneous combustion and introspective cerebration, an encyclopedic range of rhythmic and harmonic tropes at his disposal. He’s a consummate listener, a probing comper behind a soloist or singer, a warm melodist who deploys the entire piano with precisely calibrated touch. Conversant with the full tradition, he knows how to draw from it to tell his own story — no mean feat in an age when improvisers must assimilate enormous chunks of information just to keep head above water. “I feel I could spend a lifetime trying to understand things such as Art Tatum’s voicings and chord substitutions, McCoy Tyner’s interrelationship between the hands, the way he goes in and out of different tonalities,” the pianist comments. “I’ve tried to understand some of the musical principles that work and to use them as inspiration for developing my own ideas.”

Now 40, Barth has relished the challenge of individuality from his earliest years in music. “I began playing piano when I was 5,” recalls the Pasadena, California, native. “I always loved to play by ear and to improvise, to figure out Pop and Rock tunes at the piano. I didn’t hear a lot of jazz until my high school years, after my parents moved to Harrison, New York. My older brother bought me a Mose Allison record for my fifteenth birthday, which I flipped over. I probably gave half the chords the wrong names at the time, but I figured things out. I started to buy records by Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Erroll Garner, and learned a lot of the basics of playing. Later I started hanging around the SUNY-Purchase campus nearby, took a jazz course, and jammed with some young musicians I met there.”

After attending several institutions of higher learning, Barth wound up at the New England Conservatory in 1982. He studied with Fred Hersch and Jaki Byard, and became active on the Boston scene, landing a two-year weekend trio gig, and getting major league experience on jobs with the likes of Jerry Bergonzi, George Garzone, Bill Pierce and Grey Sergeant. “I didn’t feel quite ready for New York back then,” Barth confesses. “In Boston there was a little less pressure, and I was able to work more. I constantly learned new tunes, taking them off records and working them out on gigs. I had the chance to play with bassists like Teddy Kotick, who’d been with Bird, and the Chicago bassist Richard Evans, who had played with Ahmad Jamal and Dinah Washington, with a great beat, a beautiful sound.”

By 1988, when Barth took the New York plunge, he was a mature, focused musician with a keen sense of what he wanted to do. He jammed extensively with peers, worked with Nat Adderley and Stanley Turrentine, and landed in Terence Blanchard’s steady-working unit in 1990. “Terence was dealing with certain modern concepts that I wasn’t so conversant with, unconventional chord motions and rhythmic groupings of fives and sevens,” Barth states. He left Blanchard in 1994 “to concentrate on working with my own bands.”

Barth’s Enja recordings Focus (1992) and Morning Song (1994) reveal an expressive writer with a penchant for conjuring melodies that stick in the mind, exploring interests as diverse as his improvisation. The material included spirited song-book reharmonizations, compositions whose moods spanned angular Monkish grit to flowing post-Hancock sophistication, incorporating extended forms with different themes for each soloist. On Hope Springs Eternal Barth digs deeper into multi-thematic writing and rhythmic variation. The music sounds lived in, organic, improvisations emerging inevitably from the warp and woof of the writing.

“In addition to experimenting with form, I’ve explored a wider variety of grooves on this record,” Barth reveals. “I’ve checked out Latin music on my own for the past 15 years, I’ve worked a lot with Leon Parker, and in 1996 I played several months with David Sanchez. Out of the eight tunes on this date, six have some straight eighth elements.”

Given the difficulties of maintaining a fixed band, Barth relies on an elite circle of New York improvisers with whom he enjoys long-term musical relationships — “I’m never disappointed with the people I call, that’s for sure.” For the week at Manhattan’s now defunct Visiones that generated Hope Springs Eternal, Barth employed a top-shelf quartet of young masters.

In-demand soprano and alto saxophonist Steve Wilson, currently with Chick Corea’s Origin, appears on his third Barth record. “Steve is constantly creative and surprising,” Barth enthuses. “He puts so much of himself into interpreting other people’s music that he’ll find creative nuances, things that actually improve the music that you hadn’t imagined.”

Of Ed Howard, bassist of choice for the likes of Roy Haynes and Victor Lewis, Barth comments: “Ed’s an earthy, versatile bass player who will experiment and take chances.”

Howard locks in with drummer Adam Cruz, whose recent credits include Eddie Palmieri, David Sanchez, Brian Lynch and Chick Corea. Barth enthuses: “Adam is a very well-rounded musician, and plays piano well. Being the son of percussionist Ray Cruz and having grown up on the New York jazz scene, he can play a wide variety of grooves, which we took advantage of on this gig.”

The upbeat lead-off title track “is in two contrasting sections,” Barth says, “the first section with a sustained melody and the second vamp-like section with a more rhythmic, fragmented melody. This second section includes a few 3/4 bars and a 2/4 bar that give it an off-balance feel.”

Barth’s lyrical “Wondering Why” features Wilson on flute. The soulful slow-medium swing tempo number “starts out with a straight eighth introduction, and the kind of chords you might hear in Aaron Copland’s music.”

Barth’s fast Latin line,”Hour of No Return,” featuring Wilson’s alto, “is basically in F-minor, with a double-time Samba feel, but a very open-ended groove,” says the composer. “My idea was to have the rhythm section groove while Steve and myself float the melody over the top, rhythmically very free, almost out of tempo, followed by open solos for Steve and myself.” It’s a groove sustained by Cruz and Howard’s hard-won mastery of metric modulation; Barth’s dazzling solo echoes the mercurial spirit of Herbie Hancock’s playing on Inventions and Dimensions, a Barth favorite.

Barth showcased his command of the elusive art of the piano trio in no uncertain terms on Don’t Blame Me, his Double-Time debut; here he puts in his three cents with “Darn That Dream.” “The challenge of playing in a trio setting is utilizing the piano’s sonic resources, thinking of it more orchestrally for variety,” Barth comments. “The piano can sound like a lot of different things, and you need to use your imagination. Rather than ‘I’m going to play a G7 chord,’ you think, ‘I want to sound like a big band’ or ‘I want to sound like a waterfall’ or ‘I want to sound like bells chiming.’

“I’m a stickler about tunes. I almost always buy the original sheet music so I can see the exact melody the way it was written, and I do like to see the lyrics. I played this song for many years before I checked the melody and realized I’d been playing one note wrong — but I was so used to it, I kept doing it!”

The quartet returns for “The Epicurean,” a Wilson original. “It’s classic Steve,” Barth enthuses. “I’ve heard him describe it as coming out of an Eddie Harris-Les McCann funky straight eighth vibe. It’s a through-composed melody with some variations, and a vamp figure at the beginning and end of each chorus. Steve’s writing is very personal and recognizable, with melodies that have intriguing twists and turns, interesting chords — like his playing.” Barth’s bluesy solo conjures Wynton Kelly (“he’s my first favorite pianist”) in its propulsion and articulation, and Herbie Hancock in its variety of textures and rhythmic devices.

The Monkish “Up and Down” is Barth’s only original in standard AABA, 32-bar song form. “For me it’s just a nice relaxed tune for blowing, using some major 2nds and a melody based on arpeggiated figures, differing from the melodies I usually write,” says Barth. “I used some wider intervals. The melody goes up and down, while the last A is a somewhat inverted version of the first two A’s.” Barth’s ebullient declamation shows he’s idiomatically assimilated the High Priest’s rituals; Wilson on alto hurdles the changes like Charlie Rouse at his most expoobident.

Adam Cruz contributes “Full Cycle,” rooted in an evocative bass ostinato handled resourcefully by Ed Howard. “It’s a Latin tune with a peaceful, tranquil feeling and a lot of rhythmic interest in the melody, and we improvised collectively on it,” says Barth. “I like very much the combination of piano and soprano together. First, Steve and I play the melody in unison, then as a canon, which I think works nicely.”

“Revolving Door,” the set closer, is a two-section eighth tune featuring a Wilson alto solo that builds from simmer to full-boil, followed by a dancing piano solo that’s ûr-Barth, juxtaposing delicate chords with fleet lines so subtly that you might overlook the leader’s devastating chops if you’re inattentive. “In the first section,” Barth says, “Steve plays the strong melody over a minor key with descending chords. Then there’s a short piano interlude, almost a kind of question mark or something a bit more plaintive. The second part of the tune is a more lyrical melody in a major key. Again, rather than have one instrument play the melody all the way through, I divided the melody between the alto and the piano, just for a little variation of color.”

To the observation that on Hope Springs Eternal Barth’s morphed antecedents into the most evolved Barthian vision we’ve yet seen, Barth responds: “I feel more and more that influences aren’t as explicit. I think composing and leading a band makes it easier to develop a unified musical vision. I’m writing tunes that involve the kinds of elements I’m exploring in my playing, and the composing-arranging and the playing become of a piece. Particularly within tunes that don’t have standard chord progressions, it’s easier to explore your own way of playing, and you’re challenged to reach for something that’s your own.”

Each player on this vibrant, in-the-moment date is more than up to the task.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, Bruce Barth, DownBeat, Piano, WKCR

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 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 Uri Caine’s 60th Birthday, an Uncut Downbeat Blindfold Test from 2004 and a Downbeat Feature Article from 2001, plus Interviews for that Article

For the 60th birthday of pianist Uri Caine, I’m posting an uncut DownBeat Blindfold Test from 2004, the final draft (not sure if it’s verbatim of what made it to print) of a 2001 DownBeat feature, and the interviews conducted for that feature with Mickey Roker, Cornell Rochester, John Swana, Dave  Douglas, Stefan Winter and DJ Olive.

 

Uri Caine Blindfold Test (2004):

1. Chick Corea, “Bessie’s Blues” (from RENDEZVOUS IN NEW YORK, Stretch, 2003) (Corea, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Dave Weckl, drums) (5 stars)

It’s “Bessie’s Blues” and it’s Chick Corea playing with Roy Haynes. Oh, no, let me listen. It sounds like he’s playing a lot coming out of Chick Corea, but it’s definitely not Roy Haynes. Maybe it’s the newer group with Avishai and Jeff Ballard — if it is Chick. I’m enjoying the performance. It’s swinging… I’m thinking of it two ways. If it is Chick, he’s playing a lot of stuff that’s new. Some of the runs are definitely different. But the thing about his playing which is great is the buoyancy, the lines, the way they keep on coming. There’s a lot of rhythmic energy; it’s swinging. He’s playing a lot of interesting substitutions on the chord changes of the blues. It’s a famous Coltrane blues from “Crescent” and a really famous McCoy Tyner solo, so in other words, it’s one of those things where… It’s exciting, the way he’s playing, and I always love the incisiveness of how Chick Corea plays and the rhythmic energy of it. The trio is strong. They’re great musicians. The bassist sounds like John Patitucci. I say that because of the way he’s playing those high ideas, and there’s a certain rhythmic attack which he has. I like the drummer. One thing I will say is that I love the way Roy Haynes plays with Chick Corea, because he puts it right up in that area where Chick’s stuff sounds so ebullient. But I’m not sure who the drummer is. He sounds good, though. I like the way Chick is trading fours, too. [AFTER] Wow! Because I never really checked Dave Weckl out so much as a straight-ahead drummer. 5 stars because it’s Chick Corea. I feel like some of the pianists got alot of stuff from hearing Chick’s music. So in a way, this is a continuation of a lot of the great music he’s done from “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs,” especially in the trio vein. Those records are very important.

2. Pete Malinverni, “Elegy” (from AUTUMN IN NEW YORK, Reservoir, 2002) (Malinverni, piano, composer; Dennis Irwin, bass; Leroy Williams, drums) (4 stars)

That’s a hard one to guess. The composition seemed almost derived from a classical type of progression. I thought it was nice the way the pianist, the right hand especially, was playing some really nice things. In contrast to Chick, for instance, the rhythm was a lot more on the beat. The drummer is playing pretty much on the beat. Even the pianist’s left hand, a lot of the time, is playing very much on the beat. I would guess from that that it’s probably an older style, or a younger person imitating an older style, which many people do, too. In terms of who it might be? Oy!! I could get somebody from the Hank Jones-Tommy Flanagan-John Lewis type of vibe. I didn’t really hear enough to be able to identify somebody, but stylistically I would say that it’s coming out of those types of pianists. There’s a certain restraint in it that’s very nice, and also rhythmically it’s sort of staying more within than, say, the way Chick starts his phrases at the end, or even when Chick is trading he doesn’t stay so much in the rhythmic grid. But I enjoyed it. There was an elegance to the way whoever it was, was playing. I liked the composition. That sort of composition is hard to play on, because the type of chords he was using are…it’s one thing when you have a composition based on that, but when you actually have to solo on it, it’s a harder thing. There’s a certain…what’s the word when something is foreordained…when there’s a certain progression that’s happening… I don’t know who it is. 4 stars. [AFTER] They’re great players. I’ve played with Dennis Irwin, and I love playing with him. He gives a lot to the music when he plays, and he’s also a total Mahler fanatic. I’ve spent entire evenings talking to him. We have this connection beyond having played together. I wouldn’t say he really got a chance to play his stuff on that track, but he’s a great player.

3. Geoffrey Keezer-Mulgrew Miller, “Alpha” (from SUBLIME: HONORING THE MUSIC OF HANK JONES, Telarc, 2002) (Keezer, Miller, piano; Hank Jones, composer)

It sounded like two pianists. If it was one pianist, it would be Art Tatum. Again, it could be several people. Playing together that way is hard, and the pianists had really good time. I like the way they accompanied each other. They weren’t always walking. Sometimes they were breaking up the time, sometimes they were letting open space happen, other times they were trying to sort of walk the left hand. It had a good feel to it, a good swing to it. Stylistically, I would put it somewhere coming out of pianists like Mulgrew Miller or Kenny Barron rather than somebody playing more outside. They’re playing really within changes. But there was a lot of creativity in how they were playing. It’s hard to guess who it would be. I’m trying to think of duet records. 4-1/2 stars. [AFTER] Keezer had a nice idea with this record. I used to hear Geoff Keezer more. He has an awesome technique. And I love Mulgrew. He has so much swing, and a lot of harmonic sophistication, and good time. I was thinking of him, especially in those runs, when he’s filling up the space. It had his signature.

4. Chano Dominguez, “Cilantro y Comino” (from HECHO A MANO, Sunnyside, 2002) (Dominguez, piano; Javier Colina, bass; Guillermo McGuill, drums; Tino di Geraldo, percussion; Joaquin Grilo, Juan Diego, Lorenzo Virseda, clapping) (5 stars)

I like this very much. It’s definitely a marriage of flamenco music — flamenco harmony and melody and definitely rhythm — and a Jazz-Latin vibe. You can tell the soloist is familiar with both of those words. I really like playing against that percussion, the clapping. My guess would be the guy from Spain who played with Wynton… I don’t remember his name. Actually, I heard him play at a festival in Spain. I like a lot of people who are bringing those types of rhythms in, where you can go back between 2 and 3 rhythmically. Those types of polyrhythms sound great. The pianist sounds like a combination of coming out of Chick Corea but trying to be more folkloristic about it in dealing with the flamenco part, which I like. So 5 stars. I don’t know the other players, but I’m assuming it’s the same group I saw him with.

5. Roland Hanna, “One For Gustav (Adagietto)” (from APRES UN REVE, Venus, 2002) (Hanna, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Grady Tate, drums; Antonin Dvorak, composer) (3-1/2 stars)

It’s the Adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. He or she played the beginning of… In the first part of the piece, the improvisations were really not on the harmony. They were just alternating on two chords. When people take a piece like that and sort of “jazz it up”… I think whoever was doing it was trying to do it in the style of a jazz ballad. I’m not sure that they got the drama of that music, in a way. There’s a sort of pseudo cocktail vibe to it. Although it was well done. The pianist is good, had a very good touch, and the group is playing together. In a way, I would want more from doing that, because to me, the point of taking these pieces is to bring something else to it, even if you’re going to play it fairly straight, that the improvisation should propel the piece forward. I was looking for more of that. But it was well-done. I don’t know who it is. 3-1/2 stars. [AFTER] Roland Hanna is a great pianist. I think that a lot of… [Does the function have anything to do with the aesthetic?] Well, I was going to say that. Again, there’s many ways to do it, so this isn’t in any sense a criticism. It’s just more a sense that I guess if you’re going to take a lot of his music and try to transform it through improvisation, there’s intense ways to do it. Roland Hanna was a great pianist, and I used to go hear Roland Hanna all the time play with Thad Jones, a really long time ago when I would first come up to New York from Philly to hear the band play, and I’d sit right up next to him. I consider him a great pianist who was a master of many styles, and also a real gentleman. So maybe it’s the idea of a theme record, where they’re suggesting to somebody that they take these pieces and play them. In that sense, it’s okay. But even then, I would rather hear Roland Hanna play his real thing, which I didn’t.

6. Bobby Few, “Continental Jazz Express, Reprise” (from CONTINENTAL JAZZ EXPRESS, Boxholder, 2002) (Few, piano, composer) (4-1/2 stars)

A very powerful pianist, influenced a lot, if it’s not Cecil Taylor, by Cecil Taylor, especially the types of left-hand flurries. The harmony doesn’t totally sound like Cecil Taylor, but if it’s not him, it’s somebody who’s listened a lot to him, especially the way he moves around, those types of two-handed figurations that go up and down, these ostinatos that start and stop and then move back. If not him, I’d guess somebody like Marilyn Crispell, or maybe Matthew Shipp — although it could be many people. In a sense, some of it almost sounds like a cross between certain classical composers, the figuration and sort of a Cecil vibe. But in a way, it doesn’t really sound like…there are certain things that don’t sound like Cecil, so… Like, now it doesn’t sound like Cecil. To me, it’s a challenge to play this way. The ending is very different than everything that came before it. I was very surprised by that ending, because in a way, it sort of went into a very tonal bebop type of ending. But it’s a different challenge to play this type of music than it is to play on changes, because in a certain way, you have to keep things moving and harmonically interesting without the benefit of having types of chord changes. But I enjoy this type of music very much. So I would give it 4-1/2 stars. [AFTER] Wow. I should be more familiar with Bobby Few’s work. That was strong. I need to check him out more.

7. Hilton Ruiz, “Black Narcissus” (from ENCHANTMENT, Arabesque, 2003) (Ruiz, piano; Joe Henderson, composer)

This is a Joe Henderson song called “Black Narcissus.” It’s a beautiful song. It’s very hard to play. Again, it could be many people. Maybe somebody like John Hicks. Just because of the style of the runs. He or she is keeping a rhythmic pulse going in the left hand to accompany. That’s another thing that’s hard to do when you’re playing a song like this without a rhythm section. You have to keep that thing moving. I’m hearing the pianist move in between playing in time and a more rubato type of feel, where the time is a little bit freer, which is nice. There’s also the attack. It’s a harder sound rather than a softer sound. But dynamically, it’s working, because they built up to a solo, and now they come back to the head and it’s more gentle, slower. I like the performance. Maybe it’s Joanne Brackeen. I know she played with Joe. But it is a certain maybe New York style of really digging in and playing. I wish I knew who it was. 4 stars. [AFTER] Hilton! Another pianist I’ve been hearing ever since I moved to New York, and usually not in this sort of context. Usually with his group. I love the song. Joe Henderson is a great composer, and it’s a challenge to play on tunes like that. They’re deceptively simple, but they were really vehicles for the type of floating improvisation that combines so many different styles, from the blues to outness, with very advanced harmony, very inside harmony. It’s a great tune.

8. Classical Jazz Quartet, “Invention #4” (from THE CLASSICAL JAZZ QUARTET PLAYS BACH, Fine Tune, 2002) (Kenny Barron, piano; Stefon Harris, vibraphone; Ron Carter, bass; Lewis Nash, drums) (5 stars)

It’s Bach’s Two-Part Invention in D-Minor. I’d guess the pianist is Kenny Barron. Especially his right hand is very…the timing is beautiful, the touch is very beautiful. It’s very light compared to the Bobby Few take, for instance. And it’s very well-suited for playing Bach. I would also say that unlike the other piece of Mahler, where you’re taking the piece but not necessarily adding to it, here I think that they are sort of using the harmony. Bach also lends himself to this very much, these type of circular harmonic patterns that are really satisfying to improvise on. So this feels like it’s moving forward in a better way. There’s a good contrast between how they’re soloing on it that sounds real, rather than sort of, “All right, now we’re going to take a little solo after we play this whole classical piece.” So in that sense, I think there is a better integration between the soloing and the piece. I like this middle section when they do that sort of minimalist thing, and then it breaks, and then they’re sort of vamping, and then they go back to the Bach. The arrangement of the piece is nice. And I really can’t say enough about Kenny Barron. Again, another pianist who, ever since I moved to New York, I’d make it my business to go see him play at Bradley’s. I’ve gotten to know him. He’s seen a lot and heard a lot, and he’s also from Philly. 5 stars. [AFTER] Let me say that Stefon Harris sounded great on that. That was a nice arrangement.

