Tag Archives: Steve Coleman

For Cassandra Wilson’s 60th Birthday, a Jazz Times Feature From 2012 and a Downbeat Feature from 2008

To mark the 60th birthday of the great singer Cassandra Wilson, I’m posting a pair of feature articles I’ve had the opportunity to write about her — first a long piece for Jazz Times in 2012, next a feature for Downbeat in 2008.

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Cassandra Wilson, ‘Jazz Times’ Article (2012):

On Memorial Day, as afternoon turned to evening and the barbecues wound down in the brownstone back yards next to Complete Music Studios in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights district, Cassandra Wilson convened her band for a five-hour rehearsal to prepare for a one-week run that would launch two days hence in Bergen, Norway, continue in Lviv, Ukraine, and conclude in Moscow. Ensconced in Room 4 of the sprawling converted warehouse, they worked methodically through the set list, postulating frameworks for such older Wilson standbys as “Fragile” and “Time After Time,” and newer repertoire like “Red Guitar” and “Another Country” (both from Wilson’s June release, Another Country [E1]), and a stark, intense arrangement of “The Man I Love” by harmonicist Gregoire Maret, Wilson’s current musical director, and a steady presence in her bands since 2003. They sat in a circle, Maret to Wilson’s left, and then, proceeding clockwise, guitarist Brandon Ross, drummer John Davis, bassist Ben Williams (filling the chair for Reginald Veal, who would join the troupe in Europe, as would percussion Lekan Babaola), and guitarist Marvin Sewell.

The final song was Wilson’s “A Little Warm Death,” which she debuted on New Moon Daughter, her 1995 chart-topper. Wilson was navigating the concluding vamp (“One little warm death/Come have one little warm death with me tonight”), denoting the time feel with gracefully calibrated arm swoops, when, suddenly, she interrupted the flow.

“It’s a lazy rhythm,” Wilson said casually, looking at Davis, a recent addition to the band. Her blondish dreads hung loose, and she wore a diaphanous earth-toned blouse, white capri slacks, gray espadrilles, and clef-shaped earrings. A red Telecaster guitar stood to the right of her chair; a closed Mac-Pro was on the floor to her left. “In Bahia, they’ve got a thing, too, where they’re way behind the beat. Most instrumentalists want you to push it. But most singers, like me, we want to lay back—we’re lazy.” She offhandedly referenced several rappers. “They got some serious swag way behind the beat.”

After a final runthrough of “A Little Warm Death,” Ross asked Wilson to try the Lennon-McCartney song, “Tomorrow Never Knows.” “I don’t really know it yet,” Wilson responded. “Can you sing it?” Ross complied; Wilson listened attentively, smiled encouragingly, beat the rhythm on her knees. “Nice,” she said after Ross’ quick Polaroid of his intentions. While Ross and Davis established the changes and key, she opened the Macbook, and, scrolling with her big toe, talked out the lyrics from the screen. In due time, she closed the computer, sat erect, planted her feet, and claimed possession with a completely realized interpretation, bobbing and weaving within the rhythm, her infinitely flexible contralto conveying nuance and unveiling implication.

“I think they were dropping acid then,” Wilson said dryly after this textbook display of what it means to practice like you play. She exhaled and shook her head. “I’m running out of power.” But she recouped for a stomping “Come Together,” skipping registers with the ease of a bird in flight, even soaring into the soprano range for a quick minute. Then the evening’s work was done.


“I’ve witnessed that for many years, and it always amazes me,” Maret remarked the next morning on Wilson’s ability to instantly alchemize a song into her own argot. “She has no limits. She goes into the moment, and interacts with whatever the whole ensemble has created for her.”

For Wilson, first and foremost, to be daring is a matter of musicianship. “The gospel that I’m trying to get out is that, ok, it’s fine to have a beautiful voice, but it will be even finer if you are able to communicate with that instrument as a musician,” she said over the phone from her home in Jackson, Mississippi, a week before the rehearsal. “In jazz, I think that is the connection you have to make before you even step foot into that world.”

“Cassandra does things that most singers should do,” Ross confirmed. “She’s more out of the Miles Davis realm of dealing with a melody. In an understated way, she takes things in a direction that doesn’t necessarily give you a lot of extended information, but can change the path of what you’re doing, which makes it can sound wide-open.”

Still, Wilson acknowledges that a certain ineffable, intuitive mojo also shapes her interpretations. Speaking to me several years ago, she analogized it as akin to “trying on clothing, when you walk in the store and find something that really fits; I’ve found a path inside it, a way to sing it that’s true to my life story.”

In a separate conversation, Ross elaborated on that metaphor. “When I was Cassandra’s Music Director,” he said, referencing the years 1993 to 1996, “I always looked at rehearsals as like a fitting session. I get the thing set up, do a tuck here or pin it there, then she’d come in and say, ‘Yeah, let’s go that direction,’ then maybe take a break or be out on some business, and then come back in and hook it up. She doesn’t tell anyone exactly what to do. She lets people find the best things that can be played with her music. Maybe it takes a bit of time to get to that point. But once you get there, it’s magical.”

Time is not an infinitely available commodity on recording sessions, where Wilson, when functioning as her own producer, has occasionally found it problematic to achieve magical results on deadline with a hands-off creative process. “I am probably the worst when it comes to organization,” she told me a week before the rehearsal. “I procrastinate until the last minute to do things. I tend to give musicians too much freedom. I don’t like to tell someone how to play something. I have gotten to the point where I do express my feelings about how I want something translated, But in the past, I’ve been pretty laissez-faire. I just let the music unfold. Sometimes it comes out great, sometimes not so great.”

Perhaps for this reason, Wilson has decided on various occasions to rely on a producer’s vision to create the frame in which she operates. Craig Street oversaw the transitional mid-‘90s recordings Blue Light Til Dawn and New Moon Daughter on which, as Ross states, “she claimed all of her personal experience, and molded it into a statement of who she is as a human being and as an artist,” removing her voice from the plugged-in frames of funk and hip-hop and modern jazz that she had navigated over the previous decade, and placing it in a spare, elemental strings-and-percussion context drawn straight from Mississippi roots, specifically her apprentice years as a singer-guitarist around Jackson, where she was born and raised.

In 2000, after eighteen years in New York, Wilson, needing time off to “get my bearings” and also wanting to keep an eye on her aging mother, began the process of resettling in Jackson. In 2002, she made the 150-mile drive up Highway 61 to Clarksville, to record the nostalgic, self-produced Belly Of The Sun. For most of the aughts she also kept a residence in New Orleans, 185 miles due south; there, in 2008, she made the drumcentric covers date Loverly, a Grammy-winner, and, in 2010, put together the studio segments of Silver Pony, which documented the kinetic mojo her then-constant working band with Sewell, Veal, Babaola, pianist Jonathan Batiste, and drummer Herlin Riley, could generate in live performance.

She stayed in Jackson to make Thunderbird (2004), for which she recruited T-Bone Burnett to conjure a zeitgeist-appropriate version of the blues-and-roots trope that underpins her mature tonal personality. On four Wilson songs, keyboardist Keith Ciancia constructs complex and detailed sonic landscapes—entextured layers of samples, loops, programming, beats, various vocal effects—that serve as couture to her timbre and illuminate the metaphysical subtext of her autobiographical lyrics. They effectively counterpoint less dressed-up vernacular-oriented repertoire to which guitarists Marc Ribot (Burnett’s “Lost”), Keb Mo’ (Willie Dixon’s “I Want To Be Loved”) and Colin Linden (“Red River Valley”) respond with more explicit blues connotations.

Vibrations of place are equally palpable on Another Country [E1], conceived in New Orleans in February 2011 and recorded six months later in Florence, Italy. It’s a joint venture with producer-guitarist Fabrizio Sotti, a son of Padova whose c.v. includes hit tracks by, among others, Dead Presidents, Q-Tip, Tupac, Ghostface Killah, Rihanna, Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, as well as several jazz albums with world-class improvisers that feature his luminous sound, impeccable chops, and lyric imagination. Performed by Sotti on acoustic guitar, Julien Labro on accordion, Nicola Sorato on acoustic bass, and Lekan Babalola and Mino Cinelu on percussion, the program, suffused with Mediterranean flavor, includes seven originals, six of them co-composed with Sotti, an extraordinary rendition of “O Sole Mio,” and two solo miniatures by Sotti.

They met in 2003, when Wilson, not thrilled with the fruits of several recording sessions for the follow-up to Belly of The Sun, was looking “to experiment, to find different textures to play with.” Their simpatico was instant. “We became friends quickly,” she recalls. “It was really easy to work with him.”

The end product, Glamoured, to which Wilson contributed five originals and idiosyncratic renditions of Sting’s “Fragile,” Willie Nelson’s “Crazy,” and Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay,” was the singer’s most personal, self-revelatory album of the ‘00s. Seven years later, freed of caretaking responsibilities after her mother’s death the year before, and having fulfilled her obligations to Blue Note, her label since 1993, Wilson found herself again focusing on “constantly playing with and exploring ideas—I felt ready to start writing songs again.” Late in 2010, she and Sotti, with whom she had stayed in touch, began serious talks about a new record. A few months later, around Mardi Gras, they got to work in her French Quarter house.

“For a couple of months, we’d been tossing around ideas, frameworks, and chord progressions or songs, and Fabrizio already had ideas,” Wilson recalls. “I sat at the piano, he’d play and record the changes, and in the process we’d have conversations about how he felt when he wrote the music. From that, a couple of tunes on Another Country—for example, ‘When Will I See You Again’—were formed based on those emotions.

“There is a strong, sympathetic energy between us. Fabrizio is detail-oriented and meticulous. Everything is in place in his universe. His nails are always cut. His guitars are clean. He doesn’t like to touch a guitar whose strings are too old. That organizational side of his personality matches me well. Also, we’re both guitar lovers, and we communicate very well based on that. Through the way he plays his guitar, he’s able to tap into certain basic emotions, places in my memory that are powerful and evocative.”

Armed with a half-dozen or so melodies, Wilson let the information marinate. She gradually conceived lyrics over the next several months, but didn’t complete them until August, when she and Sotti reunited in Florence for a fortnight to make the recording. “Passion,” a tango, is her response to “the beautiful apartment we had in Piazza della Signoria—you’ve got the David there, the museums, the fountains in the street, the balconies, the foot traffic, people eating out.” Wilson relates that she came up with “Almost Twelve”—an idiomatic street samba that Sotti positions as “a modern version of what Gilberto and Ella Fitzgerald did with Abraca Jobim”—after “traveling back from the studio one night, not being able to find our way back to the hotel, and going around in circles in the maze of the old city of Florence for about an hour-and-a-half.”

Wilson adds that she found the melody and the lyric of the title track not long after the idyllic sojourn, while in Woodstock, where she keeps a residence. “I’m still trying to decipher the meaning,” she says. “It’s about experiencing life in different stages and in different times, and experiencing love, and seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, seeing their world—which is what I did when I went to Italy with Fabrizio. I experienced Italy in a totally different light. We tend to identify ourselves as the other whenever we go into a culture. But once you’re inside it, you begin to make a connection.”

Sotti remarks that the songs bear a tone parallel to those of Glamoured, which addressed subjects of love, loss, and betrayal. “It’s a similarly transitional time for her, and these are clearly quite personal, a lot of stories of things she’s actually going through,” Sotti said. “Cassandra’s voice is a unique instrument. She’s an originator, not only in the style she plays, but in the sound of her voice. There aren’t too many other comparable voices out there—prior or after. We respect each other, and trust each other deeply. Either of us could say that something was ready, and we’d follow the other’s lead. It was a total collaboration between two musicians who totally speak the same language. We talked about chord changes, forms, even beyond just the poetry of the words and everything else. There no boundaries, no stigmas of any kind. We just said, ‘Let’s try to write the music we feel now, and do it the best way we can.’”

It was Sotti’s idea to use the accordion, which seals the Mediterranean ambiance. “I associate the instrument with the emotion that the Italians call malinconia,” Wilson said, savoring each syllable. “It’s in the lyric of ‘O Sole Mio.’ Malinconia is melancholy. Saudade is another great word—it’s the same emotion. The Irish love melancholy, too.

“I think I’m a melancholy specialist. It’s a sweet—or bittersweet—emotion. There’s always this condition of the human heart to long for something that it imagines it would need. It’s not a bad feeling. For me, it’s a rich feeling. I think it’s a beautiful part of being human, to have longing, to always search for something, to always seek to make the heart whole.”


On tour with her band in Italy before her fortnight in Florence, Wilson performed a concert “at some Etruscan ruins or an archaeological dig.” She researched the subject, and found “interesting connections between the Etruscan culture and the Yoruba people—the way they created their courtyards, the architecture, the spiritual stuff.”

She references this connection on the coda of Another Country, a lilting track titled “Olomuroro,” a Yoruba word that directly translates into “one with droopy breasts,” but also denotes a mythological monster who stole a boy’s meal while the boy grew thinner.

“We’re drawing upon the former story,” Wilson said when she stopped laughing. “The song is about the women in the village who come around to care for the children when their parents are not there, because they need feeding, they need milk. The breasts are drooping because they are the breasts of the wet nurse. The Yoruba people don’t have any issues singing about the beauty of big, drooping breasts.”

Herself the mother of a son who is past his majority, Wilson—who draws deep sustenance from Mississippi roots—attends closely to matters of heritage. “The first five years of your life, your personality is formed,” she remarks. “The place where that happens is significant, and it holds a lot of powerful emotional material that you can draw upon.”

It is not surprising that, in the second half of her sixth decade, Wilson would conclude an album of love songs with one that directly signifies a matriarchal world view from an ancestral perspective. Her mother, Mary Fowlkes, was a Ph.D and professor of Spanish at Jackson State; her grandmother, to whom she was particularly close in her own early childhood, was a conjure woman figure.

“Her habits were mysterious and unusual,” Wilson recalls. “She would wear an apron, which had two pockets in which she carried seeds, and had a wonderful smell. I have some of those seeds still. She was a woman who had moved from what would be called rural Mississippi to the city, and she kept a gun. Even in her seventies, she loved to go off into the woods and gather. She was an herbalist. She could make medicines. She used to take a cup and raise it above her head and circle her head three times. Lekan Babaola told me, after I described it to him, that it’s a Yoruba gesture. Three times over the head before leaving something, casting it away.”

Although Wilson hasn’t cast away her Harlem apartment or her New York connections, she states that she is now “out of New Orleans” and spending most of her time in Jackson. “Making this the base has completely turned my thought processes around,” she said. “Instead of thinking about what I need to do in New York to further my career, or to get the message out, or to create the music, I’m doing that here. The way that I look at my career now is based on my community, and the work that I do in this community. I look at this stage of my life as being mine to make, and my decisions are based on what I think my path is.”

Part of that path will include hewing to Abbey Lincoln’s suggestion that “it’s important for singers to write songs about what’s happening in their lives, not to focus on the songs and the stories of other people’s lives. Abbey explained to me that it’s great to sing a standard—and of course, it is, if it’s your own story—but it’s so much more important for you to add to that your story, and to constantly stay in touch with that story, that narrative.”

Towards that end, Wilson states, “I’m going to work on developing a core of musicians to play with, and making sure that core is strong enough to interpret the music on its own. Then, once you get to the live part, you begin to create the other life of the song. The song doesn’t just stay where it is. It has to go through all these permutations and changes. That’s exciting, too, because you can stumble across something else entirely new that then, again, will lead you to the next project. It can be scary. But it’s a good scary.

“I love the mistake, and I love that feeling of stepping out and doing something that will cause a mistake. In order to get to that point, you have to get out of your comfort zone. You can’t continue to make music that engages the audience on the level that you want them to be engaged if you remain in your comfort zone. I change my policy every day. Who knows what’s going to happen next time?”


Cassandra Wilson, Downbeat Critics Poll Article (2008):

“I felt I’d come to an emotional wall,” Cassandra Wilson said over the phone from Jackson, Mississippi, describing her state of mind after completing Thunderbird [Blue Note] her rootsy, quasi-poppish 2006 release, and also explaining in part why her latest, Loverly [Blue Note], comprises ten songbook standards, a Robert Johnson blues, and a Yoruba praise song.

“I couldn’t find my footing,” the 52-year-old singer elaborated. “I’ve decided to backtrack, simplify, learn the blues, REALLY learn the blues. Which is not that simple.” Asked whether her reference point is the hometown version of the blues-as-such or the blues as a world view, she opted for the former. “It’s something more particular to Jackson,” said Wilson, who has spent much time there in recent years tending to her aged mother. “There is a sound here. It’s halfway between the Delta and New Orleans, so it swings.”

“A certain amount of narcissism goes with being a vocalist—a jazz vocalist, or whatever you want to call what I do,” Wilson continued. “Songwriting as well. You have to let go of something in order to take care of people.”

Still, by deciding to wear the producer’s hat on Loverly, after collaborations with Americana guru T-Bone Burnett on Thunderbird and Top-40 (Mariah Carey) craftsman Fabrizio Sotti on Glamoured from 2003, Wilson returned to the methodology that generated both Travelin’ Miles and In The Belly of the Sun, her highly personal cusp of the 21st century releases. As on those occasions, the process was collaborative.

“I don’t really think about categorizing what I do, but going into this project, of course we knew that we were going to revisit standards,” Wilson said. “The treatment came about from a confluence of events.” While mulling a list of “maybe 30-40 songs” generated by Blue Note head Bruce Lundvall, Wilson took input on repertoire selection from bassist Lonnie Plaxico, her one-time musical director, and from Nigerian drummer Lekan Babaola, whose rolling grooves, articulated in synch with trapsman Herlin Riley, frame a complex rhythmic flow that Wilson traverses with surefooted grace. For the first time since Rendezvous, a label-arranged 1997 encounter with Jacky Terrason, she deploys the tonal personality of a pianist—in this case, native Houstonian Jason Moran—to signify on her narratives.

“Lekan stepped up and reminded me about the importance of the drums,” she said. “That’s a no-brainer for me. I’m deeply tied into rhythm, so it made perfect sense to approach these standards with a focus on the rhythmic bed that the music is lying on.”

Several years ago, Moran cut his teeth with Wilson for a brief, unrecorded stint. “I met him through Steve Coleman,” Wilson said. “The way he plays feels great to me. You don’t always find pianists who are strong soloists on their own yet are able to accompany a singer. I’ve worked with pianists where it’s difficult to find a space, but Jason seems to understand my phrasing really well, maybe because his wife is a singer.”

Only the Robert Johnson-composed, Elmore James-associated blues “Dust My Broom” was in Wilson’s repertoire during the months leading up to the August recording date, which made inhabiting the songs, many of them canonical, a tricky proposition. Indeed, for the most part, Wilson has eschewed such fare since Blue Skies, the swinging 1988 recital that placed her in the conversation with such empyrean divas as Betty Carter, Sarah Vaughan, and Nancy Wilson.

“Certain songs have been done over and over, and some have definitive versions,” she said. “Unless you completely tear it apart, there’s not much you can do. But certain songs. I don’t care if there’s a definitive version or it’s been done to death. I’ve found a path inside it, a way to sing it that’s true to my life story. Sometimes you know instantly when it feels right. It’s like trying on clothing, when you walk in the store and find something that really fits. I dance in a certain way with it. Musicians in my band have told me I move a certain way when I feel really at ease inside of a song.”

Both as producer and bandleader, Wilson, by her description, embraces a Venus-lets-Mars-think-it’s-in-charge approach. “I’m probably the least proactive leader,” she said. “ I tend to walk away from the musicians. Maybe it has something to do with the way women feel around men—I don’t know why I feel that, but I do. Some sort of male bonding thing happens in jazz when cats come together to work on a project. So I tend to come in and out, disappear, come back, see what’s happening, and just let them flow. I don’t try to direct them. I let the stream find its own way, instead of trying to create its path.”

One such moment occurred on “Til There Was You,” the Meredith Wilson love song made famous by both the Beatles and Frank Sinatra, on which Wilson proceeds through an allusive web of rhythm-timbre comprised of Herlin Riley’s New Orleans streetbeats and Babalola’s hand drum and cowbell, stabbing blues phrases from guitarist Marvin Sewell, and apropos chording from Moran.

“Lonnie asked if I knew it—it was not on the list,” she said. “I started singing, and he said, ‘Yeah, that’s it.’ Then I left the room, and Herlin and Lekan and Lonnie came up with that feel.”

A visit from Babalola to Wilson’s Jackson studio a few months before the recording generated the Afrocentric treatment of “Dust My Broom.” “Lekan said, ‘I want to show you something,’ and asked me to play some blues on the guitar,” Wilson related. “I started playing the regular 12-bar blues, he played rhythms under it, and said, ‘This is sakhara. This is one of the genres of blues music that we have in Nigeria. If had had the drum in Mississippi at that time, and if Robert Johnson were playing with the drummer, I think that he would have been playing this rhythm.’”

African rhythms saturate “Arere,” a Yoruba praise song to Ogun, the warrior god. The word also refers to a tree that emits a powerful, uncontrollable, odor so offensive that a Yoruba proverb cited in the book Rethinking Sexualities in Africa—type “arere” and “Yoruba” into Google Search, and it comes right up—states “any home where a woman is vocal, loud, influential through self-expression, will have the arere tree growing in the courtyard.”

The piece emerged in January 2007, when Wilson and Steve Coleman, her musical mentor and domestic partner during the middle ‘80s, presented a concert at the Stone in Lower Manhattan. The mandate was to create music for the 16 principal Odu, or stations of the human condition, represented in the Ifa system of divination.

“Lekan was going to Nigeria at the time, and I asked if he could get me the song for each major odu,” Wilson recalled. “I didn’t get them on time, so Steve winged it. He took it into Egyptology, made correlations between the numbers, the colors, the directions, the astrological things, went deep into it, and devised a system for the music to be created.

“At the time I met Steve, I wanted to get out of a certain comfort zone, and he encouraged me to do that. He told me that if I could hold my own within his system—cycles of rhythm, hearing cues in the rhythm instead of chords, the layering of rhythms—I would have something else to bring to the standards. He was right about that. I had to develop a certain swagger with his music, to pump myself up, find some confidence, find a way to sing over it that would make sense. I guess that was the very beginning of a distinctive sound that I knew was something that I had that no one else had. When you learn to improvise over odd time signatures, 4/4 becomes very relaxing. You develop a certain elasticity in your phrasing. You can do something outside of the box on the standards, play with it, let it stretch, because you’re always certain about your time.”

Wilson had to call upon that swagger during a March tour of Europe with David Murray, a fellow 1955 baby, who called her to sing two Ishmael Reed lyrics on his own 2007 release, Sacred Ground [JustinTime].

“I thought I’d just get up and do the songs from the record, but David sprang three or four new tunes on me, and I had to learn them quickly,” she said. “The music is very thick, not terribly porous, and there’s always a struggle, a tension inside it. The changes move in strange ways, as do the melodies, and you have [to] weave these complex melodies around this complex environment. I had to rise.”

Wilson expresses even more enthusiasm about her own band, which over the summer will consist of Sewell, Riley, Babalola, bassist Reginald Veal, and the young New Orleans pianist Jonathan Batiste.

“I’m in a working mood,” she said. “I get so excited to go on stage, because it’s a great group of very strong musicians. Everybody has something to bring to the table, when needed, on the stage. Maybe I’m at a point in my life where I feel like I’m hitting my stride.”


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Filed under Cassandra Wilson, DownBeat, Jazz Times, vocalist

In Honor of Steve Coleman’s 2014 MacArthur Award, A 2011 DownBeat Feature

Heartiest congratulations to the visionary alto saxophonist-composer-conceptualist Steve Coleman on his 2014 MacArthur Award. Here’s a  feature piece that I wrote about him for DownBeat in 2011.

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Around 5:30 on the final day of spring, nineteen hours before the summer solstice, Steve Coleman sat in his Prius, parked a few steps from the Jazz Gallery, where he’d soon conduct the penultimate installment of his seventh season of Monday night master classes at the venue. Dressed down in a red t-shirt with “Ancient Waves” logo across the chest, baseball cap worn backward, baggy jeans, and hightops, he was relaxed and focused after a 90-mile drive from Allentown, Pennsylvania, his home since 1992. Rather than adjourn to a restaurant for a sitdown conversation, Coleman, a road warrior par excellence (his itinerary over the past two decades includes lengthy fieldwork sabbaticals in Ghana, Cuba, Egypt, Brazil, South India, and Indonesia), decided to stay put, taking advantage of the unmetered space.

Later that evening, and at the two other Coleman workshops I attended in June, attendance was decent. Still, it seemed odd that more aspirants didn’t shell out $15 for a hands-on encounter with the figure who, as Vijay Iyer says, “of all the musicians who followed Coltrane, Ornette and the AACM, has done the most work, and sustained the highest level of innovation and creativity, of output and impact.”

It is Coleman’s signal achievement to have dissected rhythmic, tuning, and harmonic systems from various non-Western and ancient Mediterranean cultures, and integrated them into a cohesive weave that refracts his own experience and cultural roots. Operating via the ritualistic practices that contextualized these sounds in their original iteration, he frames his own sere alto saxophone voice within a matrix of interlocking, layered  beat cycles, sometimes whirling, sometimes stately, sustaining continuity with a self-devised harmonic logic.

He’s been remarkably effective at communicating his principles. During the ‘80s Coleman imparted fresh ideas about working with pulse and uneven meters to such experimentally oriented, like-minded, Brooklyn-based contemporaries as Cassandra Wilson, Greg Osby, Terri Lyne Carrington, Robin Eubanks, and Marvin “Smitty” Smith in the loosely grouped collective known as M-BASE, an acronym for Macro-Basic Array of Structured Extemporizations. In the latter ‘90s, Osby, who referenced Coleman in a piece called “Concepticus,”  described him as “my main motivator,” adding, “if I ever reach an impasse, he’ll say something that will transport me to another area.” A few years ago, Wilson was similarly praiseful. “Steve told me that if I could hold my own in his context, I’d have something else to bring to standards,” she said. “He was right. When you learn to improvise over odd time signatures, you develop an elasticity when you work with 4/4, because you’re always certain about your time.”

It would be inaccurate to describe Coleman as a “guru-Grand Poobah” figure for his M-BASE collaborators, many of them major forces on the timeline. But the term fits when assessing his impact on consequential post-Boomers like Iyer, Ravi Coltrane, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Miguel Zenon, Yosvany Terry and Dafnis Prieto, who have drawn upon Coleman’s subsequent investigations—documented over the past quarter century on close to 30 recordings and elaborated upon in numerous workshops and residencies—in constructing their own hybrid tonal identities. “This idea of conceptually dealing with stuff from a different culture and from the roots of one’s culture was an amazing template,” Mahanthappa said recently. “It seemed like the real deal. It was modern American improvised music.”

Anyone with an Internet connection can find interviews and essays in which Coleman postulates and analyzes his intellectual first principles, which are as complex and audacious as the raw materials he works with. He believes strongly that music symbolically represents universal truths and, therefore, human experience on the most fundamental level. Freedom emerges via contingent pathways—rigorously elaborated structures that he actualizes with non-traditional notation—through which creative expression manifests. Numerological I-Ching trigrams denote rhythmic values, each part cycled in thick harmonic layers among the various horns, or, as Marcus Gilmore notes, within the trapset itself, “intertwining and interweaving until they meet up at some point.” A chart representing lunar or solar phases might involve pitch values and voice leading. Another, mapping a celestial moment, can gestate an entire composition, as in “060706-2319 (Middle Of Water)” and “Vernal Equinox 040320-0149 (Initiation) on the 2010 release Harvesting Semblances and Affinities [Pi] and “Jan 18” and “Noctiluca (Jan 11)” on this year’s follow-up, The Mancy of Sound. Patterns of dots on the cover of the latter document symbolize the Yoruba philosophical and divination system called Ifá; transcribed, they comprise the rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic form of a four-piece suite.

With this backdrop in mind, I asked Coleman whether proximity to the solstice would impact the evening’s proceedings. “In an intangible way, it does all the time,” he responded. “I believe there’s a specific energy happening at any moment, in any place, and that we have the ability to tap that energy consciously.” He mentioned core influences—Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Muhal Richard Abrams, the Danish composer Per Nørgård—whose musical production incorporates such metaphysics. “Each person has to figure out their relationship to it. A lot of people who think about these things won’t talk about them publicly. My view is that we’re in a new kind of information age, and there’s less need to be secretive.”

Coleman reached into his bag behind him, and pulled out a book entitled The Unified Cycle Theory by Steven J. Puetz. “I spend a lot of time studying cyclical thought,” he continued. “I’m always paying attention to eclipses and equinoxes, symmetrical nodes where energy intersects. I was well aware of the event tomorrow, or any time we get near these points. Then I focus to see if I can pick up something that I ordinarily wouldn’t. Am I deluding myself or imagining things? You could say that about almost anything that you do. Definitely, if you’re tuned into it, you can feel something special that doesn’t happen in other moments. After a while, you start noticing patterns and start trying to see how you can use these things, how they can work out, what the differences are.”

