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For the 65th Birthday Anniversary Of Hilton Ruiz, My Liner Notes for the 2003 CD “Enchantment” and Interviews from 2000 and 2001

For the 65th birthday anniversary of the virtuoso pianist Hilton Ruiz (May 29, 1952-June 6, 2006), here are the liner notes that I wrote for his final CD, Enchantment, a 2002 release, plus the interview that we conducted for those liner notes and a WKCR interview from 2000.

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Liner Notes For Enchantment:

It’s long-established that Hilton Ruiz, now 49 years old, is a virtuoso of the piano. Born to Puerto Rican parents and raised in midtown Manhattan, cater-corner from the old Madison Square Garden and two blocks from Musicians Union headquarters, Ruiz studied Puerto Rican folkloric music and European Classical repertoire in early childhood. By 18, the wunderkind was a professional jazzman, gigging with Clark Terry, Joe Newman, Frank Foster, and Jackie McLean, and making an impact on the Latin circuit with soñero Ismael Rivera and Mongo Santamaria. Through extensive tutorials with ancient-to-the-future pioneer Mary Lou Williams, a lengthy apprenticeship with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and postgraduate work with George Coleman and Tito Puente, Ruiz learned how to imprint his personality on a surfeit of styles that encompass the jazz timeline; he’s equally comfortable laying down idiomatic two-handed stride and the blues at its most primal, morphing the piano into a drum on a nasty montuno, carving wicked elongated Bud Powell bebop lines with bell-like clarity, and soaring to the outer partials of abstraction.

Ruiz internalized from his mentors the old-school credo that technique is nothing more or less than a means to communicate and entertain; as he puts it, “Making people feel good, putting on a great show and still playing valid, beautiful music is what it’s all about.” On Enchantment — a seamless set comprising 12 cannily sequenced songs, each referencing some aspect of his professional experience — he does precisely that.

The connecting thread, Ruiz notes, is how the compositions “lend themselves to the ear; even though some might be complex or angular, basically, you can hum all the melodies on the record.” His bottom line: “Play the melodies clearly and make them pretty so people can recognize them and hear the song. The improvisation is the other part of it. But those beautiful melodies are what I wanted to emphasize.”

The pianist’s fierce two-chorus improvisation on “Seven Steps To Heaven,” the set-opener, gets the juices flowing, not least because of the mighty groove set by bass veteran Lisle Atkinson and young Venezuelan trapset whiz Marlon Simon. Then Ruiz plunges into the title track, recorded by long-time colleague Dave Valentin a few years back. The pretty refrain blends Brazilian and Caribbean elements; Ruiz improvises elegant bop-inflected lines with a Barry Harris connotation atop a smooth carpet of rhythm-timbre set forth by Simon and Panamanian percussionist Renato Thoms on cowbell. Note Ruiz’ keen comping over Atkinson’s brief solo before he launches into his final theme-and-variations, climaxing with an immaculately executed parallel octaves sequence.

The versatile tenor saxophonist Chico Freeman comes on board for “I’ll Call You Later,” a swinging blues with a bebop melody. After a horn-like Atkinson solo in the upper register, Freeman uncorks an intense solo with a resonant sound that channels the spirits of Chicago ancestors Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons and Clifford Jordan; lest you forget his modernist affinities, he concludes his declamation with a series of crescendoing arpeggios. Not to be outdone, Ruiz follows with another logical, crisply executed bop statement that contains not one excess note.

Ruiz first played with Freeman as a sideman on the 1977 album, Beyond the Rain [Contemporary], while the tenorist was a member of the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine; in the mid-’80s, they worked in the initial iteration of The Leaders, with Don Cherry, Arthur Blythe, Cecil McBee and Don Moye. “Chico’s playing transcends the ordinary,” Ruiz says. “As a listener, he captivates me, takes me to a spiritual level. It’s always forward motion with him. He’s always searching and looking.”

Freeman sticks around for “Sweet Cherry Pie,” an irresistible line with a cha-cha/boogaloo groove that trombonist Juan Pablo Torres recorded in the mid-’90s. It’s the kind of feel Ruiz danced to — and played — on countless occasions in his teens.

The ’60s were a golden age for Latin music, and Ruiz recalls them fondly. “It was great,” he says. “I got a chance to see Barry Rogers, Jose Rodriguez and Lewis Kahn, and Johnny Rodriguez and Ray Barretto. The St. George Hotel in Brooklyn would have 14 bands going all night. You’d take the IRT to Clark Street, go up in the hotel, buy a ticket, and all of a sudden you’ve got TNT, the Lebron Brothers, the Meditation, Eddie Palmieri, Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez, and Johnny Pacheco; there was constant dancing and grooving and partying. I’d get back on the subway early in the morning.

“Everything was mixed up. I listened to WABC radio in my youth, which involved the Four Seasons, the Beatles, Little Stevie Wonder, the Beach Boys. I’d go to the Cheetah and hear the R&B bands, and I listened to hard rock from Jimi Hendrix, Canned Heat, Led Zeppelin, and Traffic. I listened to Classical Music. I listened to everything.

“When I was about 14 I’d hear Ed Williams’ radio program, ‘Maiden Voyage,’ on WLIB, and later on I listened to Ed Beach on WRVR. I heard John Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. But when I heard the Bebop, I was captivated how it sounded and how it swung. I could really feel it. I’d go to Slugs and listen to Lee Morgan; I heard Elvin, Woody Shaw, McCoy Tyner and many other people live.

“I listened to a lot of great saxophone players when I did my early jazz studies, and through them — John Coltrane and Charlie Parker and Rahsaan — I was introduced to the great pianists. Hearing Al Haig, Tommy Flanagan, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Andrew Hill, Cedar Walton, Walter Davis, Jr., Walter Bishop, Rahn Burton, and Bill Evans, I could relate to how the piano works with the horns; they showed me conceptually what and what not to do. When I started working, I had some working knowledge of how to accompany, and for the last thirty years I’ve been an accompanist in addition to having my own gigs as a leader.”

Ruiz goes on to discuss his piano influences: “Oscar Peterson’s trio records with Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen had an impact on me like a horn — I could really focus on the piano. I heard Eddie Palmieri a lot at dances, but Herbie Hancock made the strongest impression for his beautiful harmonies and ideas. Then I heard McCoy on the record African Village, with that technique and soloing and fire. That told me there was someone else besides Herbie. I listened to Harold Mabern live, and studied a bit with him. Also Barry Harris, Chris Anderson and Roland Hanna. Cedar Walton, who I also studied with, was a good friend, and so was Hugh Lawson. I liked Bill Evans, especially for the way he comped behind bass players. He directed the music but at the same time left it wide-open, constantly setting up a carpet where you could blend, and that really impressed me.”

“I was around Mary Lou Williams from when I was 18 until she passed. She showed me a lot about what not to do. When I did something wrong, she’d say, ‘No, that’s not right, that’s corny, that’s not happening. Do it like this. Move over. Let me show you how it’s done.’ Then I’d watch her play, and saw the true feeling of a true original. She was effortless, but the things that came out were marvelous. The whole thing was about feeling.”

Keep these recollections in mind when listening to the four Ruiz solos that comprise the next section of Enchantment. The first pair are rare piano readings of “Gemini” and “Black Narcissus,” by saxophone giants Jimmy Heath and Joe Henderson, respectively.

“I’ve worked on and off with Jimmy Heath through the years, and I’ve always looked up to him,” Ruiz says. “He’s very knowledgeable; I could always go to him with questions and he’d straighten me out. I like the melody and the feeling of ‘Gemini.’ It also happens to be my sign. I’m playing it pretty much straight-up the way Jimmy wrote it.

“Though it’s in my resume that I worked with Joe Henderson, I only worked with him once, years and years ago, around 1970, as a sub. I went to his house in Brooklyn to rehearse for the gig. This tune was part of his repertoire then, and he played it for me on the piano. I learned exactly how too play it directly from the composer, so I know I got it right.”

Ruiz shows how thoroughly he’s assimilated the language of Thelonious Monk on a quintet version of “Shades of Thelonious,” an ingenious reharmonization of “You’ve Changed” that he recorded in trio format in 1991 [Doin’ It Right (RCA-Novus)]. “The melody gives my interpretation of Monk’s flavor,” says Ruiz, who grew up a 15-minute walk from Monk’s San Juan Hill apartment. “The flatted fifths and other devices identify with Monk and Ellington. They could make sense out of those intervals, creating beauty from them.

The second pair of solos are an elegant, blues-drenched reading of Billy Strayhorn’s “My Little Brown Book” (“it’s played by some of the more knowledgeable musicians, people who are into the finer points of Ellingtonia”) and “Silhouette,” an impressionistic on-the-spot improvisation with a Gershwinesque flavor.

Bassist Lisle Atkinson plays the melody on the first part of “Goodbye” with a plush arco sound before Ruiz enters on the bridge.

Ruiz cites Frank Sinatra’s iconic reading of the Gordon Jenkins torch song on Only The Lonely as his inspiration. “Guys tend to play tunes in their own style, with embellishments,” Ruiz notes. “Whenever I need to get the lyrics right, I’ll go to a Frank Sinatra album, because of his great articulation. He did it right! Here I put the bass up front to give it another kind of interpretation. In a well-integrated trio the bass can play the melody; if the melody allows, even the drums can do it. The drums have only four or five tuned pitches, but they get other sounds. I’ve always been conscious of leaving space for the drums to be part of the tonality. That comes from my background in Latin music, and also from playing extensively with people like Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell, Roy Brooks, and other great drummers. When the drummer is conscious of the melody and chord changes, and uses the drums as another melodic instrument, then you can elicit beautiful overtones, which enhances the whole performance.”

That’s what drummers Simon and Thoms do on “Home Cookin,” a funky boogaloo that Ruiz recorded in 1987 [Somethin’ Grand (Novus)] and played during a cameo in the Woody Allen film Crimes and Misdemeanors. And he ends with Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s “The Business Ain’t Nothin’ But The Blues” (from Kirk’s flute album I Talk With The Spirits), showcasing a Chico Freeman solo that drips with soulful Chicago feeling, embodying Ruiz’ assertion that “the idea of the blues is to play something that sounds good to take the blues away — a taste of real life.”

“All the music I enjoyed was part of the Rahsaan experience,” Ruiz says. “He played the music of Fats Waller and James P. Johnson. Real down-home blues, as they’re called. The great composers of Classical music. Music from all over the world — Africa, the Orient, the Middle East. We had to play all these musical flavors every night. I had to research. Rahsaan would come to my apartment, we’d go to the record store, and he’d buy 15-20 records; each time he’d give me one or two, pointing out songs to listen to. Then I’d play those songs on the gig. I learned boogie-woogie and stride piano in the manner required to get it to swing in its own style — do it for real, make it sound right. That comes from within. If you love something and have the talent, then you get to it.”

Ruiz concludes: “I didn’t want to make this album complicated. I wanted it to be straightforward and honest. The listener can make their own decision.”

This listener’s verdict is A-plus.

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Hilton Ruiz (WKCR, 10-19-00):

TP: Was Dizzy Gillespie’s music very significant for you as a youngster in formulating your conception and sound?

RUIZ: Most definitely. I really heard Charlie Parker first, and Miles Davis. The tune I remember is “Back Home Blues.” I had a chance to be around Dizzy a little bit. He was a really funny, beautiful person. Magnanimous. He’s one of those certain artists who reaches the highest level of entertainment 24 hours a day. Make you laugh; taking care of business. I had the honor and opportunity to be on a video and CD called Rhythm Stick. We played together a couple of times, with Jon Faddis and Dizzy and me on the piano, just the three of us. For the few times I got a chance to be around him, I’m really happy to say that I knew the man, because people like this only come once in a lifetime. But thankfully, we have the music to listen to and to study.

TP: About how old were you, what year was it, when you started getting out there in the public world and playing? Mid-’60s, in your teens?

RUIZ: Yeah. I played with Ismael Rivera, a great Puerto Rican sonero, and I played with Ralph Robles for a while in a band called Ray Jay and the East Siders.

TP: What part of New York did you grow up in?

RUIZ: I grew up on 50th Street and 8th Avenue, right by the old Madison Square Garden. But I spent a lot of time on the Lower East Side and a lot of time uptown in Harlem. All over the place. I’ve been all over the city. I know this city very well.

TP: What were your first music lessons? Was it a family thing? How did it begin for you?

RUIZ: It was a family thing. My family really loved music, and they listened to records. My uncle took me to Professor Santiago Mesorana, who was also from Puerto Rico when I was 5 years old. He started me off on the solfeo, which is also called solfeggio, a method of sight-singing. Then after a couple of months went by, he let me get to the keyboard, and I studied folkloric Puerto Rican music. That lasted maybe about two years. After that, I went to Carnegie Hall, and I studied with George Armstrong, a very great pianist. That’s where I played my first recital, at Little Carnegie.

TP: Was that dealing with Puerto Rican folkloric music or Western Classical?

RUIZ: No, that was Franz Liszt and Mozart.

TP: So you weren’t just playing Puerto Rican folkloric music as a kid.

RUIZ: Well, I started with that. Then we did the Bach Inventions and the Handel and the Czerny and the Bartok.

TP: So you had a facility, obviously.

RUIZ: Well, at that time I had a facility, but it hadn’t come out yet. Because I had to learn the setup of the instrument and how to get over the keys. That was tedious. It was a very tedious time in my growing-up, because it was very difficult. You had to have in this place, play this soft, play this long, play this short, put the pedal down here, and then if you didn’t do it right, start again. The next week you’d start again. So you had to trudge through it just to get the next level. So I didn’t know anything about harmony or anything like that. I was just like reading and interpreting the Classical music. I did that for about four or five years.

TP: How old were you when the notion of improvising, when jazz started entering your picture?

RUIZ: When I was about 13-14 years old, I used to listen to a radio program, Ed Williams, “Maiden Voyage” [WLIB], and later on I listened to Ed Beach. I heard John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders, Rahsaan Roland Kirk…

TP: Who you later played with.

RUIZ: Yeah. Almost five years with Rahsaan. It was super-beautiful. One thing led to another, and here I am.

TP: Who were the jazz pianists who attracted you and who you tried to emulate? Was it that sort of process for you?