9. Orrin Evans, “Some Other Blues” (from BLESSED ONES, Criss-Cross, 2001) (Evans, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Edgar Bateman, drums)

It’s a blues by John Coltrane. There’s a looseness in the way they’re playing which is sort of different, let’s say, than some of the other pieces you played. I like the way that the pianist is touching on different styles, however briefly. There’s a mixture of sort of a bebop vibe, but also sort of playing outside of the harmony, playing real swing type of lines, but then sometimes moving sequentially, leaving it, using the themes from the melody as a basis for improvisation — sort of repeating things over and over again versus playing more fluid lines. So I like the contrast that’s going on in the piece. I like the way the bass and the drums sometimes seem like they’re falling behind, and then catching up. A lot of times, when people play a blues, they keep it very straight, and I think that the group is going for more of an open feel. I wish I knew who it was. [Any idea who the drummer might be?] That is a really good question. The drummer… Wow, wait a minute. The drummer seemed like he or she was very influenced by… It could be an older drummer, coming from the ’60s. There’s a certain looseness and almost non-chops-oriented approach to playing the swing thing. It almost reminds me of somebody like Barry Altschul. But I really don’t know who it is. It sounds familiar, and that’s why I’m frustrated, because I feel I should know who it is. And when you tell me, I’m going to hate myself. It’s not the sound of the record; it’s a certain approach. Certain people wouldn’t like that approach. There’s a certain looseness to it, and it’s okay. I like it when people go for that feeling. For the vibe, 4-1/2 stars. [AFTER] I was almost going to say that it sounded like Orrin, but in terms of the style… I grew up playing with Edgar Bateman, and he was considered to be a very eccentric drummer in Philadelphia compared to the more eccentric style people like Philly Joe or Mickey Roker. He was playing a lot of complicated stuff that I’m sure a lot of people couldn’t deal with. Because the way he was trying to play, it really was coming out of that head where instead of creating these continuous grooves that you sort of float on, he’s also trying to set up obstructions, then relax, then go forward, and so there’s a certain give-and-take which I really like. It’s great you played Edgar Bateman, because a lot of people really don’t know about him. Orrin is also somebody that I’ve known from Philly even before he moved to New York. I knew him through Ralph Peterson. Orrin is really combining a lot of stuff which I like. I think he has a lot of sense of humor in his playing. Also, I like the fact that he’s not afraid to sort of go for things, just as a musician. So I give it up to him.

10. Pablo Ziegler, “Chin Chin” (from BAJO CERO, Khaeon, 2003) (Ziegler, piano; Walter Castro, bandoneon; Quique Sinesi, guitar; Astor Piazzolla, composer)

It definitely sounds like Piazzolla. It was definitely out of the tango. It wasn’t Piazzolla, but sounded like a group playing his music. Maybe it was Richard Galleano or Gil Goldstein…I’m not sure who it was. It was interesting formally. I really liked the arrangement, and then sort of everything dropped out, and there was a longer piano solo and then a very short ensemble at the end, which was different. I don’t think that would normally happen, necessarily. For me, it was hard to tell from the solo who it was, because a lot of the solo piano part didn’t necessarily sound improvised; it sounded like it was composed and part of the arrangement. The harmony in that piece, as in a lot of Piazzolla’s music, is beautiful, the way it goes around and a lot of unexpected chords come into it. So I liked it. It was hard for me to tell from that piece who the pianist was, because I didn’t recognize the style — it was more playing a part. But I liked the arrangement. 4 stars. [AFTER] When I discovered Piazzolla’s music, it was a revelation, and then when I played iun Argentina I got a chance to see some of these clubs where they’re dancing to the tango, and it was interesting to see how there were some people saying “Piazzolla is not tango,” and then other people saying, “No, he took tango to the new form.” It reminded me of the way people talk about jazz or improvised music, where some say, “no, this is really jazz,” and others, “No, this is really the shit” or “he took it, but it’s not the real thing.” It was interesting, because I’m not prejudiced by those things, and I can deal with the traditional tango and also the Piazzolla, but once you start to really get into it and appreciate what he not only had to struggle against, but to develop his thing against a lot of people who said it’s not the real thing, it’s a good lesson that you should go with your own thing and create — using the tradition. Because it really sounds like he is using that tradition. But you see it in a different context with different music, and you realize that this dynamic goes on in a lot of musics.

11. Vijay Iyer, “Circular Argument” (from PANOPTIC MODES, Red Giant, 2001) (Iyer, piano; Stephan Crump, bass; Derrek Phillips, drums)

Geri Allen? I like the melody. It has a Monk vibe to it. Also sort of a looseness of how… Again, the soloing is not based on bebop harmony so much. It’s this rising progression. A good ending, too. The reason I said Geri Allen is because certain phrases reminded me of some of the stuff that she might play — or maybe Michelle Rosewoman. The lines had a certain feel like that. But I liked it. It sounded like a challenging piece to have to improvise on. It was combining swing with — especially in the piano part — a freer type of playing over that. Which means it could be a lot of different people. Maybe Andrew Hill? I’m trying to think of the drummer, because there was a very distinctive… But I don’t know. 4 stars. [AFTER] I’ve played with Derrick Phillips. He’s great. I first heard Vijay Iyer playing with Steve Coleman, and the other stuff I’ve heard that he’s trying to do in dealing with certain rhythmic structures… I think he’s an interesting pianist.

12. Fred Van Hove-Frank Gratkowski-Tony Oxley, “Tiddledit” (from GRATHOVOX, Nuscope, 2002) (Van Hove, piano; Gratkowski, alto saxophone; Oxley, drums)

Stylistically, it’s coming out of a much freer school. When it started out, it could have been a piece by Stockhausen. Now we’re in an improvisation section. The saxophone player could be Greg Osby or Tim Berne. Neither of those? Oh, shit!! Or Anthony Braxton. [You’re on the wrong continent.] There’s a certain tone, and also the line he’s playing over and over again is complicated, wide jumps… Well, this part I would say is more in the Tim Berne area. But maybe it’s somebody like Louis Sclavis. It’s not Peter Brotzmann. [Wrong horn.] That’s true. It’s definitely coming from the free jazz vibe. The pianist reminds me of… Especially the way they were playing in the beginning, the way they’re using the pedal and the way they’re voicing, almost using the harp sound, it’s very typical of certain music of Messiaen. Now, in this more active section here, it has more of a Cecil Taylor vibe. But who knows? Again, it could be a lot of people — and I wish I knew who they were!! 4 stars. It was interesting. It was not surprising after a certain point, and in this music it really needs to be surprising. But actually, I shouldn’t necessarily say that, because I can listen to that music for a long time. There’s a certain vibe that gets going, and I guess the question becomes in any music, if something can be said in 5 or 10 minutes and then you start to get bored with it, is that your fault or the music’s fault. I don’t know what the answer to that is. It just sort of happens. Any music that stays in a certain area can be accused of that, and it’s not a good way to criticize music, because there are certain aspects of a lot of music that… You’re not going to get another thing from it. You’re not going to get a free jazz solo in the middle of a Mozart sonata. In that sense, I can accept it. It’s definitely well played, as opposed to a lot of free music that I think just sounds like a hit-and-miss attempt by a group that can’t play. These guys can play. Who are they? [AFTER] These are all musicians who are not getting the type of due that they should be getting, especially in the United States and especially, I guess, in a more mainstream jazz whatever. When I look at it that way, I want to defend musicians like that, because I know, in a certain way, they’re keeping up a certain tradition that’s important, and I enjoy it. It’s even more than a tradition. It’s just fun. As a musician I enjoy playing that way.

13. Brad Mehldau, “Paranoid Android” (from LARGO, Warner Brothers, 2002) (Mehldau, prepared piano; Derek Oleszkiewicz, bass; Matt Chamberlin, Jim Keltner, drums)

There was a very interesting contrast in the arrangement between the sort of quiet, almost classical sounding piece with the harmony and the pianist sort of playing against those long chords, and the more rhythmic, Latinesque type of piece. It’s hard to guess who it was. For a minute (I know this is a strange guess), I thought it was Brad Mehldau, because of certain lines he was playing. But it’s characteristically… I guess I’m more familiar with his Art of the Trio records. I enjoyed it. Brad Mehldau is a great pianist, very original. He does amazing things with his touch and also the time, how he plays standards in different time signatures. His whole sensibility is beautiful. 4-1/2 stars. In the middle it sounded like they were distorting, or trying to change the sound of the piano. That was okay. I guess he was going for a contrast between those different sections. That sounded okay to me. I’m not sure how clear everything was to him, especially in the percussive part. But again, in terms of creating contrast between section, it works.

14. McCoy Tyner, “Contemplation” (from LAND OF GIANTS, Telarc, 2003) (Tyner, piano; Bobby Hutcherson, vibraphone; Charnett Moffett, bass; Eric Harland, drums) (5 stars)

This is a McCoy Tyner piece…what’s the name… It’s on “The Real McCoy.” That one I can identify. McCoy Tyner!! That’s one of the amazing things about McCoy, that he’s instantly identifiable, especially with those runs, his touch… In a way, he’s the pianist that so many other people followed in this groove, and it’s… Wow. That’s all I can say. Great musician. Sounds like Bobby Hutcherson on vibes. I could listen to this a long time. I heard Bobby Hutcherson play a lot this summer with Herbie. 5 stars. Again, it’s the same vibe. You have somebody who’s done so much over a long period of time, and I think… A lot of pianists studied his stuff a lot — the lines, the way these tunes moved. I also love the original recording of this with Joe Henderson. There’s a lot of classic McCoy solos where he’s playing both as a leader and as a sideman which maybe are more intense than this thing you’re playing for me. But even McCoy’s bad days are great. There’s a total consistency. When you invent a certain style, that’s what happens. You’re creating this area you’re playing in, and he’s certainly created a distinctive sound for piano.

*******

Uri Caine DownBeat Article, 2001 — Final Draft:

In late February, a packed house at the Knitting Factory witnessed a performance by the pianist Uri Caine and an octet of Caine’s adaptation of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.”

The set, videotaped for “B.E.T. On Jazz,” was textually rigorous, expertly paced, cinematically orchestrated, never condescending, and hardly ever arch. It proceeded as follows. Addressing a slightly out-of-tune piano, Caine gracefully stated the opening variation. After a brief rest, turntablist DJ Olive let forth a swoopy Spike Jones sound, launching Caine into a barrelhouse refrain. Olive countered with a Dada voice inquiring, “Are we sure we know where we are?” Violinist Joyce Hammann played a straight classical theme against a Caine bop variation; trumpeter Ralph Alessi and clarinettist Chris Speed commenced a free rubato dialogue; the ensemble plunged into a N’Awlins blues concluding with a Caine quote of “Over the Rainbow.” Over the next hour, they referenced Hardbop styles from Kenny Dorham to Woody Shaw; Barbara Walker sang four spirituals, moving from Mahalia Jackson fervency to spirit-shaking shuffles to Fontella Bass-like avant-pop declamations over atonal horn lines; Olive punctuated with a series of aphorisms, jokes, cantorial grunts, and synth sounds sampled from musique concrete; Caine crafted compelling solos in the Tyner-Hancock-Corea mode. It ended with a succession of Olive-spun snores, reminding us that Bach had written his epochal masterwork of theme-and-variation as a soporific for an insomniac noble patron.

Caine streamlined this Goldberg from the elaborately reimagined version that he recorded in 1999-2000 for Winter&Winter. He arranged 26 of Bach’s 30 original variations — and wrote his own variations on the given harmony — for various ensembles drawn from a dramatis personae including early instrument specialists, a German choir, singers Walker, Mark Ledford and David Moss, several deejays, and jazz improvisers like Don Byron, Greg Osby and Ralph Peterson. He devised an intricate system of strategies to impart structural unity to the whole. Where Bach wrote a Sarabande or a gigue as a dance form, Caine riposted with a drum-and-bass or a tango. Bach wrote every third variation as a canon voiced at each interval from the opening unison to the ninth; Caine composed variants incorporating the intervals and equivalent time signatures — i.e., the canon at the fourth is 4/4, the canon at the fifth is in 5/4, and so on.

“Theme-and-variation can liberate the composer to write in other people’s styles, because the game of the piece is the variety,” Caine had noted a few weeks before at a Cuban-Chinese restaurant not far from his Upper West Side home. “If Bach composed a nod, say, to Scarlatti, I could do mine to other people. You can emphasize the contrasts of miniatures following one another in rapid succession that are unified by a central theme. Unlike a sonata, where you develop and recapitulate the opening material, here it’s like a jazz solo; you lay out the theme, and then BOOM, all these different chords and variations. If you gave a jazz musician the 32 chords of the Goldberg theme, it would be like a 32-bar song form. I’m dealing with it from that point of view.”

Back at the Knitting Factory, after a brief intermission, the octet launched into a program of songs and symphonic excerpts drawn from the corpus of Gustav Mahler, played in a relaxed, stretched-out manner that had the quality of a jam session. Caine first recorded the material on “Urlicht:Primal Light” [W&W] (it won a Best Mahler Recording of 1997 award from The International Mahler Society), and offered a live concert followup two years later, “Mahler in Toblach.”

“Even in high school in Philadelphia, I could see that Mahler switched up feelings,” Caine recalled after swallowing a forkful of arroz con pollo. “He would cut from a complex Wagnerian orchestral sound to, say, a klezmer band playing a folk melody, or break up a marching band section with blaring trumpets, or bring in the simplest heartbreaking melody. He was one of the first modern composers who juxtaposed the beautiful and the vulgar to reach a greater whole, and he referred to aspects of his own life. He gave music a psychological dimension, setting up an expectation, then bringing in a counteractive element, for which he was severely criticized in his lifetime. I read that Mahler added trombone parts to Beethoven’s symphonies because he was convinced Beethoven would have done this if he’d had a modern valve trombone, and it reinforced my idea to give this music to players who can find different ways to play it.”

One of those players is the trumpeter Dave Douglas, in whose sextet Caine regularly appears (see Douglas’ acclaimed homages to Booker Little, Wayne Shorter and Mary Lou Williams). Not long before the Knitting Factory set, Caine sidemanned for a week with Douglas’ newly formed quintet at the Village Vanguard for a series of tightrope-walking sets that blended the best-and-brightest of cusp-of-the-’70s Miles Davis, Mwandishi, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Lee Morgan, the Sonny Rollins-Don Cherry Quartet and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Perched before his Fender Rhodes, fully in synch with the formidable bass-drum team of James Genus and Clarence Penn, Caine spun out surging solos that evoked sturdy melodies from complex voicings and jagged rhythmic designs, and drew on a comprehensive awareness of contemporary electronic music to navigate nuanced open-form structures. From night to night he refined his touch, testing different angles of approach without fear of failure; by the end of the week, Douglas observed, “I felt Uri had come up with an entirely new style with which to play this music.”

“The reason it’s exciting to play with Uri is that he understands so many different musical languages,” Douglas continued. “It’s rare to find someone with the technical knowledge to perform the Goldberg Variations, who can deal with freedom and move in and out of the post-jazz continuum without missing a beat. Uri arranges the Goldberg or the Mahler or his own trio completely free and flexible, so everyone can go for it. I’ve been on Mahler gigs where we’d have this incredible train wreck, and if I was the bandleader I’d be freaking out. Uri would have a beatific smile on his face, like, ‘Here we are in the real music — now deal!'”

Caine’s dialectical tinkerings with the tradition make him a hot commodity on the European continent. According to my seatmate at the Knitting Factory concert, his beautifully packaged CDs, each a fine piece of handiwork, receive place of prominence in German record stores alongside the Three Tenors. He has performed his Mahler at an international assortment of Classical and Alternative Music venues, including the prestigious Salzburg Music Festival and a slew of Mahler festivals.

Following one such appearance, a representative of the Munich Opera invited Caine to do a project with the music of Robert Schumann. Caine’s response was “Love Fugue” (1999), which sandwiches Schumann’s Piano Quartet, Opus 47 — performed by La Gaia Scienza Ensemble with ravishing idiomatic specificity — with Opus 48, “The Poet’s Love,” a song cycle of 16 love poems from the composer to his wife, deploying three poets (“it’s about the poetry of love”), guitarist David Gilmore (“the intimacy of the Bill Evans-Jim Hall vibe”), and vocalists Ledford and Moss (to evoke the “the gospel and pop overtones we hear in this beautiful piano harmony written in 1840”). That followed “Wagner e Venezia” (1998), which documents a Caine-led sextet of New York first-callers performing his arrangements of iconic Wagneriana in the cafes of St. Mark’s Square that Wagner habituated a century ago.

Nor is Caine close to slowing down. Another record of Mahler’s songs is in the can, and he’s working out the logistics of an “audio film” project constructed around the musical tropes of Brazil. In 2000 the Stockholm Ballet Company made a ballet for Swedish television of “Wagner e Venezia”; in May 2001 the Pennsylvania Ballet will premier their version of his Goldbergs. As we speak, he’s writing a piece based on Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations with improvisation commissioned that Concerto Köln commissioned for a June 2001 premiere. Still in gestation is a scored piano concerto for the Frankfurt-based Ensemble Modern to which Caine will add arrangements of iconic jazz compositions, and he’s mapping out a version of “Otello” for Milan’s centenary celebrations of Verdi’s death.

“Uri is working with the history of Western music,” says Caine’s producer Stefan Winter. “Both the jazz and Classical audiences in Europe understand what he is doing — if he is turning a section of Mahler’s music into a Jewish klezmer feel, or putting something on top of a Bach bassline. I think they love this incredible variation and interpretation. Uri’s music has no categorization. He is using all his influences; he works in the same way with the ideas of Bach or Mahler as with Herbie Hancock’s ideas. He is absolutely reflecting what happened in the last 400 years of music history. He has the talent to take these elements apart and make his own puzzle out of it.

“When I was coming up in Philadelphia, I wouldn’t have predicted that my thing would develop the way it has,” Caine says. “I wanted to move to New York and play with Freddie Hubbard.” That said, “Blue Wail” (1997) is Caine’s only hardcore jazz date for W&W. Tackling a set of eight distinctive originals with a take-no-prisoners trio (James Genus, bass; Ralph Peterson, drums), he reveals an improvisational personality informed by but never imitative of Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett and Cecil Taylor, as well as Philly piano idols McCoy Tyner, Kenny Barron and Hassan Ibn-Ali. It begins and ends with a pair of let-it-all-hang-out improvisations on Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose” that evoke the spirit of Earl Hines’ free associative solo performances of the ’60s and ’70s.

Caine spent a good chunk of 1999 exploring the jazz prehistory from which Waller emerged while researching and preparing “The Sidewalks Of New York: Tin Pan Alley,” a kaleidoscopic “audio film” for W&W that he dedicated to his grandfather, Edward Caine, a Russian Jew who died that year at the age of 97. It postulates an idealized music hall in which a multicultural cast of in-character performers who play 27 tunes of provenance ranging from 1892 (“After The Ball”) to 1915 (“Cohen Owes Me $97”). Caine eschews parody, vividly reconstructing the sound and animating spirit of the time. More clearly than any of Caine’s projects, “Sidewalks” articulates the enduring American ethos of perpetual reinvention, the incessant reshaping of the canon to vernacular imperatives.

“I was thinking about how a lot of the songs we play as jazz musicians became established,” Caine reflects. “I read about the history of Tin Pan Alley and the groups of musicians who worked in different genres in New York at the turn of the last century. I’m fascinated by the immigrants who came to New York City, who were transforming America as they were being transformed themselves.”