On the two recent CDs, Coleman seems to be consolidating, loosening forms, transmuting cross-cultural correspondences gleaned from his travels into musical shapes and inserting them into an increasingly epic narrative. Tyshawn Sorey, who plays drumset on both recordings—by himself on Harvesting and in tandem with Gilmore on Mancy—pinpointed the interweaving quality to which Gilmore referred when describing the evolution in Coleman’s rhythmic language from his “much more sonically dense” music of the ‘90s. Sorey traced the transition to the composition “Ascending Numeration,” from the 2002 recording The Ascension To Light, on which “it takes at least a minute” for all the different meters—he calls them “time spans”—to align. “The structures are much more elaborate now,” Sorey said. “The music breathes more. Vibrationally it feels different. I remember thinking in the ‘90s that the music was cold, that it was hyper-technical but lacked emotional content. I played some of that music when I first joined the group. In the music he’s written since then, there’s a lot going on, but it hits you emotionally in some way.”

Recorded in 2006 and 2007, the Pi sessions represent an early stage of this development. But over the past year or so, Coleman said, he’s been “reshuffling,” addressing “pre-composed material ever more spontaneously, using compositions almost like cells of information and recombining them in different ways,” trying to give his musicians “greater responsibility for their part.” Towards this end, he toured Europe last fall and this spring with no drums or bass, presenting consequential challenges for trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, guitarist Miles Okazaki, pianist David Bryant, and vocalist Jen Shyu.

“The music was written with bass and drums in mind,” said Shyu, a Coleman regular since 2003. “It’s not that hard to play each single part, and it’s difficult but achievable to be able to clap one part and sing another. The hardest thing is to improvise and be free over that, and not be locked into, ‘ok, I have to keep my place with this line.’ Steve wants you to hear it as a gestalt—all the parts together, internalizing how they fit, and never lose your place. The compositions are getting more difficult. They’re based on extra-musical things, I think a cycle of Mercury, so the progressions are unusual and harder to hear.”

Coleman described the effect of this drummerless experiment as akin to a colonic. “There was stuff encrusted inside me for years, and when that layer was stripped away, things became crystal clear,” he said. The logical next step, he continued, is to “jettison” the precomposed fragments and move towards “creating spontaneous forms on the spot for the first time.” He added: “It’s not like free improvisation, where whatever sound you make and whatever sound I make, it’s cool. It’s having an intelligent conversation with somebody on the street where you don’t know what you’re going to say, but it makes linguistic sense. It has to be as sophisticated as something you might create if you composed it with pencil and paper, and you have to be able to retain it so that you can repeat it, not verbatim, but as you would a written compositional form. I never write out set lists. We come out, and I blank out my mind and feel what’s coming from the audience and what’s happening on stage. From that comes my first impulse, and I make a sound. Then I start developing and weave a thread.

“The temporal moment has a character, and it imposes on us a certain vibe which we then deal with. Place has something to do with it. The land has an energy that affects us. When I’m in central Java for three months, I create different shit than I would if I stayed here. I get different ideas in south India or Brazil. Usually the effect on you is unconscious. I study all this esoteric stuff to try to figure out what it is. Almost everything I do starts with some vague interior, intuitive, spiritual feeling, which I then try to figure out how to technically work with. In the end, I’m dealing with a craft. I’m dealing with music, and something’s got to be developed out of that music.”

Coleman traces this predisposition to investigate inchoate feelings to childhood. He grew up at 68th and Cregier on Chicago’s South Side, four blocks east of Stony Island Avenue, where the Blackstone Rangers gang dominated street life. “They were recruiting cats my age, but I didn’t want to run with that kind of element,” he says. “They preyed on people with maybe weaker minds. I was the kind of kid that if a cat called me a chicken, I’d be like, ‘well, that’s your opinion.’ I wouldn’t get mad, just indifferent. Before he died, my father told me, ‘What you’re doing musically and the way you are, I saw it in you early. You were a hard-headed baby who wanted to go your own way, and could sit in the corner by yourself and play your own game for hours.’”

Initially attracted to Charlie Parker through his father’s record collection, Coleman received subsequent hands-on mentoring from Sonny Stitt, Von Freeman, and Bunky Green, all regular presences in neighborhood clubs like the Apartment Lounge and Cadillac Bob’s. He traced the origin of his rhythmic explorations to a realization that the quality he most appreciated in Bird and his teachers was “their identity, a strong vibe that told you this was their thing,” and that “the primary ingredient in that strong identity was the rhythm.”

“The main element of their rhythmic base stemmed from the dance music of the time, and I realized that I’d have to look for something different,” he said. “I started to think about Motown, James Brown, the Meters—which I heard as a folk music—and how to do something more sophisticated with it. It wasn’t an intellectual exercise. I feel soul and funk more than what Charlie Parker and Max Roach and those cats did, because it’s what I grew up on. In blues, you have the sophisticated line, the less sophisticated line, and the stuff in the middle, a breadth of feelings, everything from Ma Rainey to Coltrane and in between. I didn’t feel that breadth existed with this music. I thought it could be wide-open. I felt you could take it as far as what Trane was doing with ‘Expression’ and ‘Transition,’ and I was determined to do it.”

Once settled in New York, Coleman—who took gigs with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, with drummer Doug Hammond, and with Sam Rivers’ Winds of Manhattan ensemble, and often played on the street with cornetist Graham Haynes—heard  recordings of tribal, rural folk music from Nigeria, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast. “I was shocked, because in the singing and drumming I heard rhythms that I heard in Charlie Parker,” he said. He absorbed their phrasing of the rhythms, “the sensibility they did it with and the looseness with which they expressed it. Graham and I were trying to work our way into feeling these things, like groping in the dark. You hear back a piece on tape and keep what works, and expand on it.” He cited a eureka moment—“Armageddon” from the 1990 recording Rhythm People, on which Reggie Washington played bass and Smitty Smith played drums. “I had a dream about how the music was going to sound, and something on the bridge of that song was the closest it got. I began to analyze that and go deeper. When I went to Ghana, I saw similarities between what they were doing and what I was doing (and differences, too), and realized that what really attracted me was the cyclic element.”

As the ‘80s  progressed (he described the decade as “complete experimentation”), Coleman needed every bit of bullheaded resolve to stay on course and withstand the slings and arrows—some were self-inflected—hurled his way. “Von Freeman warned me that if I was going to go the route of developing my own music, it would take me twice as long,” he said. “I could easily have been one of the Young Lion crowd. All I had to do was play the game and put on a  three-piece suit. Instead, I was in this underground direction, wearing overalls. Stanley Crouch called me ‘the Jim Jones of Brooklyn’—leading everybody to their musical suicide.  That was a good one; if you’re going to signify, you might as well be clever.” Nor was approbation unanimous within the M-BASE community. “I was aggressive in pursuing ideas, let’s put it that way. Some people liked that, some people didn’t. My response was always, ‘Hey, nobody’s got to follow me; I’m not starting no school.’

“Fortunately, I talked to cats like Max Roach, and played with cats like Thad, who had no idea what I was trying to do, but told me, ‘you have to find your own way, whatever it is.’ Von and Bunky told me the same thing. When things got hard, I’d remind myself that Charlie Parker hoboed on a train. Motherfuckers couldn’t come through the same door or drink from the same fountain. They were on drugs. Coltrane took a deluge of negative criticism. What am I bitching about? I was like, ‘You did what you wanted to do; you didn’t let anybody alter your thing.’”

It was now 17 hours before the Solstice, time to leave the air-conditioned Prius, enter the Gallery, order takeout Thai, and prepare for the evening’s business. “You’ve got to eat healthy, and stay in shape,” Coleman said. He recalled the classic cover of Von Freeman’s 1972 debut LP, Have No Fear, on which the tenor master, then 50, stands in a Chicago back alley in a sleeveless tee. “In ‘79, I saw Von pick up some cat and shove him through the door with one arm. I was kind of scrawny as a kid. I thought, ‘Ok, you need to take care of yourself.’ You want to be able to still move around. If you like young girls and all that, too, then you really have to do it. If anything kills me, it will be that—or an accident.”

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For the 84th Birthday of Muhal Richard Abrams, Two DownBeat Articles (2006, 2010), one Jazziz Article (2011), and a Profile for All About Jazz (2007)

Best of birthdays to maestro Muhal Richard Abrams, who turns 84 today, and is doubtless following his daily regimen of practicing and writing music.  I’ve had the honor of writing three feature pieces about Muhal in recent years. The first in the sequence posted below was written in response to his election to DownBeat‘s Hall of Fame in 2010. The second features a dialogue between Muhal and Prof. George Lewis in 2006, in response to Streaming (Roscoe Mitchell’s voice is also heard, but as the piece focused on the in-person back-and-forth, it was complicated to incorporate his voice sufficiently). The third piece is a Jazziz feature from 2011, which includes extensive testimony not only from Prof. Lewis but also recent MacArthur grant designee Steve Coleman.

For further insights on Muhal, this link contains a dozen of Jason Moran’s favorites.

* * *

 Muhal Richard Abrams (Hall of Fame Article for DownBeat):

“Interesting,” Muhal Richard Abrams said over the phone upon receiving the news of his election to Downbeat’s Hall of Fame. After a pause, he said it again.

Arrangements were made to speak the following day, and, in conversation at the midtown Manhattan highrise where he has lived since 1977, Abrams explained his laconic response to the honor, bestowed on the heels of his selection as an 2010 NEA Jazz Master.

“Well, why me?” he said. “There are so many worthy people. The only claim I make is that I am a pianist-composer.” He added: “I’m honored that people would want to honor me, and I have no objection, because people have a right to make the decisions they arrive at.”

It was noted that Abrams had communicated precisely the latter dictum forty-five years ago at a series of meetings on Chicago’s South Side at which the bylaws and aesthetic guideposts by which the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) continues to operate were debated and established.

“Oh, in terms of individuals being free to be individuals, of course,” Abrams said. “It is a basic principle of human respect.”

Informed of Abrams’ reaction, George Lewis, the Case Professor of Music at Columbia University, who painstakingly traced the contents of these gatherings in A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press), hollered a deep laugh. “‘Why me?’ Are you kidding?” Assured of the quote’s accuracy, Lewis, an AACM member since 1971, settled down. “That’s Muhal for you,” he said. “He’s not an ego guy. Originally, the book was supposed to be about him. He said, ‘I think it should be about the entire AACM.’”

Lewis then opined on his mentor’s “Why me?” query. “Muhal transcends genres, categories, and the little dustups that often happen in the jazz world,” he said. “He’s his own person.  He spent his life reaching out to many musical constituencies. So it makes a lot of sense to have him represent a new way of thinking about the whole idea of jazz. Muhal’s major lesson was that you’d better find your own path, and then, once you do, learn to be part of a group of people that exchange knowledge amongst each other. He provides support for an autodidact way of doing things.”

“I don’t characterize myself as a teacher,” Abrams remarked. “It’s my contention that one teaches oneself. Of course, you pick up information from people whose paths you cross. But I’m mainly self-taught—I found it more satisfying to do it that way.’

It is one of Abrams’ signal accomplishments to have been the prime mover in spawning a collaborative infrastructure within which such AACM-trained composer-instrumentalists as Lewis, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, Leo Smith, Amina Claudine Myers, and himself could conceptualize and develop ideas. Another is his own singular corpus, as documented on some thirty recordings that present a world in which blues forms, postbop themes with jagged intervals, and experimental pieces in which improvising ensembles address text, sound, and space, coexist in the same breath with through-scored symphonic works, solo piano music, string, saxophone, and brass quartets, and electronic music. His arsenal also includes formidable pianistic skills, heard recently on “Dramaturns,” an improvised, transidiomatic duo with Lewis on Streaming [Pi]—it’s one of five performances on which Abrams, Lewis and Mitchell, grouped in duo and trio configurations, draw upon an enormous lexicon of sounds while navigating the open spaces from various angles.

“It’s a vintage collaboration,” Abrams said of the project. “Our collaborations date back to Chicago, and the respect that transpires between us on the stage, the respect for the improvised space that we use, is special. Of course, they’re virtuoso musicians, but I’m talking about silence and activity, when to play and when not to play, just from instinct and feeling and respect.”

Asked about influences, Abrams said, “I find different ways of doing things by coming out of the total music picture.” His short list includes pianists James P. Johnson, Art Tatum, Earl Hines, Bud Powell, Hank Jones, and Herbie Nichols, who “individualized the performance of mainstream music and their own original music”; Vladimir Horowitz and Chopin’s piano music; the scores of Hale Smith, William Grant Still, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, and Scriabin, as well as Duke Ellington, Gerald Wilson, and Thad Jones. “So many great masters,” he said. “Some influenced me less with their music than the consistency and level of truth from practice that’s in their stuff.”

The influence of Abrams’ musical production radiates consequentially outside the AACM circle. Vijay Iyer  recalled drawing inspiration from Abrams’ small group albums Colors in 33rd and 1-OQA+19, both on Black Saint.

“Muhal was pushing the envelope in every direction, and that openness inspired me,” Iyer said. “The approach was in keeping with the language of jazz, but also didn’t limit itself in any way; the sense was that any available method of putting sound together should be at your disposal in any context.”

“I think my generation clearly heard the effect that the AACM and Muhal had on Steve Coleman and Greg Osby, who played with Muhal,” Jason Moran added. “We took some of that energy into the late ‘90s, and it continues on to today. He defines that free thinking that most jazz musicians say they want to have.”

Both Lewis and Moran cite the methodologies of Joseph Schillinger—whose textbooks Abrams pored over on set breaks on late ‘50s gigs in Chicago—as a key component of Abrams’ pedagogy. “It helped me break the mold of sitting at a piano and thinking what sounds pleasing to my ear, and instead be able to compose away from the instrument—to almost create a different version of yourself,” Moran said.

“Schillinger analyzed music as raw material, and learning the possibilities gave you an analytical basis to create anything you want,” Abrams said. “It’s basic and brilliant. But I don’t want to be accused of being driven by what I learned from Schillinger. I am the sum product of the study of a lot of things.”

This was manifest at the January 2010 NEA Jazz Masters concert at Rose Theater, when the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, encountering an Abrams opus for the first time, offered a well-wrought performance of “2000 Plus The Twelfth Step,” originally composed for the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra. As the 15-minute work unfolded, one thought less of the predispositional differences between Abrams and Wynton Marsalis, and instead pondered Abrams’ 1977 remark: “A lot of people will pick up on the [AACM’s] example and do very well with it…who those people will be a couple of years from now, who knows?” Indeed, it seems eminently reasonable to discern affinities both in the scope of their compositional interests and their mutual insistence on constructing an institutional superstructure strong enough to withstand the vagaries of the music marketplace.

“It’s two different setups, but both very valid,” Abrams said, when asked to comment. “There’s no real underwriting for the music of the streets. Never was. It’s very important for an entity to maintain a structure in which work can be expressed to the public, whatever approach or style they use.”

For the AACM, he continued, “the organizational structure was necessary to the extent that we were involved in the business of music. But it did not supersede or overshadow the central idea, which was to allow the individuals within the group a forum to express their own particular worlds. There was no hierarchy. Everyone was equal. As time has shown, every individual from that first wave of people came out as a distinct personality in their own right.

“If you want a house with ten thousand rooms, you don’t complain because nobody has a house with ten thousand rooms to give you. You build it yourself, and do it with proper respect for the rest of humanity. You’re busy working at what you say you are about—doing it for yourself. When you take a different way, people often get the impression that you are against something else. That certainly wasn’t true in our case—we never threw anything away.

“I just go as far as the eye can see in all directions. There’s no finish to this stuff.”


* * *

DownBeat Article on Streaming, 2009

George Lewis’ light-filled office on the campus of Columbia University, where he is the Edwin H. Case Professor of Music, contains a metal desk, a file cabinet, bookshelves, and a wood classroom table at which he and Muhal Richard Abrams were awaiting Downbeat’s arrival.

On the table lay an open copy of Ned Sublette’s Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo. “When you say ‘the beginning,’ I question that,” Abrams responded to Lewis’ paraphrase of Sublette’s assertion that Puerto Rican musicians were prominent in the early years of jazz. “Now, I don’t question people’s participation.”

“I think that’s all he’s saying,” said Lewis. “Just participation.”

“Well, he needs some other language then,” Abrams responded.

It was noted that Cubans flowed into New Orleans in the 1860s and 1870s, participated in Crescent City brass bands and orchestras, and played a vital role in the development of jazz sensibility.

“I disagree with the claim that Jazz started in New Orleans,” Abrams said. “New Orleans people think so. But it was in Mississippi and Alabama, too—that whole area. And who can account for what happened in Sedalia, Missouri? Or  what happened all along the Eastern Shore, in Baltimore and New Jersey, what Eubie Blake did and that crew of people before him, who we never heard of?”

It turned out that Abrams, a stride piano devotee whose answering machine greets callers with James P. Johnson’s piano music, had met Blake around 1974 in Chicago, when the rag master, then 91, was on tour with composer William Bolcom.

“Bolcom really didn’t have a feeling for what Eubie was doing, though he could play the notes, but it was cool, because he loved Eubie,” Abrams said. “I told him that I had been transcribing some of his music. He stared at me, then asked someone, ‘Did he really do that?’ and she told him that I had. I was shooting pictures, and the next time he noticed me, he thought I was a photographer. We talked a bit. He had boundless energy. You’d call his name from the other side of the room, and he’d say, ‘Yeah, what do you want?!’—he’d be right there.”

Abrams’ own boundless energy comes through on Streaming (Pi), a heady recital by Abrams, Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell, who were, respectively, 74,52 and 63 at the time of the recording. Documenting the first meeting of these protagonists since a heady 90-minute concert at the Venice Biennale in late 2003, Streaming embodies the accomplishment of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians as fully as any recording in the canon.

Each man is a multi-instrumentalist proficient at deploying an array of extended techniques by which to extract a staggering array of sounds. They’ve codified and orchestrated these multiple voices, scored them into compositions spanning a global template of forms, and performed them on numerous concerts over the decades.

For this occasion, though, they chose to explore—and spontaneously chart—what Lewis calls “the open space” rather than work with a preexisting roadmap. Abrams played piano, percussion, bell, taxihorn and bamboo flute; from his arsenal of reeds and woodwinds, Mitchell brought a soprano and alto saxophone, as well as a generous selection of calibrated-to-the-sinewave percussion instruments; Lewis played trombone and laptop, generating samples and electronic sounds with Ableton Live, a loop-based digital audio sequencer designed for live performance.

Through three trios, one Mitchell–Lewis duet and one Abrams–Lewis duet, the old friends eschew collage and pastiche, shaping their idiosyncratic vocabularies, syntaxes and postulations into erudite, polylingual conversation.

“I’m trying to develop a language that will work in many situations,” said Mitchell over the phone from his home in Madison, Wisconsin. “Muhal and George are doing the same thing.”

“We’re organizing sound, and everything it takes to organize sound into what we call music—the structure, the melodious and harmonic component—in the same moment, through participating in a mutually respectful manner,” Abrams explained. “We produce what we are.”

Lewis contrasted the operative aesthetic on Streaming to that at play in his numerous meetings with first-generation European improvisers Derek Bailey and Evan Parker. “Derek and Evan wanted to open up their notion of improvisation to include the freshness of the immediate encounter—that is, someone with whom you’ve never performed,” Lewis said. “I became interested in that, and we built up a history of a lot of immediate encounters. Now I need to do what I can to renew and deepen already existing relationships. This project takes our existing collaborations in a new direction while also deepening the relationship.”


Abrams and Mitchell first shared recorded space on the 1973 Art Ensemble of Chicago classic Fanfare For The Warriors (Atlantic), 12 years after Mitchell—just out of the Army and a student at Wilson Junior College—began participating in a workshop orchestra called the Experimental Band led by Abrams and Eddie Harris at a South Side Lounge called the C&C. Abrams, Mitchell and Lewis first worked together in 1971, initially documenting their exalted simpatico on Mitchell’s Quartet, a 1975 Sackville date with guitarist Spencer Barefield,  and subsequently on Lewis’ Shadowgraph (Black Saint, 1977), Mitchell’s Nonaah  (Nessa, 1978), and Abrams’ Spihumonesty (Black Saint, 1980).

“That was the first recording I was on with anybody,” said Lewis of Quartet.

“Why are you referring to the recording?” Abrams asked.

“It seems like we’re going too far back there,” said Lewis, whose exhaustively researched history of the AACM, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press) comes out in spring 2007.

“It’s important to accept how we view the basis of this,” Abrams said. “George can take his trombone and we can go to any room in this building, and perform a concert—right now.”

“You know that alternate take on the Coltrane record of “Giant Steps,” where Coltrane says, ‘The cats be makin’ the changes, but they don’t be tellin’ no story,’ and then somebody says, ‘Well, I don’t want to tell any lies’?,” Lewis said. “I don’t want to do that. What I remember is the sense of collaboration. The sense of exploration, the sense of openness to all kinds of possible outcomes. The non-judgmental nature of the collaboration. That is not say it was uncritical, but that the critique was not limited to yes or no. It was more that you were trying to understand and think about ways in which the music could be broadened and deepened, to consider more perspectives. That multiperspectival quality is the real origin, not the anecdote about the moment of encounter.”

Lewis returned to Quartet. “That first recording is part of the collective memory, and not just us, so maybe it’s not a bad idea to think about it for a moment,” he said. “I felt completely new to what we were doing. But everyone else seemed to feel they were new, too. For instance, Roscoe’s piece ‘Cards’ is a set of graphic symbols which we were reassembling on the fly. You were free to actuate your part whenever you felt the need to, in accordance with your own analysis of the situation. There was that sense of experimentalism, working with the unforeseen as a natural component, not working with received wisdoms or ideas that are already set up. I’d never seen anything like Roscoe’s card piece, and after doing music of various kinds with a great diversity of experimental composers, I still haven’t seen anything like it. Everybody was able to contribute and have their contributions accepted. The attitude that produces a recording such as this new one is that same sense that we are not in a space of hierarchy, of overweening authority by some individual.”

“It had to become equal,” Abrams said. “That happened because we all consented to perform Roscoe’s piece in the way that he preferred we approach it.”

“In the AACM there were diverse aesthetics, but there was a lot more agreement on the ethics, which is a larger point,” Lewis stated. “To get to how that basic ethics evolved and was maintained over the years is a pretty intense question. Having tried to write this history and make sense of it all, I have to say that Muhal’s sense of openness was critical. He had to fight hard to keep people focused on the idea of openness. A larger world out there is saying, ‘Well, what’s all this free thinking?’ Somebody has to provide an example. Jodie Christian said, ‘I went along with it because Muhal said it was good.’ Muhal had a lot of respect and people wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand.”


In an article entitled “Experimental Music In Black and White: The AACM in New York, 1970-1985,” Lewis noted the attraction of AACM composers to “collage and interpenetration strategies that blended, opposed, or ironically juxtaposed” the disciplines of composition and improvisation, “simultaneously challenging and revising various pan-European models, dialoguing with African, Asian, and Pacific music traditions.” Such a stance towards composition, Lewis continued, quoting theorist Kobena Mercer, “critically appropriates elements from the master codes of the dominant culture and creolizes them, disarticulating given signs and rearticulating their symbolic meaning otherwise.”

With the AACM, Abrams spawned an infrastructure within which nascent composer-improvisers like Braxton, Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, and Lewis could assimilate and process such information in a critical manner, and provided them manpower with which to workshop and develop their ideas. The polymath attitudes towards musical expression that they represent in their maturity stem in great part from the inspiration of watching Abrams follow his own autodidactic predispositions.

“I was always curious, and I always felt I needed to make my own way,” said Abrams, a self-educated composer who studied Schillinger between sets on ‘50s Chicago gigs. “Get the information, but do it my way. I am sure this ultimately led to the Experimental Band, and the attraction of the Experimental Band led to the AACM. I could speak of the process in terms of historical tangibles, but I believe that things happen because they’re supposed to. The little routes that are taken to get there are like a bus process in a computer program, which takes the information where it’s directed.”

Was openness to new information always prominent within Abrams’ mindset? “Yes,” he said. “Over a period of time, it became apparent to me that in order to learn, I had to concede that my ideas are housed in my personal universe, and that another individual’s ideas are housed in theirs. To learn about this infinite setup of universes, I had to listen and be willing to learn from others.”

“Listening is dangerous,” Lewis added. “The problem is to channel it into fruitful paths. You encounter ideas you’re not prepared for, that you may not understand, to which you may respond negatively. You have to respond to input. You’re not free at that moment; you can’t just say whatever you like. You have to connect with other people, somehow become part of them, have a sense of acceptance about it. For me, acceptance is the hardest part of listening.

“In improvisation, the superficial aspects—instruments, notes, rhythms, harmonies, timbres, durations—are carriers for the much deeper signals with which we as musicians have learned to exchange meanings which are broader, but also much more direct than these elements. One meaning is this notion of a non-hierarchical ethics.”

“Any idea you encounter gives you an idea about yourself—or I think it should,” Abrams said. “If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll discriminate as to what stays and what goes, and proceed in your own manner, which I’ve always tried to do. It’s good to study something, but making a copy to lean on is another question.”


“On this new record, I’m trying to hear what Muhal and Roscoe would like to do, how they see the situation, and whether they’re not doing anything or doing something,” Lewis said. “My primary approach is an instant hermeneutics, an interpretation of what is coming through the sound at that moment. This allows me to tell a lot about them. All of the history we’ve been talking about comes through the sound. As musicians, we learn to interpret these sounds, but we also learn to interpret them as human beings. If people could fall back on the fundamental primordial aspects of their own human nature, it would be a lot easier for them to understand and to hear this music. When Muhal plays piano, I know its sound like I know the sound of my dad’s or mom’s voice. I know what Roscoe’s instruments sound like. That hits me before anything. That history is undeniable. It got built up over years and decades. At the same time, I don’t know what that voice is going to say. I feel comfortable with that. It’s almost as if a door opens up, once you forget all the theories and start to concentrate on just what the sound is telling you.”

“I agree,” Abrams said. “The world of sound is an abstract idea. The word ‘musician’ depicts one who allows himself to be trained to organize sound and produce it in the form that we call music. But before it appears, it’s sound without preferenced organization. What does sound want? What does music want? Someone comes along hearing sound differently from anyone we’ve ever heard, and we wonder what causes that. What causes Ornette Coleman to sustain a note, change his position in the sound world and make you believe it changed? It’s the way he hears sound, which is special to him. What makes Cecil Taylor get the textures he gets out of the piano or the AACM people do what they do?”

This seemed a touch abstract. Was location, for instance, at all a launching point for the way Coleman (Texas), Taylor (New York) and the AACM people (Chicago) hear and organize sound?

“No, it’s separate; but yet, yes,” Abrams responded elliptically. “We have many possibilities, and each individual has different points in their time cycles that cause us to hear sound in the particular ways that we do.”

“It’s interesting to consider personal history situations and their impact upon particular directions of music,” Lewis said. “There’s a collective direction, but there’s also that individual space. We’re looking at the paradox that you want to have the history or experiences, but at a certain point, history becomes meaningless and should just not exist, otherwise you become its prisoner. That’s a common conceit. To be without history means you’re not responsible and can sort of do what you want. Well, from my standpoint, as a descendent of slaves, I don’t want to be that disconnected with that history, because people tried to erase it, and we spent all that time getting it back. But I want to be able to abandon it when necessary, to reach these other places that I want to go.”

Lewis began to parse Abrams’ comment about organizing sound. “You have to organize the sound that’s coming in, not just the sound that’s going out,” he said. “In fact, organizing the sound that’s coming in is more important, because what we’re organizing is not just how it’s going to fit technically, but more importantly, what it means, the organizing perspectives on the sounds, what the sound is really saying to us. That can also change—something we remember later in the piece can bring up a consequence we hadn’t considered when the sound came up. So call-and-response is a problem. I want to have call without response. The idea that we’re not stuck in that kind of motion, but are free to challenge even that so-called fundamental wisdom with a fundamental investigation-exploration, and find what we find. You may find situations where call-and-response is an inappropriate methodology, and prepare to take the consequences.”

“I consider each day different; each person is different every day,” Mitchell remarked over the phone, illuminating this issue. “Today I might touch on a sound timbre, tomorrow a rhythmic situation. I hear something and think, ‘Percussion with this,’ start with the idea, and move to what I need to do. It’s instant theme-and-variation. But there are so many levels of improvisation. You don’t want to follow or copy someone. One thing you can do, if you hear something you want to extend, is not use it until another time. Then you avoid the heaviness that happens when someone follows in an improvisation, and maintain your individualism. I tend to fare better if I keep refreshing my mind and go with that flow.”


“I didn’t teach them how to be themselves, and I didn’t create a situation that caused them to be themselves,” Abrams said of his distinguished progeny. “I helped inspire other people to be themselves from my example: ‘I am going to be myself, and you have the opportunity to be yourself.’