RUIZ: Yeah, it was. The first, strongest impression was Herbie Hancock. Of course, I had been dancing and going to see Eddie Palmieri a lot. I had been going to see Lee Morgan live quite a bit, and Woody Shaw and Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner, and of course, Rahsaan. So I got records like The Inflated Tear, and listened to Rahn Burton, who was an influence. But Herbie Hancock made a real deep impression on me because of the beauty of the ideas that were coming out. It seemed to be really just beautiful harmonies. Then I heard McCoy Tyner, and I said, “Wow!” I had never heard anything like that. I said, “there’s somebody else besides Herbie Hancock.” I heard McCoy Tyner on a record called African Village, and I heard that technique and that soloing and that fire. I was listening to Harold Mabern live, and I got a chance to study a little bit with Harold. Barry Harris. Chris Anderson. Roland Hanna. And my good friends were Cedar Walton, who I also studied with, and Hugh Lawson… I was with a lot of guys.

I heard Bill Evans and I liked that a lot, but the point where I heard Bill Evans was really with his trio. As I went back and started doing research, I heard some early things on Riverside with Philly Joe Jones and Paul Chambers, and it was like Bill Evans, the bebop pianist. I met him at the Vanguard, and he was a very-very nice cat. But what I liked about Bill Evans was the way that he could comp behind bass players. He was very sensitive to the more fragile elements of the music. He would lay out a constant carpet where you could just blend and do your thing without really being directed in any way. He would be directing, but at the same time he would leave it wide-open, and that really impressed me.

I was around Mary Lou Williams for quite a number of years, from when I was 18 years old until she passed, and she showed me a lot of things about what not to do. When you were doing it wrong, she’d just say, “No, that’s not good, that’s not right, that’s corny, that’s not happening. Do it like this. Move over. Let me show you how it’s done. Then I watched her play, and got a chance to see the real-real true feeling of a true original. She was effortless, but the things that were coming out were marvelous. The whole thing was about feeling. That was a great opportunity. I’ve had a lot of great people around me. The list goes on and on.

TP: I’d think for a curious, talented musician growing up in New York at that time, the opportunities for learning would have been endless.

RUIZ: Well, it wasn’t easy. I had a lot of fun while I was doing it, and I still do have a lot of fun — because I think that’s the whole idea, to have fun and let other people enjoy what you’re enjoying. But there were a lot of humbling moments, times when you had to get up there and didn’t know a song or maybe you weren’t ready to do a certain thing, and you were out there in front of everybody. I was lucky because I was given the encouragement to go out there and keep playing. If I was playing something that wasn’t cool, they would tell me to stroll, just cool out for a minute and listen, come in when it was appropriate. But it was always an atmosphere of encouragement. So I was very fortunate in that sense.

This band I have at Sweet Basil, we’re kickin’ it real hard in there. People are coming in, the place has been packed already a couple of nights. They’re dancing in the chairs and stuff and eating and drinking, and everybody’s smiling and having a good time.

[MUSIC: HR, “Shades of Thelonious,” “Round Midnight”]

TP: You mentioned a lot of pianists among your influence, but you didn’t mention Monk, who was close to Mary Lou Williams for many years.

RUIZ: Well, I never had the pleasure of meeting Thelonious Monk, but I did see him at a concert for one of George Wein’s festivals. He had been off for a little while, and he had come back on the scene, and I made I sure I got a chance to hear him — and it was fantastic. So the impression he made on me is in these songs, especially “Shades of Thelonious”… I tried to capture the feeling of how I feel about the flavors that Monk uses when he composes and when he plays. It’s a distinct flavor, and it doesn’t really make sense to try to analyze it too much, because it’s the sound that he produces… It’s so slick and yet it’s so correct at the same time. It’s a pleasure to play the compositions. That’s probably why I didn’t mention him. I can’t mention everybody at the same time, because there’s so many people. You have people like Carlos McKinney and Johnny O’Neal and Benny Green and Brad Mehldau. There are so many guys who have made an impression on me pianistically. Monty Alexander. Horace Parlan. But primarily it’s been Eddie Palmieri, Charlie Palmieri. Chick Corea, who is a genius. And anybody who can play. Anybody who can really play and make me want to go home and try it out. Because what I do is I hear something, and I go home and try it out and see if I can put it int my little tool chest, so when I go out to do my job, I can have more variations of different things I can do to try to get the job done..

TP: A contemporary of Monk’s was Tito Puente, who passed earlier this year and whom we heard playing mallets on “Round Midnight.” Hilton said at a certain point during his solo, “you’re never going to hear that again; not that way!

RUIZ: Because that’s the real way to play the vibes. Tito was a vibist in the sense that he played the vibes and got the full sound out of the instrument, not the approach that I would approach the vibes as a piano player. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, with guys playing like the piano on the vibes. But to get your own sound, a recognizable, beautiful sound, and to make it sound like bubbles… That calls for percussion, people who have studied the instrument and know to move around and get that particular sound.

Tito was so great as a person, so great as a musician. One of the greatest things about Tito Puente was that with all the things he had done — he had been there with Monk, he had been there with Charlie Parker, he had been there with John Coltrane, he had seen all of that live playing, back-to-back sets, all the guys respected him — he always was trying to keep everything real and keep the real flavor of what we call jazz music, and without losing the roots of his native Puerto Rico, and from New York and Spanish Harlem. The volumes and volumes and volumes of tunes, great dancing tunes, great arrangements, great vocalists, and that he would come out and get a band like these guys here, the Tito Puente Latin Jazz All-Stars. James Moody was in there for a while, Paquito d’Rivera, Mario Rivera, Dave Valentin, Charlie Sepulveda, Giovanni Hidalgo. He surrounded himself with only the very best musicians, and he knew what he wanted to do at all times. He was always prepared. He always had a bag of music with him. He was ready for any situation. But he allowed us to grow and flourish in our own way. He made a way for all of us to carry on, because all he wanted was for us to respect the music and keep playing the music. Anybody who ever saw him, or you just put on one of those records, and you can feel the flavor of the thing. It’s kicking. It’s hard. It’s coming hard. It’s really great. It’s a magnificent thing he’s left us.

Tito Puente and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, I must say, are the two individuals who really made me kind of look and say, “Entertainment, show business…”

TP: Is not incompatible with the art of music.

RUIZ: Right. Making people feel really good, and putting on a great show and still playing some valid, beautiful music — that’s what it’s all about.

TP: In the ’60s, you were playing with Ismail Rivera, in Latin Soul bands… There was a huge Latin movement in New York in the ’50s and ’60s, Latin bands playing all over. A lot of musicians paid their rent on gigs and dances with Latin bands.

RUIZ: Sure. It was great. I got a chance to see Barry Rogers and Jose Rodriguez and Lewis Kahn and Johnny Rodriguez and Ray Barretto. The St. George Hotel would have 14 bands going all night.

TP: The one in Brooklyn? Just take the 2, go up in the hotel…

RUIZ: You got it. You go in there, you can buy a ticket, and all of a sudden you’ve got the TNT, you got the Lebron(?) Brothers, you got the Meditations, you got Eddie Palmieri, you got Pete Aconda, Johnny Pacheco, there’s like constant dancing and constant grooving, constant partying. We’d all get back on the subway early in the morning, and go to school or whatever.

TP: Or not.

RUIZ: Well, I did. I went to school. I didn’t want to get up a lot or mornings. But I made it there. I didn’t even want to be there a lot of times.

TP: Where did you go to high school?

RUIZ: I went to Power Memorial. [Kareem was a senior when he got there] It’s not there any more. That was a tough school.

TP: So you to go Power Memorial, and you’re playing music the whole time and keeping up an academic course-load. It sounds like you grew up pretty young.

RUIZ: Well, academically… I’ve been around the world ten times. I’ve been almost everywhere by now, traveling constantly. I can thank the Creator for that. So I’ve been able to see things that in my education I saw in books, and actually touch things and be standing in the places of true history of this planet. So that’s basically my education, because when I got out of high school…

TP: You went right to work, didn’t you.

RUIZ: Yeah, I just went right to work. I started working with Clark Terry. That’s the first time I went on the road, was with the Clark Terry Quartet, with Major Holley on bass… No, it was Louis Smith that first time on bass, then Major Holley came in, and then Victor Sproles. Then with the big band, the quartet, the quintet and everything. Then in ’72, Jackie McLean took me to France, to a festival at Chateau Vallon, and that was really out of sight. Then Rahsaan took me out for a few times. I went out with George Coleman and with Tito. It’s been a great thing. I recommend everybody to really travel at least a little bit. Take a cruise, take a plane somewhere. Really get the flavor of other… But for people who haven’t extensively traveled that much, it’s really worth it to get out. Because you hear the music, you taste the food, you meet the people, you smell the air, you see the cars and vehicles, you see the architecture. You never know what you might run upon.

TP: As a kid and through your life, did jazz and Latin music seem like part of a big continuum to you? How was it alike? How was it different?

RUIZ: It was all mixed up. Because I listened to WABC radio in my early youth. That involved Four Seasons and the Beatles and Little Stevie Wonder, Beach Boys, like everything. That was the music that I listened too. I would listen to things like “A Summer Place,” which I still think is one of the most beautiful things that’s ever been written. Then I used to go to the Cheetah and I used to listen to the bands there — the first Cheetah, which was basically Rhythm-and-Blues, Rock-and-Roll. I listened to some Hard Rock from Jimi Hendrix, Canned Heat, Led Zeppelin, Traffic — a lot of that music. Classical Music. I listened to everything.

But when I started listening to Bebop music, ,I was captivated by the sound of it, and the way it made me feel. Because I’m coming from a Latin-Puerto Rican-New York, all the way in there background. When I heard the Bebop, I said, “Wow, this stuff really is swinging.” I could really feel it. Like I said before, I used to go to Slugs and listen to Lee Morgan. I heard a lot of the guys live, and a lot of the ladies, too.

The most important thing you can do is to go out and listen to everything. Listen to everything! And especially for young children… I as a parent make sure that my daughter has listened to everything. She likes rap music, she likes all kinds of stuff. But she heard the music. I allowed her to make that choice, and I exposed her to that. I didn’t try to hold her back from anything like that. I think that a lot of kids would like Bebop music and they would like a lot of the things that we enjoy as adults. But because it’s not given to them in the volume of other music that’s out there, constantly being pumped out, pumped out, the peer pressure and everything like that… I’m not saying that the Rap is not happening, because those guys really know what they’re doing, and they are masters of that style. But there’s a whole lot of other things that can incorporated into that, and a lot of times kids don’t really get a chance to hear bebop music and the jazz music. But that’s so very important that this music be exposed to everyone, so that everyone can make their own choice and their own decisions, say “I like this and I don’t like that.” I like Flamenco or I like Opera, I like Bebop and I like creative music. But if it feels good, I can’t knock it.

[MUSIC: HR-G. Coleman, “Strange”; HR-David Sanchez, “Sonny’s Mood”]

TP: I’ll repeat your comment about George Coleman, “he spells all the big words,” referring to his ability to make art out of polysyllabic harmonic language.

RUIZ: He cleaned that solo out. He got in all the corners of it. George Coleman, pound for pound… There are a lot of great saxophonists out there, but in terms of consistency, I don’t think I’ve ever played anyone who was more consistent than George Coleman. In that style. Because you have Jimmy Heath, who’s very consistent, James Moody, a lot of guys. But George has a certain polish, a certain flair that you can almost taste the music. I was listening to that solo, and I could almost see Amsterdam, the time we spent in Amsterdam, and in Paris and in London, and just the visual things of all our travels. We had so much fun. Billy Higgins was the drummer, and Herbie Lewis and Ray Drummond on two different tours. On one tour we did nine weeks in Europe, and we had fun all the way down the line. We never knew what we were going to play. Playing everything through all the keys, at different tempos. Billy Higgins is right there, knows just what to do and his volume was just perfect for a piano player, because he’s so intense but he keeps the dynamic level… I’m glad to see that George is doing good and he’s in good health. I’m looking in the future for people like that to get much more recognition for their artistic endeavors.

TP: Have you played much or at all with Craig Handy and Ryan Kisor before?

RUIZ: Well, I’ve never played with Ryan before. The first time was at rehearsal on opening night. But he came in and read the music and everything. He’s a very cool cat. We’re getting to know each other and he’s taking care of business. I’m very happy to have him there. I’ve never had the chance or enough work… I’ve been working almost constantly, thank God. I’ve been able to put my daughter through college and buy a home. But the bands are always different. I try to keep as many people together as I can. But since I can’t keep everybody on salary, it’s hard to maintain that one unit. The longest-lasting edition was probably the Andy Gonzalez-Steve Berrios-Giovanni Hidalgo rhythm section. We made a lot of records together. But these guys are great. Craig Handy is a great saxophonist, a great person. They come to play and they come to make the people feel good, and we don’t really have any attitude problems. Everyone gets a chance to write, everyone gets a chance to be featured. We’re out there making people feel good! That’s what we’re happy to do.

Renato is from Panama so he has that Latin flavor. He’s a very strong conguero. Then Marlon Simon. Every night I get up there, it’s good for me, because I’m used to playing at that level anyway. I’m used to pushing through the envelope into the next envelope, so to speak. I’ve never allowed anything to stop me — as long as, God willing, I can stay healthy — to just keep going for trying to make it better, and try to listen and be supportive, but just keep going for that music and try to make it better. It gets strenuous. At the level we play, it’s a very physical gig. We play ballads and we play a lot of pretty things. But I know people come out and they want to hear fire, and they want to hear something really to make them rock and feel really good. I have to look at the room, I have to see what kind of audience they are. If it seems like it’s a Count Basie type of audience, we have to play something for them. If you see an Ellingtonian… How can you tell if an audience is Ellingtonian or Basieites?

TP: You have an intuition after 35 years playing for people.

RUIZ: They’ve just got a look about them!

TP: What’s the difference between a Basieite audience and an Ellingtonian audience?

RUIZ: I would say that the Ellingtonian audience would be a sophisticated audience of people who really are digging the full classical picture, with the swing, with everything, with the spirituals… To me, that’s like the big picture. And then the Basie group of people are people who probably are into that and know about that, but it’s just straight swing, how hard can they swing you, how hard can they make you move, how good can you feel listening to an orchestra. I’ve heard the Basie band live. It’s just too much. Basie was more into constantly creating that swing for people to dance and to enjoy. Duke was doing that, but also recording different kinds… I haven’t heard as much music as you have. Probably very few people have heard as much music as you have. But we’re speaking hypothetical…

TP: Your sets are fluid from night to night. You might play anything on any given night, is what you’re saying.