Caine credits an immigrant from the post World War II diaspora as the catalyst of his personal transformation at 13 from unfocused student to driven musician. This was the virtuoso French pianist Bernard Pfeiffer, a stylistic omnivore whose conceptual range spanned Art Tatum to Cecil Taylor. “Bernard told me that if I really wanted to improve, I’d have to get intense on every level,” Caine relates. “I’d have to practice and investigate and start reading and start thinking. I’d have to start playing with musicians my age and older, listen to them and try to move into what they do, even if I don’t accept it all. Since then I’ve felt that if you can play in all these different areas, you should go for it.”

At 17, Caine left home to attend the University of Pennsylvania, where he became a conservatory-trained practitioner of Modernism under the tutelage of twelve-tone composer George Rochberg, who gave Caine an early assignment to write a piano reduction of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. “I didn’t want to be in the position where somehow I couldn’t do what they did,” the pianist notes with some asperity. “I knew they couldn’t do what I did.”

Caine was learning his jazz the old-fashioned way, on the streets of inner-city Philly. He apprenticed on gigs playing electric keyboards in a variety of bars and lounges with local sax hero Bootsie Barnes, master drummen Philly Joe Jones, Mickey Roker and Bobby Durham, bassists Jymie Merritt and Charles Fambrough. He jammed with Rashied Ali, Pat Martino, Hank Mobley, Johnny Coles and even Grover Washington; he workshopped with post-Coltrane tenorists Odean Pope and Willie Williams; he played Avant-Funk with drummer Cornell Rochester and electric bassists Gerald Veasley and Jamaladeen Tacuma; he worked cocktail gigs in the upscale parts of town.

“Whatever circles Uri moves in, he maintains his identity and speaks up,” says Rochester, who remains a close friend. “He never changed up what he’s about. I grew up with a lot of gang activity, and Uri impressed me because he always hung with us in the hood; he played in areas that I would never even go into. I didn’t know he was involved in Classical music; I just thought about him in our context, which was different than what Philly Joe and Mickey Roker were doing, where he functioned perfectly. He’s been functioning multi-dimensionally for a long time.”

“I never felt a barrier coming from those musicians,” Caine emphasizes. “They basically told me, ‘If you’re cool and properly respectful, and keep your ears open, you’re welcome.’ I always enjoyed the power of the drum, how you get a chance to surf on top of all these incredible feelings. Philly Joe and Mickey Roker were dynamic players and strong stylists, and I was lucky that they took me under their wing and were generous with their advice.”

Caine began to lay down New York roots in the early ’80s, and by 1987 he found the studio apartment that he and his wife still use as their primary base of operations. At first he scuffled, working as a rehearsal pianist, doing $15-a-night gigs at places like Augie’s, sitting in at public jam sessions and workshopping at private homes with like-minded peers such as Douglas, Mark Feldman and M-Base bassist Kevin Bruce Harris. Not infrequently, he toured with Cornell Rochester, and at a festival in Saalfelden, Austria, Caine met clarinetist Don Byron, who was in Craig Harris’ band. They bonded during a long bus ride to the next destination; in 1990 Byron invited Caine to join his successful klezmer project and continued to use the pianist in his jazz groups. That year Caine also began to get steady employment with disparate stylists like Buddy DeFranco, Barry Altschul and Sam Rivers. In 1992 Caine made a demo, and Winter — prodded by Gary Thomas, then a JMT artist — released it as “Sphere Music.” Caine followed up with “Toys,” on which an ensemble featuring Douglas, Thomas, Byron, Dave Holland, Ralph Peterson and Don Alias tackled four reconstructed Hancock standards and six tone-parallel-to-Herbie originals.

“Stefan may have thought I would be his Postbop, inside-out piano player,” Caine speculates. “He didn’t have someone like that; a lot of the M-BASE guys and Cassandra Wilson were leaving him at that point. It all changed when Stefan broke with Verve in 1995. He took from that a resolution to never again become involved with a corporate entity. That’s when I started these other projects, which — without trying for commerciality — became more successful for him than the stuff he tried to do to fit into the corporate realm.

“I think the idea of taking a preexisting form and transforming it through group improvisation can be done with any music,” Caine muses. “I hear the groove in Mozart. I love Stravinsky. I want all the different emotions that I can get listening to Trane and Miles; I can also get them listening to Verdi. It’s a question of accepting the basis that they’re dealing with. On the largest level it’s all one thing. But I don’t want to disrespect any of the musics by saying it’s all the same, because it’s not. Coltrane’s achievement is specific unto itself, and however people want to deal with it, it has to be honored and studied and imitated and played. Stravinsky and Mahler have to be analyzed for what they did. I’m for less generalizations and more specifics.

“Now, once you start taking commissions, the process involves the input of a lot of people. For example, the Bach was going to be just my group of musicians and deejays in New York. Then German radio said they could give us a choir and free studio time, and Stefan Winter jumped at it. Of course, I wanted to write something for choir, but I wasn’t originally thinking about it. I try not to compromise. But for instance, if someone commissions you to write a piece ‘doing what you do,’ and what you do depends on having a trumpet player to whom you can say, ‘Okay, when we get to this part we play on these changes,’ and their guy is like, ‘What does that mean?’, then you have to say to yourself, ‘Okay, I’m going to write this out.’ I’m still adjusting to the idea that these groups have their own thing. Part of you is saying, ‘This is not going to work,’ part of you is saying, ‘This is an experiment; even if it messes up, I’ll try it.’ The worst that can happen is that it fails.”

Caine turns 45 this year, and he is content. “My vibe is that the most important thing is to try to stay in the game, like I’ve been doing since I was 17,” he says. “To the extent I’ve been able to do that and not play barmitzvahs on Long Island, I feel very happy.”

**********

Interviews with Uri Caine’s Colleagues: (Mickey Roker, Cornell Rochester, John Swana, Dave Douglas, Stefan Winter, DJ Olive):
TP: What are your early memories of Uri, of your first encounters, and his musical level at that time?

ROKER: Well, he always had great potential. He went to University of Pennsylvania. Him and a friend of his who played piccolo… When I first came back to Philly, I had just left Dizzy and I started taking gigs around Philly because I wanted to learn how to play jazz again. Because playing with Dizzy in the later years, we played a lot of rhythm-and-blues and Latin and Rock type things. So I started taking local gigs. And one of the first gigs I had was with Uri Caine. First we played with the tenor player Bootsie Barnes from Philly. Then Uri had a gig and he asked me to play with him, and we played at a club called All That Jazz on 18th Street. We played there one or two nights every weekend for about a couple of months.

TP: What were your impressions of Uri as a player then?

ROKER: Well, he was just a young kid then. He was trying to find himself. But now he’s found… You’re always trying to find yourself. We didn’t really play together that much for me to know exactly what was in his head. I can only tell you what I think was in his head. He always had good potential, he always had a good beat, but harmonically and rhythmically he was trying to find himself.

TP: He seems always to have been able to fit in well with dynamic drummers.

ROKER: Well, any musician. If you’ve got a good drummer, then that’s part of it, man. Then you don’t have to worry about the rhythm. You dig? All you’ve got to do is worry about the melody and harmony.

TP: Do you remember what kind of tunes you’d be playing?

ROKER: We were playing like some standard tunes and some original tunes. But mostly standard jazz type tunes that guys play. I can’t remember, because it was 20-some years ago.

TP: But I assume you’ve been keeping an eye on Uri over the years…

ROKER: I haven’t really been keeping an eye on him. We play together whenever we can play. For the last ten years he’s been living in New York. We played together about a year ago.

TP: I’m sorry to push this in this direction, but I’m interested in someone who has known and played with him for the amount of time you have who can discuss how he’s evolved.

ROKER: Well, he has definitely grown since the first time I played with him. He can tell you about himself better than I can tell you about him. My impression is that when I first started playing with Uri, he was a young guy who showed a lot of potential. In fact, he had probably just come out of college. And now, he’s a productive piano player. You know what I’m saying? So he had to be sincere and do a lot of woodshedding and a lot of practice in order to become what he is now. But the main part of that is finding yourself. Once you learn the basics. First you’ve got to learn the basics, and then you’ve got to find which direction you want to go in. A lot of guys can play the piano, a lot of guys can play instruments, but you have to find out which direction you want to go in. There are so many avenues, so many ways to get to the same thing. Now, I think he’s found his direction.. The last time I heard him was a year ago and I think he… I’ve always had respect for him as a piano player; he’s always been a good piano player. But he was a young piano player when I first joined him.

TP: So he always had chops and instrumental ability, and you’re saying that just as part of working very hard and growing up, he’s begun to display his own sound and style.

ROKER: Right. It takes time to do that.

TP: One thing about Uri is that he functions simultaneously in different style s of music. He has the European Classical projects, then when in Philly, apart from hardcore jazz he played a lot of funk and electric gigs with keyboards, and he seemed able to do all of those in the manner in which they’re supposed to be done.

ROKER: Well, Uri is a good rhythmic player. You’ve got to know all the different aspects of rhythm. The horn players, all they do is deal with melody. But the rhythm players, you have to know all these rhythms and know them authentically. There’s a lot to rhythm.

TP: So you would call Uri a good rhythmic player.

ROKER: He’s a good musician. Which takes all three — rhythm, melody and harmony. He’s a good musician, and he’s grown musically over the last five-six years. He’s mature. I can’t pinpoint it because I don’t play with him all the time. I play with him every once in a while. And there are so many young cats I’m listening to. But I’ve always respected Uri because he’s always been a good player. I mean, you can live three lifetimes and you still won’t have it all. Nobody’s got it all! But as long as you grow and show some kind of improvement in the way of maturity, then you’re going to be respected by your peers.

 

ROCHESTER: I had a band in Philadelphia years ago with the bass player Gerald Veasley, and Gerald brought Uri to my attention. I live in North Philadelphia and grew up with a lot of gang activity and stuff… I was always impressed with Uri because he always used to play in the black neighborhood. He used to work with Philly Joe Jones and a cat by the name of Bootsie Barnes, and like I said, I basically grew up in a gang type of situation, and I was always captivated by that because there were areas I would never even go into… But I always came into contact with him from that perspective, but I didn’t know he was involved in a multitude of things like going to the University of Pennsylvania and studying up there; I didn’t know he was involved in Classical music; and I didn’t know that he was basically… I thought he was from West Philly, and he was basically from Valley Kenwood, like out on the main line to a certain extent. He always hung with us in the hood and everything. But I just never knew he was into all these different kind of things. He’s a very interesting individual, multi-dimensional. And he can function definitely in a lot of different situations.

I always respected him, because he’s Jewish and like I said, we had a couple of people who were Hebrew-Israelites here in Philadelphia, and he don’t care where he go at, he really maintains his identity and he really speaks up, don’t care where he’s at, what environment and everything. I was always impressed with… He’s just a very interesting guy! Almost like Frank Sinatra; they say he’s a guy that can actually fit in in any kind of situation. Like I said, when he started doing this Mahler stuff, I wasn’t… I did tour with him with that Mahler thing in England. And I had never even heard of Mahler before! It was just interesting.

TP: Do you remember when you first met him?

ROCHESTER: Well, that’s when I first him… I used to play with Jamaladeen Tacuma, so then he was on Gramavision, and by me playing with him, Jonathan Rose had approached me to do a project, because he was familiar with me from playing with Odean Pope, the saxophone player who plays with Max Roach. So we had a record with me, him and Gerald Veasley years ago. I wasn’t a writer, and I tried to explain to him that I wasn’t a songwriter and stuff. But he said he could just come up with something. Then I told him I was in a partnership, and I went and got Gerald Veasley. Then we started getting a band together, and the first person he brought through was Uri Caine. And he was really receptive to what we were trying to do. We were basically trying to do something different. We were basically thinking about trying to do something more commercial, but I think Jonathan Rose wanted to do something more different. That was his emphasis. So Uri, even during that time… I was mostly thinking about him playing with Philly Joe Jones and Mickey Roker and these jazz musicians, and he was into this synthesizer and everything in the early ’80s.

TP: When Uri played with Philly Joe and Mickey Roker, would he be playing acoustic piano or electric piano?

ROCHESTER: Well, this was in the early ’80s. I don’t think they were doing a lot of acoustic piano.

TP: Those rooms didn’t have piano.

ROCHESTER: They were basically just playing in bars, like in the 21st Street Bar, and all these places really in the hood, far as… I know Philly Joe Jones is international, and I’ve been traveling there since 1980, and I know all about Philly, but as far as my environment… Philadelphia is highly segregated, and you have the African-American community here, you might have the Asian community… It is highly segregated, but everything is within the community, so you don’t really have to go out of your way, so you can be isolated to a certain extent. So as far as these black clubs are concerned, I’d never seen any of these black clubs that had an acoustic piano. So I think he was basically playing electric piano. And he was playing with Bootsie Barnes. I think he was even doing an organ trio thing, too. I did a record on Moers in ’93, and I had him playing on black keys versus white keys, with Willie Williams on sax and I was playing drums. It was based on an organ trio, something like what Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette were doing in the late ’70s. It was based somewhat on that. That was my last one. You don’t know about it because I had rappers, and the name of the record was… I said, “Your Mother’s On The Pipe.” It was kind of controversial. So a lot of promoters and distributors shunned it. But we did three or four European tours on it. But basically, that’s the reason why they said it was offensive.

TP: So with you Uri dealt with the electric keyboard function and more with funk and less jazz.

ROCHESTER: Well, I was basically playing with Jamaladeen Tacuma, so I was trying to intermingle that with the Rap. Because even in the ’93 record where I think I was one of the first one who was trying to have the rappers on a more progressive… I got these rappers rapping, and their music is more progressive than that rapper up in New York was doing with the vibe player… I was something a little bit more progressive, because I was looking at it from a musical perspective. So I had like the rappers doing these lines, something like what Steve Coleman was doing, with the bebop lines and everything, unisons with the horn and stuff like that. But basically, when we did that record in ’93, that’s what he was talking about… He was more into acoustic piano and everything, and he did a couple of acoustic piano things on the date. I wasn’t really all that familiar with the piano, because when I write, I write off of the regular electric piano. So then I said, “Man, I could have did this whole record with the acoustic piano.” So right now that’s all he plays, basically, is acoustic piano.

TP: I saw him play Fender Rhodes last week with Dave Douglas. He seems so comfortable doing so many different things, and he seems to do them all in an idiomatic way. When he plays classical music, he does it the way classical music is supposed to be; when he does funk, it’s the way that’s supposed to be; and when he does bebop and post-bebop, it’s the way that’s supposed to be.

ROCHESTER: Well, like I said, he’s a guy who was functioning multidimensionally for a long time. Because like I say, when he was in our little thing, I never thought about him in terms of classical or in terms of this other stuff that he does. I just thought about him in that context, and in our context he was functioning perfectly. So I think that it was just a learning experience in all these different contexts. My context was different than what Philly Joe Jones and them was doing. This girl, Terry Gross, she has a show on NPR, was saying she used to go to these clubs down in center city. I never really went to these places. But she used to see him down there, playing in duos and stuff like that. You know what her show is about; you can imagine what environment she was in. I listen to her show a lot, too. But at the same time he was playing with us, I guess he was playing at these places, too.

TP: You know Uri pretty well. What do you think it is about him that lets him function like that? It isn’t most guys from his background who can function comfortably, without giving up their identity, in a hardcore Black situation for sure. A lot of white guys would try to be Black or act that way.

ROCHESTER: First of all, I kind of know his father, and his father is a lawyer, who was the President of the Civil Liberties Union in Philadelphia, and his mother is a university professor. He said that when he was growing up, they constantly had intellectual discussions and debates; his father is a great debater. And he was head of the Civil Liberties Union, so you know where he’s coming from, what his politics is about. So I think by him saying that they grew up like that, debating over the table. So I think that was naturally in him. And like I said, I was always impressed because when he came into our environment, he never changed up what he was about. He just is an interesting guy.

TP: Do you ever remember Uri being in a dicey situation or having to stand up for himself physically?

ROCHESTER: Like I said, just being in that situation… He’d fit in so good with them. He was just a part of their thing. It was never really about a racial thing on that level. People in North Philly, they’re so busy hustling and trying to make money, it’s not a (?). Especially with the whole drug situation, like you have everybody in your community come for drugs and stuff like that. So it’s not really on that level. But you very rarely found somebody that’s very vociferous, when they get into an environment. One time I was in Europe with them, and I seen these guys, they were like Germans or something, and it seemed like he was ready to get into a thing with them [LAUGHS] — and I was kind of scared to death! I think basically it’s his upbringing with his father, and that’s what gave him the character that he is. Like I said, that’s why I always respected him, because he was what he was.

TP: If you were going to describe him to someone as a keyboard player, as a musician, how would you do it?

ROCHESTER: Well, that’s kind of hard to say now. Because like I said, he can play everything. I can always go get him… When I’m trying to make a record, I can go get him, because he can play what I want him to play. Because before I got my writing to the point it is now, I wasn’t real clear what I was trying to do, and he was able to really formulate and translate what I was trying to verbally say. Because I tried to dictate things to a certain extent at that point, and he was able to process the information and he was able to do something great with it. So he’s real creative on that level.

You’re asking how can a guy go int these different style like that… I’m not trying to get too out there on you. But I think as far as that astrology thing, he’s a Gemini, and Geminis are people who have multiple personalities, and I think that’s one of the reasons why he seems to be… Miles was a Gemini. Know what I’m talking about? I think maybe that’s what it is, that they can handle a multitude of things comfortably simultaneously.

TP: Maybe that’s what it is.

ROCHESTER: I don’t want anybody to start laughing at that shit. But I used to work with Jamaladeen, and he was a Gemini, and he seemed to be trying to do a multitude of things simultaneously. Even one time he was trying to do a Classical project, too, when we were in D.C.

TP: Kind of what you’re saying is that Uri can get into the thought process that goes into whatever piece of music is being played in whatever particular way.

ROCHESTER: But also I think basically that not only can he feel that naturally, but he actually studied it. Because a lot of people have a feeling that they would like to get into a Classical thing and would like to do this. But they haven’t really studied it enough to make it legitimate. He can effectively play in these different things because he’s effectively studied these things.

TP: And he’s had functional experience in all of them. He’s played Funk, he’s played Bebop, he’s played Classical music.

ROCHESTER: Yes. From my perspective, that’s why I say I’ve always appreciated what he’s about. Even though I didn’t know the full extent of what he’s about and didn’t really understand that he was as analytical and thinking person as he is, because we were so busy just trying to play… I didn’t know that he had an overall perspective on what he was trying to do, and what his relationship in hanging with us was about. So I didn’t see that picture from that far away. He’s an interesting guy.

 

 

TP: When did you first hook up with Uri? Do you remember your first encounters?

SWANA: I remember the first time I saw him. It was either ’82 or ’83. I used to sit in at this organ bar called Gert’s, and I came in expecting organ, and he was in with a bass player, playing Fender Rhodes. Gert’s was at Broad and South Street, in South Philly. It was the place where Philly Joe played and Shirley Scott and Don Patterson. I was a real organ hang. When I heard him, I was blown away. I sat in with him, and then I asked him if he taught. He said, “No, we’ll just hang out!”

TP: He was about 25 then. What did he sound like?

SWANA: It was straightahead. He was kind of out of Herbie and Chick, the way they would play Fender rhodes. But it was Uri. He always sounded like Uri. He has a certain feel that I can tell it’s him right away. When I heard him I was like, “Whoa!” I just knew that I really liked the way he played. He’s a very rhythmic player.

TP: Did you see him playing with Philly Joe or Mickey Roker?

SWANA: I saw him play with Mickey. I never saw him play with Philly Joe. I used to go around and try to sit in with him. He’d be playing in these weird trios, playing… After he stopped using the Rhodes, he was playing the DX-7, and he’d play with this guy Akim Emmanuel, and he’d just be going nuts. He’s always had this energy. I always looked up to him. I would ask him… I remember sitting next to him on the bus when we played with Joe Sudler’s Swing Machine — which is a big band that would bring in different people like Freddie Hubbard, Lockjaw, Phil Woods, Bob Mintzer — and barraging him with all these questions about music, and he would tell me what records to get and turn me on to a lot of great even bootleg stuff.