Still, there remains the question of how Abrams, the autodidact, came to pass along his own non-didactic ethos of informed individuality. “There were two older musicians in particular from whom I learned quite a bit—Walter ‘King’ Fleming and William Jackson,” he said. “In  mainstream music, they taught me and allowed me to pursue my ideas, mistakes and all, and it caused me to grow and to eliminate the mistakes. Their kindness and benevolence infused me with that feeling. They brought out what I had. I passed on that continuum when I got to the Experimental Band or AACM situations. All of us created the atmosphere that was created. I realize that some of the musicians feel that this wasn’t the case, that it was me—and that’s OK. I was the first observer. I saw them when they didn’t see themselves. They did it.”

“This is not something you get for free,” Lewis said. “The dynamic does not appear without resistance. At a certain point you get the inspiration, you start to become yourself, and other people say, ‘What the devil are you doing?’ Then you realize that people are still doing it in the face of potential consequences, and that’s the real inspiration.” DB

* * *

Muhal Richard Abrams in Jazziz (2010):

At noon on a warm June day, pianist-composer Muhal Richard Abrams, who turns 81 in December, escorted me  up the stairwell of his midtown highrise to a second floor roof garden for a chat about core principles. “The fact and idea of individualism is important to talk about,” the 2010 NEA Jazz Master and DownBeat Hall of Fame awardee said. “I also want to talk about life and sound.”

Having stated the ground rules, Abrams settled in under a shady pergola. He preferred not to discuss the particulars of his new recording, SoundDance [Pi], a double CD that documents an  improvised encounter from 2009 with the late Chicago tenorist Fred Anderson, and one from 2010 with trombonist-electronicist George Lewis. Instead, Abrams went straight to metaphysics.

“Individualism is a basic constant among humans—and animals, too,” he said. “Each person approaches a situation quite differently, which lets other individuals know it can be said or done that way. I’m not talking about a process of copying anyone. It’s the fact that we learn from each other because of our individualism.”

He warmed to the topic. “To seek one’s individualism seems to be limitless. There’s so much one can pursue.” He called the names of Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Bud Powell, William Grant Still, Beethoven, Chopin, John Coltrane, and Charlie Parker. “Their pursuit of individualism—not their IDEAS—inspired me greatly to pursue my own.”

Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, his home until 1977, Abrams, a sports-oriented youngster who knew a thing or two about the street, was 16 when he decided to drop out of DuSable High School and enroll in music classes at Roosevelt University. After a while, he decided to study on his own. “I don’t know why, but I’ve always had a natural ability to study and analyze things,” he told me a few years ago. “I used that ability, not even knowing what it was (it was just a feeling), and started to read books. From there, I acquired a small spinet piano, and started to teach myself to play the instrument and read the notes—or, first of all, what key the music was in. It took time and a lot of sweat. But I analyzed it, and before long I was playing with the musicians on the scene. Later I got scores and studied more extensive things that take place in classical composition, and started to practice classical pieces on the piano, as I do now.”

As the ‘50s progressed, Abrams trained himself to fluency with Joseph Schillinger’s mathematically-based compositional formulas and analyzed Rosicrucian arcana; some years later, he assimilated several programming languages. The fruits of his determination to follow his own muse are by now well-known. For one thing, there’s his uncategorizable corpus, perhaps half of it publicly documented on some thirty recordings. Ensembles ranging from quartet to big band interpret elemental blues themes, hard-hitting postbop structures with winding melodies, textural soundscapes, and experimental collage pieces that address text, silence, and space; tabula rasa improvisations share pride of place with fully-scored symphonic works, string quartets, saxophone quartets, solo and duo piano music, and electronica.

Of equal consequence is Abrams’ primary role in embedding his principles within the bylaws and aesthetic guideposts of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a collective that coalesced in 1965. Within the AACM setup, he mentored, among others, such singular composer-instrumentalist-improvisers as Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph  Jarman, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, Leroy Jenkins, and Lewis during their formative years. He focused his pedagogy on creating an infrastructure that offered to each individual an opportunity to critically analyze ideas from a global array of sources and refract them into original music, performed by ensembles comprised of AACM personnel in AACM-promoted concerts.

“During the week, we’d all show up at Muhal’s place,” Mitchell told me in a 1995 WKCR interview. “We studied music, art, poetry, whatever. It was a school. Muhal would be bothered with us for that whole week, and still come to the rehearsal on Monday with a composition for the big band.”

Abrams’ partners on SoundDance are more than passingly familiar with these principles, which manifest in different ways. An AACM member from 1965 until his death in 2010, Anderson customarily recorded trios and quartets in which he blew long, clarion lines over fast, rumbling grooves. In the first moments of their conversation, Abrams is sensitive to the outcat tenorist’s tentative, softly stated postulations as he attempts to orient himself to the wide open space. He presents ideas, listens as Anderson utters his own, [and] negotiates common ground via subtle sonic cues until, at a certain point, as if to offer a mnemonic signifier, he plays a hammering rhythmic figure, eliciting Anderson’s confident trademark roar, which remains operative for the duration.

The latter duo—which Abrams opens with variations on a four-note figure that begins in high treble range and concludes in the deep bass register, Lewis riposting with electronic tones—is epigrammatic and staggeringly erudite. Now the Edwin Case Professor of Music at Columbia University and author of A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music, and himself a paradigm-shifter both in reshaping the sonic possibilities of the trombone and in creating software that improvises in real time, Lewis—then 19—met Abrams in Chicago in 1971. Thirty-nine years later, he and his mentor transition from one concept to the next—the range spans stride piano to post-Stockhausen—without a blink, as though two 18th century  philosophes were conducting a 45-minute colloquy on the sum total of human knowledge.

I asked whether Abrams’ shared background with Anderson and Lewis in any way inflected the music.

“No,” he responded bluntly. “The sound of that document had to do with what we did in that moment only. There is no shared background that comes to the stage when you’re performing. It’s the individual’s background. Each individual brings his or her path in to collaborate with the other individual’s path, and makes the choice as to how they contribute to the improvised space. That’s it. There’s nothing to reach for in the past or any place else.

“I listen to all kinds of music all the time. I practice all kinds of music, every day. I practice here”—he pointed to his head—“and here”—he unfurled his long, tapered fingers, each vertically imprinted from fifty-five years of incessant practice. “I write all kinds of music. So when I go to improvise, it’s just a continuum of how I feel in general through listening to all these things. I’m endeavoring to be continuously musical in the pursuit of organizing sound until I stop the improvisation.”

Lewis noted that Abrams’ ability to execute any idea he wants at any time, and to react to anything that anybody can throw at him, poses certain singular challenges. “In most cases, I feel that when people make the sound, their inner lives become an open book,” he said. “You read the mind through sound, or sonic gesture. I’ve never been able to do that with Muhal. Somehow, there’s a certain opacity. I’m not a big believer in pure spontaneity, but with maybe with Muhal you have to think differently about that. With him, you really shouldn’t rely on previous encounters, or make assumptions about what should happen, or about style, or method, or technique, or sound—not least because I think that Muhal is very good at detecting people who do that, and the banana peels will start coming thick and fast. You have to find your way moment by moment through an infinity of possibilities, before a path suddenly appears that you have to follow. If that path doesn’t happen to be the one you preferred, you have to make do. A lot of what goes on in improvisation, musical or otherwise, is a process of making-do, trying to work with and take a stance to the conditions you find, which are whatever sounds the other person is generating at that moment—pitch, timbre, a sense of the rhythm, the rate of change. It’s very prosaic.”

However prosaic the process of creative gestation, these instantiations of Abrams’ musical imagination are never dry or wooden. For one thing, even at 80, he accesses his immense database of sonic information with pentium quickness in the heat of battle. There’s his mastery of the universal laws of rhythm, which “he hears and then allows his harmonic style to infiltrate,” as Jason Moran wrote for http://www.jazz.com two years ago in a piece citing a dozen favorite Abrams tracks. He pulls his voice from the piano with an arsenal of attacks that span whisper to thunderstorm, infusing highbrow concepts with a blues sensibility developed in early career as a Chicago first-caller.

“Chicago was a blues town, so we all could play the blues real well,” Abrams says. “Playing the blues and playing jazz used to be one and the same; later, people separated the music into some that can sell and some that can’t. To say jazz is a deep part of who I am is fine. But not to say, ‘Well, he can play changes, so he’s all right. Not as a reference for the young people today who are doing all kinds of things, but don’t know anything about the mix I’ve been playing—they’d be confronted with something that might obstruct their approach.”

Abrams probably wasn’t referring to present-day movers-and-shakers like Moran, Vijay Iyer, and Steve Coleman, who regard him as a deep influence figure on their respective paths. In a long conversation about Abrams’ qualities, Coleman, himself a Chicagoan, noted Abrams’ penchant for rotating between the “inside” and “outside” factions of the South Side music community.

“Muhal played with cats like Johnny Griffin and Von Freeman, who you couldn’t get up on stage with if you didn’t know a certain amount of information from the tradition,” he says. “It impressed me that he had a wide-open concept that included cats from strong blues and R&B backgrounds who didn’t go through that tradition, some guys who initially couldn’t play anything. He didn’t impose those strictures on anyone. Muhal was like, if you’re sincere, and you have a burning desire, then we’re open to your coming in and experimenting. It wasn’t some shit like, ‘We want you to come in here and be a joke.’ But all these different backgrounds were able to come together and try to develop a common thing on which they could communicate. That involved a tolerance that I found interesting.

“Muhal has a Yoda quality, a sage kind of thing. You’re struck right away that this is an incredibly wise cat, whose breadth of knowledge goes way back. But he doesn’t lord it over you or come on egotistical or try to sell you something. I think people’s respect for him comes from that standpoint. Muhal can discourse with you about anything you want to talk about—esoteric stuff, whatever. Talk about walking down a street with somebody, and he can tell you how this relates to music.  He told me stories about being in Washington Park when he was a little kid, listening to elders debate all this metaphysical stuff; they’d pass the stick, and whoever had the stick would talk. Muhal grappled with these things early in his career, and thought deeply about them. He sees them all as connected. I can see why the AACM concept came up with him, because his playing has an unusually broad palette.”

Both Lewis and Coleman are clear that Abrams’ primary legacy will be situated not so much in the specifics of his musical production as the example he sets by it. “There are different kinds of ethos embedded in what people do,” Lewis says. “For some, it’s amazement at what they’re doing, how intricate and virtuosic it is. I don’t come away from a Muhal performance thinking about any of that. I come away thinking, ‘Boy, this certainly gives me a lot of work to do.’ Just when I thought I’d figured it out, there’s another facet of the puzzle which Muhal has brought out without pretending to solve the puzzle. It’s the confrontation with the puzzle which he encourages and exemplifies in his work—the puzzle of creativity, the puzzle of creation.”

That Abrams himself anticipates his ninth decade with a similar spirit can be inferred from his response to a hypothetical proposition that he play a ten-day retrospective of his oeuvre. “I probably wouldn’t do that,” he said. “I’m not interested in repetition. It’s not that I don’t like it. I use repetition, but in different ways. I’m interested in creating a new event that’s just right for the occasion that comes up. When I say ‘right for the occasion,’ I mean designing something that’s special for how I want to be musical at the time. That’s my focus.”

Five Muhal Richard Abrams Recordings:

Muhal Richard Abrams’ discography is so remarkably consistent that it’s complex to pick just five. On July 9, 2011, these seem like the ones to emphasize.

Sight Song (Black Saint, 1975): In duo with bassist Malachi Favors of Art Ensemble of Chicago fame, Abrams offers idiomatic, swinging meditations on ‘50s South Side associates Wilbur Ware and Johnny Griffin, before  proceeding to push the envelope every which way.

Lifea Blinec (Arista, 1978) A two-woodwind (Joseph Jarman and Douglas Ewart), two-piano (Abrams and Amina Claudine Myers), and drums (Thurman Barker) session that addresses the leader’s preoccupations with a cohesion and precision that anticipates such ‘80s signposts as Colors In Thirty-Third and View From Within.
Hearinga Suite (Black Saint, 1989): Hard to choose amongst Abrams’ big band recordings, which also include the Black Saint dates Blues Forever, Rejoicing With the Light, and Blu Blu Blu. At this moment I’m impressed with the unitary, narrative quality of this impeccably executed, seven-piece suite, which has a 21st century Ellington feel.

One Line Two Views (New World, 1995): On this masterwork, which opens with a soundscape and concludes with a blues figure, Abrams fully exploits the tonal and rhythmic possibilities of a tentet that includes violin (Mark Feldman), accordion (Tony Cedras), harp (Anne LeBaron), and an array of woodwinds and percussion.

Vision Towards Essence (Pi, 2008): A transcendent hour-long improvisation on which Abrams evokes the inner self. He traverses a 360-degree dynamic range, conjuring a stream of thematic ideas that don’t repeat.

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Muhal Richard Abrams article in All About Jazz (2007):


At a certain point in the mid-‘60s—the exact date escapes him—pianist-composer Muhal Richard Abrams, a lifelong resident of the South Side of Chicago, visited New York for the first time, on a gig with saxophonist Eddie Harris at Harlem’s Club Barron.

“New York suited my energy,” Abrams recalled recently. “Of course. But I was already in that sort of energy. I had no doubt that I could be in New York. No doubt at all.”

Doubt seems to be a concept foreign to Abrams, 76, who moved to New York permanently in 1975. In 1983, he established the New York chapter of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, commonly known as the AACM, which launches its 24th concert season on May 11 with a recital featuring Abrams’ quartet (Aaron Stewart, saxophone; Brad Jones, bass; Tyshawn Sorey, drums) and a duo by Abrams with guitarist Brandon Ross at the Community of New York at 40 East 35th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues.

The institutional pre-history of the AACM began in 1961, when Abrams and Harris joined a West Side trumpeter named Johnny Hines to organize an orchestra where local musicians could workshop their charts. By Harris’ recollection, over one hundred musicians of various ages and skill levels attended. Although it disbanded within a few months, Abrams decided to begin another orchestra, which he called the Experimental Band. He recruited younger musicians like Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman, who were interested, as Abrams puts it, “in more original approaches to composing and performing music.” Over the next few years, musicians such as Malachi Favors, Leroy Jenkins, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, and Kalaparusha entered the mix to participate in the adventure. A certain momentum developed with the Experimental Band as the nucleus, and in 1965, Abrams, fellow pianist Jodie Christian, trumpeter Phil Cohran, and drummer Steve McCall convened a meeting towards the purpose of forming a new musicians organization devoted to the production of original music with a collective spirit. Thus, the AACM was launched.

Under the AACM’s auspices, Abrams mentored composer-instrumentalist-improvisers like Mitchell, Jarman, Braxton, Smith, Henry Threadgill and George Lewis in their nascent years. He also spawned an infrastructure within which each individual had autonomy to assimilate and process an enormous body of music from a broad spectrum of sources in a critical manner, and gave them manpower with whom to workshop and develop their ideas while evolving their respective voices.

The AACM first hit New York in May 1970, when cultural activist Kunle Mwanga produced a concert at the Washington Square Methodist Church with Leroy Jenkins and Anthony Braxton, who had relocated from Chicago three months earlier, their AACM mates Abrams, Smith and McCall, and bassist Richard Davis, also a South Sider. At the time, Abrams had recorded two albums of his own music—Levels and Degrees of Light and Young At Heart, Wise In Time—on the Chicago-based Delmark label. Added to the mix by 1975 were Things To Come From Those Now Gone (Delmark), and Afrisong [Trio], the latter a lyric solo piano date. Once settled in New York, however, Abrams would record prolifically for the next two decades, with 16 albums on Black Saint, in addition to two dates for Novus, two for New World Countercurrents, and one for UMO. You can’t pigeonhole his interests—in Abrams’ singular universe, elemental blues themes and warp speed postbop structures with challenging intervals coexist comfortably with fully-scored symphonic works, string quartets, saxophone quartets, solo and duo piano music, and speech-sound collage structures.

Abrams resists the idea that location factors into the content that emerges from his creative process. “What affected my output is the opportunity to record,” he says. “In Chicago, if an opportunity presented itself, I created something for the occasion. When I got here, there was no difference. I am always composing and practicing for myself. Actually, it’s more like studying than composing; I research and seek and analyze music—or sound, rather, because sound precedes music itself—and things come up. When a recording or something else comes along, I put some of those things together, and it becomes a recording. Of course, in New York, I’m hearing more around me, but it doesn’t make me process things any differently. I’m still dealing with my individualism.”

The notion of following one’s own muse at whatever cost was embedded in South Side culture during the years after World War Two, when African-Americans were migrating en masse from Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama to Chicago for factory, railroad and stockyard jobs. As Harris told me on a WKCR interview in 1994: “In Chicago, you could hear Gene Ammons in one club, Budd Johnson in another, or Tom Archia or Dick Davis—just speaking of the saxophone. Then there were all sorts of piano players that were really…different.  You’d go to one club, and the guy didn’t sound a little different from the guy down the street. It was totally different.”

“You were expected to do whatever it is that you felt you wanted to do, and nobody said a word,” Abrams says of the ethos of the South Side’s world-class musician pool. “The jam sessions were like that. We played bebop and kept up with the geniuses like Bird. and them. But I was never that interested in copying something and then using it for myself. I was interested in copying it in order to analyze it. Then I would decide how I would use or do that same thing. Chicago was full of musicians who distinguished themselves as individuals.”

As an example he cites pianist John Young, best known outside Chicago for his work with tenorist Von Freeman, and a prominent stylist since the 1940s. “When you listen to John, you hear remnants of Fatha Hines,” Abrams notes, leaving unsaid Hines’ presence in Chicago from 1926 until the late ‘40s. “He was very influenced by Fatha Hines, but John  had his own way. We were impressed with the individualism from him, Ahmad Jamal, Von Freeman, Chris Anderson,  Johnny Griffin, Ike Day and Sun Ra and the Orchestra. People wonder how an AACM could develop in a city like that. It’s because you could do individual things, and nobody bothered you.”

Abrams himself is a self-taught pianist and composer. “I used to play sports, but for some reason, whenever I’d hear musicians perform, I had to stop to listen,” he recalls. “It fascinated me, and one day I decided that I wanted to be a musician. So I took off and started to seek out information about how to play the piano.”

Although Abrams attended DuSable High School, where the legendarily stern band director Walter Dyett held sway, he preferred sports to participating in school-sponsored music programs. But by 1946, he decided to enroll in music classes at Roosevelt University in the Loop. “I didn’t get too much out of that, because it wasn’t what I was hearing in the street,” he says. “I decided to study on my own. I don’t know why, but I’ve always had a natural ability to study and analyze things. I used that ability, not even knowing what it was (it was just a feeling), and started to read books. From there, I acquired a small spinet piano, and started to teach myself how to play the instrument and read the notes—or, first of all, what key the music was in. It took time and a lot of sweat. But I analyzed it, and before long I was playing with the musicians on the scene. I listened to Tatum, Charlie Parker, Monk, Bud Powell and many others, and concentrated on Duke and Fletcher Henderson for composition. Later I got scores and studied more extensive things that take place in classical composition, and started to practice classical pieces on the piano, as I do now.”

Abrams documents all his New York performances. Still, the decade between 1996 and last year’s issue of Streaming [Pi], a compelling triologue between Abrams, Lewis and Mitchell, shows only one, self-released, issue under Abrams’ name. As of this writing, no releases were scheduled for 2007.

“That’s okay,” Abrams says. “I think things that are supposed to reach the public, eventually will. I understand that people want to be able to hear whatever is happening at any given time. However, the recording industry has ways that it does things, and sometimes this may not be consistent with what the musician wants to do. Business has a right to be whatever it is, and the artist has a right to be whatever the artist wants to be. I also think the fact that musicians can do these things themselves today because of technology causes output to come out a little bit slower. But the quality is pretty much equal, often higher, than it used to be, because the musician can spend more time preparing the output. It’s important for people to hear what I do, but the first point of importance is my being healthy enough to do it. I don’t worry about whether it gets distributed right away.

“I always felt that you need to be about the work you need to do, and that’s to find out about yourself. That’s pretty much a full-time job. You pay close attention to others, but the work that you have to do for yourself is the most difficult. I seem to move forward every time I reflect on the fact that I don’t know enough. If you feel you have something, it’s very important to get that out and develop it. Health is first. But your individualism I think is a close second.”

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Filed under AACM, Article, DownBeat, Jazziz, Muhal Richard Abrams, Steve Coleman

An Uncut Blindfold Test With Andrew Cyrille from The End Of The ’90s

I don’t recall exactly when master drummer Andrew Cyrille joined me to do a DownBeat Blindfold Test—maybe 1998 or 1999. In any event, his responses were incisive, on-point, and thought-provoking. Here’s the uncut transcript of the proceedings.

* * *

1.  Steve Coleman & Council of Balance, “Day One,”  Genesis, RCA, 1997. “Day One” (1997), with Miguel “Anga” Diaz and George Lewis. (four stars)

The thing that struck me the most were the lush harmonies.  It sounded like some kind of electric piano using some kind of synthesized accordion-sounding timbres sometimes.  The piece reminds me in some ways of Stanley Cowell’s Piano Choir, Handscapes; I know it’s not that, but it kind of reminded me of that.  It’s hard to tell who the drummer is because he or she is playing so much within the context of the accompaniment to the arrangement, and with all those polytonalities which dominate it’s kind of hard to hear anything that would identify him distinctly.  There is good interplay with the horns; it’s really good.  I’m going to take a guess.  It sounds like it could be something that Andrew Hill has done.  I’ve never heard this piece, but it kind of sounds like him.  I was trying to figure it out.  I said, “Gee, I’ve heard that sound before,” the way the piano player is playing — and as I listen to it more, it kind of does sound like Andrew.  So I’ll take a guess.  Could it be Billy Drummond on drums. [“There’s a large percussion choir and a trapset drummer.”] That’s kind of what I thought, too.  But see, sometimes… Well, it didn’t sound like it there, but you can also do percussion nowadays with synthesizers, but perhaps not on this.  It sounds a little too organic; I agree with you.  It sounds like they’ve been playing in 6/8 for a good portion of the time.  I’d give it four stars.  I can’t tell you exactly who the drummer is. [That’s a Steve Coleman thing for a 30-piece big band with Cuban drummers; the drummer is Sean Rickman and the pianist is Andy Milne.] I thought of Steve Coleman also.

2.  Milford Graves, “Ultimate High Priest”, Real Deal, DIW, 1991. (Graves, solo percussion)

[IMMEDIATELY] That’s my man.  That’s Milford.  The recording is very good.  You can tell the sound of his various pitch…the sliding of tonality that Milford gets from the way he tunes the drums and the way he strikes them with the sticks, etc.  It’s almost like a rubber sound.  A lot of it comes out of the sound of the tabla also, which he hears a lot of what he does coming out of that.  Fantastic polyrhythms, energy, creativity, clarity.  Good chops.  Yeah, only Milford does this kind of thing like that.  I don’t think you can find an original like him.  Five stars.

3.  Billy Higgins, “Shoulders”,  Mosaic, Music Masters, 1990.
Rashied Ali. [No.] This is a person to me who if it’s not Max Roach, has been listening to Max Roach.  It sounds like some of the constructs Max would play.  He’s playing very good antiphonal phrasings, got a good control over dynamics, techniques.  Knows what he wants to play.  Strong.  Good use of space.  Could be Billy Higgins. [You got it.] Four-and-a-half stars.

4.  Tommy Flanagan Trio, “Verdandi,”  Sea Changes, Evidence, 1996. (Flanagan, piano, composer; Lewis Nash, drums; Peter Washington, bass.

I’ll take a guess on that one, and I think that might be Lewis Nash playing drums, with Tommy Flanagan, and maybe Peter Washington on bass.  Lewis is dotting all the i’s, and strong.  He’s up on the one!  He’s doing what he’s supposed to do in relationship to that music, and you know where he is all the time.  And of course, he’s coming up with some great inventions in the traditional style of jazz.  I would say all of the great brush players like Kenny Clarke and Ed Thigpen and Philly Joe would have to give kudos to that playing.  In honor and with dedication… Because I could hear it, that Lewis is working very hard on the drums to make sure that we all remember from whence we came and what’s happening on the contemporary scene, I’d have to give him five stars for that.

5. Tony Williams, “Sister Cheryl” (#1), Live In Tokyo, Blue Note, 1992. (four stars) (Williams, drums; Wallace Roney, trumpet; Bill Pierce, saxophone; Mulgrew Miller, piano; Ira Coleman, bass)

Whoever that was, it sounds like…there was something in the sound of the drums… By that I mean that he had tuned the drums a certain way, and he was playing with the tones that he tuned the drums to.  And he was playing his song from within.  It was a very spiritual-sounding solo.  Melody drums.  It was very easy listening.  It sounded very smooth.  He had very good dynamic shapes, the highs and the lows, the space.  There was not a lot of flash and technical splash.  And the playing was in 4/4, but it sounded like he was playing from a triplet matrix.  You could count something like that in a 12/8.  It was very good control. It reminded me in some ways of something Michael Carvin would do, except that Michael’s touch is a little heavier.  But it sounds like something that might come out of Michael Carvin.  Or maybe even Idris Muhammad.  It was like an Ahmad Jamal kind of piece; it reminded me of the piece “Poinciana” with Vernell Fournier playing the rhythm where he’d play on the bell of the cymbal the “and” of the count, like the one-AND-two-AND-ting-ting, and then he would play that other rhythm in the left hand off of one of the toms, like the small tom on the left side, and then of course with mallets.  It was a very good introduction to the horns.

Now, I’ll just take a guess and say it was Idris Muhammad maybe with some kind of arrangement by John Hicks on piano.  I’m not sure. [AFTER] Really.  Ooh.  I’m surprised, because Tony usually plays with a lot more rhythmical complexity.  But now that you say it, I could understand why it is Tony.  That was very good.  In this case, I think Tony wanted to reach some people in another way, not in his usual way of playing the drums.  I’d give that four stars.

6. Evan Parker-Barry Guy-Paul Lytton, “The Echoing Border Zones”, 50th Birthday Concert, Leo, 1994.

That was very interesting.  They got great phonics, and very creative saxophone playing.  It started off in such a brooding-like manner, and the players were really listening to each very closely, I can tell, coming in and out of each other in terms of who was playing what sound, and one would add or lay out… In other words, they were extrapolating very well together, editing, giving-and-taking with each other.  It reminded me of some kind of organic mass which was percolating over some kind of heat, maybe like before a volcano erupts.  It sounds like these guys have been playing with each other for a while.  I think the bass was aiming more for the kinds of harmonics that he could get out of the instrument, things that normally people wouldn’t try to get in the more traditional mainstream way, and out of his aim for harmonics that kind of projected his sense of rhythm, and consequently, melody.  In other words, it’s kind of reversed.  It would seem as though he would get the rhythm first… Well, maybe, too, that’s part of it, but then you would get your melody and then you would aim for your harmonics. But it sounded as though he was going for the harmonics out of which he got his rhythm. But one could say, too, that you can’t have any kind of motion without rhythm being first, because in a sense, that’s what rhythm is — it’s movement. 5 stars.

Now, it kind of sounds like it could be somebody like Evan Parker, and of course the bass playing could be somebody like Barry Guy, and I think the drummer’s name is Paul Lytton.  I can tell these cats have been listening to each other for a while.  It kind of comes out of that Peter Kowald direction of bass playing, but Kowald is heavier.  I was going to say, it’s that kind of European style of total improvisation.  I’d give that five stars.  Because those cats were intense, and they were dedicated, and they were thinking.  It’s very interesting, the kind of sounds that they were getting.  I liked that.

7.  Charles Moffett, w/ Kenny Garrett, Geri Allen, Charnett Moffett, “Sunbeam” , General Music Project, Evidence, 1997/1994.

That was a very interesting, like Middle-Eastern theme.  They started off with a nice three-quarter melody, and the drums came through very clear.  There’s a good strong and clear saxophone solo; the phrasing was strong.  The piano did a lot of long-metered playing against the up tempo of the drums.  Of course, you can play fast, but you can play fast in what they call long-metered or an augmented style, which means that you play it twice as slow, and in that way the sound of the drums came through.  It kind of reminded me of the drums being the clothesline on which the laundry of the other voices were being hung.

I can’t exactly tell you who the drummer was.  His solo didn’t knock me out that much.  I don’t know.  The piano playing sounded to me a little like Geri Allen.  I couldn’t tell you who the other musicians were. [Charles Moffett, Charnett and Kenny Garrett] Kenny Garrett came to mind, and I can hear the strength of the playing.  It sounds like the kind of strength that Kenny Garrett plays.  But I didn’t hear some of the familiar kind of things I’ve heard Kenny Garrett play.  Now, I haven’t listened to Kenny Garrett a great deal, but I’ve heard him some, so I have some feeling for the weight of his sound.  It came to mind, but I just didn’t say that was him.  Geri I’ve been listening to for a while, and there are some licks she plays that are identifiable — I’ve played with her on a number of occasions.  I’d give that one 3½ stars.