RUIZ: Well, I have to look at the room. I have to see the age level. I might play the Flintstones.

TP: And you have to have a band that can handle that, and with these guys you do.

RUIZ: They have to handle all those kinds of things. Because the music that we call jazz is a whole lot of things. But basically, it’s to give somebody a good feeling that you know you’re contributing positive vibrations to your fellow neighbors. It’s an honest thing, where they really like it, or they may not like you, or maybe they’ll like you later… They don’t have to like you. But you’re making them feel good. So therefore, you’re accomplishing something, and you really can say that you’re doing something on this planet; you’re making people feel good.

TP: You were talking about your guiding imperative always being to push the envelope, push through into the next level, and that’s been a palpable part of what you do. You played in the ’70s and ’80s with Arthur Blythe, and Sam Rivers was part of your ensembles in the ’80s…

RUIZ: Marion Brown. I did a tour with Marion. Did a record in Paris called Back To Paris. Marion played “Body and Soul,” played all over “Body and Soul,” and he wrote some originals there. I made two albums with Marion Brown. I played a little bit with Archie Shepp. So many great musicians.

[HR-Sam, “Bluz”; HR (solo), “Soul Eyes”]

[-30-]

*_*_*_*_

Hilton Ruiz for Enchantment (7-30-01):
TP: Talk about selecting the arc of the CD, selecting the repertoire.

RUIZ: I just want it to be record that people can enjoy, and I want it to be accessible to listeners from all different walks of life. Not necessarily a specialized group of jazz listeners… If people want to use the record for just fun listening, that’s what I’m going for. The selections all have very pretty melodies. All I’m trying to do is get to the listeners so they can feel good and have it be accessible to a full range of musicians, from classical on.

TP: That said, you deal with a lot of different styles and approaches. I don’t think it’s so easy to pare down and make material that is as involved as some of these pieces sound as simple as it does.

RUIZ: Well, I think it’s the compositions themselves. They lend themselves to the ear. They’re pretty compositions, even though some of them might be a little complex or angular. But basically, you can hum all the melodies on the record. I didn’t want to make it complicated. I wanted to make it straightforward and honest as to what it is. I guess as the person listens to it, then they make their own decision.

TP: “Seven Steps To Heaven” must go back to Miles Davis. Your association?

RUIZ: I heard it when I was a teenager. The melody just stuck in my mind immediately. It’s very catchy. I tried to make the improvisation concise. I didn’t want to play a whole lot of choruses. I played two choruses and they took it out. It’s kind of an introduction to the album that gets you going and gets the juices flowing.

TP: How much do you pre-plan the arc of the arrangements? Do you carefully work out the whole structure beforehand? Is it more extemporaneous once you get in the studio? Talk about doing a record vis-a-vis a live performance.

RUIZ: It calls for more rehearsing and trying to put everything in a package that is concise and yet has the freedom to be expressive at the same time. Basically, when we get in the studio, I don’t have an idea of what kind of arrangement I want. But a lot of these songs, when they were written, were basically arranged at that time. So the only thing in terms of arranging would be the choice of instruments that you’re going to use in the performance, or to include an interlude here or a vamp there or a tag here. But going back to “Seven Steps To Heaven,” the arrangement is all laid out. It’s already there.

TP: There you play a Bud Powell, bebop style. You play in different styles in different tunes. Does that happen in the heat of the moment, or are you also thinking of your improvisational approach beforehand?

RUIZ: Not really. I practice every day and I try to work out different ways to enhance my improvisations. But it happens when it happens. That’s the nature of jazz. You really don’t know what’s going to happen in your solo. There are patterns and things that a lot of us use to the point across. But you really don’t know exactly what’s going to happen until you make that tape, then that’s what have to live with, or decide whether you want to try another one. But since it’s a group with quartet and a lot of percussion, it’s not overly arranged. I like to let the percussion be part of the harmonic structure because the drums have their own harmony, which adds overtones to the rest of the diatonic harmony that the keyboard and the regular 12-tone tuned instruments. So there’s a certain degree of space that has to be left there, so that the drums and conga and bongos will have an audible space in this particular quartet. Now, if I’m doing a big band arrangement, it’s a whole different story. That calls for putting the right horns in the right place and things like that. But basically we just have the one horn as a guest, who was Chico Freeman. I had the music written for him and he rehearsed it. Some of it he saw on the spot.

I like to leave a spontaneous element in recording. If you go in there and record something you’ve practiced a million times, and you know exactly how it’s going to go, that’s fine. But to me, that comes down under the heading of maybe… I wouldn’t put it in the category of being a jazz performance, because one of the main elements of jazz is the improvisation.

Basically, to break it all down, if you can play the melodies clearly and make them pretty so people can understand the melody and hear the song, then the improvisation is the other part of it. But the song is also very important that a person can recognize the melody of the song. And those beautiful melodies are what I wanted to emphasize.

TP: Is “Enchantment” your composition?

RUIZ: It’s an original, about five years old. It was recorded on an album called Primitive Passions by Dave Valentin, and it was featured on that album. I’ve never recorded it on any of my albums. It’s a very pretty song. That’s why we chose it to be the title. It’s kind of a Latin-Bossa Nova type thing, a cross between Brazilian and Caribbean flavors. It has the flavor of East Coast Latin Jazz and it also… This one wasn’t necessarily like a Cha-Cha or a Mambo, which is pretty strictly Caribbean. It has no parameters. It has an element of Brazilian music, of South America and Caribbean music.

“I’ll Call You Later” is a straight-up blues. It’s pretty straightforward. We play the melody, which is a bebop-flavored melody. Chico takes a great solo. It’s one of those tracks you listen to for enjoyment, just bounce. Chico got a very good sound here.

TP: All the tunes were just right for him. You’re on records of his going back to the ’70s?

RUIZ: I was on one of his first albums, called Beyond the Rain. Chico used to come listen to Rahsaan Roland Kirk. The last couple of years I was playing with Rahsaan, Chico got the gig with Elvin Jones, who had one of the groups I’d go listen to a lot since I was teenager. I always enjoyed listening to the Elvin Jones groups. Chico was in this particular group with Pat LaBarbera, and he had a certain spiritual quality about his playing that transcended the ordinary… As a listener, I was captivated, and he took me to a listening level that was spiritual. That’s how I felt. In a positive sense.

There was a band called the Leaders around ’84, in which I was the original pianist. Don Cherry was the original trumpeter on the first tour.

TP: You’ve played in so many situations. It’s hard to think of a musical environment you haven’t covered — from New York piano function things, which go from Latin Jazz, Boogaloo, Bebop, Blues, Avant-Garde. And you touch on everything in this record. It all seems very comfortable to you. Anything to say about the panorama of styles and approaches that you seem able to access very naturally.

RUIZ: I listened to a lot of records. I love the music very much, and the music was a really big part of my life in terms of enjoyment, and listening and buying records. I really got a good groove just putting on records and listening to different artists — Mongo Santamaria, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins. They played so good that to me it was an enjoyable thing. It was like a daily thing. I’d get up in the morning and I’d want to go buy a new record or try something out, play the piano along with the records. Then I started getting gigs with great musicians; a lot of them were on the records I had at home. All of a sudden, I found myself in the bands of these people who I used to listen to on record. Since I had the love for it, and I did a lot of research, I learned how to play the right voicings and how to be an accompanist. I was so proud and so happy to be there… It wasn’t about money or anything like that. It was about just being able to be up there and play that music, and to get the recognition that I was at a level where I was able to play with these great musicians. So day by day, the days added up and months and years; thirty years later I look back, and I’m on over a hundred albums. [May 29, 1952]

TP: You started gigging in ’70 or so? Or before that, in high school?

RUIZ: I started gigging in the late ’60s. The first gigs were with Joe Newman from the Basie band, Frank Foster, Clark Terry. The first time I went on the road was with Clark Terry. I was 18 years old. Then Jackie McLean was my first European tour. I was 20 then. Then I went with Rahsaan Roland Kirk for almost five years.

TP: Rahsaan had a huge impact on the way you think about music.

RUIZ: Definitely. Because all the different things that I enjoyed were part of his program, part of the show, part of the experience. He played music of Fats Waller and James P. Johnson. Real down-home blues, as they’re called. He was into the Classical music. He was into the Great composers. Music from all over the world — from the Orient, from Africa, from the Middle East. Every night we had to play all these different types of musical flavors. So I had to do more research. I used to go to the record store. He used to come to my apartment in New York, and we would go to the record store, and he would buy 15-20 records, and he would buy me one or two records every time. He’d say, “Hey, you need this one, and take this one, and listen to this song and listen to this song.” Next thing you know, I would either be playing those songs on the gig or I was able to play in the style that was required to get it to swing in its own style. In other words I had to learn how to play some boogie-woogie and stride piano and things like that.

TP: And make it breathe. Be idiomatic..

RUIZ: Yeah, and do it for real. Make it sound right. But that comes from within. If you love something a lot and you have the talent, then you get to it.

TP: “Sweet Cherry Pie” is a beautiful groove tune.

RUIZ: I wrote it about seven years ago. It became a hit on an album by the trombonist J.P. Torres. That tune kind of speaks for itself. You can dance to it, you can listen to it, you can drive your car to it, ride a bicycle, jog, whatever. It’s steady motion; it keeps moving and grooving.

TP: It seems like it would be hard for someone under 35 to write that. You don’t hear a lot of younger people dancing to it any more…

RUIZ: You should go to the Salsa clubs. You’ll find that beat danced to all the time. It’s basically a Cha-Cha.

TP: Are you still playing those clubs?

RUIZ: Yes, occasionally. I do a special here, a special there. I’m guest soloist with a band or a singer. Actually at this point, I’m getting much more to my own research again. I’m going back to sheet music and repertoire, and looking at music I’ve seen before for a second time to see if I’ve missed anything, just to take another reevaluation of what music is after playing it for thirty years. Now that I’ve gotten all this experience, reevaluating from how I looked at it when I didn’t know what a chord was, when I didn’t know what improvisation was, didn’t know what a vamp was, didn’t know what changes were. Music is so vast and so great that you need to always keep going forward but always research the past, too. You can find things that are very useful and devices that maybe aren’t used any more that are really hip! That’s the way I progress, by going back to the…

TP: How long have you been going back to it?

RUIZ: Well, I’ve studied the Schillinger System, I studied the George Russell system, and I’m classically trained. So I’ve always had that thing in terms of musical theory. But being trained as a classical pianist, I was basically taking pieces that took me three or four months to learn, and I learned them bar-by-bar, note-by-note, hands separated and put the hands together on the keyboard. That’s how I learned. But now that I’ve been into advanced harmony… I’ve always been doing it, but now I do it differently, because I have more vocabulary. I want to go back and take a look at things again, knowing… As an example: Given a piece of sheet music thirty years ago, I’d have looked at it and played it by the notes. But I wouldn’t necessarily know that there was a set of chord changes under it that could be used for improvisation. I didn’t know the possibilities that much. I would play the song and that was it. If I had an arrangement I had to play with a band, I would play what was called for on the arrangement, and that was it. Now I go back and take that same piece of music, and I can say, “Oh, look what he used here; he used a G7-flat IX, and look at this, and, oh, this is something we used…” So I can recognize things better now because of the experience and because of everything… You learn more about the terminology and the theoretical part. I’m involved in teaching. So when I do a clinic or a seminar or something like that, you have to find different ways to reach the student. The more you research things and the more you learn different ways to communicate, the better off you are.

“Gemini” is by Jimmy Heath. I played with him a couple of times. I went on a nice European tour with a band called New York All-Stars that Jimmy led, with Jimmy and Percy Heath, Jimmy Owens, Slide Hampton and Jimmy Cobb. We played at Nice, the Hague and Northsea Jazz Festival. And on and off throughout the years, I’ve played different gigs — club dates and things like that. I never was part of the Heath Brothers Band, because Stanley Cowell is the resident pianist there. Jimmy Heath is one of the guys I looked up to and who I could go to with questions and would straighten me out. Jimmy Heath is very knowledgeable, in addition to being a great player. I like the melody and the feeling. It also happens to be my sign. I guess if something appeals to me, I might play it differently. When you’re improvising and thinking about different things, that’s where the story comes out — how you’re feeling. He did the tune with the Cannonball Adderley Sextet and done big band arrangements of it. I’m playing it pretty much straight-up the way that he wrote it.

TP: “Black Narcissus” solo is an interesting choice.

RUIZ: Years and years ago, around 1970, I had a big with Joe Henderson. I only worked with Joe once, but it’s in a lot of places as part of my resume that I worked with him. Which I did, but it was just one gig. There was a period where I was a substitute pianist for a lot of great piano players like Stanley Cowell and Harold Mabern, so many great pianists who sometimes had two or three gigs at the same time and needed somebody to come in there. I was recommended to Joe Henderson, and I went to his house in Brooklyn to rehearse for the gig. We sat at the piano, and he played this tune for me and was showing me exactly how it goes and how it should be played. This was one of the tunes he was going to play on the gig; it was part of his repertoire at that time. He was playing it a lot at the time. I learned it directly from the composer, so I know I got it right. There are certain little parts that have to be played as he wrote them in order for it to be, if you will, authentic.

TP: You recorded “Shades of Thelonious” a few years ago on one of your RCA records.

RUIZ: Doin’ it Right, I think. I did a trio version. I just added the horn and basically played it straight up just like it was. That’s another one of those tunes that just goes straight down. But the melody itself gives my interpretation of a part of the Thelonious Monk flavor, using those flatted fifths and devices like that, that kind of identify with Monk and Ellington, guys who could use those intervals and yet make sense, make something very pretty out of it.

I heard Monk once at Avery Fisher Hall during the festival, when he played a piano solo. Hearing people like him or Miles Davis just once is like watching a great World Series game. If you were THERE, it’s something you can say to your kids!

TP: Growing up in New York, and particularly growing up where you did in Manhattan, put you in a position that not too many young musicians would have in being able to directly experience the music played by the greatest masters of the music. Or that music being in the air. Even Jazzmobile and things like that. You would have soaked up this sensibility. I don’t know too many people who project more of a New York attitude than you.

RUIZ: I grew up in Midtown Manhattan, right by the old Madison Square Garden. I was one block from Broadway, and the Musicians Union was two blocks down the street. I saw the guys going back and forth to the union, all the entertainers, and the vibe and the people and all this stuff that in general was going on right outside, looking out the window. There was always something going on.