TP: Like ’70s Miles stuff?

SWANA: He turned me on to the Miles stuff and he turned me on to McCoy, Time For Tyner and The Real McCoy and Herbie’s stuff from the ’60s. He loves Joe Henderson, so he made me tapes of Joe Henderson In Japan, all this stuff. And Now He Sings, Now He Sobs.

TP: Have you continued to play with Uri over the years?

SWANA: I play with him once in a while. I went to Taiwan with him over the summer, playing the Mahler and then the Bach.

TP: Did it seem of a piece with the Uri you know?

SWANA: He’s so laid back. I went over… We were playing before a big audience, and before we went on stage, he looked at me and said, “It’s just another Joe Sudler gig; it’s just another gig.” Then we go on, and he just gets wacky. I have jet lag and I’m used to playing straight jazz gigs, not really reading lot of music.. So I’m looking intensely at the music, and I look over at him and he smiles at me and starts throwing his elbows on the piano and playing even more crazy. It seems he just has a good time. He doesn’t get uptight. I mean, he might. But it’s his own gig and he’s so laid-back. I was actually really impressed how he handled himself.

TP: But in terms of the structure of the music and the concept.

SWANA: I think it fits with where he’s coming from. Because when I first used to see him, it was only on straight-ahead, and I love the way he plays — straight-ahead he just burns. But he always had this other side where he’s listening to all this crazy stuff.

TP: Do you mean Modern Classical?

SWANA: Well, Modern Classical or… I don’t even remember the guy ,but I was at his apartment in New York and he was, “Check this guy out,” and he was playing this guitar player who was playing these weird sounds. “Man, I dig this!” He was listening to so much stuff. So it was inevitable for him too come into projects like this.

TP: And he’s so well-studied. Just his educational background, his academic background; he’s a very highly trained musician. Cornell said something interesting. He said when he met Uri he had no idea that he was going to University of Pennsylvania and studying classical music, that it was almost a separate thing. He was impressed that he could function in the Black community and maintain his identity, just being him. Cornell said that Uri would go place where he, Cornell, wouldn’t want to be going.

SWANA: Totally. I remember playing at this place called the Top Shelf with Uri, Edgar Bateman, Chris McBride and this guy Julian Presley. Uri’s taking a solo, and this black guy comes in and he goes, “Uri! I love you, man!!” and he just grabs him and kisses him on the head while we’re playing the gig. He’s so comfortable. He just seems so comfortable in any context. On the whole black scene… He used to play with Bootsie Barnes, and so many people…all the time you’d see people coming up and hugging him. He seemed so natural.

TP: So you played the Mahler and you played the Goldbergs on the same tour?

SWANA: Yeah, it was one gig, then there was four days off, then we did the Bach, the second gig.

TP: I realize the Bach parts for trumpet are a certain thing; he has different configurations doing different things even with the live performance. Is that part of your background as a musician, studying classical music? Are Mahler and Bach part of your practice and study?

SWANA: Yeah, I am familiar with it. I didn’t feel necessarily totally comfortable on Uri’s gig. Because as I said, on most of my gigs I hardly read music. I came up Classical but I never really… When it came to that crossroads where you’re going to dive in and try to go to like Juilliard for your Masters or do something else, I chose jazz. I didn’t feel like I did a great job. I didn’t feel completely comfortable. I would have liked to do more gigs..

TP: Uri says that through the live performances, it morphs into something different all the time.

SWANA: Yeah, he’s real loose. Once the violin and Uri were playing one of the variations really straight, and he pointed to me and said, “Just improvise.” We were playing and he pointed to me and the DJ and he said, “Okay, DJ and John, go!” We just started playing.

TP: So he sets up situations where he knows you can function but likes to keep you a bit off-balance and uncomfortable.

SWANA: I don’t know if he meant to… I enjoy that kind of challenge. My uncomfortableness wasn’t because of Uri; it was because of my feeling like I haven’t been on gigs where I have to read a lot of music, so I have to concentrate more. I feel comfortable in those situations. Uri makes me feel comfortable, because I know the wackier I play, the happier he’ll be.

TP: So to please Uri, you have to stretch out.

SWANA: Right, stretch out.

TP: Any other anecdotes?

SWANA: I remember once driving somewhere… They used to play this Brazilian jazz on the radio, and I was driving Chris McBride home or something, and Uri was right next to us, and we opened our window and he had this Brazilian music blasting out of the car. I remember Chris McBride going, “Uri, he’s crazy!”

 

 

 

DOUGLAS: It was different every night too.

TP: That’s emblematic of the personnel you used, and it’s one thing I wanted to broach regarding Uri. Formally, if we look at recorded evidence, he’s been part of these rather specific projects of yours that take off and fly in various directions depending on how much the band plays and where they play it and where you go with the material. Cornell was talking about that, and it seems to be operative with Uri, his utter flexibility and malleability…

DOUGLAS: As I was dialing your number I was thinking of that very word — flexibility. The reason that it’s so exciting to play with him is that he understands so many different languages of the music. No matter where the music goes, he’s able to completely deal — and without missing a beat ever — with all of the changes. I think also what’s interesting in the last few years is that Uri has also become a captivating bandleader. People have problems with tribute projects and theme concepts…

TP: Do they?

DOUGLAS: I hear a lot of talk, like, “Oh, now it’s the Mahler thing, now it’s the Bach thing, now it’s the Mary Lou Williams thing.” Like, in jazz, if you’re not just being yourself, it’s dishonest or something. I think people heap that on the traditionalists as well as the experimentalists. But the comment I would make about Uri is that when you hear him play the Goldberg or the Mahler music or his own trio, it’s completely free and flexible. The way he arranges it is that everyone can just kind of pick up and go for it. I’ve been on some Mahler gigs where there’s been some serious train wrecks in the music, and it’s like it didn’t matter.

TP: He sort of welcomes the train wreck.

DOUGLAS: Yeah. It was almost like we’d have this incredible train wreck, if I was the bandleader I’d be freaking out, but I’d look over at Uri and he’s got this beatific smile on his face, like “Here we are in the real music now. Now deal.” It’s pretty rare to find someone who would know enough about the Goldberg Variations, have the technical knowledge to be able to perform that but also to be able to deal with the freedom and to go in and out of the post-jazz continuum.

TP: You and Uri in are both experimentalists and traditionalists in a fundamental way… Well, this isn’t about whether Uri is one or the other, but about how what he does stems from his life and experience in palpable ways. Cornell said that when he heard Uri in Philadelphia, it was on synth in Gerald Veasley’s funk band.

DOUGLAS: That’s the first time I heard Uri, too. He was playing funk on a synthesizer.

TP: He said he had no idea Uri went to the University of Pennsylvania, he had no idea he knew anything about classical music, he had no idea he played cocktail piano gigs, and that Uri would hang with total comfort with this very hardcore group of people in hardcore neighborhoods without ever losing his identity, and he did it without ever trying to be “Black,” and he spoke his mind. From your perspective, what was your first encounter with him?

DOUGLAS: There was a place on McDougal Street called the Scrap Bar. I was friends with some musicians he was playing with there, and I went down and he was playing synthesizer. It was totally a fusion, heavy Rock vibe. And it was happening. The same as Cornell; I thought, “This guy really has some shit together.” Then I probably didn’t run into him again until 1990, when I joined the Music of Mickey Katz group with Don. I was coming to the Mickey Katz music like it was completely fresh; it was a vocabulary I had never played before. I had to learn the whole book from scratch on two days’ notice. I came into it and Uri just sounded like he’d been playing it for years. I later found out that for him,, he felt like he was on a wedding gig or something. Again, it was like, “Hmm, interesting.” I knew he was also playing jazz and doing other things.

TP: How have you observed Uri evolving over the years? Is he more comfortable in his own skin with these projects? Is he just having a chance to do it.

DOUGLAS: I would just say that he is doing it now. I think arranging the Mahler stuff was a real step out for him, and probably something he’d been thinking of for a lot of years, and it just became possible to do it when Winter & Winter came along.

TP: He said he had been dissatisfied with turgid renditions of Mahler, and there was a piece in Toys with a bass line that comes from a Mahler symphony, and Stefan heard it and said, “Ah, you know, Mahler,” and then Stefan asked him to do the score for this Mahler movie and Uri said, “Yeah, I can do that.” So a lot of this stuff has come about through the relationship with Stefan, which is a complex relationship.

DOUGLAS: We’ve all had our interesting relationship with Stefan. Well, I no longer have a relationship with Stefan. That’s another article. Or I’ll write a two-minute piece and call it “Summer and Summer.”

TP: Uri has always played acoustic with you.. Talk about how he functions on your projects.

DOUGLAS: I always see articles when they talk about the guy and then they interview somebody and the person ends up talking about themselves. I don’t want to go in to say, “Well, I called Uri because.” But it is true that when I started the sextet to play the music of Booker Little I couldn’t think of anyone else I would have called that would understand where I was coming from. There are very few people who would have understood what I meant when I said, “I want to do rearrangements of these pieces from 1961 and play them totally our way, differently, and here I’ve got this sheaf of original music that comes out of that spirit, and I want to play this originally but this is why we’re doing it.” There’s a big leap of faith going on in there. So the person really has to have a rock-solid understanding of the traditional aspect of the music, but also have a real experimental sensibility to know how far is too far. Uri can play as out of a piano solo as you could ever want to hear, and I have certainly asked him to do that in certain situations. But that’s not always what it’s about. When you’re talking about taking traditional elements and moving them forward, there’s something else that has to happen. And Uri is really brilliant in understanding that. I think that’s what he brings to these projects he’s working on now.

TP: I don’t know how proactive you want your sidemen to be. But how much input do you get from Uri in doing these projects?

DOUGLAS: I think it depends from piece to piece. A lot of times for me… Again, I think that Uri works this way. Rather than speaking about it, you hear what someone does, and then you make a decision based on that. You say, “Okay, they’re playing this here because they think that’s what this is, and it might be more interesting if blah-blah-blah.” So I think that in this kind of music, you rely on musicians to help you develop the thing, but it’s up to the leader to make those ultimate decisions.

TP: Talk about this new body of music you’re working with here in relation to what Uri was doing with the Fender rhodes.

DOUGLAS: I thought it was interesting to watch Uri this week, because the Fender rhodes really is a different instrument than the piano, and it’s a delicate instrument, and he had to refine his touch, and it was interesting to see from night to night that he would approach the music differently each night and approach the instrument differently. I felt that by the end he had really come up with an entirely new style with which to play this music. I obviously chose to ask him to play Fender rhodes for sonic reasons, and I wrote the music that way. So aside from having this wealth of harmonic and melodic and rhythmic knowledge that he has, I also wanted to draw on his awareness of electronic music and contemporary sounds, contemporary electronic music. I think it took him six nights to figure out how to get the Rhodes to speak that way. That’s what I like to see, is somebody who is willing to not get it the first night. I mean, it was still great. Sometimes I feel like musicians are too quick to just say, “Yeah, I got it, no problem.” But someone like Uri, who is willing to take a chance that it may not work and to actually develop it on stage, is really special. I think that’s the legacy we all take from Miles Davis, is that creative music should be developed onstage, in front of an audience.

TP: And it seems that Uri also deploys that attitude with these Classical projects.

DOUGLAS: Absolutely. That’s what I was saying before about actually being on a Mahler gig. I hadn’t played the music in three or four years. It was in Israel on a big festival stage, and I was totally lost. I looked over, and there he was smiling. It was like, “Yeah, now we’re here.”

TP: So you first met him around ’87 at the Scrap Bar…

DOUGLAS: I think it was earlier than that. I think it was in ’84-’85. It was when I first moved to New York.

TP: You first gigged with him in Don Byron’s Mickey Katz thing.

DOUGLAS: I think so. Around 1990. I hired him in ’94 to play on In Our Lifetime. Then he hired me in 1995 to play on Toys. He’s been on all my sextet records, and now we’re continuing together in this new concept.

TP: Are you recording this music, Dave?

DOUGLAS: Eventually. I’m not in any rush to, because this one, unlike a lot of my projects, I want to see it develop. Most of the sextet records I just write and they’re fully formed, and we just go straight into the studio. But this one we have some gigs later in the year, and we’ll work some more before we record it.

TP: This would be an interesting live record.

DOUGLAS: I was thinking about that all week actually. But it would have to be a double-CD. Because everybody was stretching out. We’re not talking about Uri now, but I don’t know if you saw Ben Ratliff’s review in the Times. It was interesting to me that he was only able to make links to the obvious connection of the Miles quintet from ’67.

TP: I was hearing a lot of early Freddie ’70s CTI stuff.

DOUGLAS: Right, but also Lee Morgan, Live At The Lighthouse Joe Henderson, If You’re Not Part of The Solution, and a lot of other things as well.On line a woman says: “I’m curious how someone who operates so deeply within a Jewish sensibility has his CDs produced in Germany.”

 

TP: I want generally to discuss with you a few aspects of your relationship with Uri — the history of it, the dynamic of how projects are generated nd conceptualized, how what Uri does fits into your personal aesthetic, and perhaps some sociological observations on the reason why what Uri is doing has struck such a chord. People tell me that what he’s doing has made a tremendous impression. How did you first come in touch with Uri and what of his qualities made you want to record him?

WINTER: Basically, it started out that Gary Thomas introduced me to Uri. The very first album that Uri did on JMT, Sphere Music, Gary Thomas was playing on. Gary gave me a tape where he’d played together with Uri, and I very much enjoyed his playing. Then Uri and I got in contact, and I think we figured out pretty quickly that we have a common understanding and that we want to work together. So we released two albums on JMT, and then basically the story really starts when I was talking to Uri about the tenth anniversary of JMT. We were organizing a three-day festival at the Knitting Factory to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the label, and besides the normal performances of music, I wanted to have also some special performances. I have known that Uri, when he studied music, was very much interested in Gustav Mahler’s music, and I gave him a film documentary that I and my brother did together and asked him if he could use this film documentary about Gustav Mahler as a silent movie and if he could play with his group Mahler’s music. That’s what Uri did at the tenth anniversary of JMT at the KF.

TP: At that point, did you consider what Uri would do with Mahler’s music? Was it something that you foresaw or discussed?

WINTER: I mean, we had spoken about it, of course. But if you talk about something and hear it later on, most of the time it’s different. Maybe it sounds arrogant, but I have had a certain expectation, and after we have done the project my expectations were absolutely fulfilled. It was even like going further and more deeply into the direction I thought it would go. So for me, it was not like a super surprise when I did the album or when I heard the music live at the tenth anniversary at the Knit.

TP: What was your expectation?

WINTER: My expectation was that Uri is doing with this music the same thing that jazz musicians have done for a long time with the history of American popular music. Basically, they’re taking known songs, songs from musicals and so on, and playing around with these songs. They’re improvising, they take these songs apart and put them together in a new way, they reharmonize these songs and they play different melodies on it, come back to the melodies, and play with excerpts and parts of this music. So in a way, they make this music to their own music. That’s one of the reasons why jazz music in the States became popular, is because a lot of people can recognize their music history. They can recognize songs which were popular in the ’20s-’30s and the big musicals. And if you recognize something (this is giving each listener a big helping hand), then you know where you are, and it’s much easier to understand the music.

TP: Now, there’s one difference, it would seem to me, between the way jazz music was developed, which came out of a vernacular, vis-a-vis what Uri is doing with Mahler, Schumann, Wagner or Bach, which is the Canon. It would seem to me that the audience for this music has a different sense of what that music is, if that makes any sense. I’m just saying this to refer to the position this music occupies in the social hierarchy. Do you see that at all? Is this changing now in Europe, the attitude towards Classical music.

WINTER: Well, if this attitude exists (and I’m not sure it’s the truth), then certain writers and certain critics have these attitudes. But the audience and I think the majority of the writers don’t have this attitude. I think this attitude is clearly coming from the 19th Century. It’s coming from a time where the music, more or less, was ruled by the middle class, especially here in Europe. In the time after Beethoven, when the middle class were making certain compositions to their heroes and they wanted to have certain artists where they could go to opera houses, to concert houses and so on, to listen to these heros. It’s coming from a time which to my eyes was a very-very short time period. It was maybe 100-150 years long. And before that, talking about Baroque or Renaissance music, we didn’t have this kind of hierarchy in the music. It was very different. Maybe we’re coming back now to the point that it’s really possible just to listen to music without having this hierarchical thinking in our brain.

TP: Uri said that in one of the tunes on Toys, the bass was taken from a Mahler symphony, and that’s how you arrived at a mutual understanding.

WINTER: Yes, that’s how it started out, it’s true.

TP: With Mahler, obviously you demonstrated the evolution of Uri’s concept through the studio and live albums. Can you discuss how the Schumann and Wagner projects were set up from your end?

WINTER: In a way, all these projects are projects which Uri and I have created together. Sometimes he has had certain ideas and sometimes I have had certain ideas, and we talked about it. If you work together with somebody, and you work together with somebody in a close way, then you share thoughts. And if somebody is telling you his thoughts, this is working in my brain, and if I tell Uri some of my thoughts, I guess this is working in his brain. So it just came together. I made an album in Venice where I recorded the orchestras that play in the coffeehouses at St. Marks Square in Venice, and I knew that Wagner’s music was played at these coffeehouses during Wagner’s time. Wagner wrote letters very often that he heard his music at St. Marks Square. I talked with Uri about it, and then we both had the idea to arrange Wagner’s music for a coffeehouse ensemble. Everything more or less that we do, it’s not that there is one great idea by either Uri or I. I think it’s a common sense that we have. I am very open to what Uri wants to do, and I am trying with my thoughts to give Uri a helping hand so that he can really develop what is inside him. This is very-very important for me, and it’s not so important for me to fulfill my own wishes and thoughts. I’m not that kind of producer.

[Uri comes from a background where he was immersed and functioned professionally in three areas of music — as a student of Classical music with academic training; as an idiomatic jazz musician, and as an idiomatic funk-jazz musician. The way he puts it, when he was in Philadelphia, Philly Joe Jones and Mickey Roker didn’t know he was playing with Cornell Rochester, and Cornell Rochester didn’t know he was studying at the University of Pennsylvania. He kept each sphere kind of separate from the other. So he comes from this background, and there’s a very heavy jazz component to what he does.]

TP: To what extent do projects come out of Uri’s have struck a chord in the European community in terms of getting commissions or going to festivals and so forth? But he’s had tremendous success in penetrating the European festivals, and I wonder what you think the attraction is to them.

WINTER: The attraction is that Uri is in the history… It’s like part of the history of the music scene in the Western world. All composers worked with music that was written from other composers. I mean, Beethoven did something about the Diabelli Variations, and then Bach used some Vivaldi, and Mahler used some Mozart, and so on. And it’s going on and on. In our day, sometimes it’s a little bit more difficult, because the law forbids certain adoptions, because you need the permission from the composer, which was very different over one hundred years ago. I know that there are, for example, certain composers who were working with certain materials in our day… Cage, for example, wrote a piece which he named “Imitation,” and he used some ideas of Eric Satie, and the people who held the rights for Eric Satie didn’t allow Cage to do it, but Cage turned it around to such a degree that he made it into his own piece and they couldn’t anything against it. He called it, I think, “Imitation,” which I’m sure was a sarcastic title.

It’s a shame, what’s going on at the moment, and I think that the law, which normally should help the musicians and the artists to secure them, is now turning around, and it’s working against the musicians. They can’t just go on and adopt the music as they want.

But the success in Europe has to do with the fact that Uri is working with the history of Western music. And the people — on the one side the jazz audience, but on the other side, the Classical audience — understand what he is doing, because they are able to recognize the parts and they understand if he is turning certain parts of Mahler’s music into, say, some Jewish feels, or with Bach, if he is working with this bassline and putting something else on top of it. I think they just love this incredible variation and interpretation that he is doing.

TP: Uri always seems to have a narrative goes… I was sitting next to a musician at the Goldbergs last night, and he commented, “It’s a revue,” which is a good description of The Sidewalks Of New York. It evokes an imaginary, idealized music hall circa 1905. One dynamic comes on, then another, then another, and it’s unified by some overarching narrative. That’s apparent in Uri’s records going back to Toys, which was devoted to the vibration of Herbie Hancock. It makes him an effective leader, because his personality comes through so clearly.