8.  Idris Muhammad-George Coleman, “Night and Day”, Right Now, Cannonball, 1997.

Sounds like Blackwell. [LATER] Now, whoever that drummer was with the saxophone player… Certainly most of these guys have a command of the Bebop language.  At first I said it was Blackwell because of the high tuning of the drums, and in a sense that kind of playing comes out of the Max Roach playing of songs, melody drums that remind you of what the song is, even though Max plays more patterns that he’s developed over the years and they’re weighted in certain ways.  It sounds like this guy was a little more flexible, but thinking with those kinds of constructs as far as drums playing a song.  The thing about this guy — as I listened to it more — and Blackwell, was that Blackwell’s rhythmic inflections are different.  How he assigns his rhythms, the weight… Of course, Blackwell plays a lot of different kinds of polyrhythms, especially in the solos.  This guy played polyrhythms, but they weren’t as independently coordinated or as complex as Blackwell would play the rhythms.  Of course, Blackwell invented those rhythms and he played them to a T, his way.  I mean, they were there when he wanted them, and any time he decided to issue them, they were there.  But this fellow didn’t sound like Blackwell, even though the way you think about tunes like this is more or less the same.  I mean, there’s a pattern to the tunes, so you just improvise according to what you hear and what you think on the instrument that you have.  This duet also reminded me what Philly Joe Jones and Sonny Rollins did some years ago on “Surrey With the Fringe On Top.”

I’m going to take a guess.  It could be Phil Woods and Bill Goodwin.  No?  Then I’m off on that.  But I will say that the drummer was interpreting “Night and Day with the language of the drums, and it was very clear that the tune was right on the money. [AFTER] Very good.  I’d give that four stars.  Right on.

9.  Max Roach & Anthony Braxton, “Spirit Possession” (#5), Birth & Rebirth, Black Saint, 1978.

[IMMEDIATELY] That’s Max Roach! [LATER] I think it was with Braxton.  Max’s quality has always been of the highest order.  You kind of know that it’s Max becaue of the weight of his sound and, of course, how he tunes the drums also.  Max tunes his drums high, let’s say in comparison to Art Blakey; Blackwell listened to Max a lot, and he tuned his drums high also.  Max plays a lot of stuff.  In this particular piece I heard him playing in several different meters.  The opening number, of course, sounded to me like it was in 6/4.  But the outstanding thing about it was where he was laying his bass drum and sock cymbal, where he was placing those beats, and it was almost like a 5/4 rhythm, but he just added the extra beat which made it 6.  If you listened to it again and had to take one of those beats out and have it repeated, it would be like a 5/4.  Max plays a lot of those different kinds of rhythms.  Then he went on to something that had the classic bebop drummer’s pattern of SPANGALANG, SPANGALANG; a lot of us say that is dotted 8 and 16th in the written nomenclature.  Some people would like to think of it as the quarter-note triplet with the middle triplet missing followed by the quarter note.  It’s just a matter of interpretation.  The feeling is just about the same.  I guess one could think about it in 6… Most of Max’s rhythms are very clear.  They’re distinct and they’re anchored.  How he thinks of some of those original rhythms if amazing.  There’s a definite thought process that he puts in.  I know he has to work on it.  He thinks of something, he comes up with a rhythm, and then he executes it on the drums.  And I know he has to practice that.  He has to work on it.  That’s why it comes out with such clarity and such weight.  His independent coordination has always been excellent.  He is a motif and a theme constructionist, and doing that on the drums, he usually lays down some kind of musical melodic rhythmical bed for the players — in this case Braxton, the soloist — to feed off of or play from.  Much of his thought process reminds me of traditional African drumming in terms of repetitive ostinato.  The only thing is, with him it’s that it’s being done from the African-American perspective as far as the trap set — or, as he calls it, the multi-percussion set — is concerned.  He is a consummate theme-and-variation improviser.  Braxton was playing typically Braxton, but playing off of the rhythms that Max was laying down as a foundation.  For the person that Max Roach is and my great admiration for his enduring ability and for the contribution that he has made to the jazz scene and to jazz drumming, I’d have to give him five stars plus on that one.

10.  Cecil Taylor-Tony Oxley, “Stylobate 2,” Leaf Palm Hand, FMP, 1988.

You know, I don’t even want to say the guy’s name! [LAUGHS] Because he means so much to me.  He’s part of what my life has been for many years.  Cecil Taylor, of course, on the piano.  The drummer sounded as though he was matching color textures with Cecil’s panorama of sound colors and textures and dynamics rather than playing his own contrasting rhythm as, say, a Max Roach would.  So there wasn’t very much push-and-pull there, give-and-take.  There wasn’t a lot of the polarity which sometimes causes electricity, which brings forth another kind of magic, and generates another kind of feeling also.  I think usually in improvisation a lot of the invention comes from people playing their own rhythms, motifs, themes in keeping with whatever their concept of the music is.  I can’t say there was anything wrong with the way this drummer was playing, which says that he was listening very closely to what Cecil was doing, and there was a certain kind of synthesis that was coming together, a certain kind of unison.  Sometimes unisons are good, but sometimes they don’t make for the most interesting of listening, like when you have, again, these contrasting poles.  Like, for instance, the way Coltrane and Elvin used to play with each other, which made for some fantastic magic.  Could the drummer be Tony Oxley?  For the drummer, I would say 3½-4 stars.

11.  Jeff Watts, “Wry Koln” Citizen Tain, Columbia, 1998.  W/ Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland.

The way it started out was very interesting, the contrast of fast and slow themes moving to swing.  At first, because of the construct of the drummer’s rhythm, I thought maybe it could be Blackwell and Joe Lovano.  But as it moved into the piece, it’s probably somebody else.  A lot of the time it seemed the drummer was leading the rhythmical changes between the swing sections, the Latin sections and the tempo changes.  It sounded as though the drummer is a studied and educated musician in both the traditional and contemporary ways of drumming, with a good feel, and he has an excellent knowledge of how to augment the melodic sound of the instruments with the sound placement from the drums.  Because you can hit the instrument in so many different places to get various I would have to say drum melodies or drum pitches, drum variations.  Obviously, this person has been playing the instrument for a long time, because he knows where those sounds are and he knows where to go get them.  It’s almost like his thinking and technique in terms of knowhow to get those sounds are simultaneous.  So that takes some time being with the instrument to know how to do that, and to really make music and not just noise… We can talk about that, too, but I’ll just leave it right there for now.  There were elements of free playing.  It was like bebop and beyond.  And to me, in a sense, the concept, though different from the kinds of rhythms, melodies and harmonies that Evan Parker, Barry Guy and Paul Lytton played, the interplay kind of reminded me of them — though this music was not avant garde in that sense.  It sounded like these guys had been playing together for a while, too.  I don’t know if they had been playing together as long as Parker, Lytton and Guy have been together.  I say that because maybe the level of improvisatory interaction among the players could have been — I don’t know — a little more intimate.  But sometimes, when certain things are being played in a certain way, there’s not a whole lot you can do that’s outside the parameters of the given.  I’Which doesn’t take away from the excellence of what they were doing, because I think they knew what they were doing and they knew what they wanted to do, and they pulled it off.

I’ll take a guess.  It could be Jeff Watts with Branford Marsalis or maybe with Joe Lovano, or maybe it could be Billy Hart with Joe Lovano. [AFTER] For the acknowledgements of these fine gentlemen of jazz, who are carrying the information forward, I’d say four stars.

12. Kenny Barron-Roy Haynes, “Madman”, Wanton Spirit, Verve, 1994.

Here the piano was the lead voice in terms of the direction and description of the music, and the drummer was playing what he heard in relationship to that.  In this case, in some ways, the piano sounded like it had a McCoy Tyner perspective, with the left hand playing that heavy bass-like accompaniment and the right hand playing the melodic lead.  Sometimes I heard the left hand and the right hand being played in unison.  I don’t know the name of the drummer with McCoy.  I haven’t heard them for a while.  But they have quite an integration together with the sound.  I’ll take a guess.  Was that Horace Tapscott and Billy Hart? [AFTER] I was way off on that one.  I could hear that now.  I’d give that 3½ stars.

13. James Emery, Gerry Hemingway-Kevin Norton-Mark Feldman “Standing On A Whale Fishing For Minnows” (#7), Spectral Domains, Enja, 1998

That sounded as though it had an Asian flavored melodic theme.  But as the piece moved forward, it lost that flavor to some degree.  In this case, I thought the drummer played the music very intelligently.  It was an extended form, and I thnk there had to be a lot of reading done in many parts of the arrangement.  I think as the piece went from section to section, the drummer gave very good support and he played on parts of the instrument that made the sound that was on top come out very clearly.  In other words, there was no obfuscation in terms of what he was playing with his accompaniment.  I thought, too, that it was very good writing biy the composer.  It sounded like it could have been almost a through-composed piece.  But it did sound, too, like there was a lot of improvisation interspersed, so it wasn’t a through-composed piece, but there was a lot of composition that you had to have your head on and your eyes clear in order to know what was happening.  I’m sure they rehearsed this a number of times, and it came off very-very well.

The composer could be Henry Threadgill, that ensemble, with maybe Reggie Nicholson or Pheeroan akLaff or J.T. Lewis.  Or maybe, it could be somebody like Dave Holland.  No?  Well, I thought of Muhal, but it didn’t have any piano. [AFTER] Very good.  See, I’m not familiar with too much of their work.  But for the work and the effort and the music put forth, five stars.

14. Lovano-Holland-Elvin Jones, “Cymbalism” (#6), Trio Fascination, Blue Note, 1998. (3 stars)

The saxophone player sounded like somebody who came out of the Sonny Rollins tradition.  I’ll take a guess.  It was Joe Lovano.  This recording reminded me somewhat of the dates that Rollins did with Oscar Pettiford and Max Roach.  The bass player sounded like…it could have come out of the walking bass lines of somebody like Mark Dresser or Mark Helias.  I don’t think it was Mark Dresser; the way he plays his pizzicatos is a little heavier.  Helias is not as percussive-sounding, let’s say, as Dresser is, but they kind of think similarly of that approach to walking bass in free playing.  This is what I guess you’d call freebop.  It could be somebody like Dave Holland, too.  I’m not sure.  As far as the drummer is concerned, I had a feeling that it could have been Jack de Johnette, but Jack plays fuller than that, playing more around the drums and getting different kinds of rhythms and shapes out of the drum set, with the bass drum accentuating beats in different places.  As I continued to listen, I really couldn’t tell who the drummer was because he sounded rather generic.  There was no solo for me to say, “Okay, this was so-and-so who I’ve heard before.”  I can’t tell you who that was.  What I could say, though, on a positive note is that the drummer played his role well.  He didn’t take anything away from the music.  But I don’t feel he added a lot to the music either to give it, in a sense, that other polarity I was talking about, to make you want to listen how both people were dialoguing with each other or how the group was dialoguing with each other.  Three stars. [AFTER]

15. David Murray/Sunny Murray, “A Sanctuary Within, Parts 1 & 2”, A Sanctuary Within, Black Saint, 1991.

David Murray is the saxophonist, which is obvious from the characteristics.  I’ll take a guess in this case, and say who the drummer is.  In this particular piece moreso than the duet in the first part, I think I can identify the drummer because of the way he accompanies and how he places the beats, assigns his rhythms, and of course, how he plays to a large degree ametrically, even though the pulse is kind of there.  Sometimes you find the meter, and by that I mean count.  I’d like to say that was Sunny Murray. [Why was it harder on the duo?] Because it seems as though Sunny usually accompanies more space, and his sound variety is wider.  His highs and lows are more definitive.  And to me, it sounded as though playing in that context, he plays with more space, as I heard him.  What was very interesting, too, is that the way the piece started out sounded as though it came out of a rhythmical shuffle, or shuffle rhythm, out of which the drummer got his perspective to play freely.  So in that sense, one could say there was a certain kind of meter.  But more so than that, because meter to me simply infers that you have a certain number of counts per bar.  You count to 5 or you count to 3 or you count to 12 or you count to 12 or you count to 16 or you count to 2 — etcetera.  There’s always an upbeat and a downbeat, and however long the phrase is with that kind of concept of playing in terms of meter, as far as composition is concerned… But in this case I got the information of the shuffle, but it wasn’t any particular placement as far as the number of counts were concerned.  I’d have to say it was more of a rhythmical thrust, which had a beginning, it had its conclusion when Sunny decided that he wanted to stop or he wanted to start again.  Of course, there was the attack, which is like the one.  But there was also a resolution which came where he decided he was going to stop it and do something else.  Then eventually out of that I heard the feeling of the shuffle, of his free playing.  But I couldn’t really tell you that was Sunny from the duet part.  But as far as the ensemble accompaniment, it was definitely his characteristics.

[David Murray obviously is the saxophonist.  I think the drummer is Sunny Murray because how he places the beats and assigns his rhythms — and of course, how he plays to a large degree ametrically, even though the pulse is there.  I couldn’t really identify Sunny from the duet in the first part, but with the ensemble in the second half he played with more space, with a wider sound variety, more definitive highs and lows — definitely his characteristics.]

I would have to say the music that you offered me was challenging.  It was a variety.  Most of these compositions I never heard before, but I’ve heard almost all the players… I know Formanek a little bit and I know Hemingway quite a bit.  Even though I know Gerry in another way also, as far as the kind of sounds he gets from his drums.  Because he tunes his drums a little differently also, and a lot of the music that he composes, or that I’ve heard him compose in the past comes out of the sounds that he gets on the drums and how he integrates that with the sounds he wants from the instruments.

Also, I didn’t realize that there were as many duet recordings in existence as you offered here.  Really!  Of course, a lot of them were in context of larger ensembles, but still there were a number which, if you didn’t edit, sounded as though they were just duets with a rhythmical voice, the drums, and the melodic (and perhaps harmonic, if you want to use the piano) voice of the horns.  I didnt hear was trumpet-and-drum duets or maybe even flute-and-drum duets, or a lot of string duets.  Well, there aren’t too many recordings with drummers and bass players and drummers and violins playing together… You covered the broad palette of perspective of the music, with the tradition coming out of Swing, Bop, Neo-Bop to the combination of the “Avant Garde” unto itself.

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Filed under Andrew Cyrille, Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Drummer

Sam Rivers, (1923-2011) (r.i.p.) — A Downbeat Article From 1999 and Interviews

Just got word that Sam Rivers died on Monday, at 88. Loved his music and his sound on the tenor and soprano saxophone, was inspired by the various periods of his recorded career, from his Blue Notes all the way up to his orchestral music in Orlando, where he settled in 1991.

I had the opportunity to meet him in 1997, when he visited WKCR for an interview in conjunction with a performance by his trio, and touched base with him again in 1999, when DownBeat gave me an opportunity to write a feature piece about him. I’ve pasted the article below, followed by the two interviews, followed by comments on Sam by Greg Osby, Steve Coleman, Dave Holland, Chico Freeman,  Bob Stewart, and Anthony Cole.

* * *

Sam Rivers (Downbeat):

Samuel Carthorne Rivers, Jr. creates scenes, has done everywhere he’s parked himself during a fifty-year-plus career in music devoted to embracing the unknown.  Which is one reason why in 1991, not long after concluding a satisfying four years of steady touring with Dizzy Gillespie’s Quintet and Big Band, the saxophonist-composer, still lean and rawhide-tough at 68, settled with his wife Bea in Orlando, Florida, with no intention of retiring, determined to forge a new tributary from an untapped source.

“We moved from New York because I was getting tired of the cold, and nothing else.” Rivers relates over the phone in late ’99.  “We came to Orlando for a vacation, and discovered a talented pool of musicians who work at the theme parks and studios, can’t leave because the money is so good, and have no new music to play.  To me it’s a lesson not to get trapped by a financial situation; it takes away your freedom.  I posted a sign that said, ‘Sam Rivers is forming an orchestra; be at the union at such-and-such time.’  Everyone was there before I arrived.”

Taking full advantage of the opportunity to hear his music performed at weekly Wednesday night rehearsals, Rivers began to write scores like a man possessed, completing by his estimate a composition a month for a 16-piece big band, an 11-piece wind ensemble, and a highly interactive free-to-inside trio which is the core rhythm section of the orchestra.  “I’m writing more than ever,” Rivers reflects.  “I take in a composition, and we only need one rehearsal.  When I first went to New York, we’d spend three hours on one tune.  That doesn’t happen here.  Anything I write, they can play.  I want to keep writing new material, but I can always go back to something we did, say, three years ago that we haven’t done for a while!”

No one would mistake the music on the double-CD documenting the Orlando Big Band (due for summer 2000 release on Rivbea Records, Rivers’ boutique label) as being composed by anyone but Rivers.  It follows on the heels of a pair of RCA CD’s, the 1999 Grammy-nominated “Inspiration” and the May 2000 scheduled “Culmination,” featuring an all-star New York big band comprised of four generations of musicians Rivers has touched at various stages of his career that went in the studio following a wild week workshopping the charts before packed houses at Sweet Basil in late 1998.

The music is unlikely Grammy fodder.  Written between 1968 and 1995, bristling with the essence of an avant-garde sensibility, it’s atonal, dissonant, contrapuntal, incorporating overlapping meters, enormous chords and unorthodox voicings over pulsating funk beats laid down by trapsetter Anthony Cole.  “It’s life music,” Cole comments.  “It moves!  It’s danceable if you want to dance.  It’s listenable if you want to listen.  If you want to close your eyes and slip off into a cosmos somewhere, it lets you do that.

“Playing with him has confirmed a lot for me,” continues Cole, who also plays piano and tenor saxophone in Rivers’ Orlando trio which recorded “Concept” [Rivbea, 1996].  “Sometimes out of tradition and custom, there are things you think aren’t kosher or acceptable.  Sam points out the fact that in music everything is correct.   His instruction is to do your thing.  When I was learning the inside structure of music, Free was the last thing you could get me either to listen to or play.  But once I got to that point where I knew how to do it…now, where else do we go from here?   Sam was the first horn player I’ve played drums with who would start screaming through the horn in the middle of something, which encouraged a whole different reaction than I had ever experienced.  Normally you’re used to leading people somewhere.  Sam will take you where he wants you to go.”

“I’m one of the few musicians who plays free and plays changes,” Rivers remarks.  “It takes a long time to be a traditional musician, but a few minutes to be a free one.”  In his case, the training began from birth.  Rivers’ parents, both college graduates, toured with the Silvertone Quartet, a gospel group in which his father sang and his mother was the accompanist.  The family lived in Chicago, where from age 4 he sang in choirs directed by his mother, learned piano and violin, and joined his father on South Side excursions to the Regal Theater and Savoy Ballroom to hear cream-of-the-crop big bands — Ellington to Basie to Lunceford to Earl Fatha Hines.  Some bios have it that Samuel Rivers, Sr. died in a car accident in 1937, and his widow accepted a teaching position at Shorter College in North Little Rock, Arkansas; in our interviews, Rivers says that his father had an accident which left him incapacitated, and that the family moved south around 1934.  In any event, before graduating at 15 from high school in Little Rock, he learned, in succession, trombone, soprano saxophone, baritone horn and finally the tenor saxophone, which became his instrument of choice while attending Jarvis Christian College in Texas.

Rivers’ poetic 1989 paraphrase of “Body and Soul” under the title “Devotion” on “Lazuli” [Timeless] gives a sense of his origins as an improviser.  “I had ‘Body and Soul’ down note for note,” he laughs.  “I liked Coleman Hawkins’ harmonic approach, but Lester Young was really the man because he was so melodic, floating all the time, like ‘You’re Driving Me Crazy’ with Nat Cole.  I analyzed Chu Berry’s ‘Stardust,’ too.  In those days there weren’t many records, so you had to figure things out for yourself.  That’s why there were so many different sounding saxophone players then.  Everybody had their own style because there wasn’t anybody really to follow.

“Of course, after I heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy, that was the epitome.”  That happened when Rivers was a 9-to-5 Navy typist-clerk stationed in California who spent off-hours moonlighting on gigs with singer Jimmy Witherspoon and blew at various Bay Area jam sessions.  He heard Gillespie’s solo on Billy Eckstine’s “Blowing the Blues Away” on a V-disk with no identifying personnel and was intrigued; after discovering the trumpeter’s name, he bought “Blue and Boogie” [Guild, 1945] featuring the Gillespie-Parker front line.  “It was the first bebop record I ever heard,” he remembers, “and that sent me on.  The solos themselves were not important; I analyzed what they did with it in relation to the harmonic framework.  Both were coming from the Blues.  Charlie Parker was pentatonic, playing the basic blues itself, while Dizzy was layering advanced, substitute chords on top of the basic chord structure.  Bird told me later that every note is important, no matter how fast you play.  Some horn players look at certain notes as passing tones to something else, a part of a phrase.  Charlie Parker looked at every note.  No matter if it was a slur, every note in that slur had been worked out and practiced and rehearsed to make sure he could do it if it ever came into his head.”

“Sam comes out of a school of saxophone playing that I can trace back to Coleman Hawkins that I call ‘the snake school,'” comments alto saxophonist Steve Coleman, who produced the RCA recordings and played a significant role in the orchestra.  “It’s represented by players like Lucky Thompson, Benny Golson and Lockjaw Davis, who put a lot of directional shifts in their lines and intervals.  Sam makes it even more pronounced because of his attack, the way he smears the notes.  You can instantly hear it’s him.  His sound and phrasing and rhythm are very slippery, sort of like he looks, kind of long and rangy.  It goes beyond music; when he’s directing the band and doing his little dance, for me that’s like a snake dance.  Before the band plays, he sings the music exactly like it should go.  Nothing he could say would give you more information than watching him move.”

Rivers enrolled in Boston Conservatory of Music on the G.I. Bill, where he studied Composition and Theory, and linked up with a clique of conceptually ambitious jazz musicians like Jaki Byard, Nat Pierce, Charlie Mariano, Gigi Gryce, Herb Pomeroy and Alan Dawson.  The former three played in a floor show at Ort’s Grill, a joint across the street from the RKO Theater, where musicians from the touring big bands would come for dinner and the hang; Rivers, working with the intermission trio, “went through every tune in the Real Book.”  He played with Pomeroy’s forward-looking 13-piece band as well as a rehearsal big band with a bop orientation led by pianist-singer Jimmy Martin for which Byard did much of the writing.  After leaving school, he took a hiatus from Boston, working with his bass-playing brother, Martin Rivers, in Miami and touring the South with various R&B bands.  He returned to Beantown around 1957, where he supported himself writing jingles, rejoined Pomeroy from 1960-62, and formed a remarkable quartet with pianist Hal Galper, bassist Henry Grimes, and an adolescent Tony Williams.

“The music that we did with Pomeroy was shocking,” Rivers recalls.  “Jaki Byard was one of the main writers then; he wrote in a unique, very technical style that took all the musicians into consideration — he was one of my idols as a composer.  My music wasn’t quite ready to be performed, but in ’57 I decided to write a whole book for 2 trumpets, trombone and 3 saxophones, which I never had a chance to play, and in ’58 I started writing music for 13 horns.  I put some rehearsals together in Boston, but everyone who could do the music was so busy with teaching and performing responsibilities that I couldn’t put things together.  The main reason I went to New York was because I had the music and wanted to start a group.”

It happened in the Fall of 1964, shortly after Rivers completed a controversial Japan tour with Miles Davis, who at Williams’ urging called him to replace George Coleman in tenor chair.  Rivers moved into two adjoining 6-room apartments on the top floor of a building on 124th Street, signed with Blue Note, recorded the highly regarded “Fuchsia Swing Song,” on which Rivers, Byard, Ron Carter and Williams performed music from the 1959-60 Boston quartet, and the startlingly original “Contours,” with Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, Carter and Joe Chambers.  Most importantly, he began workshopping his big band music at a Harlem junior high school with a group of eager aspirants, who included baritone saxman Hamiett Bluiett and tubist Bob Stewart, who appear on the RCA recordings.

After a pair of European tours in 1969 with the Cecil Taylor Unit and a six-month stint with McCoy Tyner, Rivers moved to the neighborhood known today as Noho, setting up shop on the ground floor of 24 Bond Street, a loft building where one neighbor was the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.  One of the numerous alternative venues that opened in lower Manhattan during the ’70s, Studio Rivbea served as a combined living quarters-rehearsal hall-performance space, and became a focal point for the hordes of talented improvisers with speculative sensibilities who were descending on New York, providing Rivers a platform on which to expand his orchestral conception.

Best known in his ’70s oeuvre are the singular free-form trios with which he recorded frequently; his magically intuitive 1997 duo [“Tangens”, FMP] with Danish pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, and  a 1996 timbrally evocative dialogue with trombonist Julian Priester [“Hints On Light and Shadow,” Postcards] are the most recent iterations.  “In all modesty, I think my main contribution is that I am the creator of a particular free form in jazz,” Rivers states.  “When Ornette Coleman emerged, he played thematic material which came out of the blues, and improvised on it.  Cecil Taylor is avant-garde; he played themes and improvised on them.  Dave Holland and I had no thematic material; it was spontaneous creativity, completely improvised, and every night was different.  I don’t feel I get credit for my contributions.  I would like someone to tell me who was the one who started it if I didn’t.”

After working with Miles Davis and Chick Corea’s Circle, Holland performed steadily with Rivers in duos, trios, quartets, quintets and big bands between 1972 and 1981.  “Studio Rivbea was a very personal environment for the music to happen in,” he recalls.  “It literally put on these wonderful series of concerts which gave musicians a chance to focus on their ideas without any commercial constraints.  So it was a breeding ground for a lot of interesting musical ideas which weren’t being heard in New York.  Of course, this kind of activity brought people together, and of course opportunities then came up for those groups to work in Europe and elsewhere.  It was a very important time of people coming together and organizing their music.

“Most of the small group things I did with Sam were improvised; each night we started with a blank page and then continued, creating whatever moods or compositional situations we wanted on the spot.  It was a tremendous opportunity for me to explore how to develop ideas and structure improvisation from my position as a bass player.  I was interested in playing as free as possible, and he taught me the idea of bringing all your experience into the music.  Sam’s playing and writing spans the whole tradition, which he’s lived, ranging from Blues to more traditional forms and harmonies to the more atonal elements of his original music.  His big band music is unique, often quite complex, involving a variety of rhythmic fields and overlapping rhythmic cycles — you have to be aware of how the parts interlock.”

Until the release of the RCA CD’s, the only documentation of Rivers’ orchestral music was “Crystals,” a raw 1974 session comprised of members of the early Rivbea orchestra.  “At Boston Conservatory I was looking at some Stravinsky scores which had different time signatures for every bar; I put some of the music in 4/4 to see how it would look,” he explains.  “I use different layers of rhythms superimposed over a basic 4/4.  I write contrapuntally, with two and three and four melodies going on simultaneously; the harmonies happen, but every voice is playing their own particular thematic material in different time signatures than the basic one.  The bass plays the roots, and it’s pretty much the only stabilizing force you should hear.  Without the bass there it would be completely an avant-garde, almost classical sound; which it is anyway, but without the bass it would be hard to call it jazz.

“I write from the piano for something melodic and traditional, but when I’m writing for my orchestra I don’t use the piano, because it’s limiting; you play something, hear it, and have to depend on those sounds.  I just use my intellect.  I’ve gone by the rules all the way, and so now there are no rules.  It’s like higher mathematics.  I dream all these different kinds of sounds, put them together, take it to my orchestra, they play it — and I am astounded.  I don’t try to know what I’ve done!  In a sense, whatever I do is right.  I am the creator.  I don’t understand why musicians sometimes feel inhibited.  No, I am not inhibited at all in music.  I can go anywhere I want with these 12 tones.  You set your own limits.  How do I make it accessible to the audience?  We are in a backbeat rhythm era, where everything is rhythm, so I have to include the rhythm.”

Producing “Inspiration” and “Culmination” was a labor of love for Coleman, who joined the Rivbea ensemble in the summer of 1978, shortly after arriving in New York from Chicago.  “Then the music was loose because of the players, and also because Sam is loose — loose the way Bird was, with a very high level of precision inside the looseness.  I’m very concerned with the music being precise, but not mechanical.  It has a certain spontaneity, what in Chicago we used to call ‘the professional beginner’ sound, which to me is the hardest thing to get.  It’s backed by layer upon layer of thinking and work and interpretation, written with an attention to detail that adds to its emotional impact and spiritual depth.”

“When I first played with Sam, his tuba parts were some of the most difficult I’d seen,” Stewart notes.  “It was like working on an etude book, and it expanded my technique.  On these records, it’s absolutely marvelous hearing the music with the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed.  I felt like I was playing in some kind of African big band, just for the rhythmic qualities and the way the lines move very independently of each other, which you hear a lot in African music.  While it’s contemporary, Sam has somehow reached way back and brought up spirits from old.”