I was lucky, because we grew up in the age of television. People say that television isn’t good for people, but it’s only the way you use it. For me, television was a great thing, because I got to see Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and people like this on TV. That was part of what influenced me, too. I was 7-8-9-10 years old, and I would see these great performers through the medium of television. Now that we have the Internet, it’s showing its value again; that cathode ray tube monitor is one of the greatest communication devices that can be used. If it’s used correctly, it’s marvelous, because you can see and hear.

TP: On the radio you asked me if I could guess the changes of “Shades of Thelonious,” and I couldn’t get it.

RUIZ: “Shades of Thelonious” is basically “You’ve Changed.” Not exactly, but you can play “You’ve Changed” to it, because the bridge goes to the same place that “You’ve Changed” goes to — to the fourth of the chord.

TP: I can say it references “You’ve Changed.”

RUIZ: It’s close enough that it won’t be arguable. Anybody who knows anything about “You’ve Changed” knows that if you play the melody of “You’ve Changed” on top of the chords as that tune is going by, you’ll pretty much have the melody. Although there are places where I use some alternate chords that might clash with the melody. But that happens all the time. That’s the nature of improvisation. You might put a slick chord in there, and it might not be directly associated with the melody note, but as you pass into the next chord it moves into the original tonality, so it’s okay.

TP: Then you do “My Little Brown Book” by Billy Strayhorn. Did you listen to a lot of Ellington when you were younger?

RUIZ: Yes. That’s one of the first things I heard. I heard “Diminuendo and Crescendo In Blue” with that long solo by Paul Gonsalves, then I heard Charlie, Parker, and that was it for saxophones. I said, “Wow, I really like that.”

TP: Did saxophones influence the way you think as a pianist?

RUIZ: Yes. Because I was listening to saxophone players when I did my early jazz studies. I was into saxophone players. I have a collection of great saxophone players, and through those saxophone players I was introduced to the great pianists. One of the first records I had that was just piano, that really had the impact on me like a horn was those Oscar Peterson Trio records with Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen. Then I could really focus on the piano. But through listening to John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, I got to hear Al Haig and Tommy Flanagan and McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Andrew Hill, Cedar Walton, Walter Davis, Jr., Walter Bishop, Bill Evans. These great pianists all appeared on these albums. That’s how I had a chance to relate to how the piano works with the horns. So when I started working, I had somewhat of a working knowledge of how to be an accompanist. I’ve always been able to be an accompanist for the last thirty years, in addition to having my own gigs as a leader. Because I’ve led bands for that long, too. but listening to these piano players really showed me conceptually what to do and what not to do. What not to do is just as important as what you do.

TP: That being said, you take “My Little Brown Book” as a solo.

RUIZ: In the sequencing we tried different combinations. We put all the tunes in different order and listened to it, and changed the order and listened to it again, and changed the order and listened to it again, and changed it again and listened again. The way I put it together is tonally logical. In other words, I put the two solo pieces together that kind of blended harmonically one into the other, so as you listen to the end of a track, you’re left with a certain feeling, then what comes next to it has to do with what you heard before.

TP: Each tune goes into the other goes into the other. It’s a smooth experience.

RUIZ: Exactly. So by putting two solo pieces together, and then another two… I didn’t want to put three or four together. Because there’s people who like the solos, but now they’re ready to hear some drums! I wanted everything to be just long enough that it would be satisfying, and then give you a little bit more satisfaction, and then go to the next take.

TP: Is “My Little Brown Book” a song that’s been part of your repertoire for a while?

RUIZ: Yes, I’ve played it for a while. I’ve played it with different bands. It’s played by some of the more knowledgeable musicians, people who are into the finer points of Ellingtonia. But it’s such a beautiful melody… I play tunes because I like them. I also play them because I’m required to on certain projects. Sometimes I’m exposed to tunes that I like more than others. So I tend to play the things that I enjoy the most, because that enjoyment comes out and is reflected into the audience. People can notice I’m enjoying it, and it seems to make them enjoy it more. I’ve always loved those beautiful melodies. I’ve listened to all kinds of advanced music and I’ve listened to today’s music. I watch the latest things that are coming out, and I watch what’s happening on the music channels. I keep abreast of everything. But a beautiful melody is everlasting.

TP: How about “Silhouette”?

RUIZ: “Silhouette” was done on the spot. That’s totally improvised. That’s something that came in my head and I composed it right there, on the spot, that take and that was it. It’s imagining a silhouette. You see children playing on a hill, jumping rope or whatever, and you see the sun behind it, and you get the beautiful silhouette of what’s going on against that orange sky.

TP: It’s an impressionistic improvisation. “Goodbye” you made a feature for Lisle Atkinson’s arco work.

RUIZ: Lisle is such a great virtuoso, I wanted to have a tune that would feature his artistry. So I listened to the tune and thought about letting the bass play the melody in the first part, and then I’d come in on the bridge. I listened to a version by Frank Sinatra on an album called Only The Lonely. I don’t remember the first time I heard the tune, but one of the times I was playing at a place called Defemio’s, and my friend Hugh Lawson came. It was after the gig, and the musicians were just hanging out, sitting up in the club, and Hugh went up to the piano and started playing the song. I fell in love with it right away. Then I heard it done by other artists. But the Frank Sinatra version was important because I was able to listen to the lyric. Guys tend to play tunes in their own style that they embellish and so on. Whenever I do something where I need to get the lyrics right, I’ll go to a Frank Sinatra album, because he had a great articulation with lyrics. He did it right! He’s so enjoyable to listen to, plus I love Frank Sinatra’s voice. Then I put the bass up front to give it another kind of interpretation.

A lot of times when you hear the trio, you’re hearing the piano primarily, but in a well-integrated trio the bass can play the melody sometimes, and even the drums can play the melodies if they lend themselves to the drums. The drums have only four or five tuned pitches, but they can get other kinds of. sounds. I’ve always been conscious of the drums and leaving space for the drums to be part of the tonality.

TP: Does that come from your background in Latin music?

RUIZ: Well, yeah. But also by playing a lot with people like Billy Higgins, and also Ed Blackwell, Roy Brooks, and all these great drummers. When they’re conscious of the tonalities, it can make it sound that much better. When you have a drummer who is conscious of the melody and conscious of chord changes, and plays accordingly, and uses the drums as another melodic instrument, as well as percussion, just like I use the piano as a melodic instrument with percussion, then you can get these beautiful overtones to happen. It can really enhance the whole performance with the right drummer who’s playing the right stuff.

TP: On this date with Marlon Simon on traps, how much leeway did you give him? Did you sketch out the tempos and beats you wanted him to play?

RUIZ: Yes. Any hits that had to be made or any figures that had to be played by everybody together, breaks and so on, I would write out for him. Otherwise, play time. Play your stuff. Play what you play. If we all have to come in somewhere, then I would write it out and make it easier for him. Because you can do them by ear, too. Simple arrangements, basically if the guy is on top of his game, he can pick it up right away.

TP: Have you been playing with Marlon for a while?

RUIZ: Four or five years now. Marlon has a couple of CDs out under his own name. He’s very knowledgeable about Latin rhythms, but he’s been around people like Mickey Roker, and he’s done the research. He has a natural swing. Of course, he’s not going to sound the same as a person who has grown up in the United States, because that has something to do with the way you play. But since I am basically dealing with the two idioms, the African and Latin American rhythms, they all come from the same place anyway; they’re all African rhythms to begin with, but went in different directions. He takes care of the business and he’s reliable. He’s growing. The more he plays, the better he gets. I think it’s important, in a sense, to try to have the same personnel — if it’s working — for as long as you can, because that’s where things really start grooving, when people get to know each other musically, and what we can do and things like that. It’s hard when you’ve got to change the drummer or bass player every six months or so. If you get somebody who’s really good it’s going to be okay, but that collaboration of the same people working together on the same thing for a while I think really is what catapults the music forward. If you can have a working band, the same people for a while… When you get to work, you know the repertoire, you know the repertoire, you know what you’re going to play, you know how everybody else plays basically, and you know the breaks and everything else, so now you can focus on creating something and trying to come up with something fresh.

TP: Is that the case with this group?

RUIZ: Yes. Well, Chico is always like that. It’s always forward motion with him. He’s always searching and looking. He’s a leader. Lisle Atkinson is one of those really swinging bass players. He’s played with just about everybody, with all the great singers and saxophone players, and he’s also played with symphonies, and he has a bass choir. He’s a virtuoso. What it is that you want, he can go after it.

TP: How about Renato Thoms? He’s from Panama.

RUIZ: He’s from Panama, and he has played with Eddie Palmieri. He’s on a few records now with notable artists. He came up one night to play as a replacement for Richie Flores, who got busy. He gave me his card and said, “I’ve got your records and I know some of your music.” He sounded real good when he sat in with us. So opportunity arose, and I gave him a call and he came in and he’s been there ever since. I don’t change anything, as long as everything is happening and it’s okay. If a guy doesn’t give me exactly what I want right away, I won’t make a change that fast, because I’ll see if an adjustment can be made. I went through the same thing. I went into places where everybody was more advanced than I was or had more experience, so I’m tolerant of those things. But if a guy really comes to play and it sounds good and the people enjoy it, that’s mainly what I’m concerned with. Little idiosyncracies and things like that will happen. But it all works out if we have time to play together long enough.

“Home Cooking” is one of my hits, if you want to call it that. It was on my first RCA-Novus record, Something Grand. That tune wound up in a movie when I did a cameo with the band in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanor. It’s a popular tune. Every time I play it, the audience really digs it. So it became a mainstay in the program.

“The Business Ain’t Nothin’ But The Blues” is by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, from his flute album, I Talk With The Spirits. I wanted to end it with a blues. But it’s a happy blues. The idea of the blues is to play something happy that sounds good to take the blues away. Chico got some nice Chicago blues in there. So we just close out with the blues, but a happy blues, a taste of real life.

TP: Let’s talk about the here-and-now. Talk about your last six month and how you project the next six months.

RUIZ: The highlights of the last six months: I was a judge for the All-American Jazz Piano competition. I got to hear a lot of young players. that was very nice, very exciting. I went to Miami and the JVC Festival in Miami, out there on the beach in South Beach, Miami. Then I went to Brazil, and played a concert at the Festival Internationale in Londrina. I spent about five days there, and played two concerts. After I came back I played Saratoga, JVC, and I’m going to be up at Newport in August and at the Detroit Jazz Festival.

TP: At this stage of your career… You’ve been visible and well-known on the jazz landscape for 25 years. Are you equally well-received around the world? Do Latin audiences like you for certain things and other audiences for other things? Do you separate the two components of your personality or are they always converging and coming together?

RUIZ: They’re always converging and coming together. I’ve been blessed that the sound that comes out when I play the piano is really what people like. They like to watch me play, they like to listen to what I’m playing. I get the same response anywhere I go. I can be truthful about this. The audiences really enjoy it. They ask for encores…

TP: You communicate.

RUIZ: It doesn’t make any difference in the age group or the ethnic group.

TP: Well, you were growing up in two cultures, in Puerto Rican culture and the intense mixture of New York. How did growing up in New York affect your approach to music?

RUIZ: The beginning was in Carnegie Hall, studying with George Armstrong. But before that I had studied Puerto Rican folkloric piano music with Santiago Messorana. Then when I studied with Mr. Armstrong, that was Bartok and Bach and Haydn and Mozart. So my background, I’m playing in church for different ceremonies and I’m playing in the assembly room for the school. they did Oklahoma when I was 9 years old, and I played the piano for that. Then there singers who somehow heard that I could play piano, and I wound up making a couple of doowop records. Very simple but they wanted me to do it. I guess it was about the sound. It sounded good. People basically said, “this guy sounds good; I want this guy.” Some people who do certain things musically may not have the expertise in certain instrumental areas, so they rely only on the sound of the instrumentalist. “Oh, that guy is playing what I need. I don’t know what it is, but that’s what I want.” So I was always lucky that people liked what I play and they would call me up and give me work. I’ve been very fortunate and blessed that I’ve been able to work constantly. I’ve had two or three months off, but it never more than that. I was always right back to work again.

TP: You seem to have figured out how to be pragmatic and inspired at the same time.

RUIZ: I try to be realistic about it. The more things that I have to do, the more I realize that I have to do more work at home to be prepared, even now with the new technology. I’ve got my computer and my keyboard and my music-writing software, and reading manuals and things like that. It’s not affecting my performance, because I play the piano every day. I’ll take a tune every day and play it through all the keys. So I make sure that I’m prepared. I may know a song, but the singer might sing it in a different key. I don’t want to be on the spot and be scuffling. Playing it through all the keys might take half-an-hour or so to do it, but it’s a goal that I’ve set for myself. I used to practice tunes just in one key, but it’s been a while now that if I play a tune, I want to play it in all the keys. I’m doing my writing now on the computer. I just changed over from pencil and paper to now I can put my scores in the computer, and I can change things and print them out.

So technologically, I’ve moved up into the 21st century. But I still have feeling and flavor. I’ve just gotten into this in the last ten years, where musicians like Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea and Joe Sample and George Duke and Joe Zawinul were doing these things very long ago. But for at least twenty years I didn’t play anything but acoustic piano. If I played an electric keyboard, it’s because there was no piano in the club. But now, I’m keeping myself up with the new technology in case I have to do something, like a movie score or if I have to do something on Broadway or have to do something that requires me to use this equipment. But I think it’s good that I spent all those years on the acoustic piano. And I won’t make the mistake of going to keyboards and leaving the acoustic piano, because then when you go back to play a gig on the acoustic piano, you find that you might not have the same edge you had when you were playing it every day. I’ve seen that happen to musicians. They were really burning, then they went to the electric keyboards, and when they went back it wasn’t quite as fiery . I think that has to do with just playing on wood without a speaker, when you have to produce the note. That physical thing, that energy is coming from the human body, and that’s all you’ve got. There’s no electricity and no nothing. But I’ve got my keyboard setup and I’m computer-literate now, so I’ve moved up into the 21st century.

Tito Puente was one of the greatest experiences I had musically. I played on about five albums, and I was able to arrange. He showed me a lot of stuff, how to open up my scope as far as arranging is concerned, and he also brought me back to my roots in playing the Latin music. We were very close and became very good friends . He really liked what I was doing and gave me the opportunity to expand. I owe him a lot, and I’m happy that I had a chance to be around such a great person. Hopefully, I’m going to keep growing and playing better and doing my thing.