WINTER: Uri is using all of his influences. He studied Mahler on one side, and on the other side he is very close to Latin music, then he also studied Herbie. There are so many different aspects. And he is able to use these aspects in his own music and make his own music out of it. I don’t really see all these so-called arrangements, that he is more or less adapting or arranging Mahler’s music. I look at it in a different way. I look at it that Uri is taking elements from that music and making his own music out of it. Sometimes he is focusing on Mahler or on Bach or on jazz musicians, but it’s all on the same level. There is no difference. I think the unifying point is that he is always making it through his own music.

TP: Do you have any speculations on the role that national identity plays in Uri’s generating this music, that as an American Uri can observe the music in a fresh way or without the weight of the tradition upon him…

WINTER: I have thought about this, too. But I don’t really think it has to do with Uri being American. In my eyes and what I hear today… If anybody else is around who can do what Uri is doing at the moment… I think Uri is an absolute exception right now. It’s not that he is an American or European or whatever. It’s just him. He is a total exception. Looking at the whole music tradition, I have absolutely no fear to mention Uri’s name in the same category as Beethoven’s name or Mahler’s name or Wagner’s name or Bach’s name.

TP: In what regard?

WINTER: He has the same kind of value for our music in terms of reflecting everything… One element of an important artist for me is that he is able to reflect what happened before him, what happened before his time. And Uri is absolutely reflecting what happened in the music history in the last 400 years. He is absolutely able and has the talent to use all these elements, and take these elements first apart and then put the new puzzle together — making his own puzzle out of it. I think this is a very-very important part of a musician. Bach or Beethoven, all these people, they have done something like that, and this made those people very special, that they were able to reflect the time before them and make something new out of it.

TP: If I can paraphrase: Uri is going back to the future. He’s going back to a certain attitude of musicmaking which had gone by the wayside in the last century or so.

WINTER: Definitely, yes. And there is no categorization in Uri’s music. He is working in the same way with the ideas of Bach or Mahler as he is working with Herbie Hancock’s ideas. There is no difference. I think this is very important. As I said in the beginning, we have these categorizations. Our schools and universities and so on tell us this is a high-level music and high art while this is low-class art. I think this is absolutely nonsense. If you would talk to Mozart, he used certain melodies in the “Magic Flute”… The biggest success for Mozart was always that the people in the street were whistling his songs and that they were turning his songs into popular folk songs. Brahms did the same thing. The music was always connected with the people. And I think it’s a big mistake to put something on the throne, because then it’s not reachable for us. If something is on a throne, then we are afraid of even touching it or we are afraid of doing something with it. If this is happening with art, then I believe that we kill this art.

TP: The Sidewalks Of New York might seem like anomalous to the other projects, but not if we look at it as a revue, as a commentary on the material. How was that generated?

WINTER: I started doing what I call Audio Films. It started out in Venice, where I recorded these coffeehouse orchestras and tried to record the atmosphere of this location. I’ve done it in Buenos Aires, in Havana and in other places. I was thinking about New York and how is it possible to make an audio film about New York. My girlfriend, Mariko Takahashi, told me at that time to do something with Tin Pan Alley. This is one of the most important areas of…

TP: It’s the prehistory of American Popular Music.

WINTER: Yes. And even I, I have to say, had a wrong understanding. Because I thought it’s later, after the First World War, which is not true. I realized after I started working on the project that the Civil War and end of the Civil War was basically the starting point for that music scene. There is so much in it. The idea, in a way, was to try to make an album where we can capture the music and the feeling of the time as we see it. I talked a lot with Uri about it. We talked about the sound effects we wanted to use, and the different elements, how we would like to present the music, and that this song should play in a vaudeville, and this song should play in like a Jewish marriage and so on… Like somebody else would produce a movie; to produce an album about an historic subject, and doing it as someone else would produce a movie about that time. That was the idea. If you listen to the album, I think you can close your eyes and time travel into that era, and be free to discover a different feeling.

TP: Uri did a great job at imparting an idiomatic quality to the music. It didn’t sound in any way condescending. He got into the skin of the time. Do you and Uri operate by a contract, or do you go from record to record?

WINTER: We go from record to record. That’s how I work with most of my artists.

TP: I’d like to speak with you about Paul Motian. In a sense, he’s commenting on a life and history lived in music — fifty years of experience as a professional musician. There’s a direct correlation between his association with your label and the flowering of what had been the beginning of a creative renaissance for him in mid-life. He’s been able to take projects that he was beginning to fully articulate in the ’70s and ’80s, and with you was able to realize their fullest implications. Again, what was the appeal for you? What qualities did he embody in his persona as an instrumentalist and as a composer-bandleader that made him someone you wanted for the label?

WINTER: I discovered jazz very late, when I was around 20 years old. [43] I knew about jazz before I was 20, but there was nothing that I would say hit me. I came from Classical music, I started at that time Classical music, and by whatever coincidence, I heard a Keith Jarrett album which I have to say is still one of my favorite albums. It was the first what I call jazz album I really heard, and I still love it. It’s the album Somewhere Before with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian. It’s a live album. As far as I remember, it was released on Atlantic. This album is for me absolutely beautiful. Keith on the one side is playing some free pieces, and on the other side I think he is playing maybe a Joni Mitchell song. He is touching so many different fields, and he is reflecting on this album a lot of things, and I was totally touched by it. I also loved what Paul and Charlie were doing on that album.

A couple of years later I had the opportunity to meet Paul. I think it was Tim Berne who said to me, “Ask Paul to make a Monk album.” I thought this was a great idea, and I asked Paul, “Paul, what do you think about doing a Monk album?” and Paul immediately said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” That’s how we started our relationship.

TP: You have a knack for knowing how to market an artist in the best sense of the word, by giving them projects that allow them to strike a chord and yet be entirely themselves within a frame, which would describe the Motian Meets Broadway series and Motian Meets Bill Evans. Those records gave him a certain definite identity among the jazz audience beyond being a superb drummer.

WINTER: I am trying to think about where a musician or where a personality is coming from. I think everything you’re doing has to be connected with yourself. If you’re doing something that is connected with yourself, I think you give also the listener a certain kind of identification. Again, it’s like watching a movie, and if you can identify yourself with a certain character or with a certain time period of your life, then I think this movie will talk to you in a very specific way. If I start to work with artists, I m trying to listen not them and to hear where they are coming from, and when we are sitting together and drinking a glass of wine or whatever, just to talk about this and talk about that a little bit. The best is if then these artists start to realize that they want to do this and that project. I think it’s important that it’s not coming from me and I’m not saying to someone, “Let’s do a Broadway album.” That’s not how it happened. How Paul and I work together, we talked about it. We talked about where he’s coming from and what he loves and what he wants to do, and then this idea came out. Paul himself said, “What do you think about doing a Broadway album?” Basically, I was waiting for something like that. Then I’m just jumping on it and pushing that this was happening. Because an idea by itself doesn’t mean anything if you don’t realize it.

TP: Again, can you elaborate the qualities Paul Motian embodies that make him such a distinctive artist to you.

WINTER: I learned a lot from Paul from the way Paul works with his so-called sidemen. Paul is giving his sidemen, or the people with whom he’s working, a lot of freedom, and basically he giving them space to develop in his group their own personality. I would say Paul is for me like a godfather. I learned from him to watch people, to see what they can, and then even support them or do something for them so that they really can develop their own language and their own style. I think that’s what he did, in a way, with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano. Paul is also able, like when he’s playing together with Charlie Haden, to respect other people and to work together with them and just give his identity, to add it together with their identity, and then build together something new out of it.

TP: So it really transcends instrument and technique. It has to do with the development of tonal personalities.

WINTER: It has a lot to do with tonal personalities, and I think it has a lot to do with how you look at music, if music should be made in a certain hierarchy, like how we know it from the Classical world, like there is a conductor and he is telling the people what to do, or if we look at music that it is played by individuals and we have to respect these individuals. I think Paul is one of the key people who is respecting individuals. I think how he played together with Bill Evans (and I still love today to listen to these albums) or how he played together with Keith and then later on in his own groups, like in the Broadway groups or in his trio with Bill and now with the Electric Bebop Band, he is opening up a world for other musicians so that they can develop their creativity.

TP: Particularly with the Electric Bebop Band he’s doing what you would think of as repertoire music. I had been not so impressed with that band, but when I heard them at Sweet Basil last time they were treating the music in an utterly creative way.

WINTER: I think this is very important, what you are saying now. Because even if he is playing with young musicians bebop music, he is giving them the understanding that they have to make their own story out of this text. For me it is boring if I hear today a musician who is playing as another musicians played 40 years ago or 30 years ago. It doesn’t give me anything. But if I hear that somebody has his own style and own language, but he can also work with traditional material, this is incredibly nice. And this counts also for Classical music. If a Classical musician is able to turn the text, for example, of Schubert’s music into his own music, if he can interpret Schubert like it’s his own music and make it to his own thing, then it makes sense to listen to it again. The repertoire by itself doesn’t mean anything. I think it’s really just some written notes on the piece of paper. The question is what you do with it. If there is somebody who is turning the text into his own language, that is his own text, then the music talks to the listener. Then it’s talking to me. I think that’s what Paul is doing. Paul is like the master of everything that he is playing. If he is playing his own music, his original music, or if he is playing Monk’s music or Bud Powell’s music or Broadway songs, he is making his own music out of it.

TP: Can you tell me some rough estimate of the sales of Uri’s records, dividing them between Europe and America. Uri told me you mentioned to him that one of the records sold 1000 copies in a short period of time in Hamburg. Are the records selling well, within your terms?

WINTER: Some are doing very well, other ones are difficult…

TP: Which are doing the best?

WINTER: That’s something I hate to talk about. Because I am not producing music and looking at sales figures, and I am not continuing working with musicians because of sales figures.

TP: I’ll ask you this, then. Do you marketing in the sense that you break down who is buying the music? Who are the people in Europe who have Uri Caine’s records?

WINTER: I don’t do that at all. Even in Europe, one day I got the record for whom are you producing this-and-this music. It happened to me when I was writing music for an album which was called The Little Trumpet 10 or 15 years ago, and the German company asked me, “For whom did you write this?” I said, “What do you mean?”

TP: But I’m not asking that. I’m asking who is buying it.

WINTER: But that’s what I mean. Really, seriously, I don’t want to even think about it, because if I think about who is buying it or who could be the target group, then maybe I could change or the artist would change his music around to fulfill a certain group of people. And I think it has to go the other way around. Uri or Paul have something to say, and up to us to bring it to the audience. And I believe if we make good efforts to bring it to the audience and the music is good, then people also will enjoy it.

TP: But you do a certain packaging and presentation. The records stand out. I assume you mean it to reflect a visual analog of your aesthetic. The musician I was sitting with yesterday said he was in Cologne, and that Uri’s records were prominently displayed in the record store, next to the Three Tenors. I think the stores here like Uri’s records and consider it a mark of status to sell them, but they’re not marketing them with the Three Tenors. I don’t care about the commerciality; I’m more interested on what this tells us about the impression Uri’s music is making upon the public that buys these records.

WINTER: When I was 18-19-20 years old, I read the letters between Schoenberg and Kandinsky. From that time on, it was always inside me that I want to bring together as an editor and work together with artists who on the one side are musicians and on the other side are painters and photographers and so on, and the best would be if I am able to bring together certain artists. That’s how I feel I want to work as an editor, and my main work is to be an editor. Our whole packaging is a result of just presenting the music or some other arts in the same kind of value or in the same kind of form. And I figured out that it is impossible to do this in a plastic box. I mean, you are killing the art if you do that in a plastic box. So I was just searching for another way. That is the main reason why I’m doing that. It happened, for example, that a new album which we are releasing right now for an accordion player, Theodore Ansilotti(?), is playing Scarlatti’s music, the artwork was done by Baselitz, who is one of the most contemporary German artists. These kinds of things are happening. Then Baselitz invited the musicians, and he played for Baselitz, and an interactive thing was doing on between Theodore Ansilotti(?), the accordion player, and Baselitz. I love if these kinds of things are happening. And especially talking about the States, one of the most important artists is Steve Byrum who did most of the JMT covers and also a lot of cover and artworks for Winter&Winter. He is for me a very important voice. If you ask me, then I say Steve Byrum is as important as Baselitz is in Germany. It’s just that these people don’t get the recognition they should get.

TP: I think in the art world, even more than the music world, the market and commodity value of the work is what causes an artist to be visible in the arts community. What is Uri’s next release going to be?

WINTER: That is a rather difficult question. We are working to release three albums at the same time in more or less three different directions. I have no idea if we can realize what we are planning to do. But that’s what we have in mind. We have in mind to do three albums and to put them out at the same time, but these three albums are going in three different directions. One album will be a piano solo record which is already recorded. Then there will be another album which he wants to record with a trio and with deejays; it’s a combination of his trio works and deejay works. And the plan is to make a third album with Brazilian-Latin music.TP: Uri said that you and he first encountered each other at various sessions at the Tap Bar. Is that how you and he started making narratives together?

DJ OLIVE: Yeah, but I didn’t really know him. That was with a group called Liminal, which was me, Danny Bloom and Richard Pinsiera. We were playing the Tap Bar, and anybody could basically jam with us. Danny Bloom knew the Knitting Factory scene a lot better than we did; Rich and I were from kind of the electronic music scene. A lot of people played there who we didn’t really know but Danny knew. Then when Uri was working on the Mahler record, he asked Danny if he knew any crazy deejay, and Danny said, “Yes, I know Olive.” So he brought me out to a studio in Brooklyn, and Danny and I jammed on the multitracks for like a 9-hour day. When the Mahler record started selling pretty well in Europe and the tours started coming in, he asked me to go and tour with him, which was a really different role than jamming to multi-tracks. He really liked what I was doing on the road so…

TP: I want to elaborate on several things you said. On the Mahler thing, what was the criteria for the choices you were making within that jam? Obviously, once you have some time under your belt, you can codify your ideas. But jamming as a deejay, what areas of music and sound were you thinking of as matching Uri’s concept?

DJ OLIVE: Well, I really didn’t know when I went to the studio. I had no idea. Danny basically called me and said “Do you want to do some studio work? We’re going to play to some multi track, and it’s like jazz interpretations of Mahler.” I really had no idea. I put together my arsenal, my toolkit of different directions I could flip the script. The main thing for me, in general, that I look for are records that have a single instrument on them or sections with solo instruments. Because if you’re playing with a band, and you start mixing in a whole other band, it’s very hard to have it integrate with the musicians. I find one of the dangers of deejaying with bands is that it can become a kind of two-dimensional thing, where you have the band and then you have the sound coming out of the sound system. It happens a lot when deejays play beats with a band and there’s a drummer there as well, and you hear the processed beats coming out of the sound system… It’s kind of complicated. But records have timing and tuning. So if you pitch something up so that it’s the right pitch, it’s very…almost never going to be in time. So for me, when you start playing beats for stuff that has both timing and pitch involved in it, then the band starts to play to the record rather than the record being inside the group like another instrument.

TP: I’m interested in the way in which your own personal narrative intersects with Uri’s, because you’ve obviously developed a strong relationship.

DJ OLIVE: Yes. Well, in general, I was playing with a lot of bands, and I was boiling down my toolkit into the single sound records that I could find, and then starting to press my own records that I call palettes, which are various single noises and sounds and people talking who are mostly friends of mine or musicians I know who get in the studio. That kind of way that I am deejaying with bands is I guess why Danny said, “Why don’t you use this guy?” I already kind of had that formula going. When I went to the studio, they had 90 minutes on multi-track, and then they would play us a track, and we would jam to it, then maybe we’d jam to it again, and they could edit us out or cut-and-paste us anywhere they wanted later. So I would try different things and see what the response from Uri was, because I was getting to know him that day. He was digging it. He seemed like he was really liking it and I was doing the right thing, and he didn’t sort of tell me what to do or second-guess me. I tried to do what I thought would add something, would be a cinematic element. So it would be as if, as an audience, you could start to picture the sound in your head.

TP: How did this develop on the tour?

DJ OLIVE: On the tour he just kept telling me to play more. I wasn’t playing very much.

TP: How did your concept of what he was doing evolve over the tour?

DJ OLIVE: Well, I wasn’t sure whether he wanted me to play the same things or to be like a wild-card for a little while, so I was testing that ground. Then I really found that for me (and he seemed to agree), the more wild I could be… It’s almost like I was keeping the band on its toes, in a weird way. If I was playing the same sounds, the same little spoken word chunks, then the band wouldn’t have a reaction to it in the same way. Because if you put in some spoken word, like collecting the garbage or something, people react to that only the first time in the same way, because it has the humor and the content or something. So I was trying to keep the band on its toes by always playing something different, coming in on different people’s solos with different sounds. Then there were a few sounds that I found would really worked somewhere, like the snoring at the end of the Goldberg Variations. I started to play something like that every time, and it really fit. But I don’t think that the turntables are a very good instrument when you start having to hit cues, where you’re playing a set record at a set time. Then you really should be picking out a sampler.

TP: As far as the Goldberg vis-a-vis the Mahler, are you using the same process? Are you working from the text, as it were, or are you relying on your intuition in regard what the sound is in the moment?

DJ OLIVE: It’s a combination. The text from Mahler is really different than the Goldberg.

TP: And Uri’s process is very different in dealing with the two.

DJ OLIVE: Yeah. But I think a lot about Mahler and about Goldberg; not so much about Bach, but more about this insomniac who couldn’t sleep, and that he’s sitting in his bed and these pieces are being played in his castle over and over again. So I started to think about incidental things, like dogs barking or a cat or going to the toilet, or things that would happen for an insomniac. Mahler is really different especially because we were touring Germany and there was this issue about Mahler being coopted by the Nazis, and this kind of Jewish-German meeting place of culture.

TP: You mean the Nazis coopting Mahler’s legacy.

DJ OLIVE: Yes. They were using his work, which was really ironic because he was Jewish. So that kind of thought started to come into play as far as what kind of person he would be, and trying to… For me, I had a much more melancholy sense about some of the tracks. I guess his kid died. There’s a song about that. So I would try to put my head in a very different place for each piece. But the technique is pretty similar. On the Bach I tried to be a loot more funny.

TP: So you’ve known Uri now for 4-5 years. Tell me your impressions of him as a thinker, as an improviser.

DJ OLIVE: You know, it’s really not my world. So I am constantly amazed by these players and their process. I work with computers and samplers and stitching little tiny bits of sound for hours and days and weeks, just one measure of some beat. Very synthetic. And it’s all basically intuitive, except knowing the programs. I can’t write a bar of music. But to watch someone like Ralph Alessi sight-read and sight-transpose simultaneously, like having the sheet music for say the clarinet and transposing it for trumpet while it’s the first time he’s ever seen the music, blows my mind. I see that on the road working with these guys. So I’m more amazed by what Uri is doing. When he was working on the Goldbergs, we were in Austria, and his hotel room was just papers… He was talking on the phone and writing music, and you had to walk over piles of music, and there was all these different players, and they were rehearsing every day. It was like four days rehearsal. He was constantly rewriting. I was really blown away by how intense his process was, but it didn’t seem to be bogging him down at all.

TP: He seems not to get particularly phased by much of anything.

DJ OLIVE: Yes. He’s an amazing guy as a bandleader. I’ve never been on the road with someone like that, as far as not stressing the band. He is ridiculously nice and considerate, and trying to take care of everybody without it being like a panic. Everybody seems to get on the train, everybody seems to get on their plane and get to the gig. There’s no drama. And that’s his style. That’s true with his playing, too, that he won’t necessarily try to mold people into his pieces, but to have pieces evolve with some of the players.

TP: So basically he’s extrapolating everyone’s tonal personality and have that comprise what the music is at that particular moment. I guess the music can have infinite iterations just by who plays it. Maybe that defines what his music is, that there are 8 million ways to skin the cat.

DJ OLIVE: Exactly. And I think he’ll play different tracks when different players are on the road.

TP: Tell me about some of the other bands you play with.