At 76, Rivers seems to have found the fountain of youth in Florida.  He plays with undiminished power on “Winter Garden” [NATO] a December 1998 series of virtuosic composed and tabula rasa duos with English pianist-composer Tony Hymas, and on the earlier “Eight Day Journal” [NATO], a lusciously scored Hymas concerto for Rivers with string and woodwind players from the London Symphony.  “Every morning I get up and start writing,” Rivers says.  “I’m trying to play exciting, advanced music with a nice, primitive beat — combine the intellect with the soul.  The tunes are in the traditional mode because I want people to come back, but it isn’t like so-and-so plays the music of Duke Ellington.  If you don’t have anything of your own, you pick around and use other people’s material.  I’m fortunate not to be in a situation where I have to say, ‘Sam Rivers plays the music of someone else.’  Jazz is especially about individuality; you go out there and play somebody else’s music, you’re giving Jazz a bad name.”

* * *

Sam Rivers (WKCR, 9-25-97):

[SR-Byard-Carter-Williams, “Beatrice” (1964)]

TP:    First I’d like to ask you about the current trio, because you’re always about the future and about the next step, and I guess this trio is the next step for the foreseeable future.  So a few words about how it was formed and the musicians who are playing with you this week.

SR:    Well, it was sort of formed organically, because I had no idea that something like this was possible.  I moved to Florida around six years ago.  I had been traveling around with Dizzy Gillespie, so I’d picked out where I’d go if I wanted to leave New York.  I had a choice of New Mexico, California, Florida, Texas, whatever.  So we went down to visit some people in Florida and we liked it, so we moved down there.  In fact, the reason why we moved is because there are musicians down there who work for Disney who are sort of trapped with the good money, but they’re all good musicians.  They can’t leave, and they don’t have any music to play, fortunately…

TP:    So there you were.

SR:    There I was with all these talented musicians.  Most of them are teachers, and there are composers, and like I say they’re trapped, because you’ve got a mansion and two cars in the garage… [LAUGHS] It’s that kind of situation; you know, the good life.

TP:    A similar situation to Hollywood musicians.

SR:    Yeah, it’s the same thing.  There’s a lot of very talented Hollywood musicians.  But in Hollywood, when you’re working in the studios, you get all this money and you sort of get trapped.  I know a lot of guys like that.  They say, “I hate it, but I can’t leave it!”  So for me, that’s a lesson not to get trapped by a financial situation where you can’t leave — it takes away your freedom.

TP:    Well, you’re someone who’s created situations rather than get into them, and you’ve done that everywhere you’ve parked yourself, as it were, from Boston to New York City and Orlando, Florida!

SR:    That’s true.

TP:    A few words about Doug Matthews and Anthony Cole.

SR:    Right, I was getting to that. [LAUGHS] So I came down to Orlando, Florida, and fortunately at the same time Anthony Cole happened to move from Detroit — pretty much the same day.  He comes from Detroit and I come from New York, and we meet pretty much at a jam session probably the second or third day we got into Orlando.  Anthony Cole comes by his talents genetically, I suppose, because he’s part of the Cole dynasty, Nat King Cole and Natalie.  He’s one of the relatives.  And his mother, Linda Cole, is a singer, too, an excellent singer.  He was sort of like me.  He was born a musician, born into a family of musicians.  I was born on the road, and he was pretty much the same.  Our careers parallel.  So he accompanies his mother for vocals…

TP:    On piano or drums?

SR:    Piano and drums.  Saxophone he’s been playing for six years, and he’s really up on the saxophone.  Well, it’s easy.  If you have the stamina and the will, you can learn an instrument in six years.  I mean, a lot of guitar players are out here making thousands of dollars after six months!  But he’s a very talented musician.

And Doug Matthews is a native Floridian.  There’s not too many of those down in Florida [LAUGHS], people that got started in Florida.  I mean, some native Floridians, either they leave or they move back further into the swamps.

TP:    A lot of good bass players from Florida, like Sam Jones, Jaco Pastorius, Curtis Lundy.

SR:    Oh, sure.  I know Jaco’s family, his brothers and everything.  We’re good friends.  But Doug went to the University of Florida and Berklee, and studied at Berklee.  He’s a bassist, plays bass guitar and contrabass, and he plays bass clarinet.  Anthony plays also tenor saxophone, as I mentioned, so we have all these different combinations.  I would say it’s the most creative group that I’ve ever had the good fortune to be a part of.

TP:    That’s saying something, because you’ve been part of some very creative groups.

SR:    That’s saying something.  I would say that.  I’ve been very fortunate along the way.  Sometimes, in the right situation… I mean, we have compositions for two grand pianos and bass, because Anthony and I both play piano.  We have compositions for three reeds.

TP:    So you can express almost anything, from an orchestral context to a small group blowing kind of thing.

SR:    Yes.  We can play free, but also, we all can play traditional — play the changes, too.  And that’s really something.  If we can play together and everyone can play changes and also be able to express themselves creatively, on the free side.

TP:    How long has the group been a working unit?

SR:    Five or six years, since we went down there.  These things go organically.  We were playing the usual group, me on saxophone and Doug Matthews on bass and Anthony Cole on drums.  Most of the places we played didn’t have a piano, so we were just doing our usual trio thing.  Then Doug mentioned that he played clarinet all the way through high school, and someone gave Anthony a tenor saxophone, and he learned that.  So I said, “Well, we can put these things together.”  It’s not like you’ve got some musicians here who don’t know what they’re doing.  There are so few drummers who can read music, and here’s one that not only reads music, but plays the piano as adequately and competently as a piano player… Well, he is a pianist, too.

TP:    He’s a good pianist.

SR:    Sure.  That’s what I say as far as creativity, never getting stuck in a rut, because there’s too many different places to go.  Each combination produces its own kind of creative stimulus.  If we’re playing the traditional piano-drums and bass, that’s one thing; if we’re playing piano, saxophone and bass that’s another kind of stimulus; if we’re playing two pianos and bass, that’s another stimulus.  So it’s almost endless.

TP:    Has this group sparked an onslaught of composition for you?  Have you been doing a lot of writing for the group?

SR:    This is the nucleus of the orchestra I have in Orlando.  Doug Matthews plays bass and Anthony Cole plays drums in the orchestra, you see.  For me, I have a chance to bring in all the music.  Whatever I write, they can play.  And I’ve never been in a situation like that either.

TP:    It’s not unlike the situation in Chicago in the 1960’s with the AACM Orchestra.

SR:    Yes, it’s the same thing.  This is a situation where, like I say, I’m writing traditional, in the traditional mode on all the tunes I write, because I want to make sure everything is right.  I want to have people come back.  This isn’t like so-and-so plays the music of Duke Ellington or something like that.  I’m not sure whether Duke would be happy with people messing up his music the way that they do, but if you don’t have anything of your own, then you go and pick around and use other people’s material.  I’m fortunate not having to be in that situation, where I have to go around and say, “Sam Rivers plays the music of someone else.”  That’s not what music is about anyway.  Jazz is especially about individuality, and you go out there and play somebody else’s music, you’re giving Jazz a bad name.  You know what I mean?  [LAUGHS]

TP:    I can’t think of anyone who’s more of a rugged individualist in the music than Sam Rivers.  And by the way, today is his birthday.

SR:    Yeah, happy birthday to me!

TP:    I forgot to mention it at the top of the show.  It’s hard to believe.  You were born in 1923, and you don’t look much older than you did when I used to see you at Studio Rivbea twenty years ago!

SR:    You’re right.  It’s a mental condition, I guess.  I decided when I was like 14 that I was probably going to live until the year 2000.  I planned it.  These kind of things go on in your head.  It’s really a mental condition.  I said, “I’m going to do it,” and I looked in the mirror and said, “you’re going to make it.”  Plus, I live moderately.  I’ve done everything, but I didn’t go overboard.  You understand?  And that’s the main thing.  There are temptations out there, and a lot of people are greedy.  I haven’t been greedy, and so I’ve survived.  You don’t survive if you’re greedy.  “What’s that?  Yeah, give me that!  Oh yeah, I’ll try that!”  No-no, no-no.  Up to a point, that’s it.  I never drank, because it slows you down.  I tried playing drinking and it was embarrassing.  My fingers wouldn’t move.  So I never really got into drinking.  And the harder drugs, I never really got bogged down in them either.  So I’ve been very fortunate.

The track we’ll hear, “Sprung”, is probably the most traditional composition on this album.  I like to do that because since I’m one of the few musicians who plays free and plays changes, I like to emphasize the fact that I’m also a traditional musician.  Because if you don’t emphasize the fact, they’ll think you’re just a free musician and have no knowledge of the tradition.  Because it takes a long time to be a traditional musician, but it takes a few minutes to be a free.

TP:    Well, Dizzy Gillespie obviously knew that.

SR:    Sure!

[MUSIC: Rivers-Mathews-Cole, “Sprung”, “Figure” (1996)]

TP:    Before playing “Sprung,” which you described as the most traditional piece on the CD, involving changes, you said you wanted to make sure people understand that you are both a traditional and a free musician.

SR:    It’s very important, yes.

TP:    You said it takes more than a minute to become proficient traditional musician, so I’d like to address that in the next segment of the show.  In the biographies, the encyclopedias of jazz, your birthdate is listed as 1930, but in reality it’s in 1923, and that makes sense in terms of the accomplishments of your career.  You’re in the line of the great jazz musicians born in Oklahoma — Enid, Oklahoma.

SR:    yeah, but…

TP:    You didn’t spend much time there?

SR:    No.  Just my mother and father were on tour.  I was born on the road.  My father was a singer in the Silvertone Quartet, and my mother was the accompanist.  They were living in Chicago at the time, and I was born in Enid while they were on tour.  Touring in the South at that time was fairly easy for them, because there were always more churches there than bars.  They were both college graduates.  My father graduated from Fisk University and my mother from Howard University.

TP:    Were they both music majors?

SR:    My father was a music major.  My mother majored in Sociology, and she played piano.  My grandfather was also a musician, and his two sisters.  They transcribed songs from the slaves, and he wrote books about the composition of the music, and he did some original music of his own hymnals.  His name was the Reverend Marshall Taylor.  He was Bishop in the Methodist Church in Cincinnati or somewhere like that.  He published his own music like I’m doing decades later.  The publishing company is still in the family, but I’m not going to use it at this time until I get sort of situated.  It’s nice to say “established in 1881” or something like that.

TP:    Have you played or seen the music?

SR:    Yes, I have it.  I have some of his writings from the 1830’s or 1840’s, something like that, and they look like they could have been written by Malcolm X.  I’ll probably put some of it on the back of one of the albums someday.  He was a little before Dubois, but he had the same sort of feeling as Souls of Black Folk, that kind of situation.

TP:    What was your father’s name?

SR:    My father’s name was Samuel C. Rivers.  I am “Junior.”  My son is a doctor and he works at Harvard Medical, and he is Dr. Samuel C. Rivers, III.

TP:    Was your father born in Cincinnati?

SR:    No, he was born in Boston.  After I got out of the Service during the Forties… When I entered the Navy, I was one of the first who didn’t go in as a musician or a steward.  Robert Smalls and I went in as regular Navy men.  We had a choice of whatever field we wanted to go into, Bosuns, Mates… I chose music when I went in, but the band they wanted to put me in wasn’t good.  I’m very young and arrogant, so I said, “No, I’ll learn something else.”  So I went in as Quartermaster, correcting charts and steering the ship and all that, but I never went on board ship.  I knew I wasn’t going on board if I took something like that.  I was transferred to Vallejo, California, which was my musical experience.  It was very good I didn’t go into the band, because the band had to play in the officers quarters every night.  I wasn’t in the band, so I could take my horn and go out into the city and play.  Vallejo is near San Francisco.  That’s where I met Jimmy Witherspoon.  One of my first professional gigs was with Jimmy Witherspoon while I was in the Navy.  We were playing at this club someplace in Vallejo where he was everything.  He was the Master of Ceremonies, he was the maitre’d, he was the comedian and he was the singer, and I was part of the group.  That’s pretty much the playing I did when I was in the Navy.

TP:    When did you get out of the Navy?

SR:    I got out of the Navy in 1945.

TP:    I know the Billy Eckstine band came out there around ’44 or ’45.

SR:    I thought it was one of the most… What can I say?  Everybody was in the band!

TP:    That’s when Charlie Parker was in it.

SR:    Charlie Parker and Gene Ammons, Art Blakey was the drummer.  Oh, it was a beautiful band.  Leo Parker, Frank Wess, Miles Davis… I’m not sure whether Dizzy was in that band ever.

TP:    He was in at the beginning.

SR:    Actually, it was a takeoff from Earl Hines band.  Earl Hines was the master of that.  I used to hear Earl Hines in the Thirties, when he had a beautiful alto player with him. [Scoops Carey, probably]

TP:    Let me take you back a little bit from Vallejo, California?  Did you spend your early years, your adolescent years in Chicago?

SR:    No, I didn’t.  I was growing up in Chicago, but then my father had an accident.  He was helping somebody move some rugs or something, and he got knocked over the bannister and cracked his skull, and he wasn’t any more good after that.  He wasn’t able to really stand.  He kept his sanity, but he really couldn’t work.  So my mother took a job at Shorter College in North Little Rock, and so we moved down there when I was about 10 or 11, I think.  So I came up on the campus in North Little Rock, pretty much.  I was going to Catholic school and coming up on the campus.  I remember a lot of conversations about economics there, and the main thing they were worried about was, if the businessman ever gets control, we’re in serious trouble. [LAUGHS] That’s all I could ever hear.

TP:    So the idea of setting up your own situation took hold when you were 11-12-13 years old.

SR:    That’s right.

TP:    What were your earliest musical experiences in terms of listening to jazz?

SR:    Oh, when I was in Chicago.  They weren’t into jazz. They appreciated it, but they were real church people.  My mother was as Puritan as they come.  I can’t imagine a more puritanical woman than my mother.  She was very strict.  She made me practice.  I mean, there wasn’t any fooling around like that.   And I’m glad she did, because I wouldn’t be a musician today if she hadn’t done that.  She stood over me for maybe a year or so.  There were guys calling, “Mrs. Rivers, can Sam come out and play ball?” and she’d say, “No, he’s got to practice.”  So that went on for maybe a year or so, and then I got to the place where I liked it.  So after that the guys would say, “Come on, Sam, do you want to play?” and I’d say, “No, I want to practice,” then she was telling me, “You’d better go out and play ball!”  She started getting me away from the piano after a while.  That’s when I really got involved.  It’s been like that ever since.  I really love the music.

TP:    So the piano is the instrument you’ve been playing the longest.

SR:    Yes, and violin.  My mother played both violin and piano, so she taught me both.  She was really a pianist, and my father was a singer and she would accompany him.

TP:    The notes    to your complete Blue Note sessions on Mosaic say that you fell in love with the tenor saxophone in high school.

SR:    Yeah.

TP:    That would have been 1937-38-39.

SR:    Yes.  I was going to this Catholic school, St. Bartholomew’s in Little Rock, and they had all these instruments.  In those days, they had all these donated instruments, so if you wanted to play you could go in and choose whatever instrument you wanted to play.  You didn’t have to buy an instrument; they just had it there.  First I took trombone, then the soprano saxophone, then I worked on the baritone horn, and then finally the tenor.

TP:    They gave you a thorough training on the instruments in school.

SR:    Yes, it was like that.  I had a choice of doing it.  And the priest who conducted the band, he was really a conductor only.  The seniors were the tutors of the younger students.  He didn’t do anything but come in and raise his baton.  When some of the younger students made a mistake, he’d ask them, “Who’s your tutor?”  The tutor would be graded on how good the student is, you see.  That’s the way he ran his band.

TP:    So it wasn’t like Walter Dyett in Chicago who would throw  a baton at the student who made a mistake.

SR:    [LAUGHS] No.  It was a very hierarchical band.

TP:    Did you play jazz in that band, or was it outside of school?

SR:    No, it was a military band.  But when I got in college at Jarvis Christian College… I graduated from high school at 15 and went to Philander Smith for the summer, and then went down to Jarvis Christian College for the year.  That’s when I started playing the tenor saxophone and so on.

TP:    It says here that Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Buddy Tate and Don Byas were among the first tenor-men that made an impression on you.

SR:    Sure.

TP:    Were you listening to jazz all the way through?

SR:    Going back to Chicago when my father was well, he took us to see Cab Calloway at the Regal Theater or the Savoy.  We saw all the bands, Duke Ellington, Count Basie [sic], Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole.  Everybody there was to see, we went to see it.  But my mother didn’t really think of us as being… We were supposed to be teachers.  She was raising her two sons to be teachers like she was.

TP:    Well, she did.

SR:    [LAUGHS] I guess so.  Teaching is so demanding for me.  When I think about it, I really respect teachers.  It’s hard for me to do teaching, because you’re always going back in your memory to bring up things from the past.  When you’re teaching you don’t go into the future.  You’re always dealing with the past.  And I have a problem with that sometimes.  It’s tedious for me to keep returning to the past.  I don’t really teach that much.  My mind is completely creative.  I keep it in the future rather than having to think about the tradition.

TP:    So you heard all the big bands live in Chicago, and you’d hear the records.

SR:    I heard them live.  Jimmie Lunceford, Andy Kirk, and all the singers who were around at that time, too.  So we were very well versed.  Plus, we had symphonies.  She had Beethoven, and I practiced Bach!  Everyone studies Bach; that’s pretty much ordinary.

TP:    When you started playing the tenor, were you listening to Coleman Hawkins, “Body and Soul,” or Lester Young, “Taxi War Dance,” and copying those?

SR:    Yeah, we had it down note for note.  Note for note, “Body and Soul”! [LAUGHS] I can still remember part of it.  I liked Coleman Hawkins’ harmonic approach, but Lester was really the man because he was so melodic.  He was playing the changes, too, but it was kind of different because it really wasn’t the changes.  He was playing the changes but he really wasn’t.  He was just playing over the changes, something like that.  It’s a very different approach to music.  Of course, after I heard Charlie Parker, that was pretty much the epitome.  That was it.  That was the height of it, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.  I heard Dizzy first, on the record with Billy Eckstine, “Blowing the Blues” away, one of those big disks.  I was just listening to it, sitting there, and Billy was singing, then Dizzy came in, [SINGS DIZZY].  I said, “Wait a minute.”  I said, “Wait a minute.”  I said, “listen to this again; man, this is something.”  I went and took this record, because I knew all the musicians… I wasn’t a musician myself; I was working in the office.  Fortunately, I didn’t have to do anything, because if you could type, you were set.  Incidentally, I was the only guy who was pretty much straight in the office in the Forties.  Understand what I’m saying?  I mean, in the Forties the whole goddamn thing was…everybody in there was pretty much somewhere else.  They’re having a problem with it now, but really this has been going for fifty years.

But I took the music to the guys to listen, and they couldn’t believe it either.  They were listening to it and saying, “Wow, what is this?”  There’s no names on the disk.  We didn’t know who it was.  So I called my brother up, because my brother was in the Navy, too, but he was stationed in Boston.  He’d go back and forth to New York, so he knew the guys.  And I’m in California, and nothing out there at that time, in the Forties.  My brother had been listening to Dizzy and Bird, and I didn’t even know them.  This had been out almost a year, and nobody had even heard of them in California.  My brother told me, “Yeah, man, that guy’s name is Dizzy Gillespie who you’re talking about.”  Then I got “Blue and Boogie,” the first bebop record I ever heard, and that sent me on.

But I listened differently.  When I heard the solo, I analyzed it on how it is in relation to the chords.  Just the solo itself was not important.  The important thing was how he did what he did with it in relation to the harmonic framework.

TP:    So you were able to do that through listening to the records.

SR:    Yes.

TP:    You didn’t need someone to show you, “This is going down like this.”

SR:    No, I was figuring out changes already.  I could always play chord changes.  I was working out my II-V’s years ago.  That was pretty much it.

TP:    So after the Navy you went back to Boston.  What was the scene like?

SR:    The scene in Boston was very fertile.  When I went to Boston, there was Jaki Byard, there was Gigi Gryce, there was Quincy Jones, there was Charlie Mariano, there was Nat Pierce, there was Alan Dawson, John Neves, Herb Pomeroy…

TP:    Was Roy Haynes still there?

SR:    Roy Haynes had just left.  He had just left.

TP:    With Lester Young.

SR:    Oh, he worked with Lester before Bird?  I remember hearing him with Lester.  He was kicking, too.  Lester was right there, and he was doing those fast tempos.  It was amazing hearing Lester play fast.  He was floating all the time.  Those were really beautiful guys.  Just listening to them was really an experience.

TP:    You went to Boston and enrolled in the Boston Conservatory of Music on the G.I. Bill?  Is that how it went down?

SR:    Yes, I went there.  I was planning on going to New York right away.  There was no doubt about it.  Everything was set.  Then I went home and my mother said, “You’d better go to Boston and take care of your brother; you know how wild he is.”  That’s the only reason I went to Boston.  Otherwise I’d have gone straight to New York, because I had the connections and everything.  So I went to Boston and stayed there.  I enrolled in school on the G.I. Bill.  Also, all the musicians gravitated together.  We rented this house on 13 Rutland Square, and we lived there.

TP:    Which musicians?

SR:    Jaki Byard, Gigi Gryce, the Perry Brothers (Ray Perry, a violinist), and a lot of other musicians.  It was a 13-room house, and I lived on the top floor.  And the only girl that ever got up there was Bea! [LAUGHS] None of the other girls that came to see me got to the top floor.  It was that kind of situation, but I didn’t mind.  I was glad they didn’t get up there.  I was busy.

TP:    When did you start writing music?  Did that start when you hit Boston?

SR:    Yeah, I pretty much started writing in Boston.  I started writing because I was taking Composition and Theory at the university, and you have to write anyway because that’s part of taking composition.  It was Classical Composition because there weren’t any jazz schools around then.  Then only thing close to Jazz would be the Schillinger House, which a lot of musicians went to at that time, which changed to Berklee.  It was Schillinger House originally, and then it changed.  Jaki Byard and a lot of musicians studied there for a while, with the Schillinger system, and then transferred to the Conservatory.

TP:    Michael Cuscuna writes that you also played viola professionally.

SR:    I never really played it professionally.  I was in the school symphony orchestra, but that’s about as far as it went.

TP:    It says you worked with Serge Chaloff’s string quintet.

SR:    Oh, that’s right, I did that.  But that was the only professional thing I really did with it.  But I was in the school symphony.  I remember that, yeah, but I don’t remember the music!

TP:    Now, Boston was a place where musicians would come through on the Northeast circuit, and I assume you went to hear everybody who would come through.

SR:    Actually, the place I was working at the time in Boston was called Ort’s(?) Grill, and it was across the street from the theater where they brought out all the musicians.

TP:    Which theater was that?

SR:    RKO.  It was across the street.  So I didn’t go to see the musicians; they came to see us! [LAUGHS] Stan Kenton came in and hired Charlie Mariano out of the place, and some other musicians got hired working out of there.  Quincy was playing trumpet at the time; I’m not sure what happened to him.  Jaki Byard was there.  I was working with a pianist who… There were so many different groups that played.  It was one of those places where there was never a dull moment.  It had like eight singers and stuff like this.  So we just played the intermission.  Our trio was me, Larry Willis on piano and Larry Winters on drums.  That’s a different Larry Willis, a stride pianist who knew all the tunes, but he played by ear.  My repertoire came from listening, learning the tunes.  I bought the fake book, then I learned all the tunes.  I went through the whole book; they call it The Real Book now — it used to be the Fake Book, now it’s The Real Book.  So I went through every tune in the Real Book, and I just picked out the ones that I liked.

TP:    So you learned the American Songbook on that gig, and you’re beginning to get your own compositional sensibility together.

SR:    Right.  I was beginning to write at the time like that.  But fortunately for me, my Classical training, European Concert music was part of my tradition, too, since I came up with that — and the spirituals and the Jazz.  I’m pretty much comfortable in any of the particular idioms like that.  I performed with the Symphony Orchestra, with Sergio Ozawa.  In the past, when they needed…

BEATRICE:  A soprano.

SR:    Well, a saxophonist, an improviser, they would call me.  Because I was considered an improviser who could improvise music that sounded pretty much like it would be… I really think that the music I have done and have created should… I guess after I’m gone, I’m not really considered one of the main people, but I consider…some people do consider me one of the main people, as far as one of the leading exponents of Free Jazz.  Free Jazz, the way it’s explained to people, is you state a theme, and then you pretty much improvise on that theme irregardless of the harmonic base.  I have records out, myself and Dave Holland, and some in trio… I played for 12 years in New York just going out and playing, no theme, nothing…

TP:    A blank page.

SR:    I don’t know any other musician who has done this.  I don’t know why I’m not considered the originator of this particular free jazz style, because I’m sure I am.  Everyone else plays a theme.  When I played with Cecil, pretty much all his music was written.  I don’t know anybody other than myself.  I would like it if someone can write me and tell me who it is who really started the free jazz other than myself.

TP:    Both Dave Holland and Barry Altschul say that you would practice 8 or 9 hours a day, and on a gig you wouldn’t have any music at all until the first note was stated, it would take off from there, and that the communication was built on your practicing together so much and knowing each other’s sounds and mindset so intimately.

SR:    That’s right.  But no thematic material.  I even write that on the back of some of my things, and I still don’t see any of the critics picking up on it.  If they tell me who originated it other than myself, I’d be glad to give them the credit.  Maybe it’s one of these anonymous kind of situations, like the Blues, where nobody really wrote it.  It could be like that.

[MUSIC:  Sam Rivers, “Dance of The Tripedal” (1965); SR, “Secret Love” (1966)]

TP:    Sam Rivers and I were discussing his formative years in music, and we stopped in the early 1950’s in Boston.  I’d like to pick up with the years after Charlie Parker died, and you were an established figure on the Boston scene and encountered Tony Williams.  How did things evolve?

SR:    I had been doing concerts around Boston.  I’d been playing with different groups.

TP:    Had you started writing for big bands by that time?

SR:    I started writing for big bands, but I didn’t have one really organized.  But I was writing thematic material for it.  I was working at a club called Club 47 around Harvard Square.  I’m trying to get this pretty much in chronology.  I spent ten or fifteen years before I came to New York, and it was through Tony that I went to New York.  I really didn’t think it was necessary for me to go to New York, because I’d been traveling all around the world, I had been traveling with any kind of groups that wanted it.  I went out with T-Bone Walker for quite a long time, and I did some things with B.B. King.  But I pretty much stayed around Boston, because I was working for this publishing company, which I never really… I got a letter from some people the other day about this.  It was “Send your poems up and we will put the music to it.”  I was very adept at doing that.  I pretty much lived in Boston by writing music for lyrics, which is you send me a couple of lyrics and I’ll have the music ready in an hour.  I’d look at the lyrics and they’d suggest the music.  It’s not a big deal for me.  I ghost-wrote a lot of jingles.  Bring it up, if you want it in ten minutes I’ll give it to you.  A composer writes down his improvisations.  That’s what a composer does.  He doesn’t really sit down and try to figure out, “Look…”  He’s writing down…if he was an instrumentalist, this is what he would play.

TP:    From the brain to the pen.

SR:    Yeah, that’s it.  I don’t know about other composers, but it sounds to me like they’re writing their own improvisations.  That’s what I do.  I write down my improvisations.  I write down what I would do.  Now, with my orchestra, which is 13 horns, each instrument is a solo part, so I write it.  It’s harmony and it’s counterpoint and everything, but every part can be played by itself.

TP:    In your own performances in Boston were you functioning as a multi-instrumentalist?  When did the concept of playing tenor, flute, soprano and piano within a set of music evolve for you?

SR:    I’m not sure.  It was kind of an organic situation; I’m not sure how that happened.  I was always a pianist.  But when I was with the Herb Pomeroy Orchestra, Jaki Byard was such a fantastic piano player; I just considered myself playing chords.  The only reason why I’m not a piano player today, I’ll confess, is because I couldn’t play Bebop.  I can’t play like Bud Powell.  I couldn’t do that kind of stuff! [LAUGHS]  So I concentrated more on the tenor saxophone because I couldn’t play Bebop.  I can play any kind… I can play all the Classical music you want.  Which is good for me, because especially for Classical it’s more free-style than trying to play very traditional bebop, which is very difficult.  My hat goes off to all Bebop players, because this is a very difficult style on piano.

TP:    Why is it so difficult?

SR:    I don’t understand it.  I don’t know.  I can’t do it.  There are musicians who can do it.  All the Bebop piano players I know, they’re good.  If someone said, “Sam, recommend a Bebop piano player,” I’d look at the guy and think which personality would fit with this guy, because all the musicians I know who are playing Bebop, from Tommy Flanagan all the way up to Herbie Hancock…

TP:    They’ve got it together.

SR:    They’ve all got it together.  All bebop players are qualified.

TP:    Do different personalities or different sides of yourself emerge on each of the instruments?  If so, how would you describe it for each of them?

SR:    It’s hard to describe.  Different sounds create different stimuli.  If you listen to a certain sound, it produces a certain reaction.  All sounds produce a reaction.  If I’m playing one note, the first note produces an automatic reaction to go the second note.  And I’ve studied so much, working with the Schoenberg, writing out my own 12-tone exercises, that I hear like that now when I’m playing.  I don’t really repeat notes.  I mean, I can go on.  If I want to repeat a note… So this keeps the music atonal.   So I wrote my exercises, some very tricky and hard things to play, and worked on them myself and got it out, analyzed all the other musicians, which is very important.