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For Pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach’s 79th Birthday, A 2013 DownBeat Feature

I’m a fan of the German pianist Alexander Von Schlippenbach, a pioneer in the development of speculative improvising in Germany and on the broader European scene, both through his involvement in Globe Unity Orchestra, his long-standing trio work with Evan Parker, his own ensembles, his comprehensive investigation of the Thelonious Monk’s corpus, and his concept of improvising in a 12-tone context. I had an opportunity to interview Schlippenbach in Heidelberg in November 2012, and to document that encounter in Downbeat in an early 2013 issue. I’m posting that piece in honor of his 79th birthday.

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In 2004, pianist Alexander Von Schlippenbach observed the sixtieth birthday of his old friend Evan Parker by presenting him with a folio containing the complete works of Thelonious Monk, hand-transposed in pencil from the key of C to a saxophone-friendly B-flat.

While this extravagant gesture denoted Schlippenbach’s loving esteem for a kindred spirit, it also encapsulated his decades of immersion in Monk’s music, as documented on Monk’s Casino [Intakt], a 3-CD opus from 2005, on which Schlippenbach assembled a quintet to perform Monk’s entire corpus in a single evening of three 75-minute sets. Seven years later, Intakt released Schlippenbach Plays Monk [Intakt], a solo piano meditation on which he intersperses less-traveled Monk repertoire with original works and improvisations based on 12-tone material, a subject that Schlippenbach explored on the intense, mid-aughts solo recitals Twelve Tone Tales (Volumes 1 and 2) [Intakt], and on 2011’s Blue Hawk [Jazz Werkstadt], on which he and trumpeter Manfred Schoof, a his collaborator for more than half-a-century, perform 15 duets. Serial music refracted through a jazz sensibility is also part of the fabric of Iron Wedding [Intakt], documenting a 2008 two-piano encounter with pianist Aki Takase, Schlippenbach’s life partner.

“In the same way that Alex is an undying fan of Monk, he’s also an undying fan of Schoenberg,” said Parker, who first played with Schlippenbach in 1968. In 1972, he joined Schlippenbach and drummer Paul Lovens in a still ongoing trio—most recently heard on Gold Is Where You Find It [Intakt], from 2007—that has remained steadfast in its commitment to tabula rasa improvising over the ensuing forty years.

“He’s assembled a huge arsenal of patterns and vertical structures,” Parker continued, noting that these raw materials are the bedrock of the spontaneous conversation undertaken by the trio—or the international ensemble known as the Globe Unity Orchestra, of which the trio is the core—in any performance. “Nothing is discussed in advance, and everything is allowed. What matters is what happens after the first gesture.”

Schlippenbach launched the Globe Unity Orchestra in 1966 at Germany’s Donaueschingen Festival, a premier showcase for European contemporary music. It was a ground zero moment in what Joachim-Ernst Berendt has termed “Die Emanzipation,” denoting the process by which a trans-national cohort of young musicians from Britain and the Continent, initially inspired by such American avatars as John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and Albert Ayler, broke away from their models and started to develop their own sounds.

“Globe Unity was like a hopeful political metaphor,” said George Lewis, who referenced his own long history with GUO in the program notes for the 2006 date Globe Unity—40 Years [Intakt], on which he also performed, augmenting recent collaborations with Schlippenbach in both the Trio and various chamber configurations. “He’s addressing European contemporary music, which is perceived as a very elite, high-culture art form, and he says, ‘I am going to play jazz and jazz is going to be part of the European high-culture consensus.’ That challenged a lot of fundamental ideals—nationalist ideals, even racial ideals.”

Lewis noted that Schlippenbach, concerned that the term “free improvisation” “might be used to distance him from the jazz tradition,” was firm about describing his music as “free jazz.” “At this point you have to say that he is part of the jazz tradition,” Lewis said. “He likes to make the piano ring, like Fred Anderson made the saxophone ring. There are these sharp, intense gestures, and he gets into this trance of ecstasy, which he then cuts back on, so there’s an awareness going on at the same time.”

That awareness was evident at last November, at a lecture-performance at a “Jazz and Social Relevance” conference sponsored by the University of Heidelberg’s American Studies Department, where Schlippenbach, 74, followed a brief recital with a pithy discourse—in English—that traced, as he stated, “the emergence of free jazz in Europe” and GUO’s origins. Later, he sat with DownBeat for a conversation.

* * *

DB: What’s your personal history with Monk’s music?

AVS: I have been busy with Monk, strange enough, almost from my beginning with jazz. For one year at the end of the ‘50s, there was a jazz school connected with the Cologne Musikhochschule, where I had a very nice piano teacher—the only jazz piano teacher I ever had—named Francis Coppieters, a Belgian from the radio band. He introduced me to the Monk piece called “Work,” which I rehearsed and played. I found it quite interesting and very different from the other jazz with all the well-known cliches. So I tried to find a way to learn Monk’s other pieces, and over the years they came together.

All 70 of his tunes are gems, each with its own strong character; this is what I appreciate most about him. But I don’t think there is much of a link between Monk’s music and my style of playing. When I improvise, I am trying to find a way to keep with the theme, not just do brilliant choruses on the changes like most of the piano players do, but to get the IDEA of the piece.

DB: Through what threads in your consciousness did you relate to Monk’s music?

AVS: There was a guy in my boarding school who could play the boogie-woogie, which impressed me, and I tried to imitate him. I learned the blues with this. Through the years, every night from 12 to 1 a.m., I listened to the Voice of America Jazz Hour with Willis Conover, which was very important—it gave me good information about new things. All my money went to buy records, which I transcribed and copied, trying to play bebop and traditional jazz. I heard Oscar Peterson and Dizzy Gillespie with Jazz at the Philharmonic, and it changed my life. Oscar made an impression on me—one of the greatest piano players in the history of jazz, with fantastic technique and swinging and can play blues and everything… Horace Silver was a great influence as well. I copied all his records. I wouldn’t say he has any cliche. He has his own very strong style, which is true of all the great jazz musicians. Nowadays in school, they learn from books how the blues scale works, and then they can do anything with it. This makes things flat, I would say.

Then at the beginning of the ‘60s, when all these changes happened, we heard Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, just to mention those two. We were fascinated with this new language, this new sound. We quickly adapted that influence and developed it, writing little tunes that we used as a boost to do something somehow more free. At the same time, I was a student of composition in Cologne, where I was in contact with contemporary composers like Bernd Alois Zimmermann, worked with them, and got some experience in what’s called “serious contemporary music.” Zimmermann had places for improvisers and jazz players in his later compositions, which I performed with the Manfred Schoof Quintet. In 1967 and 1968, Penderecki and Luigi Nono tried to get in contact after they heard Globe Unity Orchestra.

DB: I gather around 1965 you played a gig at the Blue Note in Paris with Gunter Hampel opposite Kenny Clarke, after which you’d attend a jam session that Don Cherry was doing at Le Chat Qui Peche.

AVS: Yeah, it was fantastic. We always could hear their last set, because we were quite interested about the way Don Cherry led the band with his horn—he’d raise it, suddenly there was a new motive, a new theme that the band immediately followed. This was quite impressive for me. I can relate to this the way we play today, especially with Rudi Mahall, a fantastic bass clarinet player, who I play with both in duo and with a rhythm section. We have these Monk tunes and Eric Dolphy stuff, and he’ll change, then I’ll follow, as though we’re not only playing one piece, but can surprise ourselves as different things come up.

DB: You recorded Dolphy’s songs solo on Twelve Tone Tales. He seems to be as important to you as Monk.

AVS: Yes. His tunes went more in the new, freer direction than Monk’s music. I heard him with Mingus in the ‘60s, and I heard him perform with Coltrane in Stuttgart, and also on radio recordings. I listened to his records—especially Out To Lunch was one that gave me an enormous idea where jazz can go. Monk was a pianist, so it’s piano music. Dolphy was not a piano player, but a melody-maker, and I was curious how to play his pieces—some of which are literally extended bebop—on the piano. Of course, you have to see what you can do with the other hand, so it’s not just the melody.

DB: Does your thematic orientation when interpreting Monk and Dolphy remain in the completely improvised context of your trio with Evan Parker and Paul Lovens?

AVS: When I play with Parker and Lovens, this is completely different. No themes at all. It’s what we call improvising without any prior agreement. We never speak about what the program is, so we don’t have pieces. We have all our certain material. Motifs. Evan has his scales. I have my very full chords which are built up for the right hand and for the left hand in a convenient way for the piano. I have, of course, also other things to do in my improvisational material. Paul has developed his own way of drumming through all these years, and since we’ve worked together continuously, we have developed our own style, which is I think quite unique. It’s not so much adapted from any American jazz. Nothing against the bass, it has its function, but I do like groups without bass, so I can do more things with my left hand and feel freer. Of course, I heard Cecil Taylor’s trio with Sunny Murray and Jimmy Lyons at the Montmartre. I also liked the old Benny Goodman Trio with Gene Krupa.

DB: How is consensus reached on the first gesture of a performance? The first sound that generates everything else?

AVS: Usually I start with some motif, but it can come from Evan or from Lovens. Of course, we know each other, and when they start, I can immediately jump in, or pick up something, and go on. But the way we do that is not predictable. It comes out of the moment.

DB: Do you listen back to the performances? Do you analyze them after the fact? Or do you just let them go?

AVS: I more let them go. If the thing is done, it’s done, and I go to the next thing.

DB: So you don’t listen to yourself to find, say, patterns that might exist.

AVS: Not so much. More by chance. Sometimes, by chance, I listen to things we recorded 40 years ago, which is quite interesting to listen to…

DB: What do you think of Schlippenbach forty years ago?

AVS: Forty years ago, he was more kind of an angry young man, I think. The music was quite fresh, quite new at that time. We were very optimistic, just go in and play as much as possible. We were very convinced of what we were doing.

DB: Can you speak about the interplay between your considerable technique and your compositional and improvisational interests?

AVS: I have developed improvisational material on 12-tone chords. Already when I started I’d been interested in this for many years, and it came out stronger and stronger. So I found things convenient for the piano that I practiced a lot to improvise with that material. I was working sometimes with Steve Lacy, who showed me chords where you can press two notes with the thumb or with other fingers, which means you can put six-tone chords in one hand and six-tone chords in the other, which together is 12. I practiced on a couple of chords and scales and material to improvise with, and did it in a specific jazz way. For me, the difference between jazz and classical music is mainly that jazz has a rough, forward driving force. That’s always what I was most interested in, and I tried to transfer this element to my improvisation. Through this mode of practice, I developed maybe a specific technique.

DB: I think the most obvious reference point is that Cecil Taylor was a jumping-off point for you. I’m wondering if he was or if he wasn’t.

AVS: He was, of course. I saw him first in the ‘60s and also as a solo pianist in Amsterdam, and I was really overwhelmed. It was something very new. It was just air from the other planet at this time. I followed him to Rotterdam to the next concert, and I was very impressed about his ability to play the piano with a new sound and a new approach even to the music. It was exactly at that time when we also found out about our own possibilities. But he is still for me maybe the most important piano player in what we call the new jazz.

DB: In the mid ‘80s, after Jimmy Lyons died, Taylor started to work a great deal with European improvisers. Can you describe the maturation of European new jazz during those years of consolidation? You yourself have stated that in Globe Unity Orchestra the concept became more refined, more intuitive.

AVS: Yes. This is something that happens in music, I think. In the beginning, when the thing was completely new, many musicians, even beginners, tried to jump the train, as they say, even if they are not so great on their instrument. There were no fixed rules, that you have to know this tune, or play on the harmony. They could feel like, “I can do anything.” Of course, this is a basic error, because you have to make music, and you have to find a way to make people understand the music is not just fooling around or anything and saying, “this is free” and “this is not free.” So there was some chaos in the beginning, but after a while the wheat separated from the chaff—it became evident who is really serious about playing. The language became clearer. Nowadays we know with whom we want to play, and what we want to do. Today I would say there has never been so much free jazz as now. In Berlin, there’s a third generation of younger musicians who are working on their stuff with great passion, exactly as we did. I can feel this new movement, because I am playing around all the time. The seed grows up.

My trio with Evan and Paul is a kind of nucleus of Globe Unity Orchestra. Since we are always improvising, the band has gone more and more in a direction that we call ‘complete improvisation.’ Sometimes there is a little idea to start with something on overtones, or something with single notes—but not more. There is no need to talk about it. You can hear it, and then it comes from itself.

DB: Was music in your family background?

AVS: There is nothing to say about that. My father played a nice accordion, and my mother played a little piano. But I grew up after the war, when there was nothing to be done about music…

DB: You had to survive.

AVS: Survive, yes. So I started with piano when I was about 10 years old, relatively late. Then I saw this guy with the boogie-woogie, and I listened to jazz, and I got amazed about jazz…

DB: Were you from an aristocratic family?

AVS: Yes. This is a very long story. I am not a specialist about the family history, but I know it goes back to the 9th century or something—very old roots. Everything is lost anyway, because the high nobility of Prussia was put down after the war to nothing, or even worse sometimes. I try to hide my real name as a musician. I say “von.” But I am “Graf.”

DB: Graf is Count.

AVS: Yes, I’m a Count. But I don’t use it. I leave it to Count Basie.

DB: What music do you like to listen to now?

AVS: I like to listen to the old bebop, to the real bebop, the original bebop. Some things in contemporary music. Some things of new players, but not so much. I am very busy with my own things.

DB: What’s the quality that grabs you?

AVS: I find in this something of a darker side of jazz. That music was very strict in the form, with real tension, very convincing and very strong.

DB: Do you feel there’s a darkness in your music?

AVS: I can be light and a little bit funny with that. But if I use the chords, there’s a certain darkness in it, yes.

DB: You like to play in a lot of different ways—within forms and also total improvisation. Are they separate files of activity, or interrelated?

AVS: I think my way of playing—a certain touch, certain material—comes through even if I play traditional forms. But it’s always ME that plays. I don’t say, “Now I play like Horace Silver” or “I play like Monk.” I play maybe a piece of him, but I do it in my way.

DB: Is it your opinion that you’ve developed your own language?

AVS: Yes, of course. We all start following some idea, try to imitate even great musicians from another generation. You learn from it. Now I’ve developed my own language in terms of my own improvisational stuff and material, and someone who knows my music and hears me could say, “This is Schlippenbach.”