DJ OLIVE: I did a record with William Hooker and Glenn Spearman called Mindfulness, a totally different vibe. I learned a lot from William, and I was on the road with him for two trips. I just did a record with Kim Gordon and Ikue Mori on Sonic Youth Recordings, which was mixed by Jim O’Rourke, who did a really great job. We’re going to go on the road in March, to France and Italy. I have my own project called We(tm). That’s an electronic outfit, and we’ve put out three records. I work with Christian Marclay.

TP: He’s kind of the pioneer of this particular end of deejaying, I would think.

DJ OLIVE: Well, that would be too big a statement. In a way, but I think there’s a middle ground that people like me are finding me that are between the skills developed by Hip-hop and the skills developed by people like Christian. It’s like two different branches on a tree…

TP: I have vivid memories of things Christian was doing in the ’80s.

DJ OLIVE: Yes, and Hip-Hop was happening at the same time in a totally different way somewhere else. I grew up on Hip-Hop and then did some really weird pieces, and someone said, “Do you know Christian Marclay?” and I was like “Whoa!” They gave me the Footprints record. [38] The main thing I’ve been working on is what I call the Vinyl Score, which is compositions for the turntable, which are played by solo deejays. So it’s like a palette of sounds, and you have three copies. You can only play that palette on three turntables for 10 to 20 minutes. So what I would paint and what you would paint would be totally different.

TP: So within a finite set of sounds and these finite instructions, you give your interpretation.

DJ OLIVE: Right. And every time it’s mixed, it’s different, and what you’re hearing are the skills of the deejay and the instruments of the turntables. so I’ve been making those and doing performances in Europe and here with different deejays, playing the pieces back to back. I’m starting a label that’s focused just on doing that. I’m going to do one vinyl score that Luc Ferrari is making and another vinyl score that DJ Toshio, my partner on the label, is working on with John Appleton, who’s a concrete guy. They’re both about 75, one’s American, one’s French, and they’re both concrete composers.

I learned a lot from Ralph Alessi, Ralph Peterson, Michael Formanek, Drew Gress and all these guys. I learned a lot from these guys, just sitting in a train for a few hours. Don Byron, what a thinker, man. That guy is amazing just to sit around and talk with. Ralph Alessi and Drew Gress, and Don can get into this, too…this linguistic gymnastics that’s hilarious! Drew Gress is incredible with it. All this linguistic stuff. It’s pretty funny. Barbara Walker is an amazing person. But she’s not heady in the same way at all. She’s really down to earth but super-smart. For me it’s great to be with these musicians after being in the studio with deejays, which I love, too, but there’s a lot of shallowness and Fashion… It’s a lot about Fashion. Music has Fashion, music has Design. Which I like. I like that aspect of it, of music being like design.

TP: You represent a point of view for other people, and people get very wedded to their points of view (I’m talking about the public aspect of deejaying), so I imagine it would be an easy trap to fall into. Because deejays get a person, a certain authority, whatever that status is, and it would be very easy to get carried away with that.

DJ OLIVE: Yeah, and then you get categorized and…

TP: So a lot of the things you’re doing are consciously to avoid that trap.

DJ OLIVE: Well, these people who are like gods to me. Kim Gordon calls me. Am I going to say no? The same with Uri. I knew him a little bit, just his name. But he’s this incredible musician. I’m not going to say no to the chance to work with these people and soak something up, and try to get some feedback, you know, how can I make this instrument work as an instrument, not as a playback device. Or not just as a reference device either, although I use it that way a lot with Uri, like referencing sounds or sound effects or people speaking. For instance, with William Hooker I didn’t do any of that. It was all just usually synthesizer, early experimental synthesizer records. I wasn’t making like any reference to any content or the way that records usually are used when they’re not playing beats.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Piano, uri Caine

For Craig Taborn’s Birthday, a Downbeat Feature From 2008

The magnificent pianist/keyboardist/soundshaper Craig Taborn turned 46 yesterday. For the occasion, I’m posting a Downbeat feature that I wrote about him in 2008.

* * * *

Home in Brooklyn during the first days of spring, Craig Taborn was engaged in research and development. Among Taborn’s various self-imposed tasks was to memorize 10 new Tim Berne compositions in preparation for a three-week April tour in Europe with Berne’s Science Friction group, to which, during the winter, Taborn had contributed—as he had done with David Torn’s Presenz, which enfolds Berne’s band—slamming grooves and an orchestral array of sounds from keyboards, synths and home-brewed “junk” electronics.

“With Science Friction, there’s a lot of electronics and reading,” said Taborn, pointing across his living room to a concert upright Bechstein piano on which Berne’s scores shared space with piano music by Arnold Schoenberg. “Sometimes I’ll want to do a particular part on one keyboard, another part here, then another there. It would be a real problem to read music and also think about all the knobs and dials, or to look at a computer screen and problem-solve while the part is coming.”

Taborn’s penchant for sustaining creative fluency through a 360-degree span of stylistic taxonomies, in contexts “inside” and “outside,” acoustic or electronic, makes him a singular figure among improvisers of his generation. But at this moment, his keyboard wizardry was posing a peculiar problem. “I’m still deciding what to bring,” he said. He wasn’t talking about clothes.

A half-full fiberglass camera case, neatly stacked in two tiers, lay at his feet. “Flights in Europe have been strict on overweight,” he said. He added that during his winter travels he had drastically exceeded the 20-kilo limit beyond which a 10 Euros per kilo fee is imposed.

“Now, this case is actually light for its kind,” he said. “Nothing happens to it—it’s waterproof and you can throw it down the stairs. But it’s 7 kilos empty, and there’s no way to avoid the overweight. So now I’m thinking, ‘What do I want to deal with? What do I need and how much do I want to take?’”

A possible option would be to place the contents of the case into the square bag that sat across the room, transforming it into an unprotected, carry-on satchel. “You get on these little connecting flights and they want to hand-check your stuff,” he said, nixing the notion. “So you’re giving $1500 worth of stuff to somebody in Italy, and God knows what happens once it’s out of your sight. You get to the gig, and it’s just gone.”

Taborn would bring a laptop with a hard-drive loaded with software emulations of all the instruments he plays, and a contract rider stipulated that each venue would provide an acoustic piano, a Rhodes, and a virtual Hammond organ. “I’ve been trying to phase out my laptop thing, because it takes me out of improvising,” he said. “It’s wonderful, but I find I get more mileage out of one or two nice things that do something.”

Deciding upon those “nice things” was therefore the task at hand. One essential was a coil of high-grade electrical cord in a corner of the case. “This is the thing that makes the weight,” he said ruefully. Below the cord was a Line 6 Delay pedal, for echoes, and a Berenger mixer with two stereo and two mono lines.

“A lot of people send everything to the house soundman, but I like to mix myself,” he said. “I’ll plug in the Rhodes and the organ and a couple of synths, then send all the lines to my own amp, and have them mike the amp. That gives me complete control over my sound.”

Taborn considered a keyboard and a wood-trimmed, knob-loaded Creamware Pro-12 ASB synthesizer, built to capture the essence of the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, a popular synth at the cusp of the ’80s.

“I’m an improviser, and I don’t know exactly what sound I want to make until I hear what’s going on,” he said. “During the ’70s into the ’80s, as synthesizers became refined, the emphasis was put on programmability and keeping presets—you designed your sounds at home with the luxury of time and silence, and then could call them up with, say, button No. 1 at a specific spot in the music. It’s like tuning your TV to your favorite channels. You always know that exact sound will be there, balanced the way you want in the environment.

“I’m interested in the process of making and designing the sound as part of the improvisation,” he continued. ‘I come more out of Sun Ra, who approached synthesizers by turning the knobs, playing in real time, and figuring it out as he went along. Those instruments were new, so people didn’t know them, and they weren’t designed to be pre-programmed, so you couldn’t call up a sound. Throughout the ’90s, hardcore musicians from hip-hop, techno and electronica were buying those older synthesizers to be able to personalize and improvise in real time. The marketplace went way up, and now it’s hard to find things that don’t have knobs and switches.”

Taborn continued to ponder the issue of weight. “I have this whole rig inside my laptop,” he said, referring to his Macbook Pro. “I could plug it into the system, and use a little controller to do all this. I could even emulate the knobs. I always take the laptop with me, and I’ve used it a lot in the last couple of years—although I like to have things dedicated, and I prefer the real thing, I don’t prefer it to carrying all that stuff around. I do hear qualitative differences in the sound. Also, if your entire setup is on the laptop and it crashes, then what do you do? If I run one thing, for instance, it will probably be OK. But if, to emulate a sound I get in real time, I layer a software version of a Prophet-5 and then a software version of a delay, the processors have trouble handling it. It takes a lot of number-crunching in the computer to program things that have the subtle play of an analog oscillator or analog filter, and their imperfections, such as going out of tune a bit when it heats up. For what I do, a lot of real-time manipulation, turning knobs frantically, the Sun Ra kind of thing, the computers will freeze up.”

Offering to demonstrate the virtual gear, Taborn transitioned to his studio, a converted second bedroom. Among other things, it contained a Mac Power desktop, Event 2020 reference-quality speakers, a Mackie 1202-VLZ3 mixer, a MOTU-2408 interface, a Kurzweil K-2500 synthesizer, an Oxygen-2 mini-keyboard, and a model 240B Wurlitzer electric piano from the early ’70s with a broken speaker. A larger wood-body 140B from 1962 was in the closet. His personal Rhodes was parked at his parents’ home in Minneapolis.

Taborn turned on the Mac, clicked Applications, pulled up his Prophet-5 knockoff, a Native Instruments Pro-53, and waited. The response was sluggish. “Something weird is going on,” he said. “If I were live and it started doing this it would be a drag.”

He opened the B-4 Hammond organ sample and uncorked a grooving line on the QWERTY keys. “I don’t play the keyboard computer like that, but that’s how it’s mapped,” he said. He switched the setting from “Funky Kingston” to an idiomatic Joey DeFrancesco-generated B-3 sound.

The computer was balking, so Taborn went to the closet. He pulled out a bright-red keyboard-synth labeled Yamaha PSS-470, the kind musicians once used, in Taborn’s words, “to play a cheesy samba.” Its wiring and circuitry were transformed into random pathways and patterns by Taborn’s friend Ryan Olcott. “You can’t emulate this on a computer,” he said. “I have two of these. You could get them in pawn shops for $50–$100, and then go inside it. Ryan is into these real improvising machines. This one came out in the ’80s, and it has a WHAM! sound, like George Michael, in its original functionality.”

He played a skronky, distorted line. “It can do something like this almost immediately, and when you turn on the switches it gets you into some abstract areas. The mentality is avant-garde; it’s made to be random, so you don’t know what it’s going to do. That’s why I like improvising with it—responding to the sounds and dealing with them is endless.”
As if to emphasize his affinity for radical esthetics, Taborn turned to a pile of books on a shelf, topped by the anthology Film Theory And Criticism. “Film, dance and music all deal with time, and how these events unfold in time is very influential for me,” he said. It was observed that, like experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, well-represented in that text, or, for that matter, such formative musical heroes as Thelonious Monk, McCoy Tyner and Cecil Taylor, Taborn thinks like a Modernist, focused on the purity and elaboration of a particular idea, rather than translating styles into ironic cultural signifiers in the Postmodern manner. You’re not likely to hear David Torn play hardbop chordal lines as Taborn did with James Carter during the ‘90s, or Berne to limn the melody of Ellington’s “Stevedore Serenade” in an idiomatic manner, as Taborn did with Carter some years ago at a Jazz at Lincoln Center concert. But Taborn seems not to recognize hierarchical distinctions between the idioms. He’s as committed to generating fresh ideas in one environment as the other.

After his April tour with Berne, Taborn would return to Europe for the first three weeks of May with Scott Colley and Brian Blade in David Binney’s quartet, interpreting Binney’s harmonically dense, long-form jazz compositions on acoustic piano. Over the previous six months on continent-hopping long hauls with Chris Potter’s Underground, he had donned his Fender Rhodes hat, juxtaposing crisp, surging odd-meter bass lines with simultaneously improvised melodic variations, supporting the proceedings with informed, tasteful comp. Briefer trips and local one-offs—with Roscoe Mitchell, William Parker, Gerald Cleaver, Drew Gress and Susie Ibarra—augmented Taborn’s mix, as did a September 2007 acoustic trio engagement at the Monterey Jazz Festival with Cleaver and bassist Thomas Morgan.

A broadcast of the latter performance documents a six-tune, 55-minute suite marked by fresh ideas and unending musical conversation. It fills a gap—although Taborn, 38, has a large enough backlog of solo, trio, electronic, and ensemble material to fill several CDs, his last acoustic recording appeared in 2001 on Light Made Lighter (Thirsty Ear), while his most recent leader date is 2004’s Junk Magic (Thirsty Ear), a seven-track suite on which Taborn convened violinist Mat Maneri, tenor saxophonist Aaron Stewart and The Bad Plus drummer Dave King to investigate themes executed with various circuitry and computerized synthesis.

“I’ve postponed my leader thing,” Taborn said with a shrug. “Because of finances, I take the tours as they come, then everything fills up.”

Taborn’s employers state unequivocally that his incessant sidemanning in no way inhibits his ability to project his sonic personality.

“It takes a lot of confidence not to go along with the crowd,” Berne said. “If Craig wanted to, he could eliminate all this other stuff and impress everyone with his piano trio. But he based all his decisions on his interest in the music he plays, not only his career or being seen as the great pianist he is.

“I wanted to do away with guitar and bass, but somehow have the power and range of both instruments,” Berne continued, explaining why he first recruited Taborn around 2000. “I didn’t want synthesizers, and I didn’t want somebody to play like a keyboard player, so to speak. I wanted somebody who just played music on the keyboard.”

“Craig is an idiosyncratic genius, which is a word I don’t use lightly,” Torn said. “He’s not a chameleon in the studio sense of the word; he has strong conceptual ideas about what he’s doing in any context. But with the exception of his acoustic playing, which is remarkable, he’s incapable of pinning himself down to an idiom or particular sound. He’s the rare musician who takes the approach, ‘what can I do with this instrument?’ rather than playing through its book of techniques. Regardless of its organic or electronic nature, every instrument is an expression of technology; Craig is able to eschew the technological aspect in order to get out the sounds that he feels are suitanble for the music he’s playing.”

Furthermore, as Berne noted, Taborn directs his speculative investigations towards the function of the moment. “Even playing something complicated, Craig simplifies it to its fundamental components,” Berne said. “He won’t do anything just to show he can; if one note does it, that’s what he’ll play. He also has the guts to lay out, to not play, when most people would feel obligated to. He’ll always take the opposing view. He’ll pose another question or look at things in a way you didn’t consider.”

Potter noted that Taborn’s experimentalism stems less from a contrarian sensibility than a desire to explore the ramifications of the multiple vocabularies that comprise his frame of reference. “Craig has spent a lot of time learning and thinking about the lessons of past masters in the jazz tradition—and other traditions, too,” he said. “When he improvises, he keeps the essence of what makes his influences work musically but takes care not to copy what they did. Perhaps he’ll introduce elements from other sources. He’s intellectually thorough enough to take his own angle.”

Particularly when deploying electronics, Taborn hews to textural imperatives not dissimilar to those that impelled Mitchell and the members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago—an early Taborn influence—to incorporate “little instruments” into the sonic flow 40 years ago.

“I’m always aware of sound,” Taborn said. “I approach the acoustic piano somewhat as a sound device, which it is, but my relationship to it contains a lot of pianism. I learn the Rhodes, the Hammond, the Wurlitzer, the electronics, so that I can use them as devices to work with ideas, but I don’t practice them like I practice piano. Electronic music isn’t playing certain scales over certain chords, or working over a particular form. You might play with the delay, or the rate of an echo, or modify the reverb. It’s less about technique on an instrument, which a lot of jazz is, and more related to visual and conceptual art.”

But it’s also about being able to execute almost any idea he thinks of—Taborn possesses a surfeit of technique. He doesn’t use it, as he puts it, “play in one bag and then shift to another.” Rather, Taborn prefers to borrow fluently rendered vocabulary from the diverse musical languages he commands to create contextual gestures that support and augment the flow. The architecture trumps the facade.

“Prescribing notions of the parameters of bebop or hardbop or avant-garde is to posit a sort of fixed thing that was never fixed anywhere,” he said. “It’s useful as a model to construct and look at things, but it doesn’t have much bearing on the creative process. I draw specific influence from Frank Zappa, Blood Ulmer and Wayne Shorter, not the note choices or harmony, but in phrasing and sound. What’s interesting is that it doesn’t translate to piano or keyboards at all, but comes out sounding like something else.” DB

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Filed under Craig Taborn, DownBeat, Piano, Uncategorized

For Oscar Peterson’s 90th Birthday Anniversary, A Verbatim Interview from 2002 and a Liner Note

To acknowledge the 90th birth anniversary of the virtuoso pianist Oscar Peterson (1925-2007), I’m appending a verbatim interview that I conducted with him for a piece on his excellent autobiography, A Jazz Odyssey, and a liner note that I wrote for the release of Oscar Peterson’s Big 4, Live In Japan, an after-the-fact issue of a 1982 concert for Pablo Records. Other references to the maestro on this blog-site can be found here.

 

Oscar Peterson (on A Jazz Odyssey):

TP: Why the autobiography? When did you start thinking about it, and what steps did you take in beginning to write and conceptualize it?

PETERSON: Well, it started, believe it or not, about 15 years ago, when the late Norman Granz spoke to me and said, “You ought to think about writing a book about the way you came from Canada, from Montreal, and got into the jazz ranks, and got into Jazz at the Phil and all the work that you’ve done.” And I didn’t give it that much thought. I tried several ways. I tried it with the inevitable tape recorder, and I didn’t like that. Then finally it resolved to the point where Norman suggested that I bring in Richard Palmer and have him critique and then editorialize things I had written already. Richard had already written a book on me in London… Richard Palmer consented to act in the role of an editor of stuff that I had written, and he came over and spent time with me. Nothing much happened for a while after that, because I became very, very busy and decided to give a rest to it. Then we resumed…

TP: What was the year?

PETERSON: I can’t remember the year.

TP: Was it ten years ago? Five years ago?

PETERSON: It was in that time period. I can’t give it to you chronologically, because I don’t remember myself.

But Richard came over, then we let it go for a while, and then we decided to complete the book within the last year-and-a-half, and we sort of went over it tooth-and-nail and decided that it was as good as it was going to be.

TP: When did you actually start the writing? Right after Norman Granz made the suggestion?

PETERSON: I started approximately a month after he suggested it, which was about 15 years ago.

TP: So this book has been in the process of creation since 1986 or 1987.

PETERSON: That’s correct.

TP: Did you just start writing, or did you think about a form? For instance, did you write it in chronology, as the book, or did you write about different subjects?

PETERSON: I wrote about my feelings and my thoughts about how deeply I wanted to get involved in the professional end of the jazz world. Because I had to make that decision after having met Norman Granz. So what I did was go back and write a chronological report on how I started studying, my family and so forth and so on. Then I got into the part where I left the United States, and then talked about the various people I worked with and how they influenced me and what I learned from them.

TP: Had you written before, besides correspondence and so forth?

PETERSON: No. I’m a piano player, remember?

TP: I do. Is writing something that came naturally to you, or did you work on it with the sort of determination that marks your approach to the instrument?

PETERSON: Well, literature was one of my better subjects in school, so I enjoyed it from that end in the beginning. But I did not realize what a monumental project I had taken on until I was well into it.

TP: You say literature was one of your better subjects. Who are the writers you favor? Did you have any stylistic models?

PETERSON: Not really. I just enjoyed the courses in school, in literature, and I enjoyed writing different things.

TP: Any two or three favorite novelists?

PETERSON: I read various things over the years. My memory is failing now, so I can’t remember them all. I remember reading everything from detective stories, like Mickey Spillane and things like that, and I read a lot of scientific things. I was interested in space and things like that. So I never paid the authors that much mind; I just enjoyed what I was reading.

TP: Well, there’s a real authorial voice in the book, which is not something that always comes naturally. It looks to me like you did a great deal of writing-editing-rewriting-editing…

PETERSON: No, I didn’t. Richard really did not rewrite hardly any of my thing, because he wanted it to be totally in my words, as he put it. I appreciated that about him, because I didn’t want it to be false fiction.