But a jazz musician, I mean, to sound like someone else is giving jazz a bad name, because jazz musicians are supposed to be original people.  They’re supposed to create something.  They’re not supposed to be imitating anybody.  So this is it.  This is what I consider a jazz musician.  Don’t give jazz a bad name by listening to the… I mean, because the imitators are giving jazz a bad name.

TP:    At one point in your life you were playing Lester Young or Coleman Hawkins solos note-for-note.

SR:    Right.

TP:    When did you start getting past that?

SR:    That was at home.  I never went out in public playing anyone else’s solos.  The standards, I had, and all my originals… I had all the standards I did that weren’t standards… If a standard was recorded by somebody else, I stopped playing it, and I’d find something else to play.  I was intent on being an original.  I intended it.  It was part of my thing.  I don’t want to copy anyone, and I don’t feel that a jazz musician should be a copyist.  That is the main thing.  All the musicians that I ever respected did not copy anyone else.  They were coming from themself.

I hear so many musicians nowadays, I listen to them play and it’s like a history book.  It’s a reminiscing for me.  I say, “Oh, I remember I heard this phrase and I heard that phrase, and I heard this cliche,” and it reminds me of a certain thing.  It takes me off on different things like that.  I can only listen into a creative person that has his own style to really appreciate it, otherwise I’ll go into where I heard this before, or I heard this cliche before.  This is what I do for classes.  I put on a record of somebody that just came out, some of the young old-timers, I put it on, and I explain “This happened in 1950” and “this happened in…”  I explain what the young old-timers are doing in relation to what the original people did.

TP:    You’ve mentioned that in playing with Tony Williams you got into the seamless presentation that became your trademark by the 1970s.  You related an anecdote when we did a telephone interview right after Tony Williams died about hearing him when he was about 12 years old, his father brought him down to where you were playing, and he sounded like he had some talent, but I think the way you put it, he needed to go in the shed, he went, and he came back the next spring and played Max Roach, but his own ideas on it, he’d play what Art Blakey would play, then his own ideas…

SR:    That’s right.

TP:    That’s how it went down?

SR:    Well, yeah, sort of like that.  But we were neighbors.  He lived not too far from me.  So I’d go over.  He had his basement where he would practice all day long, and he would say, “All right, Art Blakey plays like this.”  TING, TING-A-DING, DING-DING.  “Max Roach plays like this,” then he’d play all of Max’s things.  Then he’d say, “Elvin Jones plays like this,” then he’d do Elvin’s stuff.  “And Philly Joe plays like this,” and then the out drummer, what’s his…from Philadelphia…

TP:    Sonny Murray?

SR:    Sonny Murray.  “Sonny Murray plays like this.”  So he had them all down.  But then when he played, he played his own style.  Which I did, too.  I played my own… I mean, I would analyze it to see… I would analyze Bird’s solos to see how he played.  I could hear what Coltrane was doing.  By the time Coltrane came, I could really hear exactly what he was doing.  It was very exciting for me.

TP:    Did you like what Ornette Coleman was doing when his music came out in 1958-59?  Did it speak to you?

SR:    When it first came out, I thought it was really great.  That was another situation where I took some records around to musicians so they could hear it.  I put it down for one musician, and he listened to it, and he came over and he took it, picked it up, and just destroyed it. [LAUGHS] He just cracked it up.  He couldn’t stand it!  When I came to New York it was the same thing.  The older musicians said, “Sam, what are those young guys doing?”  They couldn’t understand.  I was playing with an avant-garde Classical musician, and he needed somebody to improvise.  Tony was in the group.  We’d go to museums and we’d play the lines on the paintings, he would explain the painting, and then we’d play the music like this… The usual Dada kind of stuff.  We’d throw ink splats on the paper, and do the rise-and-fall of this.  I’ve gone through all these things, and Tony did too.  So everything was pretty much downhill as far as the techniques of the Dada movement. [LAUGHS]

TP:    It seems like maybe it was around ’59-’60 that you began to incorporate these sort of yearnings towards freedom into your presentation.

SR:    Mmm-hmm.  Well, for piano… I mean, I was practicing piano, then all of a sudden one day I sat down and started playing the piano.  I would say to musicians it’s not an incline thing; you rise by…you go up plateaus.  It’s not a gradual thing.  One morning you get up, if you’ve practiced for like six or seven months or something like this…one morning you get up and it’s all there.  It’s not a gradual… The mind is a funny thing for me.  I’ve noticed that you stay in one place for a while, and then you move.  If you are practicing, you can feel the advance that you make.  You advance in plateaus.  It’s not a gradual thing.  The mind just keeps accumulating material, and then all of a sudden it explodes to the next level.

TP:    What finally brought you to New York?

SR:    Well, Tony.  Actually, it wasn’t really Tony.  I had written all these compositions, and then to get musicians together… There weren’t that many musicians.  I moved to New York because of the musicians there.  Which is the same reason I moved to Florida.

TP:    You have that pool of good musicians just aching to play some different music.

SR:    Right.  So I never had a problem.  As far as playing for rehearsals and calling the musicians, it’s a challenge for them and they play it just when they have their nights off.  If they come in to rehearse your music for nothing, then you know you’re doing something that they appreciate.

TP:    You mentioned earlier that you’d like to speak about your experiences with Miles Davis.

SR:    Tony Williams got me with Miles.  He had these tapes that he had done with me in Boston, so he said, “Miles, I want you to hear this tape.”  Miles said, “yeah, okay, later.”  He kept doing that.  So finally, one day he trapped Miles.  “Okay, go ahead, play it!”  Tony said he heard the first track and he said, “Call him up.  Get him up here right now.”  So he called me.  I was on the road with T-Bone Walker, and he called me and said, “George quit; Miles wants you to join the band.”  I was out there on the road someplace.  So I left T-Bone Walker to join Miles Davis.

But the thing is, there’s always been this story out how much advanced I was, that Miles wasn’t happy with my style.  It wasn’t that at all.  Miles was right there with it.  He understood.  He could hear what I was doing.  It wasn’t a problem at all.  The thing was that he had already been committed to Wayne Shorter.  So the deal was that when Wayne left Art Blakey, I was supposed to go with Art Blakey,  and it was supposed to be a trade like that.  But I didn’t want to go with Art Blakey.  I went with Andrew Hill instead.  So we went on tour with Andrew Hill, and that’s the way it went down.  It wasn’t anything about me being much more advanced than Miles.  Miles was just as advanced.  In certain ways he wanted to produce his free stuff, which is what he did in Bitches Brew and everything.  All these things are pretty much free over the static rhythm, like I mentioned before.  So he wanted to make sure that I projected the music to the public, and reach a wider audience.

TP:    By the late Sixties you’d become an established figure in New York.  When did you begin to set up the workshop situations that led to something like Crystals, which is your first recording of big band music.

SR:    As soon as I came to New York.  That’s what I came to New York for, to set up the band.  I had a place, a rehearsal space downtown.  A lot of musicians.  I think I remember having the Brecker brothers in the band…

TP:    Did you go to Bond Street right away?

SR:    No, that was much later.  I moved uptown.  I had two six-room apartments on 124th Street.  I had the whole top floor, 12 rooms, so I could do a lot of things up there.  I did something for the Canadian Broadcasting System with Cecil McBee and a lot of other musicians up in my studio.  But I was rehearsing at the Marion McCloud School up there, long before… The initial reason why I got the loft downtown was because I didn’t have any place to rehearse, and I had music I wanted to rehearse, and at the school there was no beer, no drinks, no cigarettes, no nothing, so it was a very tight situation for us to rehearse in — but it was available.

But then I started looking around downtown, and then eventually I found Bond Street.  There was a very beautiful woman, Virginia Admiral, the mother of Robert De Niro, and she was very pleased that we made the whole building internationally famous.  Bond Street, incidentally, was a very happening place, by the way.  There was this woman up above us with her lady mate that was the first one who started the books on sexual harassment in the office.  I saw her on TV once.  I said, “Wow, look at her.  She’s got rouge and lipstick on; she’s trying to look like a woman.”  Then up on the next floor there was Mapplethorpe!  Robert Mapplethorpe was up on the fourth floor.

TP:    Well, I’d say we had many strands of American culture at 24 Bond Street!

SR:    24 Bond Street, that’s right.  Mapplethorpe was there.  He was a good friend of mine.  He used to come down.  He loved the music.  I mean, he did some photos of me with my clothes on. [LAUGHS] They’re around!

TP:    The next music will represent Sam Rivers in the ’70s.  We’ve already decided we have to do a Sunday profile on the  next trip to New York.  Coming up is Crystals.

SR:    This is the only big band arrangement I have.  I have 200 compositions and arrangements for big band at this point, and I haven’t been able to record any of them.  I’m still trying to get discovered out here.  I was looking at something on my way up there which says, “Sam Rivers: Often Overlooked.”  That was the first thing it said on this history, “Sam Rivers: Often Overlooked.”  Why?  Why would I be often overlooked?  I don’t understand that.  I’m sure that my place in the history of music is not really where it should be.  But I am not bitter about it, because I really don’t care.  I am going to put my stuff together, and I’m going to have it for posterity.

[MUSIC: Sam Rivers, “Tranquility” (1969); SR w/G. Lewis, “Circles” (1978)]

TP:    In our final hour, as we celebrate Sam Rivers’ 74th birthday on WKCR, we’ll hear some recent recordings.  You’ve recorded prolifically in recent years on other people’s recordings and collaborative situation.  Let’s hear the various recordings and cover the circumstances of each.  The first track is from the 1996 CD, Configuration, on NATO, a French label, with Sam Rivers on reeds; Noel Akchote, guitars; Tony Hymus on piano (who is a composer on much of this); Paul Rogers, bass; Jacques Thollot on drums.

SR:    It’s more or less an international album.  Tony Hymus is from London.  Akchote is French, and he’s also teaching in Switzerland.  The bass player is also from London.  The drummer, Thollot, is French.  This fellow decided to put this together.  But he was mainly interested in doing commemorative kind of music for Cassavetes’ movies.  This is just a preliminary thing that happened during the extra.  Also Tony Hymus is doing a concerto for me which will be performed with the London Symphony in January.  It’s all written, and I’m going over to do that.  The piece needs someone who can improvise and sound… [LAUGHS] This was part of a project the French government is doing.  He put the musicians together, I knew them all, and he asked me how it was.  Everyone on the album is a bandleader, so it’s an all-star group, and each one had to contribute some music.  So I contributed three or four compositions on it.

[MUSIC: Rivers, “Moonbeams” (1996); Rivers (solo), “Profile” (1995); Rivers-Workman, “Solace” (1995)]

TP:    I haven’t known you to do too much solo performance over the years.  I’m sure you have, but it’s not been that documented much.  Is this your first solo recording?

SR:    It is.  It’s the first one I’ve done.

TP:    I guess it’s taking that blank page concept of free improvising to its ultimate extent in a certain way.

SR:    I suppose so.  I was very comfortable in doing it, because I’ve done it in the past, but I have never recorded it.  I have done quite a few solo concerts, but they’ve never been recorded professionally like this one was done.

TP:    How does it differ for you from, say, the duo or trio format of free improvising?

SR:    I’m not really sure it’s much different.  I get added stimulus from the musicians who are playing with me, but that would be the only thing — more stimulus and more creativity.

TP:    How important is that dialogue with an ensemble for you in your improvising?  Or, for that matter, in your composing?  You said you pay heed to who the performers are sometimes when you compose.

SR:    Yes, that’s right.

TP:    Talk about the input of the other improvisers within your concept.

SR:    Improvising is sort of a real democracy kind of situation where everyone is performing in their own particular style or idiom of performing.  But since it’s musically, in a sense, correct, then it forms a unit.  But it’s a unit where everyone is doing their own thing, but it combines to become one unit, one whole like that.  I think life is pretty much like that. [LAUGHS] Even the nucleus revolving around a certain entity through the universe.  I suppose it would be random, in a sense, but physicists have put random into the equations.  So everyone is doing a particular thing, but it comes out to be a complete unit, one particular whole.  But it has to be individuals doing it.  It doesn’t have to be individuals, but it’s a much more powerful, creative situation when everyone is more or less producing their own individual concept.  Which is why producers love to have all-stars, because each person is going to be playing his own particular thing, but then it will combine to become one unit.  They usually try for that.  Sometimes it doesn’t work.  Sometimes there’s a clash.  But usually the musicians will work together.  That’s why producers like all-stars, so they can get the unit happening but everyone will have their own individual voice.  So I’m fortunate to have musicians like that in my group now.

TP:    A little bit less than a year ago, in November, you went in the studio with Julian Priester and a musician who deals with electronic sounds, Tucker Martin(?), and there’s a new record out on Postcards entitled Light and Shadow.  A few words about how that date came about, and your interaction and relationship with Julian Priester.

SR:    My relationship with Julian Priester goes back many, many, many years.  We did some things in the past, and then I played with him sometimes in Herbie’s band when Julian was there and Eddie Henderson and Billy Hart.  So I’ve known Julian over the years.  And we taught together in Seattle.  Ralph Simon is the producer of Postcards, he’s producing most of the music there, and he’s a very talented producer and saxophonist himself.

TP:    I take it this was an improvised, collaborative date. Is that how it was set up?

SR:    Yes, it was improvised.

TP:    Did you do a couple of rehearsals going over stuff and then went into the studio?

SR:    Yes, we did.

[MUSIC: Rivers-Priester-T. Martin, “Heads of the People” (1996); Rivers-Schlippenbach, Backgrounds For Improvisers, “Terrain” (1995)]

TP:    Bea Rivers, do you remember when Sam composed your tune, “Beatrice”?

BEA RIVERS:  Yes, I do.  It was one evening when Tony Williams came by to spend the evening, which he did…

SR:    Ron Carter, too, wasn’t he there?

BEA RIVERS:  Yeah, Ron Carter was there as well.  But Tony Williams would come every day and play with Sam.  One day he came in, and Sam said, “Tony, listen to this.”  Tony listened to it and he said, “Wow, what is the name of that?”  He said, “I think I’ll name it ‘Beatrice.'”  So that’s how it came about.

TP:    That was composed for the date, Fuchsia Swing Song.  It wasn’t one of your older tunes?

SR:    I had already composed it.  I hadn’t planned to put it on the album.  I had different music for the album, but it was a little too advanced for Alfred.  He said he was going to cancel the date, so I went back and got other music.  Fuchsia Swing Song was music I had done four or five years earlier.  I really hadn’t planned on recording that music.  I thought it was much too old to record.

TP:    Was that the music you had recorded in that quartet with Hal Galper, Henry Grimes and Tony Williams?

SR:    Yes, that music.

TP:    So the music performed on Fuchsia Swing Song was all music from 1959 and 1960.

SR:    Yeah, Fuchsia Swing Song was old music.  I had other music, but Alfred… As a matter of fact, all the music that Tony did with Lifetime, he had big problems with Alfred Lion because Alfred didn’t want to do it.  He really couldn’t hear it.  It seems like the music that musicians have the hardest problem getting recorded is the music that withstands the ravages of time.  It’s the ones that last the longest.  You know what I mean?  So you have the hardest problem talking to the producers, and it ends up that this  music twenty years later is still fresh-sounding.  You still have to convince the producers, because they would prefer something that they heard yesterday…

BEA RIVERS:  Over and over again.

SR:    Over and over again.  Some of the recordings that the young musicians are doing, have they considered of what value that’s going to be in another twenty years?  Of no value at all.  It’s throwaway music.  Most of the people that are recording now, it’s throwaway.  I’d rather hear Charlie Parker than hear any of them.

BEA RIVERS:  That’s right.  They’re recording what the masters have already done.

SR:    That’s not good, because they don’t have anything… In the future, how good is this?  The music that’s being done right now by the young old-timers, how good is that going to be in another twenty years?

TP:    Well, only time will tell, I guess.

SR:    [LAUGHS] I guess only time will tell, but I’m really not happy with that.

TP:    We could have a long conversation about that, but if we did, we wouldn’t get to hear the next two tunes.  So maybe we’ll hear it on the Sunday we’ll devote to your music sometime in the future.

[MUSIC:  Rivers-Matthews-Cole, “Point” (1996); Rivers-A. Anderson-Altschul, “Molde” (1973)]

* * *

Sam Rivers (DB Interview, 11-29-99):

TP:    Is there anything inaccurate or that you’d like to add to what you spoke about in the earlier interview?

RIVERS:  I just saw one thing that was misspelled — El Reno, Oklahoma.

TP:    Give me some sense of how the big bands impressed you, and who were the composers and arrangers and instrumentalists you admired in that very formative period in Chicago.

RIVERS:  Well, I was pretty young then, and I was listening more or less for educational purposes, to be used in the future.  My mother and father both understood the music, although they didn’t really care for it that much; they were more into spirituals and classical.  Then I had the records, too, to listen to later on so I could pretty much visually identify who was performing on the records.  So that did help in a sense.  But as far as influences in big band or jazz orchestra, it’s hard for me to say.  16 musicians as a group was more on my mind than anything else.

TP:    You mean the sound of the big band rather than the…

RIVERS:  Yes, the sound of the big band.  More than any particular composer or anything.  I was impressed with the instrumentation and what was to be done with it from the beginning, rather than listening to any particular style or something like that.

TP:    You were very young also in Chicago.  I forgot that you left when you were 11.

RIVERS:  Yes.  Then the bands were still coming through.  My mother was still teaching in North Little Rock, at Shorter College, and there were orchestras that came through there, too. I remember a lot of the groups at that time, just World War 2, that were travelling all over the country.  The same groups came down south.  Earl Hines, Jimmie Lunceford, Ella Fitzgerald with Chick Webb, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Count Basie…

TP:    So you heard all these bands before you went in the armed services.


TP:    Would you say that somewhat defined the sound in your mind’s ear?

RIVERS:  I more or less turned out being an instrumentalist.  I would say I was interested in how the instruments, the musicians performed as individuals in the whole thing.  I had never taken any other view of it.  I know later on that Duke wrote specifically for each person in the band; not really wrote, but he gave the members of the band sketches — because Duke didn’t do very much writing as a whole for orchestra groups; it was more improvised than written down.  Count Basie’s music was all written, but not by Count Basie.  A bunch of people did Earl Hines’ music, so they more or less were hired to write arrangements and compositions for the groups.  Sy Oliver for Jimmy Lunceford, then he started writing for Tommy Dorsey.

TP:    When did saxophone start becoming a preoccupation for you?

RIVERS:  When I went to college at Jarvis Christian College in Texas, and I was in the band there.  I was playing trombone, but they didn’t have a saxophone player, and so I said, “Well, I can play it.”  It was kind of a random act, in a sense, because I started playing saxophone regularly and I really liked it.  I had always played soprano saxophone when I was in high school.  As a matter of fact, all the instruments — trumpets, all the saxophones and baritone and trombone.

TP:    So you’ve been playing wind instruments all your life.

RIVERS:  Right, since I started in high school all the way through.  I was in this high school where you had a room full of instruments, and any instrument you wanted to play, you could pick it out (it was a Catholic school), and the priest would get it repaired, so then you’d play then instrument.  Now you have to buy your instruments.  No one had to buy an instrument then.  If their parents didn’t want to buy them, and you wanted to be a musician, the instruments were donated.  The bands were put together like that.  So I had gone through all the instruments,  since I could take any one I wanted as long as I took care of it.  So I learned all the wind instruments pretty much before I got out of high school.  Then when I got in college, I was playing trombone, because that’s what I had then — I don’t know why.  I changed to saxophone then because they needed a saxophone player.

TP:    Then you started to specialize.

RIVERS:  I specialized on saxophone.

TP:    Did you play a lot outside of the school at that time?

RIVERS:  Yes, I played lots of dances outside the school.  It was a very small town, so any town gatherings…I mean, the band played for it under the direction of ..(?)..

TP:    But your playing was always under the direction of the school band.


TP:    Because I talked to Teddy Edwards, who grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and he talked about going out with various local ensembles when he was 12-13-14, doing a lot of functional playing, and I wondered if that was part of your experience.

RIVERS:  No, not for jazz.  I was out performing when I was 4 years old, but it was spirituals, singing.  But not jazz.  I was born into musicians.  My mother and father and grandfather were all musicians.  I was already a musician long before I decided on jazz.

TP:    So you were singing from the age of 4.

RIVERS:  Right.  We were part of the choirs that my mother directed.

TP:    Is that one reason why you think the way you play saxophone is vocalized?

RIVERS:  I’m sure that process is sort of filtered into it, but I don’t consciously think about it.

TP:    Steve Coleman was saying that you always sing the melodies to everyone, sing everybody’s part to them.

RIVERS:  Yes, I do.  I think that’s the tradition.  It’s really the tradition.  The notes really don’t mean anything if you haven’t seen them before.  The notes only mean something after they have been interpreted.  If you look at some music, you only know how it goes because you heard something similar to that that you’re reading on the paper.  For instance, can you imagine taking a Charlie Parker solo and give it to a classical musician who sight reads who had never heard Charlie Parker?  It would sound completely alien to them.  He might not even be able to recognize it.  Music has always been like this.  In Boston when I was going to the rehearsals I did right around the corner from Symphony Hall, I’d go in, sit and watch Koussevitzky conduct.  I was friends with the people at the back door, backstage, so I could go in and listen to the symphonies.  Every place I’ve listened to musicians, they’ve always hummed the part that they wanted to go.  I always thought of it as you hum… First you write it out, and if you know they haven’t heard it before, so then trying to play it… They can figure it out for themselves, but I don’t want to put them through that!

TP:    You started writing charts when you were in Boston?

RIVERS:  Yes, I started writing when I was in Boston, and in fact that’s one of the reasons why I didn’t leave Boston.  I was pretty much one of the ghost-writers for a lot of jingles, and then I had this job with this publishing company that would send me lyrics, and we would put the music to them.  It was a pretty easy life like that.  I can still do that.  You send me some lyrics if you want… Nobody sends them any more, because I guess they don’t do this any more.  They don’t need music for lyrics any more; they just need the machines, the beat machines.  So that sort of phased out.  You just need a rapper and a [SINGS BEAT] and you’re off, and that finishes it for the music.  I haven’t heard any music that… But that’s what I did.  Send me the lyrics and I put the music to it.  It takes about an hour or so.

TP:    But as far as your original music and the way your concept of organizing music was formed, did that also start to take root in Boston?

RIVERS:  Yes.  I started long before I came to New York.  As a matter of fact, I was writing original music all through the ’50s.

TP:    Talk about the situation in which you did that.

RIVERS:  It was just I had a piano… It’s hard to say.  I bought a bunch of music paper and just started writing.

TP:    Was it for a band?

RIVERS:  Yes, it was for a band.  Because I was part of the Herb Pomeroy’s big band, which was comprised of the teachers who were teaching at Berklee, and I was part… I didn’t do any teaching.  I wanted to do more composing than teaching; I’ve done some teaching, but it’s very demanding.  If you want to be a composer, teaching is far too demanding, and all my respect for the teachers, because it’s a very unheralded business which is very unappreciated.

TP:    Do you remember what year you first affiliated with Herb Pomeroy?

RIVERS:  The relationship goes back to the late ’40s.  He was pretty much instrumental in the creation of Berklee School of Music.  Without Herb Pomeroy I doubt seriously if there would be a Berklee School of Music today.  He pretty much put it together himself, and he deserves all the credit for that, aside from his writing.  He’s an excellent composer and a true organizer.  Arif Mardin was doing some writing, there was Chris Swanson and some other great composers.  I had just started.  The music that we were doing was very shocking music.  Jaki Byard was one of the main writers at that time.  He was one of my idols as far as composing, because he did write in the kind of style I identified with, a style that took all the musicians into consideration.  It was a very technical style, too.  It was a very unique style.  I still think of Jaki as a unique, excellent composer, and it’s still unheralded.

TP:    In the interview we did before, we talk about you getting to Boston right after the war.  Did you go there right after the Navy?

RIVERS:  I went straight to school, to Boston Conservatory of Music.

TP:    So that was ’46.


TP:    You also mentioned you were in a house with a bunch of musicians.  Sounds like the first of many situations you set up where you made your living space a sort of center for musical creation and thought.

RIVERS:  Well, we were all students there at that time.  Jaki Byard was living there, and I was living there, and some other musicians… [Quincy Jones was around, though he wasn’t living there.  Charlie Mariano was living in Boston at home.]  Nat Pierce was there, and Alan Dawson was also living there.  The Perry Brothers and some other musicians were living in the house, but we were all going to school, my brother was living there, Gigi Gryce was also there… There are quite a few musicians I’m leaving out.

TP:    Then you played intermission at this place Ort’s Grille which had a floor show, then you’d play the intermission?

RIVERS:  Right.  On the floor show the musicians… They had Charlie Mariano and Nat Pierce; they were all working there, too.  Jaki Byard was playing.  We all worked there.  It was a restaurant, and pretty much it was a place where you could come and eat.  If you wanted to play a set… That’s what I did.  You’d want to have dinner and come down and play, instead of going to the movies.

TP:    Would you go hear Charlie Parker when he’d come through Boston?

RIVERS:  Yes, Charlie Parker and also Lee Konitz.  We were impressed by Charlie Parker and also Lee Konitz with Tristano.  I did anyway.  I thought his approach was very unique.  Yes, and Charlie Parker.  Dizzy Gillespie of course did far more advanced things than Bird.  Bird was pretty much playing the Blues, and Dizzy would have all these different kind of notes.  I recognized Dizzy was very advanced when I first heard him on record in 1945.  I was getting ready to get discharged from Navy when I heard these big disks.  It was just a thing with Billy Eckstine, Billy Eckstine’s “Blowing The Blues Away” with people like Dexter Gordon and Gene Ammons, and it was nice, a battle of tenors, and then at the end he came in, and I said I’d never heard anything like this before.  It really knocked me out.  I still remember it.  As a matter of fact, we used to do that with the band we had in Boston in the early days.  That’s something I never have talked about.  It was Jimmy Martin’s band in Boston, which was… We had a big band in Boston, and soon I was part of that band.  I was also going to school…

TP:    Who was Jimmy Martin.

RIVERS:  Jimmy Martin was a pianist and a singer, and he organized a band of all of the so-called Boston Beboppers, as we were called.  Jaki Byard was doing the writing for us, and Hampton Reese, who did a lot of music for B.B. King and other… He was an excellent composer.  This was all in the late ’40s.  So we did concerts around, not that many, but we did a few… Joe Gordon was in the band, and Gladstone Scott… I’m trying to think of other musicians who were involved…
TP:    Was Jimmy Woode involved?

RIVERS:  Jimmy Woode was there, but he was more involved in the cocktail lounge.  He had a beautiful woman singing and doing that kind of thing.

TP:    So Boston had a very active scene.

RIVERS:  Yes, it was very busy.  There was a place called Wally’s Grill, then over on Tremont Street, on the other side of town, there were two or three clubs.

TP:    And everybody would be coming through.

RIVERS:  Yes, they were coming through.  There were jam sessions at the union.  We’d put on jam sessions when musicians would come through.  Zoot Sims and the guys would come up to the union, and we’d jam up there.

TP:    Who performed your first charts for big band?  Was it in the Herb Pomeroy band?

RIVERS:  No, my music was not ready at that time.  I was putting it together.  I gave them one composition, but it wasn’t quite finished.  The music we were playing with Herb Pomeroy was very startling music for the time.  The arrangements we were playing were very… Since I had heard everything out there on records, and I knew what was going on, I thought this band was probably the most exhilarating band on the scene at that time.  And the music is still available; that’s all I can say.

I can say that my music on this record is the most exhilarating music of the time, and in a sense it’s startling to a lot of other people.  All the music that’s around, I make sure to listen to everything, and I don’t hear… I’m just doing the music, and I have all these compositions, over 200, and I’ve just managed to get, what is it, 12 on… I’m rehearsing every week, and still putting together my…

TP:    Let me make a statement about you in the ’50s, you tell me if I’m right or wrong, and then we can move forward.  You’re in Boston from about ’46 to about ’64.


TP:    In Boston you are doing this commercial music work with the lyrics and the jingles, you are studying music intensively at a variety of institutions…

RIVERS:  I did the jingles afterwards, after I got out of school.  It’s hard to say when, somewhere in the ’50s…

TP:    Around ’54-’55?

RIVERS:  Around there.  But I stayed in Boston rather than leave.  The rest of the guys left.  Jaki Byard left, Gigi Gryce left; they all left and went to New York, but I stayed because I had work there.

TP:    And while you’re in school and doing the jingle work, you’re also a professional improviser.  So you’re working with Herb Pomeroy’s band, you work at Ort’s Grille, you go on the road with blues bands…

RIVERS:  Right.  I had weekends at a place in Harvard Square every Friday and Saturday with Tony Williams and some other musicians.

TP:    You mentioned that your inklings for freedom in music began to take shape in the band with Tony.