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For Hiromi Uehara’s 38th Birthday, A Jazziz Article from 2006

It’s pianist-composer Hiromi Uehara’s 38th birthday today, and for the occasion I’m posting a 1250-word piece I wrote about her for Jazziz in 2006.

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Ahmad Jamal doesn’t endorse just anyone, and the chain of events by which he did so for Hiromi Uehara is the stuff of jazz legend. It began four years ago, when Uehara, then a jazz composition and arranging major at Berklee, submitted a string quartet to her orchestration professor, Richard Evans.

“He liked my arrangement, and suggested I arrange one of my originals,” recalls Uehara. “So I brought him my demo. He asked, ‘By the way, who is playing piano?’ I said, ‘It’s me.’ He said, ‘Wow, I need to have my best friend hear it.’”

That turned out to be Jamal, for whom Evans arranged numerous recording projects as far back as 1962. “Richard called Ahmad and said, ‘I found this girl,’” Uehara continues. “Ahmad was SO not into the story. He said, ‘Forget it, I have no time.’ Richard said, ‘Just listen to the first minute,’ and played it over the phone. Ahmad said, ‘Send that to me.’ A week or so later he called and invited me to dinner. He said he loved my music and wanted to help build my career. It was like a miracle.”

On Spiral, her third Telarc release, the 27-year-old pianist-composer, known professionally by her forename, shows what Jamal—who produced her 2003 debut, Another Mind, a 100,000-seller in Japan—was hearing. For one thing, she possesses a classical virtuoso’s two-handed digital dexterity, articulation and touch. At breakneck and rubato tempos she pays close attention to dynamics, eliciting at one moment a soft, pellucid sound that a petite Japanese woman might be expected to project, at another the sturm und drang of McCoy Tyner and Oscar Peterson at their most dramatic. An admirer of Franz Liszt, she only records original music—episodic compositions that reference heady counterpoint and modernist dissonance, jazz-refracted Impressionist harmonies, post-Varese electronic skronk, bebop, and the blues. She interprets them with a stream of fresh ideas, swinging ebulliently, constructing lines that reference a wide timeline of vocabulary, moving from landmark to landmark with Jamal-like flair. Like Jamal, she regards the trio as a three-piece orchestra in which instruments assume different roles—she’ll crank out basslines behind bassist Tony Grey’s high stringed melodies, or set up rhythmic counterlines to drummer Martin Valihora’s well-tempered toms and cymbals. She directs the flow on-stage, exuding charisma, addressing the keyboard with kinetic swagger and a range of facial expressions that bring to mind Elton John or Keith Jarrett.

“The reason I started playing in that style is because I’m very small, and I found I could get the dynamic sound I wanted when I used all my back muscles,” says Hiromi over iced coffee at a MacDougal Street café. A Brooklyn resident after four years in Boston, she’s wearing a pullover, jeans, a black beret, and no makeup. She embellishes her words with stabbing hand gesticulations as though comping on a piano; her long, tapered fingers seem somehow disproportionate to her frame.

“When I was little, saw this Oscar Peterson video and noticed his gigantic hands,” she explains with a laugh. “In the bath, I was always stretching my fingers.”

A native of Shizuoka, Japan, in the center of Japan’s green tea district, Hiromi took piano lessons at 5, and began studying composition at the local branch of the Yamaha School of Music at 6. By 8, encouraged by a teacher who nurtured her innate predisposition to improvise, she was mimicking Erroll Garner and Peterson LPs, sometimes creating impromptu “duets with Oscar.” “Jazz was the first music that I felt like dancing to,” she says. “But I had no vocabulary whatsoever. I had to learn the phrasing, and of course, at some point, to start finding my own voice.” She listened chronologically, “from Jelly Roll Morton up through Gonzalo Rubalcaba, so that I could understand why this person comes after that person.” She cites Rubalcaba and the late Michel Petrucciani as particular favorites from the generation preceding hers, and Marian McPartland and Toshiko Akiyoshi as inspirational female elders.

“Toshiko opened the door for Japanese people to come to America to play jazz,” she says. “I think it should have been very hard for an Asian girl to do, like an American going to Japan to play sumo.”

Hiromi’s own path to America began at 12, when she performed on a series of UNICEF-sponsored concerts, including a memorable performance in Taiwan. “I didn’t speak a word of English or Chinese,” she recalls. “I couldn’t read the program. But I went to the stage and played before these people I shared nothing with, and suddenly we shared something together. Since that day, I wanted to be a professional musician.”

Trying to fit in with her jazz-challenged high school peer group, Hiromi played the music of their idols—among them Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Green Day, Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin, Frank Zappa. “It was almost shocking to hear Zappa,” she says. “I UNDERSTOOD what he was thinking about.”

At 18, she opted to study law for two years in Tokyo, where she moonlighted playing standards at small clubs and penning advertising jingles. “Music comes from experiences, not from music, and I wanted to be around non-musicians,” she says. “They don’t know Herbie Hancock or Oscar Peterson. They only judge the music by whether they like it. They can’t know what kind of scales or complex harmony I’m using. They just say, ‘Yeah, it’s good’ or ‘I’m not really hearing it.’ I knew that I would come to the States some day and be in music college, so I didn’t need to do it in Japan.”

Ensconced at Berklee, she soaked up the diverse musical tastes of the student body, and began to piece together her pan-stylistic approach, paying particular attention to film scores. “I tend to see visuals, a story and a plot when I compose,” she says, noting that she conceptualized each tune on Brain, her second album, as a short soundtrack. “I try to write every single day, even the small motifs. If the music came to me when I was watching a beautiful moon, I write ‘beautiful moon on April 22.’ Maybe next year I’ll see another beautiful moon, write it down, and see if they can go together.

“I love playing standards. It’s like trying to cook the best tiramisu or cheesecake in the world. But it’s more fun to cook to my own taste. Playing my original composition is like trying to find my own recipe, to cook something that never existed.”

When Hiromi cooks, by the way, the cuisine is Japanese, primarily donburis. But she sees no need to extrapolate the cultural tropes of her homeland into musical expression.

“I never wanted to put Japanese culture into my music artificially—or remove my Japaneseness either,” she says. “When I first meet people or I want to thank them, I tend to bow instead of shaking hands or hugging. That’s not because I am trying to be Japanese. It’s in my blood. So I’m sure my Japaneseness is in the music naturally.

“I am not trying to be a woman artificially either. I won’t try to play very feminine or look sexy. I just want to be myself, and my femininity will naturally show in the music.”

And what does femininity sound like?

“There are so many different types of women,” she responds. “Women can be very feminine, very soft, very tough. I don’t want to deny or stress being a woman either. But I can’t deny that many people who haven’t heard me think that I won’t play the piano in a focused, serious way. I don’t want to try to prove anything, but I’m happy when they give me some respect.”

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Filed under Hiromi, Jazziz, Piano

For the Pianist Junior Mance’s 88th Birthday, a Long WKCR Interview From 1991

Pianist Junior Mance, a professional for some 70 years, who played with everyone, turns 88 today. I had the opportunity to host the maestro for a WKCR Musician Show in September 1991 — here’s the full transcript of our conversation. A lot of Chicago history contained herein.

 

Junior Mance Musician Show (WKCR, 9-18-91):

Q: Junior is from Evanston, Illinois and came up in the Chicago environment. I’d like to know a little bit about your beginnings on the piano.

JM: The very beginnings? Well, when I was five years old… We had this little upright in the house, and my father played for his own enjoyment, not professionally or anything like that, but when he would come home from work he’d sit down… That was during the days of stride piano. He even took lessons. And when he wasn’t around, I just started fooling around with it, until I got caught one day.

Q: What did they do to you?

JM: Nothing. He was flabbergasted! In fact, what floored him, I asked him if I could take piano lessons. That was later, though. I started formal training when I was eight.

Q: What did that consist of? You had a teacher and…

JM: I had a teacher, yes.

Q: So I take it that you picked up pretty quickly on the piano. You had a proficiency…

JM: I guess I did. I wanted to play the piano, you know. I used to hear him do things, then when I was home in the daytime I’d sneak over to the piano when my Mom was in another part of the house doing something.

Q: Were you listening to records then? Or was it primarily just through your records and practicing?

JM: There were records, yeah; you know, the 78’s. My father was an Art Tatum fan, as all piano players are, and he was a bigger Earl Hines fan. In fact, Earl Hines’ band back then used to work around Chicago quite a bit, they worked the Grand Terrace in Chicago — and they used to broadcast. This was before they made a lot of records, you know, or records were played over the air. But all the bands would broadcast live from wherever they played.

Q: And the Grand Terrace was a major center. All the bands who were in there would broadcast to the West Coast particularly.

JM: Yeah. And all through the Midwest. Fletcher Henderson and Earl Hines especially. Those were the two mainstays.

Q: So from a very early age you were hearing the best in piano, particularly the style of Chicago, the cross between the Blues piano thing, what Tatum and Earl Hines were doing, and the Big Band sound as well.

JM: Mmm-hmm.

Q: Did you go to hear the bands in person, or were you too young?

JM: I was too young. Occasionally… A few years later they started coming to the Regal Theatre, which was like the counterpart of the Apollo Theatre here. They had shows every week, and usually a big band. I remember the first big band I heard in person was Duke Ellington at the Regal Theatre, and the next one was Count Basie, and my father took me backstage to meet Count Basie when I was about 10 years old.

Q: Then the bands went around by railroad, and Chicago was and still is the railroad center of the nation, the crossroads, so many of the bands would come through Chicago and stay for extended periods of time.

JM: Right.

Q: When did you first start becoming active on the Chicago scene and do your first work for money? I won’t say professionally…

JM: Oh, when I was about 13 or 14.

Q: Tell us about those gigs. What was the nature of them?

JM: [LAUGHS] Actually, the first gigs, I remember there was this saxophone player who lived upstairs over us in Evanston. A good saxophone player. He never went out on his own; he always had a day gig. But he played very well. He played like Illinois Jacquet’s style, so he worked all the time; you know, the cat would come home from work… And he had a lot of gigs in what later became known as roadhouses, the places out on the highway that had a band, usually three pieces — saxophone, drums and piano. I don’t know why the basses were so absent then. They were around…

Q: Money, I guess.

JM: Yeah, I guess so. So I remember, oh, I guess I must have been somewhere between 10 and 13 — this guy’s piano player must have been sick and couldn’t make the gig. So he called everybody he could, and everybody was working, or else he couldn’t make the gig, you know — so he asked my father could he take me on the gig. And he was one of my father’s close friends, and my father trusted him, you know. So I went on the gig with him, and he taught me how to comp that night. A different style than what they do now, you know; it’s what they call (?)boonsen(?) — CHUNK-A, CHUNK-A, CHUNK-A-CHUN… That night he stuck to tunes, mostly Blues tunes or tunes with “I Got Rhythm” changes. And I was fascinated. So after that, whenever he was home, you know, I would bug him, like “Teach me some more of that!”

Q: And he would? He was forthcoming?

JM: Oh yeah, yeah. So then when I was about 13 or 14, I worked a lot of gigs with him, especially in the summertime, when I wasn’t in school.

Q: What was his name?

JM: His name was T.S. Mims.

Q: And was he playing mostly in Evanston, or…

JM: Well, the Chicago area. But strangely enough, not right on the Chicago scene, like where Jug was working or any of those places. This was mostly, like, out on the highway or out on the outskirts of town. And he was really a good player. He’s still alive. He’s in his eighties, around my father’s age now.

Q: Of course, Gene Ammons was the first musician with whom you first emerged on the national scene and did your first recordings. What were some of the events that led you from working with T.S. Mims on the various roadhouse gigs on the outskirts of Chicago to working and subsequently recording with Gene Ammons?

JM: Well, as time went on, you know, all the time I was in high school, I worked gigs myself. I would work with… Well, we would get gigs, guys my own age; we’d get, like, the school dances (which we got paid for; that’s why I consider that professional) and things like that. But I was working more in Chicago with a lot of Chicago musicians. I remember one guy when I was in my teens was George Freeman, who is still around, a guitar player, Von Freeman’s brother. I worked a lot of gigs with him.

Q: Were these mostly on the South Side?

JM: Right. Yeah, I did a long commute when I was young.

Q: That’s a long ride, straight down, north to south!

JM: Yeah, it was an hour each way. At that time. It’s shorter now, though, I think. Transportation is more modern now. I also met Leroy Jackson at that time.

Q: I can remember seeing him with George Freeman five or six years ago in Chicago as well, so that’s a partnership that’s lasted a long time, I guess.

JM: Yeah. And we had… Oh, man, there were so many good musicians around there that people never heard of. They just either faded away or got into bad habits that took them away, you know. I remember names like Elick Johnson, who was a tenor player. Oh, man, if he was around today, he would be, you know, right up there with the giants.

Q: He’s spoken of by many.

JM: Nicky Hill was another one.

Q: Again, what was the nature of these gigs? For instance, were they up on what was happening in modern music?

JM: Yes.

Q: Was everybody up on Charlie Parker in 1944 and 1945?

JM: Yes.

Q: Talk about how that music sort of came into the consciousness of the young Chicagoans.

JM: That was funny. I remember this was right after I graduated from high school. I was 16 at the time, and I was working a gig in Waukegan, Illinois, which is even north of Evanston — Jack Benny’s home town. So I was working there with a band that was pretty much an R&B band, but a good R&B band — it was really good. No names that you would know, but a pretty good one. And that was the type of gig we played, what they called floor shows in those days. We had like a tap dancer, a Blues singer, a shake dancer, etcetera. So one night during the week, business was kind of slow, and these two young guys came in and asked could they sit in. So the leader let them sit in. And it was a music I hadn’t heard before. But it, like, blew me away. I said “Wow!” I really dug it. And the two young guys…one guy, I don’t know if you ever heard the name Henry Prior…

Q: Who was nicknamed Hen-Pie, I believe.

JM: Hen-Pie, right. He was an alto player who sounded just like Bird, like Charlie Parker. And the other guy was a trumpet player named Robert Gay, they used to call Little Diz — which his name speaks for itself; he sounded exactly like Dizzy. These guys were around our age, too. They just wanted to go around and go out and play, and they didn’t care who they played with.