TP: I meant rewriting by you. It had the rather smooth feeling that comes when you’ve really worked on something and honed it.

PETERSON: I’m going to say this to you. Over the years, when things have happened, funny instances have taken place in my life, and I’ve recounted them to people, various people, including Norman. I think this is the factor on which he predicated his insistence that I start the book. They have always said that I told a great story, whatever that means, whether I was telling jokes or things that have happened to me, and so forth. That’s where it started.

TP: You set the table very well in your various anecdotes. You have a very firm sense of scene and place and drama.

PETERSON: I’m not really aware of that. It’s just the way I saw it.

TP: What’s also interesting is your command of the voices of the other musicians. The way you capture Lester Young or Roy Eldridge or Coleman Hawkins or Ella Fitzgerald or Ben Webster and on down, even those to whom you devoted only a paragraph or two. Did you just conjure them up in the process of writing? Did they come from stories you had told before? Do some of these stories reflect the type of stories Norman Granz would have been thinking about when he suggested you write the autobiography.

PETERSON: Well, it’s really based on the effect that these people had on me when I met them, and the way they reacted when certain things happened. You’re referring to Lester Young. We roomed together for a while, for instance, and I got to know a lot of his habits. The same with Flip Phillips, and Bill Harris.

TP: People I knew 20 years ago, I can’t necessarily remember the nuances of their syntax and the way they spoke unless I had it on a tape.

PETERSON: The reason for that is because I had a great admiration for the way people put things in context. I always insisted that Lester Young had a language of his own; the way he would talk to people. I admired this, because it was something very, very special to Lester, and it’s just the way it affected me.

TP: Do you feel that’s the case for all the musicians you profiled in the book?

PETERSON: I think so, yes. Because don’t forget, I was the new face among them, the new kid on the block, and everything that happened around me sort of saturated me, and I took it all in. It had a profound effect on me.

TP: So there’s a sense in which the spoken voice of the musician reflects their musical voice.

PETERSON: I think so.

TP: Secondly, you wrote about training yourself to listen in that manner, and that being analogous to the process of playing as well.

PETERSON: Well, I had to do that because I was accompanying a lot of these people on the jam sessions in the rhythm sections. I always preach that to my students whenever I hold a seminar. I tell them to be sure to listen to the soloists, and don’t think you’re a soloist against another soloist.

TP: Artists aren’t always articulate about the creative process, and the process of accumulating vocabulary and technique and information. You’re an exception. Your passages on the way you trained yourself, what you were looking for, just your entire approach, are unique in the literature of jazz. Is this something that reflects your personality over the years, or was describing it something you had to think about and work on?

PETERSON: I tried to write the same way we talk musically. I tried to write it as ad-lib as possible. Because I felt that if I stopped and conjured up, or tried to beautify or whatever you want to call it…various phrases and things… I just felt that if I spoke honestly about what had happened and what people said… I tried to be very careful to not add anything to what people had said to me or done to me. In other words, I didn’t want any of my personality to come through in what people were saying and doing to and with me.

TP: Are you satisfied that you did that?

PETERSON: I feel honestly that I did, yes.

TP: Were you writing in longhand? Were you typing?

PETERSON: I started out with the famous microphone and tape, which I didn’t like, in a certain way, because I found that I started to edit a lot of things when I played them back. I didn’t like that. I wanted it to be as improvisational as possible.

TP: A lot of people in your position use the tape recorder because they feel that speaking the story to the tape recorder more will come out and the inhibitions won’t take hold. It sounds like it was the opposite for you.

PETERSON: It was the opposite. Then I transferred it at the beginning of the computer age. I had a little Radio Shack computer, and I started writing on that. But I’m not the world’s greatest typist. I gave that style up years ago.

TP: You wrote longhand after that.

PETERSON: I wrote longhand. Then finally, I was very fortunate not having Richard, because he looked over a lot of those things and questioned a lot of the things, but fortunately, my wife Kelly is a wonderful typist, and sat there dedicatedly, hour after hour, while I rambled on.

TP: So you would talk and she would type as you were talking. You dictated to her.

PETERSON: Yes.

TP: So much of this book is dictated to your wife.

PETERSON: An awful lot of it.

TP: Who I guess would be the person you could talk most comfortably to.

PETERSON: Right, because she never questioned anything and she never stopped the flow at any point. As I recall it, she never had to say, “Wait a minute, I missed this.” She’s that good a typist, which is lucky for me.

TP: When you first met Richard Elliott, how much of the material that is in the autobiography was written, do you think?

PETERSON: I think perhaps almost half of it.

TP: Was it chronological or different spots of the book?

PETERSON: I would think it was a little jagged. He put it in the context, insofar as indexing it in the proper way.

TP: But the first things you wrote were about your formative years.

PETERSON: Yes, and then I jumped around. Because when that became a little mundane to listen to myself talk, I stopped to think about different things. As I mentioned different people, that meant I would jump to a different era, a different part of my life. So Richard put that all into the right context.

TP: Have you read other jazz autobiographies and biographies?

PETERSON: Definitely not. One good thing is… I’m glad I didn’t, because they didn’t influence me. Some of the people I admired and loved so much, such as Bill Basie and Duke, I didn’t want to be influenced by. I wanted it to come out pure, the way it should have been.

TP: It’s closer in some ways to Dizzy Gillespie’s autobiography.

PETERSON: Yes, I’d like to read it. I’m trying to get hold of it.

TP: So the chronology is: Norman Granz makes the suggestion, you start writing…

PETERSON: Then I tired, and I put it away for a while.

TP: And at that point, you had maybe half of it.

PETERSON: Less than that. I picked it up two or three times, and then finally Richard Palmer entered the picture.

TP: He enters the picture, goes over the material, makes suggestions for directions you might go in, for how to organize things you’ve already done…

PETERSON: And things and people that he thought I perhaps had forgotten to write about or that he thought people might be interested in hearing my views on.

TP: Who were some of those people? What were some of those things?

PETERSON: I can’t remember.

TP: Then you resume writing and put the book together.

PETERSON: Yes.

TP: I love the poems you wrote. Did you write them in the process of writing the book, or were they things you’d done otherwise?

PETERSON: I did them separately. I had a cottage up in the Halliburton Highlands here in Ontario, and I was sitting around with my computer, and I was thinking about people, and for some reason, I said to my wife, Kelly, “I think I should write something about them.” She said, “that’s a good idea.” Then I was kibitzing around, I started thinking about the rhythmic things about these people and the way they thought and played, and I decided that I would take a shot at writing a few verses about these various people. I don’t know how many I wrote…God knows how many I wrote in over a year. But I came back from the cottage, and I showed them to various people, and they were quite enthralled with what I had written. They said, “You should publish those.” The best thing that happened that I remember is a poem I wrote for Ella, which was read at her tribute in New York by Lena Horne — and what a reading she gave it. It was something. And I was really moved by that. But I don’t consider myself a poet by any means. I never pursued that.

TP: Even formally they’re beautiful forms, and they’re quite cogent. It’s not just stylistic; they really say something about their subjects. Have you read the book since publication?

PETERSON: No, I haven’t.

TP: Were you actively involved in proofing the book and in the final galleys and so forth?

PETERSON: No. I left that to Richard.

TP: What I’m leading to is, we’re saying that the notion that the spoken voice of the musician runs in a tone parallel to their instrumental voice. Do you feel that your authorial voice in this book is an analog to your musical voice and the imperatives that inform it?

PETERSON: I would think so. As I always say, “As you think, so you play.”

TP: How much did you delete from the book?

PETERSON: I don’t think there was a lot deleted. Richard didn’t take that kind of liberty. He would ask me if I thought that I had written enough about someone, or did I clarify the subject well enough. Or did I cover a certain period well enough. That’s the kind of thing he was doing.

TP: So he functioned on several levels. As a fan of your music, obviously. As someone who was more than a fan, but an extremely informed observer and perhaps scholar of your life in music. And as a skilled professional writer and editor who could polish the book into a form that would meet your standards of professionalism.

PETERSON: Well, I trusted Richard, because first of all, I had read various things he had written before — reviews and so forth. And as I said, he wrote a book on me, and I found it to be very direct and honest. So I didn’t hesitate to ask him when Norman suggested him.

TP: Are you as critical of yourself musically as you sometimes portray yourself to be in the book, on various minor points of detail and so on? In the book, your confidence in your ability, and assuredness and acceptance of your ability shines through all the way, and so does your capacity for self-criticism. It’s an interesting dynamic, and honestly reflected in the book.

PETERSON: Well, I hope so. I think that comes from working with other people rather than being a total solo artist. When you work with people, I have to criticize what my group does. But by the same token, I have to criticize what I am doing that’s causing them to do certain things. I think that’s what this arises from.

I hope you enjoyed the book. I’m going to get around to reading it as soon as I get the time!

TP: Do you listen to your own records back?

PETERSON: No, I don’t. I listen to them in the studio, but I don’t sit at home and play my own records. I don’t have that kind of ego. [LAUGHS]

TP: You were there and did it, so there it is.

PETERSON: That’s excuse enough, I guess.

TP: Do you listen back to the sideman things you did?

PETERSON: Oh, I listen to those. Because I listen to the other people, like Dizzy and Ella and Roy Eldridge and Stan Getz and so forth.

TP: You didn’t recount your sessions with Louis Armstrong.

PETERSON: They were wonderful. He was a complete comedian during all those sessions. He kept us in stitches. Including Ella. Sometimes we had to do second and third takes because was doing his comedic act. After they sang, and I had to play something, sometimes he’d yell “Yeah!” or whatever, and it didn’t bother him that they were doing a take. The one thing I tried to do was to follow every nuance that he put into his singing. It wasn’t easy to accompany him because he took all kinds of risks vocally, which other singers would not.

TP: You write humorously and lovingly of Coleman Hawkins, who legendarily stayed au courant with everything that was happening, including Thelonious Monk. You don’t mention Monk in the book. What was your attitude towards his playing?

PETERSON: I didn’t have an attitude towards his playing. I didn’t admire his playing. I admired his compositions. Look at it realistically. If you talk about pianists, and you say Thelonious Monk, would you say Art Tatum in the same voice, or Hank Jones or Teddy Wilson? There’s a certain understanding or rapport that you gain with the piano…I think. This is my own selfish opinion. Horowitz had it, obviously. So did Teddy Wilson. So did Bill Evans and Hank Jones. But I don’t feel pianistically that Thelonious Monk had it. That’s one reason why he’s not in the book. My mother always said if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything!

TP: Are you as self-critical as you portray your character to be?

PETERSON: I hope so. I think that comes from working with other people rather than being a total solo artist. I have to criticize what my group does. But by the same token, I have to criticize what I do that causes them to do certain things.

TP: Do you feel that your authorial voice is an analog to your musical voice and the imperatives that inform it?

PETERSON: I would think so. As I always say, “As you think, so you play.”

  • * * * *

Oscar Peterson Big 4 (Live In Japan) – Liner Notes:
“A jazz phrase to me can’t be a jazz phrase without a certain type of blues feeling to it. If someone tries to play the blues, that’s the quickest way of knowing where they’re at jazz-wise, in my book. I have seen so-called prolific players humbled by the simplest of players who could play the blues… I’m not ashamed of the blues. The blues is a definitive part of jazz history and of my playing, and I want it to stay that way. I don’t want it to ever change, because if it does, then it throws me in with the classical end, and that’s not what I’m doing.” – Oscar Peterson, “Contemporary Keyboard” (December 1980)
_________________________________________________________________

Oscar Peterson offered these thoughts a year before the Tokyo concert that is “The Oscar Peterson Big 4 In Japan,” and the listener would do well to recall them while listening to the deftly paced program documented herein. It’s a particularly welcome addition to the meta-virtuoso’s vast discography; addressing repertoire that represents an aesthetic autobiography on a fine Bosendorfer before a tuned-in audience, Peterson — then 56 — is at the top of his game.

You could say the same for Peterson’s cohorts. Guitarist Joe Pass and bassist Niels-Henning Orsted-Pedersen, each a world-class poll-winner of long standing in 1982, had worked with Peterson in a variety of contexts since 1973 (see “The Good Life” [OJCCD-627-2 and “The Trio” [OJCCD-992-2], among others). Collective improvisers par excellence, they operate at a stunning level of interaction with the maestro, who faces no barriers to the execution of any idea he thinks of. Pentium-speed thinkers, they match Peterson’s breathtaking velocities, pristine articulation, and intensely swinging beat; they anticipate the long, clear phrases (think Art Tatum’s chops crossed with Charlie Parker’s vocabulary), augment the fat, beautiful voicings, answer the intricate harmonic twists and turns with inventions of their own devising. Drummer Martin Drew — who with Pedersen remains a vital member of Peterson’s current units — keeps immaculate time and remains keenly focused on dynamics.

Peterson, Pass and Pedersen comprise an immensely resilient, fluid equilateral triangle; their interplay reminds us that to whatever degree Peterson’s unlimited technique conjures Tatum, who was his idol in formative years, his overriding imperatives are orchestral, and have been since his years as a teen prodigy in Montreal, when he devoured recordings by Nat Cole’s popular piano-guitar-bass trio. “I was trying to build what I thought was the world’s biggest trio,” he told Contemporary Keyboard. “Within that context I was playing whatever kind of piano I played.”

Peterson recently addressed the Cole effect in a missive on his website about the “The Nat Cole Trio” (Capitol), in the process unveiling the thought process that undergirds his efflorescent locutions.

“I consider this album, by itself, to be a complete musical thesaurus for any aspiring jazz pianist,” he wrote. “Consider Nat’s rendition of his ‘Easy Listening Blues.’ The performance is simple and direct, yet in it Nat puts together all of the components that, to my way of thinking, are necessary to be able to play the blues. First and foremost, his distinctive yet soulful delivery of the melodic line sets the tone for the whole performance. His distinctly articulated touch and time, as he sets out and releases his phrases, serves to tell a story that he wants his audience to hear. I think it’s important to take notes of the restraint of the performance. No one instrument intrudes on the other, but rather serves to enhance Nat’s lines. The time quotient throughout is, to my way of thinking, exact, low-key, believable and moving. There is a great lesson to be learned here, and that is that shared effort is the most important component in trio playing.”

That said, he IS Oscar Peterson, and Tatumesque virtuosity is the watchword on the pair of solo turns that begin the proceedings. Peterson states the iconic melody of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” at a graceful rubato tempo, then embarks on a succession of variations that deploy tension-and-release, building from legato melodies to arpeggiated crescendos in the archetypal Tatum manner. Then he medleys Michel Legrand’s “Watch What Happens” with Bill Evans’ “Waltz For Debby,” moving in and out of stride, walking the tenths in the graceful manner of Teddy Wilson, articulating the surging phrases with stunning clarity.

The leader steps aside for Joe Pass, “the impresario of the guitar,” for an elegant a cappella turn on “Easy Living.” There follows a ferocious Pass-Pedersen duo on Denzil Best’s “Move”; Pass has the opening salvo over Pedersen’s fleet bass lines, NHOP takes a frighteningly facile solo over Pass comp, and they launch a series of exchanges on which each reads each other’s mind.

Peterson returns, and brings the audience to church with a stately reading of his composition “Hymn To Freedom,” then transitions to his early ’80s opus “The Fallen Warrior,” dedicated to Nelson Mandela, still a prisoner in 1982. The quartet states a slow-medium bounce, stoking smoldering flames. After a guitar solo, Peterson ratchets up the intensity, climaxes, then winds down the sermon.

Peterson constructs an abstract intro to “Sweet Lorraine,” paying homage to Cole and Wilson. Once Pass and Pedersen enter, the dialogue is co-equal, Pass and Peterson switching off interchangeably as the lead voice.

The first set ends with a quartet performance of Walter Donaldson’s “You Look Good To Me,” a Peterson staple. Drew tips on the brushes over an NHOP two-beat, NHOP solos, Pass solos succinctly over NHOP’s brisk walk as Drew switches to sticks, then the pianist builds a characteristic force-of-nature statement, referencing the structure of Coleman Hawkins’ classic solo on “The Man I Love” from 1943.

Peterson opens the second set with a rollicking “Now’s The Time,” the Charlie Parker blues, setting up an irresistible good-time house party feeling. All members say their piece. After a stirring Pedersen solo reading of “Future Child,” the rhythm section states a supersonic tempo on “Mississuga Rattler,” a fire-breathing bop-blues that features an extended Peterson-Pass call and response.

The bassist and Peterson get a kalimba-like feeling on the gentle savannahs-of-Africa vamp that comprises the extended introduction to “Nigerian Marketplace,” an original with a 12/8 Ahmad Jamal feeling that Peterson had recorded seven months previous for Pablo.

The “Emily”-“Tenderly” medley opens with a cappella turns by piano and guitar on the Johnny Mandel ballad staple; Peterson hews gently to the melody, Pass improvises coruscating inventions, then they create melodic variations to match the innocence of the song’s subject, concluding with a seamless segue into “Tenderly,” whose sweet theme the quartet takes out at a medium-slow bounce.

Peterson recorded “Night Child” — an original with a rock-the-cradle gospel feeling — in 1979 on electric piano; Pass postulates delicately parsed high notes to Peterson’s light, lush treble in the Bosendorfer for a more layered, textured iteration of the effect. Then Peterson launches another rolling solo of inexorable momentum, quoting “Moose The Mooche” along the way, before solo turns by Pass, another “how-did-he-do-that?” statement by Pedersen, and a last word from the boss.

The concert ends with Peterson’s “Cakewalk,” whose syncopations catapult the popular turn-of-the-century dance into the bebop era. All have their say, the audience roars, and another of Peterson’s thousands of concerts is history.

Two decades later, we can revel in Peterson at the peak of his powers, as did a talented teenage aspirant from Mississippi named Mulgrew Miller when he heard Peterson perform around 1970 on “The Joey Bishop Show.” “I just flipped,” Miller related in 1994. “Here was Black music being played at a very high level of sophistication. That motivated me. I could study Classical Music and all of that, but I was never MOTIVATED to do that. But when I heard Oscar Peterson, I was motivated to master the piano.”

The Oscar Peterson Big Four in Japan” will stand among the piano titan’s strongest recordings; it contains the kind of playing that inspired Miller and countless other young keyboard talents to devote their energies to jazz.

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Filed under Jazziz, Liner Notes, Oscar Peterson, Piano

For Ahmad Jamal’s 85th Birthday, a Downbeat Feature from 2002

Today is the 85th birthday of  Ahmad Jamal, whose approach to orchestrating the piano trio format has had a deep impact on the development of jazz language since the middle-1950s. I’m sharing here the pre-final-edit version of a feature article that I wrote about Mr. Jamal for DownBeat in 2002 in conjunction with the release of In Search Of…Momentum. The interviews that I drew on in writing this piece — and a few that didn’t make the cut — are found in this post from four years ago today.

 

Ahmad Jamal (Downbeat–2002):

“Extended form is because of extended living. I project my life and musical experiences in my writing and performance. I’m 72, and I’ve accumulated some information. Now I’m absorbing all the feedback, and trying to channel it into my present lifestyle. I’m going back to my early roots. All I want is to write my music and learn to perform it. Some things I write require a lot of skill, so I have to learn to play all my compositions, and I practice every day. Sometimes I’ll resurrect a composition that I haven’t done in years, because it fits in that spot. Then I use the same basic structure, although the approach is more musically mature than it was years ago. Why change a good minuet or a good concerto? You just try to interpret as the best you can. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” – Ahmad Jamal, December 2002.
________________________________________

Hearing Ahmad Jamal in the freedom of his autumnal years is one of the great jazz pleasures, as evidenced by the elite cohort of New York pianists who came out on the final night of the maestro’s week-long residence at Iridium last December. With bassist James Cammack and drummer Idris Muhammad dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s with precision and panache, Jamal enthralled the likes of Monty Alexander, Harold Mabern, Mulgrew Miller and James Williams with fresh takes on his iconic arrangements of “But Not For Me,” “Poinciana” and “Woody ‘N’ You,” which first appeared on But Not For Me: Live At The Pershing, a recording from 1958 that sold a million copies, spent two years on the top-ten charts, and brought him international fame. For good measure, Jamal brought forth a pile of daunting recent works, which included the twisting, vertiginous opus “Gyroscope,” the Chopinesque waltz “Should I,” and a dramatic Tatum-meets-bebop line called “I’ll Take The 20.”