RIVERS:  I suppose so, but it was classical musicians, an avant-garde kind of group where we would play…

TP:    Was Hal Galper in that group?

RIVERS:  No, that was a little later, with another group with Gene D’Astasio on trombone(?), and Tony was in it…  But there was no piano in that group.

A lot of these things were going on at the same time.  It’s not like these things were happening every night.  In a month’s time a lot of these things would be happening, but it wasn’t something that was every day, so we had time to get organized and do things like that.  Hal Galper was on a job in a coffeeshop outside of Harvard Square, which I can’t remember the name of.

TP:    What I’m trying to get to is when the Sam Rivers sound that we know through the recordings from the ’60s to now began to coalesce.  You said that Fuchsia Swing Song has compositions you’d been doing with that band with Hal Galper and Tony Williams.

RIVERS:  Yes, that’s right.  I guess that band was late ’50s.  But I’d been doing music pretty much all through the ’50s.  I started writing for big band seriously in ’57 and ’58.  I have compositions from that period.

TP:    Were they being performed at that time?

RIVERS:  No.  But I was writing them.  I have some compositions from that period that I haven’t begun yet.

TP:    So your opus begins in 1957.

RIVERS:  I would say that.  Maybe ’55 even.  But in ’57 I’m serious.  I’m sure of that.  Without exaggeration, I started in ’57.  I decided to write a whole book for 7 horns — 2 trumpets, trombone and 3 saxophones.  I wrote the whole book, 30 pieces, but I never got a chance to play any of it.  I still have it.  It took a couple of years.

TP:    Now, the number of voices obviously has evolved.  On this record it’s 13 horns.

RIVERS:  I was always considering 13 horns because 13 horns is the standard size of the jazz orchestra, which became fully formed in 1923.  So I have always put this as like 13 horns with rhythm.  Not so much any style; I was always sort of creating my own style.  I listened to everyone else with appreciation, and also to make sure I don’t imitate them.  I have a two-fold reason to listen to everyone, because I want to make sure that if I hear something it sounds like I’m going to do, then it’s easy to rephrase it, then it comes out… Because the music is all about rephrasing, how you phrase the music.  I listen to a lot of concert music, symphony music so to speak, and I hear… It’s more the phrasing than the notes that makes the music.  With different phrasing it would be bebop rather that symphony music.  It’s the phrasing that makes it sound like it does because of the way it’s presented.

TP:    When did you start writing music for 13 horns?

RIVERS:  In 1958.

TP:    Did you have an ensemble in ’58 to play it, though.


TP:    So it sounds to me like that ensemble starts forming after you get to New York.

RIVERS:  No-no, I had some rehearsals in Boston.  I put some rehearsals together.  But the problem was that there weren’t any musicians available.  Everybody who could do the music was also busy, teaching and other things, so I couldn’t put things together.  I was performing with Herb Pomeroy, and I did bring some music into them.  After I heard my first arrangement, when Herb played it, it was okay, it pretty much held its own compared to the great music Herb’s band had… The repertoire Herb has is still a fantastic repertoire, and I think it should be heard more.  But the main reason I went to New York was because I had the music and I wanted to start a group.

TP:    Talk about you started getting that group together.  You had a place on 124th Street, you had two 6-room apartments, you did a lot of activity, then started gravitating downtown for rehearsal space is how I think you put it.

RIVERS:  That’s it.

TP:    When did you move into 24 Bond Street?

RIVERS:  Somewhere around 1968.

TP:    Is that when you started organizing the musicians for the big band?

RIVERS:  No, before that.  As soon as I got to New York I started.  In fact, it was organized before I left Boston.  I was pretty much a transient anyway.  Everyone thought I lived in New York for all these years anyhow, because I always had a service in New York, so very few… If you wanted me, I could come up.  New York to Boston was a 3-4 hour ride, so it wasn’t a problem to get back and forth.  But I set up rehearsals even before I moved.  There were some friends on the Lower East Side who had lofts, and I rehearsed there.  One of the musicians was Gene Perla, the bassist.  So I had set up rehearsals even before I set up rehearsals.

TP:    So Gene Perla was part of the first group of people who were playing your music in New York.

RIVERS:  Yes, and he got a lot of the guys.

TP:    What I want to talk about is Crystals and the circumstances around it.

RIVERS:  Ed Michel was the producer, I’d done some other things with him, and I told him I had this music for big band, so he said okay and we did it.

TP:    At that time you’d been workshopping the music for four-five years at Rivbea, and 8-9 years total, and you’d established a circle of musicians around New York who could play your music and were familiar with the requirements.

RIVERS:  That’s sort of it, but I guess… I had time to really put some thought in my music, because I wasn’t running around worrying about how to get something to eat.  So it was different.  I had time in Boston to put my music together and put some thought to it and fix it up, and some of it was quite complicated.  And when I did get to New York, the musicians were young and they weren’t quite ready for it, and for them it was like going to school.  The traditional musicians were pretty much busy, so I got a lot of young musicians around New York and worked with them.  They weren’t part of the tradition.  So it was trying to bring them up… It was a kind of musical education for them, or something like that.  They’ll probably say the same thing, that the music was pretty advanced for them at that time.  I understood that, too.  I wasn’t a tyrant about it.  I’ve always been laid back because I didn’t want to make anyone nervous when they’re trying to make music.

TP:    Steve said you’re extremely concerned about not hurting people’s feelings.

RIVERS:  Right.  But the musicians when they first came in… Like, Steve was able to read, but some of the other younger musicians weren’t really able to read it.  And some of the guys that were able to read didn’t get the concept for a while.  It’s a different kind of concept on some things, where you’re going to be playing free for 8 bars and then come back in which is alienating to the way a lot of musicians play, even traditional musicians.  The musicians that were the free musicians couldn’t really read the music, so I had to get musicians who were tradition and could play free.  Because getting free musicians to play traditional is out of the questions.  Traditional musicians can play free, but free musicians can’t play traditional.  I like to get traditional musicians, because traditional musicians can definitely go out.  That’s why I concentrated more or less on a certain kind of musician, who can play the blues but also keep evolving.

TP:    Was there a feedback loop type of thing for you where you’d be inspired by particular voices into new compositions when you’d hear your pieces played back, and get ideas from the way they sounded?

RIVERS:  Well, yeah, but I did that at rehearsal! [LAUGHS] I’m always astounded at some of the sounds that come from these… I go back to the scores repeatedly to look to see what it really was on the paper.  Which is possible on some of the things like that.  It’s a source of inspiration to me every time I hear the music.  And I’m fortunate enough that the musicians feel the music, and so there it is.  That’s it.  Even here with these musicians down here it’s the same.  Of course, they’ve been together down here for ten years.

TP:    First let’s talk about this record.  It seems you got a very good mix of musicians who are exactly what you’re talking about.

RIVERS:  Because they’ve all been with me, played with me before.  Most of these musicians I knew from the period when I had Rivbea.

TP:    It’s an interesting mix of players with a more open form orientation who developed their aesthetic in the ’70s, like Chico Freeman, Bluiett, Joseph Bowie, or Ray Anderson, and then people like Steve and Greg and Gary Thomas.  It makes the dynamics of the solos, the arc of each piece really fascinating.

RIVERS:  Yes, I agree.  It’s something that I really can’t explain.  Like I say, I know that these musicians all read well and they all can play changes, and so they’re all coming from a different musical perspective which is what I really like.  If you noticed, every musician there has his own individual approach to the music.  That’s important to me, because I didn’t want anyone that sounded like anyone else.  There’s a lot of people out there that sound like someone else, so I made sure these guys all had their special voice.  That’s the reason why they’re there.

TP:    A few people have talked about how distinctive your rhythmic concept is.  Dave Holland described as overlapping cycles of rhythms.  Can you describe it in a way that would make it clear to somebody like me?

RIVERS:  Years ago, when I was at the conservatory, I was looking at some Stravinsky, and it had all these different time signatures for every bar and everything like this.  I said, “Wait a minute.  Now why….” I wanted to see why.  So I just took some of the music and put it in 4/4 to see how it would look in 4/4.  In other words, what I’m saying is that all these different rhythms… I use all kinds of rhythms, but they’re superimposed over a basic 4/4.  It’s 1…2…3…4, then the others are going 1-2-3-1-2-3, and something else might be going 1-2-3-4-5… It’s different layers of rhythm.  The melodies, which… I write contrapuntally, which means that there’s two and three and four melodies going on at the same time, and they make their harmonies up, but they are really melodies going on.  The harmonies happen, but every voice is playing their own particular thematic material.  But they are also playing a different time signature than the basic one.  The bass is really playing like the roots, and he pretty much is the only stabilizing force that you should hear.  Without the bass there it would be completely an avant-garde, almost classical sound which it is anyway — but without the bass it would be hard to call it jazz.  So it’s like I said superimposed layers of different rhythms which are written as melodies in some things.

That’s one kind.  Then I write traditional.  Right now I’m writing a suite for my daughters and my granddaughters and my great granddaughters (there’s about 10 of them) – I’m just finishing the fourth song now.  This is all with melody.  I’m writing these melodic things from the piano, which is the approach I use when I’m writing something melodic.  When I’m writing for my orchestra I don’t use the piano, because the piano is exceedingly limiting.  You play something and you hear it, and it’s limiting because then you have to depend on those sounds.  Now, if you don’t use a piano, and use your intellect, just think… I don’t use the piano at all unless I’m writing very traditional.

TP:    Do you write on the saxophone?

RIVERS:  I don’t write it… No. [END OF SIDE A] …I don’t have any rules.  It’s sort of like higher mathematics.  I don’t have any rules.  I sit down and I start writing.  I’m not interested in any kind of rule.  I’m not interested in whether this sounds right or not.  I’m not interested in any of that.  I put these things together, and then I go out and listen to it, and I amaze myself.  Because I don’t know what I’ve done!  I don’t try to know what I’ve done! [LAUGHS] I know how to do things, and then I know how to do things which I wouldn’t understand.  Am I complicating it?

TP:    No, I think you’re making it very clear.  You’re embracing the unknown.

RIVERS:  Yes, that’s right.  If I don’t know how to do it, I’m going to still do it.  Then, of course, I know there’s another way I know how to do it!  Then another time I’m going to try to do things I DON’T know how to do.  In a sense, whatever I do is right.  I am the creator.  I don’t understand why musicians sometimes feel inhibited.  No, I am not inhibited at all in music.  Whatever I do is right.  I have no… I can go anywhere with these 12 tones that I want to; whatever I do is correct.  I just put these things together, I dream all these different kinds of sounds together, I put them together, and I take it in to my orchestra and they play it — and I am astounded.

TP:    Osby’s comment was that you broke just about every rule you can imagine, so much that you could have a book of Sam Rivers rules that could constitute a whole new school of thought.

RIVERS:  [LAUGHS] Like I say, you learn the rules, so you should be aware of the rules.  I’m a STRICT traditionalist in that sense.  But when you go further and then start searching… After you go past… Like the record I did of standards, which is just… I’ve gone by the rules all the way, and so now there are no rules.  It’s like higher mathematics.  There are no rules when you get to a certain level.  There’s no such thing.  You set your own limits.  So how do I make it accessible to the audience?  I have to put the rhythm there.  Because we are in a kind of backbeat rhythm era, and everything is like a rhythm thing… No matter what you do about the rhythm…

TP:    You did that with “Sizzle.”

RIVERS:  It’s also in “Inspiration.”  Everything is danceable. Most of it, not all of it.  But most of them are danceable.  And also with the next one coming out, “Culmination,” which will be out in a few weeks.

TP:    Let me take this to your time with Dizzy now.  How long did you know him?

RIVERS:  I knew Dizzy for years and years.  He came to Boston quite a few times.  The first time he came, he came to the Hi-Hat with a quintet, and I was sitting downstairs listening, and then the tenor player came in and it sounded just like Dexter Gordon.  I said, “Wow!  I didn’t know Dexter was with Dizzy.”  So I ran upstairs, and it was John Coltrane!  So that was the first I ever heard Dizzy.  Then after that, all over the world we used to run into each other.  Then I had Ed Cherry…we were getting ready to do some concerts, doing some work at Sweet Basil with the big band.  So Ed Cherry said, “I can’t make it because I’m going with Diz; we’re going to do a tour.  Dizzy’s forming a new quintet.”  I said,  “Maybe I’ll give him a call.”  He said, “Yeah, you could give him a call.”  So Christmas Day I called up Diz… I know it was Christmas Day, but I’m not sure which year it was now.  I was living in New Jersey then, not too far from him.  I said, “Merry Christmas, Diz.  If you ever need a tenor player, give me a call.”  He said, “Yeah, okay, what’s your number?”  I couldn’t believe it.  So he took my number, then sure enough a week later he called me from Canada.  We formed a group with Ed Cherry, Ignacio Berroa and John Lee.  That group was together for four or five years.

TP:    Did being with Dizzy Gillespie have any effect on you that was palpable that you can talk about?

RIVERS:  The way he presented the music was very enlightening to me, to keep it light until you started playing, and then it got heavy.  That’s great because he… The way he presented the music was good.  As a matter of fact, it was the only time in my life that I really worked that much.  I was always on the road.  For the four years it was continuous traveling.  It’s hard to say whether that’s… You don’t really get anything done.  When I look back over it, as far as composing, it wasn’t a very prolific period, because I was traveling too much.  I did write anyway on the road, of course, but… I always used to wonder why a lot of the jazz greats didn’t write more music, and the fact of it is that it’s very difficult to write when you’re travelling all the time.  Duke Ellington was the only one who was able to do it, but then most of his came down to the improvisations of the musicians in the group rather than his composing skills.  Very few musicians, if any, have come up with a whole lot of writing when traveling like 50 weeks out of the year.

TP:    Did being around Dizzy have any impact on your subsequent writing?

RIVERS:  Well, I was around Dizzy’s big band, and my style already was pretty full, and Dizzy didn’t pay… Like Mike Longo said, Dizzy didn’t pay for compositions, and I wasn’t going to offer anything to anyone else’s band if I wasn’t going to get paid for it.  Lalo Schifrin came in; I don’t know whether he paid Lalo Schifrin or not.  But I wasn’t about…

TP:    But I mean being around him didn’t have any particular impact on the way you thought about writing for orchestra or your own compositions.

RIVERS:  No, not really.  Dizzy had one composition we did a lot when touring with Dizzy’s big band, and it was the only one he wrote, which was really great — “Lover Come Back To Me.”  It was a really beautiful arrangement.  I think of that one all the time.  Then he wrote “Night In Tunisia,” which is another one.  There aren’t that many.  But then J.J. Johnson did an arrangement for symphony orchestra on “Night In Tunisia” which is really beautiful.  I played that with Dizzy in concerts.  With Dizzy we played the same tunes every night.  So for me, it was just creating different ideas every night on the same basic changes, which was not a problem, because that’s the way I started in music!  The situation was a little different, because Dizzy and all those guys were really great musicians.  But when I was younger, playing in some of these places the musicians weren’t that good, so I just would take the time to practice, and just do different things.  So I was back to pretty much that stage, where I’m playing with good musicians and I’m playing the same material every night, so I really have to… It’s just a challenge.  Not really a challenge, because I was used to it so much.  The idea of being able to improvise every night was not a big deal for me, because I remember earlier… If you look at the liner notes, if you remember earlier in my career, this trumpet player… Charlie Parker came to St. Louis with Jay McShann, and nobody knew who he was.  So the word around with the musicians was, “Hey, man, there’s a guy in Jay McShann’s band that never plays the same solo twice.”  So obviously, at that time musicians pretty much memorized their solos, and they played the same solo on everything.  On “Flying Home” with Illinois Jacquet; that’s a good example of what was happening in those days.  A solo like that, you memorized your solo.

TP:    I did a liner note for Billy Taylor, who played with Coleman Hawkins for a few years, and he said that he said he memorized the famous solo on “Body and Soul,” but Coleman Hawkins didn’t — he played it differently every night.

RIVERS:  Yes.  He was one of the few musicians… Him and Lester Young… They were the special musicians, the creators.  That was one of their things.  But Charlie Parker was the first one who really stood out as far as doing that.

TP:    That obviously animates you.  In saying you write from your intellect, is that and the free improvising that you do sort of  a seamless entity for you?  Do you access a different part of your consciousness when you’re free improvising?   Because you’ve been doing a lot of that in recent years as well.

RIVERS:  I think that my main contribution to jazz, in which I have least 10 CDs or records out… I am the creator of a particular free form in jazz.  I say this with all modesty, in a sense.  But I have to explain it.  When Ornette Coleman came out, he played thematic material, and then he improvised on the thematic material.  Cecil Taylor, avant-garde, he played themes and then he improvised on the themes.  When Dave Holland and myself went out, we had no thematic material, we didn’t do anything — it was spontaneous creativity right there.  It was all improvisation, in the sense that it came on the spot and every night was different.  I have many CDs out like this.  I don’t feel that I get credit for my contributions.  I would like someone to tell me who was the one who started it if I didn’t.

TP:    But you’ve been documented on that recently after several years hiatus as far as documentation.  Like, the FMP solo CD and the FMP duo with Alex von Schlippenbach which I haven’t got my hands on…

RIVERS:  That’s all improvised.

TP:    And some French musicians.

RIVERS:  No, but that was written music.  I’m just talking the improvised…I mean, the creative music that had nothing to do with… I mean, the thematic material was all created on the spot.  The spontaneous creativity is what I’m talking about.

TP:    Does the frame of mind in which are you are improvising with the frame of mind when you are writing?

RIVERS:  Yes.  If I am doing… Of course, they are different mindsets.  If I am playing the blues, I play the blues.  If I am playing something standard, then I play the standard.  And if I am going to do something that I want to be completely original, then I try to go in without it.  I just leave it wide-open and just start writing.  In fact, as I mentioned, I’m not trying to think of anything; it forms itself.

TP:    It’s all so internalized in you that it forms itself.

RIVERS:  It forms itself.  Some of these ideas I didn’t get from music.  Some of these ideas I got from writers, from people who write.  It’s time to start writing.  You don’t find it odd, do you, to just sit down and start writing?  Every time I start writing… I write something every day.  I do the same thing.  It’s not about sitting down and “What should I write?”

TP:    I always use thematic material.  I write about Sam Rivers, and the conversation becomes like writing for me…

RIVERS:  I get up in the morning and just start writing.  That’s what I do.  I’m not thinking about anything.  Then when I get formulated… I’m thinking about writing some music, of course… When I sit down at the typewriter, I try to use the typewriter as an instrument in the same way.  How many people do that.  I think of my typewriter as another instrument.  I’ve been typing since I was 10 years old, too.

TP:    Talk about how you settled in Orlando and formed this band.

RIVERS:  Well, I was traveling all over the world, and the few places I did miss before I started traveling with Diz, I got them when I was with Diz!  Especially in the United States.  Because the music is popular in Europe and Japan and Australia, so I traveled over there quite a bit.  But here in the United States it’s sort of meager.  But with Dizzy, Dizzy was very popular in the United States, and also in Europe and the world.  So traveling around in Europe and the States, all the different states… I had a chance to see which one was… Because I wanted to get out of New York.  The main reason I wanted to get out of New York is because I was getting tired of the cold.  That was the main reason, nothing else.  Everything was all right.  I could still take care of what I was doing, although it was more things to consume time there than here — thank goodness for that, in a way.  But I was traveling all around, to California, and I looked for a place out there, looked in Arizona and New Mexico, all the places that are nice and warm. [LAUGHS] The reason I settled here, I came here, and I was speaking to some of the musicians here, and I said, oh, it’s nice down here.  So I was thinking about it.  Then we came down here for a vacation.  We were looking for a place so we came down here, met the musicians down there saw, well, there are all these musicians at Disney, and there’s schools down here, and there’s a lot of movie studio work here…

TP:    So you have competent musicians.

RIVERS:  A lot of competent musicians.  And working at Disney is not really the most inspiring thing.

TP:    So they’re hungry for inspiration.

RIVERS:  So it’s kind of captive thing.  They can’t leave because the money is so great, so it’s… But I’m not hooked up in that scene because I don’t want to get trapped in it.  I mean, it’s a very good living.  But I do okay anyway.  I’m here by a lake, watching the people do their diving and fishing… That’s the reason why I’m here.  But the musicians said, “We’ll be there.”  I just put a sign up that said, “Sam Rivers is forming an orchestra, and be at the union, at (?),” and I went there, and there the band was.  Everyone was there before I even got there.  That was going on 9 years ago.  I moved there in 1991, and I started the band exactly the same… I came here because of that.  Because they said the musicians here… It’s the same reason I moved to New York.

TP:    you had a pool of musicians.

RIVERS:  That’s right.

TP:    And have you been writing more than you ever have since you’ve been in Orlando?

RIVERS:  I write more than I ever have because it’s a very talented pool of musicians here.  I take in a composition, and we only need one rehearsal.  So I have to continuously… Like, when I first went to New York, we had to spend three hours on one tune.  That doesn’t happen here.  We spend like 15 minutes on one composition, and whatever length… We might do it two times, and it runs a half-hour, like that.  So it’s a different set here.  I want to keep writing new material.  But then if I go sometimes without, I can always go back to something we did like three years ago that we haven’t done for a while!  I’m in that kind of situation.

TP:    So basically you’re in a wonderful position.  You have a working unit 8 years let’s say 40-45 weeks a year…

RIVERS:  Yes, and we perform, too.  I just finished a concert at Rollins College, where I performed new music for 16 musicians and new compositions for 30 musicians, and it was very successful.  We’re doing a monthly thing.  Next month, Marshall Allen will be down here with the Sun Ra Orchestra.  We are trying to create a scene down here which is very favorable for musicians.

TP:    What is the place that you play regularly?

RIVERS:  Right now I’m playing regularly at the Sapphire Club.  That’s probably the club that features all the new groups that are coming through.  Orlando is producing a lot of the young groups that are coming up, N-Seek(?) and all those people.  It has the technical facilities here to do it quite efficiently.  I have masters of a lot of the music I’ve done here, so I’m in a position to sell them or possibly produce them myself.  But they’re all ready.  There are very good studios down here.

TP:    About how much have you recorded already by yourself?  30-40 tunes?

RIVERS:  I guess.  But I’ve recorded every rehearsal for the past two years on CD, and it’s very good quality, which I can also… See, I have the scores for these things.  I’m going to publish the music and the scores for some…actually for schools, so they can see how the composition is done.  It appeals to the audiences because I’m doing this nice dance beat to it, so I’m trying to play really, really exciting, advanced music with a nice primitive beat.  Combine the intellect with the soul.  It works very good, because I have a very large audience down here, and all over the state — at Gainesville, which is the other college town, the University of Florida.  We’re trying to get some music to come this way.

TP:    I think I’m going to wrap this with one question.  You’ve played the blues a lot, T-Bone Walker and so on.  First I’d like you to tell me about those years, but in a more general way, tell me about how playing the blues and the blues aesthetic impacts your overall aesthetic.

RIVERS:  Well, it’s part of it, like the spirituals are.  It’s something that you really feel.  It’s pretty much at this point running through the cliches, in a sense.  It’s hard to say how I feel about it now.  But I still feel the same way about Gospel music when I hear it.  I’m affected more by Gospel music than I am by the Blues at this point.  When I hear these good Gospel choirs down here, that’s something.  That’s feeling!

TP:    Is it nice to be back in the South for you?

RIVERS:  It certainly is for that reason.  [AFTER BLOWING UP AT ME] I got the best music out there.  I know that this CD is the best… I’ve listened to everything.  Last year the record of the year was really unbelievably embarrassing.  It was Herbie Hancock playing Gershwin.  And the year before that it was this female out there with this really trite Gil Evans stuff.  It’s embarrassing.  What the fuck is going on!?  How does this happen when everybody knows it’s bullshit?
TP:    When I talked with Anthony Cole he said that you were going in different directions with the trio.  We didn’t talk much about the trio.  I read what you wrote about it on the album I have.  Can you talk about it’s evolving, how it’s developing?  He particularly talked about it entailing a new direction for you.

RIVERS:  Well, it is a new direction in the sense that I was fortunate to have three musicians who are multi-instrumentalists.  But that was pretty much falling in the way that I’ve done things over the years.  If a musician played one instrument, he was a virtuoso on one instrument, but he was efficient, fairly fluid on other instruments that wasn’t his main instrument, but he was also able to play parts… I thought what a waste of talent to have the possibility for these other instruments, and not use them to add color, plus give it an extra added stimulus from the different sounds that would be emoted from the different textures that the instruments produce themselves.  So I’ve always pretty much done that, but I’ve never had the good fortune of having good musicians like Anthony Cole specifically and Doug Matthews broadly, because where do you find musicians… What Anthony Cole plays is just as good on piano as he is on drums, and he’s an excellent tenor saxophone player, which he learned on his own…

TP:    He said your comment to him was “find your own scales.”

RIVERS:  I really didn’t need to give him any lessons, because his knowledge was enough.  Which is the way I learned pretty much how to play the changes and everything, was learned from knowledge of the piano.  He was one up on most musicians, because he was a pianist, too.  Pianists have less problems learning an instrument that someone who’s learning an instrument without going through the piano.

TP:    He particularly seems to have inspired you a lot.

RIVERS:  He does.  It’s hard to explain it.  But it’s the way I just emphasized.  His piano is as professional… And I am a professional pianist, so we can do two-piano duets.  We can do things like that.  Then he can also do like reed things, soprano and tenor, and since Doug Mathews plays bass clarinet we have the reed thing going.  But we can do so many things… Like, improvising on changes together, and so many different kinds of things like that in the trio format, or playing free.

TP:    So he gives you a full template of improvisation from traditional to free, almost mirroring what you can do.

RIVERS:  That’s right.  So we can do the same things together.  His knowledge of harmony and changes are just as good as mine, so we don’t have any problems.  I probably have more advanced ideas because of my writing and things like this, but he’s coming on fast, so the ideas that he… Yes, we complement each other.

TP:    And you’ve been playing together pretty much since ’91-’92?

TP:    And as a trio since then?


TP:    So Doug Matthews came into the picture at that time as well.

RIVERS:  Doug Matthews came into the picture about ’93, I think.  We were playing with another musician down here who was very good, who doubled on bass, electric bass and tuba, named Charles Silver.  With him we could use a the combination with tuba.

TP:    How frequently in ’99 has the big band played in Orlando?  Once a week?  Every other week?

RIVERS:  No, it’s been probably once a month.  But we do concerts in other cities.  We do concerts in St. Petersburg and Tampa and Jacksonville and Melbourne.  I could do more if I really wanted to, but then it would be hard on the guys because everyone got their day job!

TP:    Do you rehearse without fail once a week?

RIVERS:  Definitely.  We rehearse whether we play or not every Wednesday evening at the union in Orlando.  It’s open to the public; sometimes people come.  I can rehearse my 30 musicians whenever I… I have 30 musicians total.  I just did a concert with them last week at Rollins College.  We have an open invitation to perform all my new works at the Rollins College at this point.  I do one a month.

TP:    So the 13-horn music is expandable up to 30 pieces or more?

RIVERS:  Well, I have music for 30 musicians, but I also have music for 11 saxophones, 11 reed instruments, then I have for my regular 16 musicians.  It’s different combinations, some with 25 musicians and some music written for 30 musicians.

TP:    So you have musicians to play all the different permutations.  Like, the Winds of Manhattan record was 11 saxophones.

RIVERS:  That was 11 saxophones.  So I have 11 saxophones available.  I’m getting ready to do a concert with 11 saxophones, new music always, because I don’t really perform any old music… Well, it wouldn’t be new to me, but I mean…

TP:    Right to everybody else.

RIVERS:  Yeah.  It hasn’t been performed.  It’s been on the shelf.

TP:    Talk a bit about the way the band in New York sounds different playing your music than the band in Orlando which plays your music all the time, and internalizes it and has that comfort zone, just in a qualitative way.

RIVERS:  Quality…see, that’s it, the quality of the musicians… See, in this day and age the quality of the musicians all over the world … I would be able to find musicians with a certain kind of feeling for the music because the records have been out.  We’re not isolated any more!  I mean, the idea that one set of musicians can do it when another… They all listen to the same music!  So there are talented musicians who don’t go to New York.  New York is full of guys with big egos. [LAUGHS] That’s the way it is there.  It’s not because they’re more talented than anyone else.  It’s just that.  Not to take away from them, because I’m one of the guys that was in New York, and I went there because I knew I was great…

TP:    You had an ego.

RIVERS:  Every musician goes up there because they think they’re the greatest, and that’s it.  Not so much that they’re great, but that they had a contribution to make, and the only way you’re really going to make it is to go to New York.  You go to New York if you have a contribution to make, and everyone understands that.  Because the setup, all the organizational things are there, the press and all this.  You’re there, so you know what I mean.  But they don’t have anything to do with producing records, you see, and you don’t have anything to do with the business.  You see, they comment on the business.  It’s a different thing.  Like what you’re doing now.  You’re commenting on it.  You don’t really have anything to do with the business.  You don’t really have anything to do with the business.  I mean, the business has to be taken care of.  You’re pretty much relating what is going on, or what is getting ready to happen or what has happened.  But you don’t have any real process in doing it.  I’m the one who…we’re the ones who… We are the creators, and without the creators there really isn’t anything to comment on.  So we understand that, too.  So hence our ego.  Okay? [LAUGHS]

But anyway, I was just looking on the Net here at the Amazon.com, and this record is recommended as one of the top 11 CDs of recordings in jazz in 1999.  Number 2 actually.