In the meantime, the band leader was telling me, “Man, don’t listen to that noise. That’s not music. That’s noise.” And I said, “Yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah, okay.” Next day, man…! [LAUGHS] We exchanged phone numbers. So that’s when I got into listening to records. I went and bought every Charlie Parker or Bud Powell record I could find! Which then, it was pretty well new in Chicago, too, but as they came out, word spread like wildfire among the musicians, like, of my generation: “Oh, there’s a new Bird record out.”

Q: One thing, though, is that Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were briefly with Earl Hines…

JM: Right.

Q: …and then were raided by Billy Eckstine.

JM: Mmm-=hmm.

Q: And Earl Hines, of course, was based in Chicago, although I don’t know how often that band actually played. My impression is that was more of a touring band.

JM: Oh, no, they played. That band played in a club called the El Grotto, I think. That was their first (?).

Q: On 64th Street and Cottage Grove.

JM: Yeah.

Q: But I take it you never got to hear that particular edition of Earl Hines’ band. That’s a very famous band, but it never recorded.

JM: No, I did get to hear them then. Then I was sneaking into clubs. In Chicago at that time they didn’t check ID’s like they did later.

Q: A sort of wide-open type of town.

JM: Right, heh-heh, like the TV show The Untouchables; most of it took place in Chicago!

Q: That aura remained indeed. But did you have sort of distinct impression that listening to them left on you at that time?

JM: Oh, man, do I! Yeah, they just blew me away. It was just a phenomenal band. It was the direction I wanted to go in music. If Earl Hines wasn’t the piano player, I would have begged for the gig in that band!

Q: [ETC.] What was your first contact with Gene Ammons, who again, you did your first recordings with?

JM: I left this R&B band in Waukegan that I was playing with shortly after that, and I started working with a big band in Chicago — this is while I was in college, too. The band was called Jimmy Dale. It was led by a guy named Harold Fox, who was a tailor who specialized in musicians’ uniforms and band uniforms. And Harold had the most fantastic band book of anybody. Because his way of doing business was he would trade the bandleaders a whole set of suits for their band in exchange to copy some of the charts. So we had a book which was about as thick as three or four New York phone directories! And we had everybody’s music. We had, oh, the Billy Eckstine band, the big band music, we had some of Dizzy’s stuff, we had a lot of Stan Kenton, some Duke, some Basie…

Q: How many pieces was this band?

JM: Oh, let me see. We had five trumpets, four trombones, five saxophones and three rhythm.

Q: Any names you’d care to bring up who performed…

JM: Well, Jug was in that band. Not always. This was after he made “Red Top.” But Jug was very fond of big bands, too, and this was a fantastic big band. And Gail Brockman, the legendary Gail Brockman, who was a trumpet player who was in Billy Eckstine’s band. This was a guy, oh, Dizzy and Miles and everybody looked up to him. Gail and Freddie Webster were like two people who never got their complete due, I think.

Q: Of course this had to have been after Jug had left, after Eckstine had disbanded…

JM: This was after Eckstine broke up. This was like 1946 and ’47. Lee Konitz was in the band. Gene Wright. Who else was in the band? Some of the names people won’t know. But everybody else in the band was just as good as they were, too. They just didn’t…as I said, didn’t get out. Hobart Dotson was another in the band.

Q: Of course, a legendary teacher in Chicago was the bandmaster at DuSable High School, Captain Walter Dyett, who might have produced half of those musicians…

JM: Oh, man, did he! Yeah. Well, Gene was one of Dyett’s disciples. Benny Green, the trombone player. Johnny Griffin, Nat Cole…

Q: All the Freemans.

JM: All the Freemans, right.

Q: Dorothy Donegan…

JM: Dorothy Donegan, mmm-hmm. Elick Johnson, the guy I mentioned, and a lot of others who played just as good but never, you know, made it out there.

Q: Anyway, this is how you really first encountered and got to know Gene Ammons, was with the Jimmy Dale band?

JM: Right. The first night that I was with the band, and Jug played the gig right after… In fact, Jug offered me the gig with him. And both of us, like, were in and out of the band. When Jug wasn’t working, we’d work with this big band, with Jimmy Dale.

Q: So things were very busy. Lots of things were going on in Chicago, and of every sort, really.

JM: It was, yeah. Those were the days, you know, when the New York musicians used to look forward to coming to Chicago. Because I remember with Jug, we had like a home gig in a place right next door to the Regal Theatre called the Congo Lounge. And the bands used to come in and… See, in those days the hours for working were like 10 to 4, and 10 to 5 on Friday and Saturday. And the Regal was like the Apollo; at about 11 o’clock at night the guys were off from work, and they’d all file down from the Congo, man. That’s where I met so many of the main musicians.

Q: Let’s talk about that after we hear a set of music featuring some of these Gene Ammons sides from the late 1940’s on which Junior Mance appears.

MUSIC: “Blowing The Family Jewels,” “When I Dream Of You,” “Pennies From Heaven,” “Cherokee.”

…that last was Sonny Stitt, from a series of tracks by Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons in the ’78 period, when the tracks were short and everything had to be very compressed. Do you feel that having come up through that has affected the way you play today?

JM: No, I was glad to get out of that. Because they kept constantly reminding you in the studio to keep it under three minutes, not go over three minutes. And they didn’t want three minutes. They wanted not over 2 minutes and 50 seconds at the most. Two and a half minutes was perfect for them!

Q: Well, many a masterpiece was created in that time, but I can certainly see your….

JM: Well, it was good in a way, because it really taught you, like, how to really say a lot in a short space of time.

Q: Not waste a note.

JM: And not waste a note. Exactly.

[ETC.]
[END OF SIDE 1]

As far as employers go, Prez was probably one of the best. Sometimes we’d work a week, and not work for maybe the next three or four weeks. But Prez would take care of us, both Leroy and I, because both of us were about 19 at the time, and we were the only two in the band… Oh, and Jerry Elliott, the trombone player who was from Pittsburgh. We were the only three who weren’t from New York. The other guys had pads in New York or families there. And we all stayed in the same hotel where Prez stayed. And Prez took care of us. Prez saw to it that we ate every day and that we had spending money — and wouldn’t let us pay him back! He died with me owing him a lot of money. He just never would let us pay him back.

Q: What was it like being on the stand with Lester Young? Was it a similar format every night? Would he change it up all the time?

JM: As far as changing up, I guess he changed it up all the time. Because it wasn’t really like… He wasn’t a show-businessy type person. We’d get up there and it was almost like a session, like a group of guys get together and let’s play something, you know. And after a while, you forget who the leader is. And he’d play… He never played a lot of solos…I mean a lot of choruses. He’d play three or four choruses, and then maybe everybody played three or four, then take it out. Most of the bands then, people of the stature of Prez, weren’t based on charts or arrangements, unless you had a big band. Because of Prez’s reputation itself, people came there to hear Prez. They didn’t care what was around it, you know. So everybody got a chance to play.

And Prez had a philosophy about letting everybody play. When we went on the road, he would really let everybody stretch out. Because he said…I think one night he said… I don’t know, somebody didn’t want to solo on a certain tune or thought it was too long, and Prez said, “Look, I want everybody to play, because everybody might not like me, but they might like one of you.” After that, everybody played.

Q: A few words about Gene Ammons. When we were off-mike, you quoted a comment Frank Foster made about him.

JM: Well, Frank was talking Gene’s big sound and the way he swings. So Frank said, “One thing about Gene Ammons, he hit one note, and immediately the beat and swing would begin and the note would just fill up the whole room.” Which is true. Jug had a tone as big as ten saxophone players!

Q: What was it like going out with Jug in a small group at that time? You talked about him trying to establish his…

JM: Well, I joined the band after he made “Red Top,” which was his big hit; after Billy Eckstine’s band broke up and he recorded for Mercury, and “Red Top” was his big hit. And the band worked a lot. That was before I was with them. When I joined the band, “Red Top” was still popular, it was still his mainstay, but it was beginning to tail off a little bit. And he had a lot of other good Chicago hits. Because we worked a lot in Chicago. In fact, the union brought us up on charges, because one night we had five gigs…

Q: Oh, no!

JM: Yeah, heh-heh. And Jug’s car… One of them was in Gary, Indiana, the third gig, and the car broke down and we couldn’t get back to the fourth gig! So the club-owner took Jug to the union.

Q: How did it get resolved?

JM: They fined Jug $500. What saved us, we had a drummer at the time from Kansas City named Ellis Bartee, who was just out of the Lionel Hampton band. So we’re all sitting there, the whole band is down there, you know, and we figure we’re all going to get fined. So they ask each one of us, “Well, you guys know better. Why did you follow him in doing five gigs?” Now, that was a stupid question. If anybody offers me five gigs in one night and I think I can do it…

Q: Those are questions you’re not supposed to be able to answer.

JM: Yeah. So Ellis Bartee, who was very quick with it and he could come up with a quick answer, he just told them, he says, “Well, Mr. Gray…” Mr. Gray was the President, Harry Gray. He said, “Well, Mr. Gray, I’m just here from Kansas City. When I came here from Kansas City, all I saw was the name Gene Ammons all over everywhere, because he’s the most popular. So I just figured, well, that’s the man to be with. I didn’t know we weren’t supposed to work five gigs in a night.” But they all laughed, the rest of the boys laughed when he said, “All I saw was Gene Ammons. I figured, well, that’s the man to be with, and that’s who I wanted to be with — so I got the gig.” So that got us off the hook. That sort of made them laugh a little bit. But Gene got fined the $500. Plus I don’t know what happened between him and the promoter. The promoter lost money or had to refund a lot of money. They were all dances, five dances in one night!

Q: Were there a lot of dances in Chicago at that time?

JM: At that time, yeah. There was the Pershing Ballroom, the Parkway Ballroom, the Savoy was still going then, and even a lot of places on the West Side. One of the gigs we were supposed to do was on the West Side, the last gig was on the West Side. We never heard from that guy. He just kept quiet. I guess he found out what happened.

Q: One other person you worked with I’d like to ask you about is the young Sonny Stitt. Were you working with his small group, or was that “Cherokee” we heard just put together for the record?

JM: We were both with Jug at the time, and the record date came up, and he got Art Blakey to make the date.

Q: Of course, he was one of the great virtuosos on all of his instruments at that time, particularly alto and tenor.

JM: Right. Well, alto was his main instrument.

Q: What memories do you have of working with him?

JM: Well, Sonny used to come and sit in with us at the Congo, too. He spent a lot of time in Chicago. He lived there for a while. And he used to come and sit in with us almost every night. A lot of cats used to come into the Congo almost every night and just sit in with us.

Q: Out of the Regal Theatre, as you were saying.

JM: Yeah, but I mean even other than the Regal. A lot of the local cats who could really play. Ike Day was another one who used to come in.

Q: Tell us a little bit about Ike Day. He’s one of the legendary drummers…

JM: Right.

Q: …who it’s commonly said Art Blakey would check him out, and Max Roach…

JM: Oh, everybody. Jo Jones gave him a set of drums. Ike was a genius, really, one of those young geniuses. I remember seeing Ike sit in with the Basie band when he was 16. He couldn’t read music. He played the book like he had been in the band all the time.

Q: He just had it.

JM: Just a natural. He had such a natural sense of anticipation, and hands that were just unbelievable, and could swing. And he was a teenager. He died very young. He was about 24 when he died.

Q: He had tuberculosis, I believe.

JM: Mmm-hmm.

Q: He only made one recording, I believe, with Gene Ammons, and you can barely hear him on the recording…

JM: I wasn’t with him then. I didn’t know about that one. I think I heard something about it…

Q: Can you give us some idea of what his sound was like, an analogy to another drummer, or describe it in some way?

JM: I guess, now that I think back, he sounded a lot like Big Sid Catlett, who was always one of my favorites, too.

Q: And from Chicago as well.

JM: That I didn’t know.

Q: He studied with Jimmy Bertrand, one of the great show drummers in Chicago in the 1920’s.

JM: Yeah. Well, Big Sid was the drummer… That explains it, because most of the drummers in Chicago could do more than one style. They could do anything… Like, Big Sid played with Louis Armstrong, and then turned around and made a record with Dizzy and Bird, and it sounded like he belonged there on both.

Q: And plus, do the big band material as well…

JM: Exactly.

Q: I guess he played with Fletcher Henderson at the Grand Terrace…

JM: That’s right, yeah.

Q: …amongst others. One person talking about Ike Day said that he had an incredible dynamic range, that he was very sensitive to sound and hearing the whole kit and using the whole kit.

JM: Yeah, he played with the whole band. He wasn’t just… You know, like some young teenage drummers, they want to stand out. No, Ike was a musician. Ike was a player.

Q: You referred to Art Tatum as probably your main influence on the piano.

JM: Everybody’s main influence! [LAUGHS]

Q: You’re going to hear a set of Art Tatum music. And you mentioned to me that “Elegy” was the…

JM: That’s one of my favorites, yeah.

Q: A few words?

JM: Well, the music speaks for itself on that. I just heard it, and it just blew me away. Because I had heard the Classical versions of it as well, and then when I heard Art Tatum’s version, I didn’t want to listen to the other versions any more.

[MUSIC: “Elegy” (Keystone Brdcst., 1938), “Fine and Dandy,”

“All The Things You Are”; Ahmad Jamal, “Raincheck,” “Poinciana”]

Q: You said that you used to work with Israel Crosby at a very famous club on 55th Street in Chicago called the Beehive. You were house pianist there for a while?

JM: House pianist, right.

Q: How long did that happen?

JM: Well, I was there for a little over a year. In fact, the day I got out of the Army I got home, and… I don’t know if this guy saw me on the street, but he heard that I was home, a drummer, a guy named Buddy Smith who is no longer with us. But Buddy had the gig there, and he had Israel on bass and myself.

Q: The Beehive at that time was one of the main places where people would come in from out of town and use the rhythm section.

JM: Right, exactly. That’s where I got to play with Bird for a month. They booked everybody for four weeks, which was great, too.

Q: Who were some of the people you played with there?

JM: Coleman Hawkins was the first one in there, and he was there twice during the time I was there. Charlie Parker I mentioned. Lester Young. That’s when I first met Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis; also he was there.

Q: As a solo?

JM: Yeah. That was long before the days with Griffin.

Q: I was wondering if that was around the time he was working with Basie.

JM: I think in between times. He had been with Basie, and then he was on his own, and then after that he went back with Basie again.

Q: What do you remember about working with Coleman Hawkins?