“Every time I hear Ahmad, I leave totally inspired,” Mabern said not long after the Iridium show. “He plays a three-chord masterpiece before he even sits down on the stool, then he throws up his hands to give a signal, and from that point on it’s magic. It’s his sound, his knowledge of chords, the way he orchestrates from the bottom of the piano to the top. Or the way he’ll play a ballad, where he keeps returning to the bridge in a totally different way each time. And there’s his touch, which I call the Franz Liszt touch. A lot of pianists might have equal technique, but their touch and sound distinguish them. That’s the way Ahmad and Art Tatum are. Ahmad is too deep for some people; a lot of piano players don’t come around because it’s too much piano to handle.”

“Should I” and “I’ll Take The 20” are among eight new  compositions that appear on his exhilarating new trio release, In Search Of…Momentum [Dreyfus], the latest product of a fruitful decade-long collaboration with French producer Jean-Francois Deiber. On the previous albums in the series, often expanding his rhythm section with percussionist Manolo Badrena, Jamal augments the trio with strong, idiosyncratic tonal personalities, interacting with George Coleman on The Essence (Verve/Birdology) and Olympia 2000 (Dreyfus), Stanley Turrentine on Nature (Atlantic), trumpeter Donald Byrd and violinist Joe Kennedy on Big Byrd (Verve/Birdology), and a septet composed of Coleman, Kennedy and guitarist Calvin Keys on a À Paris, a 1996 radio broadcast due for fall release on Dreyfus. On each album, Jamal plays with unfettered imagination and customary authority, projecting deep emotion and a palpable sense of inner balance. He finds ingenious ways to link the repertoire thematically, imparting to each album the feeling of a connected suite.

In Search Of … Momentum is the first of the Deiber series on which Jamal explores only the sonic universe of the piano trio, the configuration he has helped define from his very first recordings in 1951. In truth, it’s hard to overstate his influence on the sound of the post-bop piano mainstream. Miles Davis, Jamal’s most famous acolyte, assigned homework on appropriate rhythm section comportment to Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones by sending them to 64th and Cottage Grove for first-hand observations of the Three Strings, Jamal’s trio with guitarist Ray Crawford and bassist Israel Crosby, and his subsequent trio with Crosby and drummer Vernell Fournier. McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Kenny Barron, Cedar Walton, Mulgrew Miller and Bill Charlap are among the pianists who cite Jamal as a seminal influence, and at early ’90s sessions at Bradley’s, the iconic New York piano saloon, Cyrus Chestnut, Eric Reed and Jacky Terrasson enthusiastically experimented with Jamallian dynamics and orchestrative strategies.

Jamal now lives in rural upstate New York, but he remained in Manhattan after the December Iridium stand to help care for his grandson while his daughter gave birth to her second child. On the night before Christmas Eve I visited him at his  hotel, appropriately situated on 52nd Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. Relaxed in blue-green plaid pajamas and slippers, wearing a patch over one eye, he stood before his window, where the streetlights on 52nd Street stretched all the way to the Hudson River. Jamal had personalized his room with an electric keyboard and headphones, books of Czerny exercises and torch songs, folios of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” and Maurice Ravel’s “Le Tombeau De Couperin,” an anthology entitled The Ravel Reader, a supply of green tea and dates, medicine for his diabetes and a Koran.

“I hate the word ‘trio’ now,” Jamal insists. “It’s limiting as to what I do. I like to refer to my ‘small ensemble’ or my ‘large ensemble.’ I travel with my small ensemble a lot, but I’ve done other things as well. Now it’s happening in an exciting fashion because I’m writing more than I had been. I wrote for a large ensemble when I was 10, and I’ve been writing ever since. Basically, I’m a writer and an orchestrator. I like big bands. I listen to Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and Count Basie. I’ve always been a fan of 80 pieces, or 16 pieces; I once wrote for 22 voices. I’m not saying I can do it—I never acquired the skill—but I’ve always been a fan of orchestrations, Ravel and Johnny Mandel, all the things that speak of getting incredible sounds out of an orchestra. I’ve had an orchestra going on in my mind daily for all my life.

“I’ve been shaped by the big band era, by the Gillespie–Parker era, and by the electronic age or whatever we call it, and I project my life and musical experiences in my writing and performance,” he continues. “I’m 72, and I’ve accumulated some information. Now I’m absorbing all the feedback, and trying to channel it into my present lifestyle. Sometimes I’ll resurrect a composition that I haven’t done in years, because it fits in that spot. Then I use the same basic structure, although the approach is more musically mature than it was years ago. Why change a good minuet or a good concerto? You just interpret as best you can. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

* * *

Jamal conceptualized his inner orchestra during his formative years in Pittsburgh. A child prodigy who first made music on the piano at 3, he began formal studies at 7, performed Liszt’s Eroica Etude publicly at 11, and joined Local 471 at 14, the year he matriculated at Westinghouse High School, alma mater of pianists Mary Lou Williams, Erroll Garner and Dodo Marmarosa, where Fritz Reiner brought the Pittsburgh Symphony to play assembly programs. There he played piano in the school’s integrated swing band, while spending evenings on jobs at various Elks Clubs, Masonic Lodges, piano lounges, and dance halls around Pittsburgh. “I’d do algebra during intermission, between sets,” he remarks. “That’s too young. I don’t recommend that. But I sounded well enough. My aunt from North Carolina sent me huge amounts of sheet music that I could draw from. I was working with guys in their sixties, and they were astounded because I knew all these sounds. That’s how I got so much work, or enough to start buying my clothes instead of relying on my Mom and Pop to do it.”

“Pittsburgh trained me to work in every configuration. It was a tough town, a critical place. If you didn’t know what you were doing, you were going to be turned down there. We studied Bach and Tatum, Beethoven and Basie; there was no separation. I played with a lot of singers. I played with Eddie Jefferson when he was a tap dancer. I did a lot of big band work with Will Hitchcock, Joe Westray and Jerry Elliott, all good leaders. I worked duo jobs in Uniontown with saxophonist Carl Otter. Later, I worked with the Caldwells, a song-and-dance team who held the instruments, didn’t play them, so you had to be the bassist, the guitarist, the whole nine yards. This training creates the whole musician.”

Jamal devoured music. He collected 78s by Jimmie Lunceford and Count Basie, by Pittsburgher Erroll Garner with Boyd Raeburn and Georgie Auld, and early bebop anthems like “Salt Peanuts.” He heard the Fritz Reiner-conducted Pittsburgh Symphony at school assemblies, caught Basie and Gillespie at the Pittsburgh Savoy Ballroom, and attended concerts by Ellington and Cootie Williams at the Stanley Theater, the latter show featuring a 20-year-old Bud Powell. Later in the ’40s, Jamal—an avid student of the trio approaches of Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Nat Cole and Garner—would begin to incorporate Powell’s progressive harmonic conception into his vocabulary, applying his investigations at jam sessions with Pittsburgh’s finest at the union hall.

At one such session, St. Louis-based bandleader George Hudson, who had employed Clark Terry and Ernie Wilkins, heard Jamal and recruited him for a summer-long engagement in Club Harlem, the major showroom in Atlantic City. Starting work at 8 p.m. and leaving when the sun came up, Jamal played for top-shelf singers like Billy Daniels and Johnny Hartman, TOBA veterans Butterbeans and Susie and a charismatic chorus line choreographed and directed by Ziggy Johnson.

Jamal had intended to study at a conservatory, but at summer’s end he rode north with Hudson for a stint at New York’s Apollo Theater. “I didn’t go to 52nd Street,” Jamal said, nodding at the window. “I was too busy playing from 9 a.m. to midnight. We were on the bill with The Ravens, who had the hottest act in the country with ‘Old Man River.’ Dinah Washington. Jimmy Smith, a xylophone player who tap-danced on the instrument. Billy Eckstine was checking me out from the wings. That was fun, because the big band was your cover. You don’t have the same responsibilities.”

Quartered behind the backstage door of the Apollo at the Braddock Hotel, Jamal met trumpeter Idris Suleiman, an early jazz convert to Islam, who approached the introverted youngster with what Jamal describes as “a philosophical presentation.” That encounter planted the seeds for Jamal’s eventual embrace of Islam. “It had everything to do with being all you can be,” he says. “There are people who don’t want to be all they can be, and when you want to be all you can be, they want to put blocks in the path. I know no other existence except my present existence. I’m very guarded about this, because I’ve been abused by ignorant people. The issue at hand is music. If a person wants to interview me about philosophy, that’s a different ballgame, because my philosophy certainly has influenced my music.”

* * *

By early 1949, Jamal, newly wed to a woman from Chicago (“I did everything young,” he comments), had settled in the Windy City. He got on the bad side of Harry Gray, the famously hardass president of the black musicians local, by working a one-nighter with guitarist Leo Blevins before receiving  transfer from Pittsburgh, and subsequently struggled, Taking a $32-a-week job as a maintenance man for the department store Carson Pirie Scott. At a  request of saxophonist Eddie Johnson, Gray finally relented.  Jamal began to make his voice felt on gigs with tenorists Claude McLin and Von Freeman, and took a long-term weekend job with Israel Crosby and tenorist Johnny Thompson at Jack’s Back Door, a lively joint on 59th and State with a long bar and a stage at the end. He also played solo at the Palm Tavern, often joined by drum legend Ike Day “whenever he felt the urge to come by and sit in.”

“I first met Ahmad at the Club De Lisa, which had been burned out a couple of times and gotten down to nothing,” Freeman recalled in a WKCR interview. “I asked him if he’d make some gigs with me, and he said, ‘Yeah, but I’m not much of a band player; I’m a trio player.’ I said, ‘Man, the way you play, you’ll fit in with anybody.’ He was playing sort of like Erroll Garner then. He stayed with me about two years, and then told me that he was giving a two-week notice, until he gave me a two-week notice that he was going to form his own trio. Around that time, he started hanging out with Chris Anderson. After that, I  noticed a big difference in his playing.”

Joined by fellow Pittsburghers Ray Crawford and Tommy Sewell, Jamal formed the Three Strings, a collective title emblematic of his equilateral triangle approach to the trio. In the fall of 1951, with bassist Eddie Calhoun on board, Jamal came to New York for a job as intermission pianist at the Embers, a boisterous supper club on East 54th Street. John Hammond attended, was impressed, and gave Jamal a recording date on OKeh. The sessions produced “Ahmad’s Blues” and arrangements of “Poinciana,” “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” and “Billy Boy,” the latter becoming a minor crossover hit. On the strength of these sides, which immediately caught the ear of Miles Davis—whose own Birth Of The Cool sessions had inspired Jamal—for the finesse and subtlety of their rhythmic momentum, Jamal began to find regular work on the supper club circuit, using a small 63rd Street room called the Kit-Kat Lounge as his Chicago base. He hired his former employer Israel Crosby, and in 1955 went in the studio with Crosby and Crawford to record Chamber Music Of The New Jazz.

“I did something with repertoire,” Jamal says. “I had that vast repertoire from my aunt. The strength of a musician, whether he’s Horowitz or Rudolf Serkin or Jamal or Oscar Peterson, is the repertoire. It’s remarkable what the American classicist/jazz musician has done. They’ve interpreted these songs beyond the wildest dreams of the author, be it Cole Porter or Gershwin. That’s what Charlie Parker did with ‘April in Paris.’ Most of Art Tatum’s body of work was standards, much to the delight of the composers economically! They made a fortune. George Gershwin’s estate didn’t need ‘But Not For Me,’ but they accepted it. Or ‘Poinciana.’”

In 1955, following what he describes as “a horrible experience” at the Embers, Jamal “got in my car with Israel Crosby and drove back to Chicago. When I got back to Chicago, I went to Miller Brown, who owned the Pershing Lounge, and said, ‘I want to become an artist-in-residence; I want a steady gig.’ That gave me time to get the people I wanted. Ray Crawford stayed in New York, and I decided to hire a drummer. It was almost impossible to get Vernell Fournier, because he was busy. But I waited for the right moment, and I finally hired Vernell.”

* * * *

“When the Judgment Day comes, I would hate to be some critics!” Fournier exclaimed during an interview on WKCR in 1991, reflecting on the disdain and condescension that the jazz press gave to Live At The Pershing.  Indeed, many writers continue to be deaf to Jamal’s qualities, in pointed contrast to his immense popularity among the public and his fellow musicians.

“At the time I heard Ahmad,” says Keith Jarrett, referring to Live At The Pershing, “I thought, ‘This is swinging more than anything I’ve been listening to, but they’re doing less. What’s the secret here?’ With Ahmad, the intensity was in the spaces. The simplicity of their playing made the swing work the way it did.”

“Ahmad put together the best trio I ever heard!” said Marcus Roberts in a conversation several years ago. “He and Errol Garner exemplify a hard-swinging school of Pittsburgh piano playing that had a profound impact on me. Garner typically would use his left hand to emulate Freddie Greene’s guitar playing in the Count Basie band, while in the right hand he played what you might think of as saxophone or trumpet figures in a big band. Ahmad extended that and expanded the form.

“Most of what Miles Davis did in the ’50s came directly from Ahmad’s concept. On a straight-ahead AB tune like ‘Autumn Leaves,’ Ahmad would expand the A-section until he had nothing left to play, then he’d move to the bridge and use a totally different groove. That brings the whole tune to life from a different angle. He’s a brilliant bandleader who knows how to make the piano sound like an orchestra; he could play a single line in the highest register of the piano and make it ring. Israel Crosby played all kinds of hip stuff underneath, but Ahmad’s left hand was never in the way of Israel’s harmonic direction.”

“Ahmad used difficult dynamics, and so many of them,” Fournier said. Out of New Orleans, Fournier’s extrapolation of the vernacular Crescent City streetbeat known as “Two-Way-Pocky-Way” on “Poinciana” is one of the most emulated rhythmic signatures in jazz. “He could play one tune five or six ways. He might insert something from another tune into the tune you’re playing, and would want you to play the appropriate accent when he did it. You had to be conscious at all times that he was playing the piano.”

Jamal uses dynamics to denote a spontaneous inner narrative, and he developed techniques to spontaneously shape and arrange the flow. “Ahmad’s music has structure and form, but he directs inside the form with hand signals,” says Herlin Riley, Jamal’s drummer from 1982 to 1987. “One signal tells you if you’re playing the top of, say, the head section or A-section, he has another cue for the bridge, and another for the interlude. If he wants any of the cycles repeated, he’ll give the appropriate cue, and when it’s done he cues you to go to the next part. So it’s always organic and rich.”

From the beginning, Fournier noted, “Ahmad intermixed exotic feelings — rumbas and tangos — and made it sound like jazz,” Fournier continued.Indeed, Jamal’s complete command of rhythm is a major component of his mystique.  “I’ve always said that if Ahmad Jamal’s time was the brakes on a car, you would never have an accident,” says Harold Mabern, who first heard Jamal at the Kit Kat Club in 1954, and religiously attended sessions at the Pershing. “He will play a run and stop on a dime. And he’s a master at playing without cliche in time signatures like 5/4 and 7/4.”

Fournier gave an example. “When Ahmad got the melody for ‘This Terrible Planet’ (Extensions, Argo, 1965), he laid down his melody line and the bass line for Jamil Nasser, and he and Jamil formulated the sound that Ahmad wanted,” he recalls. “I developed the drum pattern from inside the melody. It was in 6/8, but 1, 3 and 5 was on the bass drum, and 2, 4 and 6 was on the snare drum, so it was like a 4/4 fighting the 6/8, which seems almost impossible, but your right foot will always fall out on 1—so it starts the sequence over and over again. Once you get used to that, the rest is easy.”

“Most New Orleans drummers grew up within street band and parade band traditions, in which the bass drum is prevalent, and so we play the drumset from the bottom up,” notes Riley, a son of the Crescent City. “Ahmad is a very percussive player, and he loves to play vamps; he’ll stand up, watch you play, and clap his hands to get inside the groove. He introduces 3/8 and 5/8 and 7/8 rhythms inside the music, and you have to react and find your place inside of that.

“He understands musicians, and can hear their voice for what it is. Either he can work with it or he can’t. If he can, he’ll let you speak your musical voice as it may be. Now, sometimes he gives you subtle directions, and he’s always directing the volume and dynamics. But really, he’s just shaping whatever talent you have, and lets it grow and be better.”

Jamal himself is wary of focusing on the details of his art, preferring to accentuate the larger picture. “The little variety of time signatures that I do are absolutely natural,” he says. “I respect technique, but technique without the ability to tell a story is meaningless. Art Tatum and Phineas Newborn had incomparable technique. But they also told a story.”

* * * *

Within two years after Live From The Pershing broke, Jamal was commanding several thousand dollars a week. He purchased a 16-room, six-bath Hyde Park mansion that had once belonged to the nuclear physicist Harold Urey, and a four-story office building on South Michigan Avenue, creating his own posh, alcohol-free supper club, the Alhambra, on the ground floor. But he overextended, got divorced, lost the club, disbanded and moved to New York in 1962, taking an engagement at the Embers with bassist Wyatt Reuther and drummer Papa Jo Jones. He became artist-in-residence at the Village Gate on Bleecker Street, which like the Pershing had upper and lower levels and a bar area.

“When Ahmad got to New York, he really started opening up,” Mabern observes. In fact, it’s evident from a recording at San Francisco’s Blackhawk in 1961 that Jamal was already beginning to spread his wings. “Earlier, I never picked up a stick, except for ‘Poinciana,’” Fournier said. “But toward the end of the trio, Ahmad was getting more into the stick sound. He became more progressive on the piano, showing what he really could do.”

The Jamal who created such 1964–’71 albums as Naked City Theme, Extensions, At The Top: Poinciana Revisited, Tranquility, The Awakening and Manhattan Reflections had moved a distance from the elegant miniaturist of 1958–’61. Like a short story writer morphing into a novelist, Jamal’s improvisational flights took on the discursive, kaleidoscopic character that remains his trademark. He denies that this evolution reflected the intense New York quotidian, saying only, “I was in New York, but not of it.” To this he adds, “and I was in Chicago, but not of it.”

“Does that mean you’re in Pittsburgh?” I ask.

“I am in Pittsburgh, but I am also in where I live now,” Jamal responds. “Since I moved to upstate New York, I am in tune with my surroundings. By the grace of the Creator, I’ve been backing off, being very selective and taking the time that’s been granted me to sit down and get away from the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd. I go to my little place in the country, hopefully I’m not watching TV, and sit down and do what I enjoy most — writing and practicing the things I write.

“Still, the fact is that I was shaped, first of all, by my hometown. I come from the land of giants, and there you have to practice restraint. There’s always a faster gun than yours. I still practice restraint. But sometimes I play, too!

“Some things I write require a lot of skill, so I have to learn to play all my compositions, and I practice every day. But I’m not interested in quantity. I’m interested in quality. I’ve never had the discipline to practice 6, 7 or 12 hours a day. But I live music, and now I’m interested in exploring the keyboard more. Steinway used to send me pianos to keep in the room so I wouldn’t have to run out or wait for the club to open. Now I’ve decided to take an instrument around with me again. I’m not ever going to practice without joy. And I don’t ever want to take this music for granted. If you do, you’re finished.

“I practice for many reasons. One, I want to do it. Two, I want to always develop my craft. Three, I don’t ever want to take this music for granted. If you do, you’re finished. Musicians have to stay on their game. And I have to devote a certain amount of time to music. Many things can take you away from the discipline of practice. You have to be very careful of losing those good disciplines.”

Jamal points to the score of “Le Tombeau de Couperin.” “Ravel wrote that about his comrades who died during the war.” The tapered finger moves to the “Lush Life” folio. “Okay? A reflection of Billy Strayhorn’s life. ‘Take The A Train.’ That’s what we are. We write according to our lives. The way I write and perform is a part of extended living. That’s what’s changed it. The more in-depth, the more in-depth.”

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