JM: Oh, it was wonderful. Basically, working with him it was pretty much the same approach to the music as working with Bird. Like, they both had this thing… They knew every standard in the world, you know, and they would call a standard, and if I knew it, I’d say, “Yeah, I know that. What key?” And both of them… Bird’s phrase was “Make it easy on yourself.” And Coleman said something to that same effect. He said “Wherever you want it.” It didn’t make any difference to them what key you played it in?

Q: Would Coleman Hawkins generally play the same repertoire every night or would he change it up?

JM: No, he’d change it up. He went through all the standards. Of course, he had to do his hits, you know, like “Body and Soul” — he couldn’t get away from that. “Body and Soul” and “Stuffy.”

Q: Would he play a set solo on “Body and Soul” or would he make it different every night?

JM: He played pretty much the solo he did on the record, yeah. Because people… The solo was as famous as the tune, because people could hum that solo along with him.

Q: Another musician who played at the Beehive was Wilbur Ware.

JM: Wilbur Ware, yes. After I left there, Wilbur worked there a lot. I forget…let’s see, what did Israel do after that? I think Israel joined Jamal after I left, and Wilbur probably came in then. Not immediately, though. I think Victor Sproles was there a little bit before Wilbur.

Q: Well, Israel Crosby, of course, is one of the great rhythm masters in the history of the bass.

JM: That’s right. He was years ahead of his time, too.

Q: Talk a little bit about him and what he did that made him so special.

JM: His lines, his bass lines, the notes that he would choose — the clever things he did to fill up spaces. It’s what a lot of the bass players are doing nowadays, which is like the thing to do now. But he did it… He was ahead of his time. He was somewhat like… Well, Prez was ahead of his time. That’s the way Israel was.

Q: And you’d probably heard him on records with Teddy Wilson.

JM: I’d heard him on records with Teddy Wilson. And Israel was getting on in years then. Israel had played with Fletcher Henderson’s band and Benny Goodman’s early band, so he wasn’t…

Q: A spring chicken.

JM: Yeah. But he was just so many years ahead of his time. And playing with him was such… You never knew what he was going to do, but he would do something that wouldn’t get in your way; in fact, it would enhance you. He was the kind of bass player, when you play with him he keeps a smile on your face. Because every time he does something, the piano player’s face would smile, you know!

Q: You’d just listen to him throughout the set and you’d be very happy.

JM: Wilbur Ware was like that, too. Wilbur Ware and I worked at a place on the South Side with Buddy Smith again, and Johnny Griffin and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. We must have worked there for a couple of years.

Q: What place was that?

JM: Cadillac Bob’s, I think it was called?

Q: On 71st Street, was it?

JM: Not that one. No, that’s the new one. This one was between… Right down the street from the Pershing. This is between 63rd and 64th on Cottage.

Q: Busy street.

JM: Oh, that was the thing. Man, that whole area was saturated with a lot of Jazz. The Ground Propeller, the Cotton Club, and all those clubs along 63rd.

Q: All of them had music.

JM: Yeah.

Q: I heard one drummer tell the day he got out of the Army he started walking down 63rd Street, and it took him I think three days he said before he got…

JM: Yeah! [LAUGHS] Because there was so much good music, and it was all Jazz, say starting from about South Park all the way over to the lake practically.

Q: And that’s about a mile-and-a-half or two miles.

JM: At least, or two miles, yeah.

Q: A few words about playing with Charlie Parker. You did say that he’d play a lot of material and make it easy on you. I believe he played at the Beehive about a week or two weeks before he died.

JM: If he did, I wasn’t there then.

Q: What was happening the week that you worked with him? Was he in good form, in good health?

 

JM: Excellent form. I tell you, he kept me awake! Boy, there was just so much music, listening to it…

[ETC., THEN MUSIC BY JUNIOR: “Emily,” “Jubilation,” “Miss Otis Regrets,” “Yancey Special”]

Q: Next we’ll hear some sides recorded by Dinah Washington during your time with her. She was from Chicago originally? Did she go to DuSable? I’m not sure.

JM: I think she went to Wendell Phillips, the rival of DuSable. I think. I’m not sure, but I’m pretty sure she did. I don’t think it was DuSable.

Q: At any rate, she had local fame in Chicago…

JM: Oh yeah.

Q: And she was a great church singer as well, in Chicago’s Ebeneezer Baptist Church.

JM: Right.

Q: I guess Dinah first worked with Lionel Hampton.

JM: Mmm-hmm.

Q: Lionel Hampton seemed to have picked up a lot of musicians out of Chicago.

JM: A lot of them to pick up!

Q: How did the gig with Dinah Washington happen for you?

JM: She just called me one day. Actually I was called to do a record date with her. That was the album that had “A Foggy Day” and “I Let a Song Go Out Of My Heart.” So after the date she asked me if… In fact, I was working at the Beehive at the time. And she offered me the gig. That’s when I left the Beehive.

Q: She must have been working quite a bit at that time.

JM: She was working a lot, she was paying good, and then you know, she lived in New York at the time, and it gave me a chance to…

Q: Get back there.

JM: Yeah. I wanted to be in New York a lot.

Q: That’s understandable. So it seems like you were going back and forth between New York and Chicago about half and half then, from the time you…

JM: Oh yeah. With the exception of the period between 1951 and 1953, when I was in the Army, I’d say between ’47 or ’48, when I was with Jug… I dropped out of Roosevelt after a year-and-a-half, because the gigs got heavy then — and I knew what I wanted to do, you know. Then I moved to New York permanently in ’56, when Cannonball formed his first group. Cannonball and I were in the Service together also.

Q: Where were you stationed?

JM: Fort Knox. Fort Knox, Kentucky. Cannonball and Nat. Curtis Fuller was there for a while, too.

Q: It must have been quite an Army band.

JM: Oh, it was, yeah. Yeah, we had a ball.

Q: Did you play a lot during those couple of years?

JM: Yeah, I did. I wasn’t supposed to be in the band, being a piano player. But Cannonball pulled some strings and got me into the band as a typist. [LAUGHS] I knew how to type, and they needed one to do the administrative work for the band, so on a technicality I got in.

Q: Was there a piano on the base?

JM: Oh yeah! Well, there were three bands there, the 36th Army band, the 3rd Armored Division band, and the 158th Army Band. But see, to get in an Army band, the piano player has to be someone who can also play a marching instrument. And I couldn’t play a marching instrument, although they tried to teach me! One day they gave me a bass drum, and said, “Okay, Mance, try to play this.” It wasn’t a long march I had to do. This basic training company was coming in at the end of their training; they were coming out of the woods, out of bivouac. So to give them a little spirit, you know, we’d meet maybe a distance equal to about five or six blocks before they got to the barracks, about a half-mile, say, and we were supposed to play for them. So where we had to meet them was at the bottom of a hill, and I had the bass drum on a windy day! So we’re going up the hill, and if you can imagine this, this would be how the beat of the drum went: BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM..BOOM..BOOM…BOOM… So between the wind and not knowing what I was doing on this bass drum, the tempo got slower and slower. So one of the snare drummers, another cymbal player, ran over and said, “Mance, you’re gonna have the guys crawling, man. They’re tired already and we’re going up this hill. Give me the bass drum; you take these cymbals.” I said, “What am I supposed to do with these?” “Just hit ’em.” He didn’t tell me how because he didn’t have time. So I didn’t know, man. I just reared back and got a good lick and went, “WHAM!” Anyway, you saw guys scattering everywhere getting out of our way. They didn’t know what that noise! [LAUGHING] So then the band director told me, “Mance, just carry them under your arm!” So that was the only time…

Q: Back to typing.

JM: Yeah. The band always played for the Kentucky Derby every year, too, in Louisville — twice I went to that. But I had to have an out to get there, so I had to be in the marching band. So they let me carry the cymbals under my arm both times! And once we got inside Churchill Downs, I was on my own then.

Q: I hope you won some money.

JM: You know what? I made one bet on something like the second race or something like that, and won enough to, like, really hang out the rest of the day at the Derby. It wasn’t a lot, something like $40 or something, but in the Army back then… This was 1951 or so, and…

Q: That was good money then. A week’s salary.

JM: Right! So I had a ball. I didn’t bet no more after that. I just tasted, and looked around and watched the races and hung out. You know, there’s a lot to do at Churchill Downs rather than just sitting there and watching the races. It was a nice outing.

Q: Well, let’s hear some of these Dinah Washington sides. We’re going to start with “Our Love Is Here To Stay” from In The Land Of Hi-Fi, Dinah Washington with Hal Mooney and His Orchestra, featuring Cannonball Adderly and Junior Mance, arrangements by Hal Mooney. Then we’ll hear something from the famous session Dinah’s Jam, which you were telling a story about — Dinah brought in a bunch of hard-core fans.

JM: Right. She had it catered. She invited about fifty of her closest friends, who were like real Jazz fans, not just people who liked the music. And there was a Who’s Who musicians there. So she had it catered, and what happened was we would play and… And it was in the studio. It was a live date, but in the studio. During the playback after each tune, while we were listening, people would help themselves to drinks and food, it was buffet style, and the drinks put them in a good mood… And it was really one of best record dates ever made, as far as enjoyment. There were no pressures, nothing was rehearsed. Most of the stuff on there is like first take. And the audience was just enthusiastic. Fifty people sounded like five thousand. It was just a small studio, but they were really into it.

[MUSIC: Dinah Washington: “Our Love Is Here To Stay,” “You Go To My Head.” Teddy Wilson/Sarah: “When We’re Alone,” Teddy Wilson, “I’ve Got The World On A String,” “Fine and Dandy.”

Q: Teddy Wilson, as you mentioned at the top of the show, is one of your very earliest influences on the piano.

JM: Right.

Q: Do you recollect the early sides you heard of his? Were you familiar with the sides we played?

JM: Not really. At the time, you know, I was about eight years old. Teddy was young then, too. Teddy was a teenager. Teddy was one of those people that got out there young, when he was in his teens. But I remember my first piano teacher, his idol was Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson. Teddy had just published a book of his piano solos, and that was one of the early things that my teacher gave me to learn. And then my father started buying Teddy Wilson records, so my father liked him, too.

Q: Of course, Teddy Wilson’s two primary influences, I guess, were Art Tatum and Earl Hines.

JM: Oh yes.

Q: We’ll move now to some Earl Hines material. Earl Hines, of course, was at the Grand Terrace while you were coming up in Chicago. I guess he was in Chicago after the War as well, when he had the El Grotto.

JM: He had the El Grotto.

Q: He did run that club, right?

JM: That’s something I don’t know. He may have, because he was there all the time.

Q: Did you get to know Earl Hines?

JM: Yeah, but later. Later I met Earl and I knew him.

Q: Any words about the Fatha?

JM: Oh, a wonderful man. And a great player!

Q: It seems that later on his life his pianism developed and developed and was featured much more.

JM: Well, after the big band. But even during the big band he was a great player. He could play then.

Q: But later, of course, he recorded all those wonderful albums…

JM: Yeah, where he’s doing solo or trio.

Q: We’ll hear the Earl Hines band featuring Billy Eckstine.

JM: I want to hear those. They are nostalgic for me.

[MUSIC: “Jelly, Jelly,” “Stormy Monday Blues,” “Boogie-Woogie On The St. Louis Blues.”]

Q: Junior, you said that’s one of the tunes you learned note for note when you were a kid.

JM: Yeah, that, and the other one was “After Hours.” Oh, there was one more, too. In fact, the first Jazz tune I ever learned was “Yancey Special” as a kid.

Q: Well, and you’re still playing it.

JM: [LAUGHS] Them habits are hard to break!

Q: Were you playing a lot of stride piano when you were a kid? Was that how you first really got your chops?

JM: Not really. I used to marvel at the stride piano players. But I have small hands, and I couldn’t… I’d miss notes when I do that.

Q: Can’t hit those intervals…

JM: Yeah. That’s why I was glad when Bebop came in. Even now, though, even now occasionally when I do solo piano, I’ll try, even though I can do it a little bit. See, most of the stride piano players could play tenths. Like, Art Tatum could walk tenths like a bass player walks single notes, you know. And I could never even… Even now I can’t reach a tenth on the piano.

Q: There’s a story, probably apocryphal, about Earl Hines, that he had had surgery to cut the webbing…

JM: Oh yeah. That wasn’t true. Boy, that tale went all over the world, too. But that wasn’t true. Because doctors said if you do that, you can paralyze the hands.

Q: We’ll move now quickly to one of the very famous groups that Junior worked with between 1959 and 1961, the Johnny Griffin-Eddie Lockjaw” Davis tenor tandem. Actually, that was ’60…

JM: Yeah, it was more ’60 to ’61, because I was with Dizzy until ’60.

Q: Well, it seems like a long time because there are so many recordings by this band. It just recorded prolifically!

JM: [LAUGHS]

Q: How did that hook up for you?

JM: Well, Jaws and I knew each other from the Beehive when you worked there, and…

Q: Of course you knew Griff from Chicago.

JM: Well, Griff I’ve known all my life. He was from Chicago. They got their group together while I was still with Dizzy. Then I left Dizzy to form my own trio, to go out on my own, so to speak, not necessarily a trio… I had made that first album, the one with Ray Brown. So I wanted to test the waters for myself. And like all new groups, you know, times get hard. Then I did some gigs with Johnny and Jaws, and made a deal with Jaws. Jaws said, “You can work with us, and if you get a gig with the trio, go make that.” And it turned out during the time the band was together, I made more gigs with them than I did with my trio. And we were in the studios all the time.

Q: You recorded a lot of Monk’s material…

JM: We did a whole album on Monk called Lookin’ At Monk.

Q: Was Monk another musician whose music you were very much involved with? Or was that the first time you’d really started grappling with Monk?

JM: No, it wasn’t the first time. I’ve always been a Monk admirer. I think because we have the same birthday. I’ve always been very fond of Monk’s music. Probably more so now.

Q: Another point in common is that you both really developed a lot of your style by listening to stride and blues piano …[ETC.]

JM: Could be.

[MUSIC: “Tickle Toe,” “In Walked Bud”]

Q: “In Walked Bud,” Monk’s variation on “Blue Skies,” I think.

JM: Yeah, the outside is “Blue Skies”. The channel is a little bit different. [ETC.]
I enjoyed this. It’s a real nostalgia thing for me, too, to hear some of the other things, like the Earl Hines things.
[ETC.]

[-30-]

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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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