BEA:  You’re the only one with five stars.

RIVERS:  I’m the only one with five stars.  Roscoe Mitchell has 4½ stars.  He’s #1 and I’m #2.  I’m happy about that.  I’m still here.  And it’s not a comeback.  It’s just been a steady, ongoing thing.  I’ve never left.  I’ve been here all this time.

TP:    With the New York musicians, you had a band of people who all have very individual styles.  That was a real collection of musical personalities on that record…

RIVERS:  Right, all recognized.

TP:    All stylists and people who have established real individual voices over time, younger and older.

RIVERS:  Right.

TP:    In Orlando do the musicians have that same quality?  I’m not looking to bash anyone.  Since I haven’t heard the Orlando band, I can’t tell whether it sounds different or similar, what the nature of the difference is if it’s different.

RIVERS:  Mmm…I would say that the experience of the New York musicians… I’m trying to write so that…I’m trying to write, like, I mean…like, I mean…like… I’m thinking like…I mean, like… Why would I…I mean… Would you ask Beethoven a question like that?

TP:    No.

RIVERS:  “Which symphony in the world, Mr. Beethoven, would you like to play your music?”  Here we go.  Of course, the one that was playing it would be his favorite!

TP:    Well, Beethoven wrote for certain musicians, though.  Most of the Classical musicians had musicians who inspired them, plus their own improvisations themselves.

RIVERS:  Beethoven started writing because other musicians were writing his improvisations and putting them down like their own.  I mean, a lot of musicians who have done that, some of the respected in the world.  Stephen Foster for one.  He just wrote down what he heard.  There are a lot of other musicians who do that, too, but that’s not creativity.

TP:    Which is what you do?

RIVERS:  I don’t do that.  All my ideas come from myself.  I’m saying there are other musicians who have achieved notoriety or celebrity who didn’t, who only wrote down the ideas of other people, wrote down the stuff.  That’s the main reason why Beethoven started writing down his music.  I learned this early, that the reason why Beethoven stopped improvising is because the musicians were coming into his concerts and listening to him improvise and would go back and write the music down and say they wrote it.

TP:    Stealing.

RIVERS:  No.  They said they wrote it.  He didn’t write it down.  So if you don’t write it down, how can you say it’s plagiarism.  So he had to start writing his music in order to say it was his.  So I’m doing the same thing, writing it down.  But out of all the thousands of orchestras in the world, do you think he’d have a specific orchestra that he’d think would like to play his music?  How many symphony orchestras in the United States alone?  How many jazz orchestras in the United States alone?  How many jazz orchestras in the world?

TP:    I take your point.  Of course, at the time Beethoven was writing, he couldn’t foresee what the situation would be now.  He could only focus on what was around him then.

RIVERS:  Yes.  And he had the musicians.  They were all paid by the state, by the church, so they lived a very comfortable living.  They were all taken care of by the King, who pretty much dictated the music they were allowed to write, too.  Well, maybe not Beethoven, but Bach I’m thinking of.  I’m skipping around.

TP:    I do take your point, Mr. Rivers.  I ask the question because in the pool of musicians in New York there are so many distinctive improvisers and distinctive styles, and you’ve played with so many musicians who are world-class improvisers, master improvisers…

RIVERS:  They’ve all made their own contributions.

TP:    What I’m trying to get to, and maybe am not asking…

RIVERS:  Do the sound stronger with the music?  The solos are obviously far more creative, of course… Well, I can’t even say that.  Ted, we live in an age where there are so many musicians… Like I keep saying, there are thousands… It’s hard to say.

TP:    Are you saying that the level of musicianship in the world has transcended location in a certain sense, and it’s much different than when you were younger?

RIVERS:  I’m trying to say that.  Because the records are all over the world.  Everyone hears the music.  Even back to Beethoven’s time, outside his circle he wasn’t even known.  So it’s a different thing.  All over the world, everybody in the world, every place I go, they know the music. [LAUGHS] So to say that these musicians play this music better than those musicians over there and both musicians have heard this music, and one musician decides not to go to New York and another one decides to go… I mean, we have all these different kinds of nuances there, so it’s hard for me to…

Ted, you put me in a difficult spot here trying to tell you… I really can’t answer the question.  Not in this day and age, I can’t answer it.  If you’d asked me this question in the ’40s or the ’50s, then I would say, “Listen, the musicians…I can tell…”  In the middle ’50s, when I listened to a record, I could tell whether he was black or white, I could tell how old he was, I could tell what part of the country he was from — just by listening to his record.  You can’t do that any more.

TP:    You could do that in the ’40s and ’50s.

RIVERS:  In the ’40s and ’50s you could do that.  You could tell where he was born just listening to him.  Where he was born, what state he was from, what type of music he was (?), where he lived, where he was playing, how old he was and whether he was black or white. [LAUGHS] You can’t do that any more.  Except you can tell black or white still.  But other than that, there’s very little difference.  But there’s a difference between a black saxophonist and a white saxophonist.  I don’t know what it is, but I can tell.  So it’s something that’s still there.  I don’t know what that is.  But that’s as far as it goes now.  I can tell ethnic.  I can tell a Spanish musician, I can tell a white musician, and I can tell a black musician.  That part of it is still there.  Other than that, I can’t tell what part of the country he’s from.  I can’t tell whether he’s American or German, if he’s a White musician.

TP:    Let me change the questioning a bit.  I want to ask you about a couple of individuals and to say whatever you want to about them.  In the liner notes to Culmination you wrote something about Charlie Parker that was so fascinating I keep going back to it, what he told you about notes and phrases.  I’d like you to talk about the impact of Charlie Parker on your conception of music.

RIVERS:  It’s something that really comes later on, if it’s ever achieved by some musicians… I don’t think piano players have a problem with that.

TP:    With what?

RIVERS:  That every note is important, no matter how fast you play.  Now, saxophonists and trumpet players, some of them don’t look at it that way.  They look at some notes as just passing tones to something else, a part of a phrase.  the note itself is not really important, but it’s part of a phrase itself.  Charlie Parker did not look at it that way.  He looked at every note, no matter if it was a slur; every note in that slur had been worked out and practiced and rehearsed to make sure, when he decided to use it, if it ever came into his head, he could do it.  That’s what he said, that every note is important.  Then I spoke to another musician who was just as famous as Charlie Parker who said, “Sam, you don’t have to play every change; there are phrases that fit over changes.”  So one musician was talking about phrases that fit over the changes rather than playing the changes itself, and another musician was saying playing the notes, each note is important, and the form a phrase.  Do you get the difference?

TP:    Which musician told you the latter.

RIVERS:  I don’t want to call his name. [LAUGHS]

TP:    Is he alive still?

TP:    You can call his name.

RIVERS:  That’s okay.  I don’t want to say.  I just mean there was a duality in the thoughts of how… Here I’m listening to both these opposites who thought to achieve the same purpose.  So it’s completely opposed, diametrically opposed what these people are talking about, but it works.  And they both and ultimately come to the same conclusion.

TP:    You commented to me that Dizzy Gillespie was a more advanced musician than Charlie Parker.

RIVERS:  The notes he used as part of the chord… It wasn’t a II-V… Charlie Parker was more a blues kind of…he was pentatonic.  Everything was pretty much coming directly from the blues.  Dizzy was coming from the Blues, too, but it was in a different way of finding the odd notes in the chord that wee part of the chord structure of the blues rather than the Blues itself.  So that’s where it was the difference.  I mean, Charlie Parker was playing the blues itself and Diz was pretty much playing the Blues but more or less advanced, substitute chords and everything on top of the basic chords.  So that was the difference.  He was layering other things where Bird was staying with the basic.

TP:    Next person.  Jaki Byard.  You said you met him when you got to Boston.

RIVERS:  1945.

TP:    You knew him from then, and lived with him.

RIVERS:  Yes, we had a whole house at 13 Rutland Square.

TP:    Which you described in our radio interview.  Is that where Bird came when you met him?

RIVERS:  Bird came by there, and then Bird came by most of the time when he was Boston.  Then after I got married, he came by where I lived when I was there teaching in Boston.

TP:    How long have you and Bea been married?

RIVERS:  52 years. [1947]

TP:    Did Jaki Byard have a big impact on you and you on he?  Did you mutually influence each other?

RIVERS:  I’m not sure if I had a big impact on him, but he had a big impact on me because he was much further advanced in the music than I was.  Because when I came… I’d been stationed in California, and nothing was happening in California at that time.  We were completely cut off.  It’s not like today where it’s instant news.  I didn’t even know who Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were, and I just happened to listen to something that was there.  So I didn’t know on the West Coast if… It was not like today where it’s instant news all over the world.  But Jaki Byard was up there, and he had a chance to listen to Bud Powell and all them during his days when he was in the Service.  I’m not sure if he was in the Army or the Navy, but I think he was in the Army.  But the musicians had a fairly boring life in the Service, out there on the base, because there wasn’t anything for them to do but get up in the morning and play for the flag coming up and play for parades and play in the officers quarters in the evening.  Their life was fairly dull.  They were just spending most of the time practicing like that, because they didn’t have to march or anything.  So all they did was practice.  So most musicians who were in the Service, when they came out they were really ready, because they hadn’t done anything but practice!  So Jaki Byard was one of those.  I consider him one of the more exceptional musicians I’ve met in my life anyway, and listening to his arrangements… Like myself, he’s a vastly underrated musician.  Maybe whoever has all of his arrangements… He was a prolific composer, too, and maybe someday they’ll find someone who will give him his musical due as they’re doing to the great Duke Ellington record today.

TP:    Today I was listening to Lazuli, which you did for Timeless ten years, and there was a piece on it called “Devotion” which was a paraphrase of “Body and Soul.”  I guess you did that right in the middle of your years with Dizzy.

RIVERS:  No, it was before Dizzy.

TP:    It was ’89.  You were with Dizzy after ’89.

RIVERS:  Oh, it was ’89.  Then it was right after Dizzy.

TP:    You mentioned in our radio interview that you, like just about any other person your age who played saxophone, memorized “Body and Soul.”  But then you also said that Lester Young was really the man for you.  Can you talk about your early saxophone influences and the nature of those influences?

RIVERS:  What stands out is Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul,” and every tenor player had most of that memorized.  I memorized it then.  See, I already knew it on piano, so I memorized it… In those days Jamey Aebersold wasn’t around, so you had to do all this stuff yourself.  Which is okay.  So I analyzed it to see what he was doing with his changes and all that, and then I learned ..(?).. But it was more like taking his music and analyzing it to see what he was doing.  Then there was Chu Berry’s “Stardust,” which was very nice, too, and I analyzed that one.  Then Lester Young, “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” things by Lester with Nat King Cole which were really beautiful… Nat King Cole wasn’t much of a singer, but he was one of the greatest pianists of all time.

TP:    Did you just say he wasn’t much of a singer?

TP:    I won’t quote you on that.

RIVERS:  [LAUGHS] You can if you want to.  He was a crooner.

TP:    My wife loves Nat King Cole.

RIVERS:  Where was I?

TP:    We were talking about your early saxophone influences.

RIVERS:  I heard the guy with Lucky Millinder’s band.  Jimmy Forrest and Lockjaw I think were in Andy Kirk’s band; I think I saw them.  I saw Jimmie Lunceford’s band with Joe Thomas, I think it was.  They were okay.  But it was only Lester and them.  But in those days there weren’t many records, so you had to figure things out for yourself.  That’s why there were so many different sounding saxophone players back in those days.  Everybody had their own style because there wasn’t anybody really to follow.  Every band that came in town had these different tenor saxophone players.  Some of them were good, and others came in and you’d never remember them — like Honeydripper.  All these good saxophone players and you don’t even know their names any more.  So the few that stick out were the ones who went to New York! [LAUGHS]

TP:    Some in Chicago, I guess.

RIVERS:  Yes, Chicago and in Kansas City.  But if you wanted to record, you had to go to New York and go to Minton’s and places like that.  That’s the way you’d really get discovered.  You could be traveling around the United States with a band on a train…

TP:    Did you go back and forth between Boston and New York after you go out of the Service, or did that happen later?

RIVERS:  No, that happened later.  I didn’t really go to New York.  I went to New York now and then, but I wasn’t really that interested in New York at that time.

TP:    And I think you said you moved to Arkansas in ’34.

RIVERS:  Mmm-hmm.

TP:    Did you go back to Chicago during the summers, or did you pretty much stay in Arkansas?

RIVERS:  I pretty much stayed in Arkansas until I went off to college at Jarvis Christian College in Hawkins, Texas, which I graduated at 15 and went down there.
TP:    So you graduated at ’38.  So anyone you would have heard in Chicago was 1934 and before.

RIVERS:  Well, the musicians I knew about at that time were Roy Eldridge and Billy Eckstine, Andy Kirk… Well, no, Earl Hines was the one, and Duke Ellington.  Cleanhead Vinson had a band, and some of the other guys in Duke’s band.  So I remember all these guys who had bands came through San Francisco when I was stationed out there.

TP:    And you went in the Service in ’42?

RIVERS:  Yes, ’42.

TP:    Was that directly after college?

RIVERS:  I was getting ready to get drafted.  As soon as I graduated I was going to get drafted and go into the Army.  So I didn’t want to go into Army.

TP:    You mentioned playing with Jimmy Witherspoon on the West Coast.  Was that one of your first blues gigs as a saxophonist?

RIVERS:  Well, it was my first gig out there.  I was the only one who could play because I wasn’t in the band.  If I’d been in the band, I wouldn’t be able to do that, because the musicians who played in the band had to play at the officers quarters.  I had a job in the office with the headquarters, so I just typed… I could type, so I did that.  I didn’t want to go into the band anyway.  I had a 9-to-5 job.  I got my own jeep so I could go back and forth to where I was living.  I was supposed to be living off the base, and I’d get the extra subsistence pay.  So I had a chance to play out there and make money like that, working on …(?)… But it was always in my Navy uniform; I didn’t take it off.  When I was playing in the bands I had on my Navy uniform, which was okay.

TP:    Were you stationed on the West Coast for your whole time in the Navy?

RIVERS:  yes.

TP:    So you were based around San Francisco, and you were playing out there during that time.

RIVERS:  Yes, I was playing all the time.  I was in the Navy,

TP:    Who else did you play with besides Jimmy Witherspoon on the West Coast?

RIVERS:  He was the only one.  I’d do jam sessions.  I can’t remember anyone else.  There were jam sessions all the time, but I don’t remember… Richmond was another place; it was a really jumping city, but it was dirt roads and everything — it wasn’t really a city.

TP:    When you look back at Studio Rivbea, what do you make of what you wrought?  You had such an enormous influence on a generation of musicians in New York.  Looking back on it, what are your thoughts.

RIVERS:  Well, I was interested in just having a place where musicians could perform without the stresses you have to go through to perform your own music and without having the man tell you to chill it.  That’s pretty much what it was all about.  That was it.  We couldn’t do it anywhere else.  It’s like that now again in New York, where you don’t hear any music any more, other maybe than John Zorn and maybe the Knitting Factory.  But that’s probably the way it’s always been.  All the time I talk to people about this, how in this music the important people are not popular, and the popular musicians are not important.  So we have a situation going here that doesn’t really seem right.  I hardly (?) a situation like that, where you look at a record label and you know just by the label that the music that’s on it is going to be like traditional and not very creative and in some senses mediocre — I mean, just by looking at the label.  I’m not on an American label.  I’m on a French label.  You have to know that being on an American label is a very suspicious place to be.  It automatically means that nothing is really happening, because you are not allowed to do anything on an American big label.

That’s pretty much it.  Or, no one has asked the big labels to look if there’s somebody out here who’s really doing something creative, and the audiences might go for listening to it.  I’m looking on the Net here, and my record is one of the best-sellers of Jazz here.  I thank the audiences.  Because the critics at Downbeat… You have to tell them I’m still out here, and maybe some day… In the Critics Downbeat Poll, I’ve not even been mentioned!  I feel I must have insulted somebody who worked where who is in a position of power.  I really feel that.  I’ve gone 50 years without even being mentioned as a saxophone player, without even being mentioned in any of the Critics Polls. Guys come up to me, and they can’t even understand it…


* * *

Sam Rivers Colleagues (Comments):

Greg Osby

TP:    How did you respond to the music you played that week at Sweet Basil that subsequently became a record.  Perhaps you could break down for me structurally how you interpret him and what’s unique about the music.

OSBY:  Well, the rehearsals and the week at Sweet Basil, I was a bit skeptical as to how the record was going to turn out.  First of all, Sam’s music had never been captured accurately for me.  It was always slipshod and haphazardly produced.  Just upon personal inspection or dissection or whatever, I knew that Sam had a lot more to offer, and there was a lot more to it than just eclectic avant-garde icon or whatever.

TP:    Did you ever hear Crystals, by the way?

OSBY:  Yeah!  I have an old, tattered vinyl… Because there was no dynamics being exercised, it was like a blast-fest, so much so that the whole saxophone section had to have toilet paper and all kind of stuff shoved in our ears because nobody was really addressing it.  So I was questioning Sam’s choice of sidepersons and did he get the right people that would accurately and vividly interpret what he was doing.  Because the music was killing!  I mean, some of the most highly developed and some of the most advanced music that you can ever imagine, for big band, for small band, for any composer.  He had so many things happening at once, and his progressions and stuff were so non-standard.  I mean, he broke just about every rule that you can imagine, so much so that he could have a whole book of Sam Rivers rules that could constitute a whole new school of thought.

TP:    What would be some of the principles of that school of thought?

OSBY:  See, Sam uses clusters, contrapuntalism and movement as elements of…not just for transitory elements or for colorization elements, but these are like valid sections of music.  I mean, the whole section might be moving, and it’s like a vortex, as opposed to something that’s really calm, and then it goes into something that’s very involved just for the sake of getting to the next piece of music or getting into the next section of the music.  I mean, the whole piece of music might be just one thing.  And it’s something that’s a definite Sam-ism.  I mean, Sam is from that school of…I mean, the same school like Andrew and Cecil, that’s readily identifiable, with utilization of characteristics and things like… That’s more important to me than being famous or being popular or whatever.  This is a cat that is THE cat, and he is A cat.  He is somebody that when you speak of him, you’re speaking about a whole method.  You’re speaking about a whole school of thought.  You’re not talking about somebody who is just merely accomplished or virtuosic or has a couple of achievements or whatever.  This is a cat who has a whole well-rounded concept.  Although I’m not going to be so bold as to say that I know what it is or… A lot of people, their ego won’t allow them to say, “Well, I know what that is” or “this is that.”  I can’t be that definite.

TP:    But you have a sense of it.  You have an interpretation.  You have a point of view.

OSBY:  Yeah.  Because I hear it.  Upon mixing the record, you can isolate certain sectors of music.  You can isolate the brass, you can isolate the trombones, you can isolate the rhythm section or the saxophones or the trumpets or whatever.  I was listening to this stuff, and I was like, wow, man, the saxophones are doing something completely and totally and entirely different than every other section.  There’s about four or five things happening at once as a section.  Then within that section the individuals will be doing different things.  So it’s like a whole band where you break down the integers, and all the digits are doing different things.

TP:    And yet it locks together.
OSBY:  It locks together.

TP:    Which is kind of that African concept of stacking and hatcheting.

OSBY:  Right.  Because in typical big band writing, you have sections parodying other sections.  If you play a second alto saxophone, well, then you can be guaranteed that either the second trumpet player or the second trombone, they’re probably playing the same line or the same voice.  It’s really just doubling sections.  But Sam, he just annihilated that theory.  It’s almost like what Mingus was doing.  He would have every cat in the band doing something different.  But this was a lot more cacophonic.  Because it was like a big band!  But the fact that a lot of people weren’t dealing with it dynamically and playing real loud all the time, you missed a lot of it.  So the record really reflects that, because you can hear the subtlety and you can hear the movement and stuff, as opposed to live in Sweet Basil with all that brick and wood, and it was just loud.  It was just a blast-fest to me, and I was kind of discouraged, but the record…

TP:    And without going into a lot of detail on your feeling of which personnel would work and which wouldn’t, I’d assume you’d think the personnel that would work would be more you and Steve and Gary Thomas and the people associated with you, and maybe less so the people who came up under Sam’s generation.

OSBY:  Right.

TP:    It seems to me, listening to it, that there’s a nice dynamic between the very expressionist qualities that the project onto it vis-a-vis the approach of you and Steve.  It worked well.

OSBY:  Well, it is, absolutely.  You have to have balance.  And our personal preferences aside… I would love to hear Sam’s music interpreted by people who can read really well and who are great soloists and all this kind of stuff.  But then these people have something missing, because they never played with the Brass Fantasy or the Art Ensemble or with David Murray’s various groups or with Threadgill and all that kind of stuff.  So they don’t know how to use the instrument.  They know how to play the instrument, but they don’t know how to use the instrument if you know what I mean.  Therefore, we had people who had that experience, and so they balance out the virtuoso-technician-cerebral types.  That’s why it worked for me.

TP:    Talk about Sam Rivers’ place in history.

OSBY:  Sam probably will go down as one of the esoteric giants.  Kind of like Andrew.  Andrew will never be a poll-winner.  He’ll never grace the cover of Downbeat or anything like that.  And Andrew is one of those cats who is regarded in the community as one of THE cats.  It’s hard for me to interpret.  I know you know, but it’s hard to put that in words for a laypersons.  You say “one of the cats.”  “Oh, he’s not one of the cats.  One of the CATS is somebody like Trane or Bird or somebody…”

TP:    Well, I think what we mean by “one of the cats” is these are people whose lives intersect with the lifeblood of the music, and historically so, which is the case with Sam, through his Boston experience, and even before that in the Navy and on the West Coast, and Andrew being a working musician in Chicago.

OSBY:  Yeah, but see, you have the cats who are widely regarded, Bird and Trane and Diz and Miles and those kind of cats.  Then you have people who within the community, the sub-structure, they say, “Well, these are the CATS that spawned the other cats.” It’s like Sun Ra and John Gilmore and Earl Bostic; these cats begat the cats like Trane.  But you never hear people talk about those other cats.  Like, Andrew Hill begat people like Geri Allen and Jason Moran and James Hurt and people like that.  So we know who the cats are, but when we hear the talk in interviews and so on, all we hear are people like Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner, because those are the popular cats.  Now, they’re the cats, too, and they begat a whole bunch of clones and a whole bunch of disciples and students.  But for people like me, Andrew and Sam and Duke Ellington and Sun Ra, those are like REAL cats…

TP:    Well, they don’t beget clones.

OSBY:  No.  But Lennie Tristano and, you know, these underground cats.  Monk is a cat only because of the popularity of his songs and stuff like that.  See, he’s very esoteric, too.  A lot of people aren’t really tapping into the reality of what his stuff was.  They’re just dealing with the obvious elements.

TP:    Talk about Sam as a saxophone player.

OSBY:  Sam as a saxophone player is incredible.  I don’t really know who he’s coming out of.  And that for me is enough for me to like him. [LAUGHS] That’s all I need.  I don’t know who his influences are.  I have to sit down and interview him personally to find out.  But it’s very unorthodox.  Sometimes it sounds like he’s totally self-taught, and he’s playing the alternative fingerings… He’s doing other things sonically, like choking up on the mouthpiece and doing a lot of throaty things…

TP:    He said when he was a kid (remember, he was born in 1923), he memorized every Lester Young solo and Hawkins and all this, and then he sort of erased the blackboard.  But that’s his root in a very first-hand way, like Von.

OSBY:  Now that you say that, I can hear the Lester Young.  I can hear the Prez in his playing.  Less elements of Coleman Hawkins, but I can definitely hear the Lester Young.  But he totally fragmented that, so I don’t know… It’s really hard to define.

But his music, man… he’s really into some other highbrow musical systems.  He uses Schillinger or Hindemith… He’s into some 20th composition.  He’s definitely into that, because just the symmetry in some of the lines and some of the music that he does is definitely not coming from a jazz base.  It’s coming from somewhere.  I don’t even want to say it’s European or whatever.  I don’t know what it is…

TP:    I think “highbrow” is a good way.  Talk in some general way about the layering of highbrow musical ideas and concepts on top of the vernacular.

OSBY:  The problem is, when a lot of people hear that kind of stuff, they dismiss it at being third-stream or classically derived or whatever.  They say it doesn’t swing, or the intervals are too wide or too disjunct or too jagged or whatever, and it doesn’t sound consonant, it’s just dissonance for dissonance’s sake — and it doesn’t meet its mark.  But that’s the kind of stuff that appeals to me even more, because I can hear the jazz bases, I can hear the swing influences and stuff, because I dig deeper.  I dare to be patient enough to check that out.  But people who only give it a fleeting listen and say, “Well, this cat is obviously influenced by some Europeans…”  So what?  So was just about every other major icon in the music.  But you just hear a lot more of the blues elements in what they do as well.  I hear the blues in Sam’s music.

TP:    Well, he played with T-Bone Walker for a long time!

OSBY:  Yeah.  A lot of people don’t hear that.  They just hear the wildness and the rawness.  I think “raw” is the key word here.  I mean, it’s so raw and it sounds so unrefined…

TP:    And yet it is.

OSBY:  And yet it is.  But a lot of people just hear that it’s like a man on a mission who hasn’t realized his vision.  But I beg to differ.  It’s the same response as people who hear Von Freeman, or even some early Wayne Shorter.  They just think the cat is wild and everything.  Or Coltrane, all the criticism that he got, all the adverse criticism Duke Ellington got… They just don’t hear it.

TP:    And it kind of defines in an aspirational sense what jazz can be.  Kind of putting your personal vision… In other words, all the hard work and preparation you refer to in terms of your own productions, and the passion with which you can articulate that and continue to grow with it.

OSBY:  Absolutely.  It’s not a thumbing of the noses.  It’s not like, “Take that; I can do what I want, and this is my music.”  It’s really people conceptualizing and trying to present the music as they see it, using a logic that’s not popular, or that’s not only not popular, but probably even something new.  These cats get in the lab and they work out theories and stuff.  Sam said he has trunks and trunks and reams and reams of unreleased and unpublished music, and he’s trying to codify it and get it all out now.  That’s why the record is so long.  That’s why we did all those recordings and did all those songs.  It was like enough for a double CD.

Steve Coleman

TP:    Let’s first talk about your earlier contact with the music of Sam Rivers and the things that struck such a chord in you.  Was it when you first got to New York and played with him, or before that?

COLEMAN:  Yeah, when I played with him.  I started making rehearsals at Studio Rivbea.  I’d heard Sam’s name before, but I didn’t know much about his music.  Well, when I got to New York I didn’t know much about anybody’s music.  It wasn’t just Sam.  A lot of guys who were still living, I didn’t know a lot of people’s music.  I mean, I knew some of the people whose names were, well, big names… I knew Sonny Rollins.  I even knew people like Joe Henderson and Freddie Hubbard.  But Sam, even now isn’t as popular as those guy, so I didn’t know his music.  But I’d heard the name “Sam Rivers,” I’d heard the name “Cecil Taylor” or whatever, but anybody who I didn’t get to hear live who came through Chicago… The only place people came through was the Jazz Showcase, and they almost always hired traditional people.  Even some of the guys in Chicago, like the AACM guys who left, I heard most of them in New York.  I played with Muhal at a jam session in Chicago before I came, and I played with George Lewis at a jam session and stuff like that.  But that’s not the same as hearing his music.  It was one of those Von Freeman type things or something like that.

So I really heard Sam when I got to New York and I started trying to play with everybody I could play with.  I think it was Chico Freeman who told me about the rehearsal.  He asked me could I read or whatever, and I said yes, and he told me then to come down there.  I knew Chico because I knew Von.  So I went down there and just started sitting in on rehearsals and stuff like that.  That’s how I met Sam, that’s how I met Dave Holland, that’s how I met a lot of those guys.  I got to New York on May 20, 1978, and it was a few months after that.

TP:    Talk about the ongoing relationship.

COLEMAN:  When I first heard the music it was shocking to me because I had never heard any music like that.  But I was shocked in New York many times during that period!  The first band I heard was Air, and that was shocking; I remember hearing them at Beefsteak Charlie’s.  The second group I heard was Arthur Blythe with the cello and tuba at Sweet Basil, which was shocking.  So I was constantly being shocked in that time period.

So Sam Rivers’ thing was just another shocking experience.  I had played a lot of big band music, but never anything like his music.  It was so original, almost everything about it — rhythmically, harmonically, melodically.  It’s not that he told you what to do, but he hired certain types of people and they were doing certain types of things, so there was a certain kind of looseness that was in the music.  Sometimes it got too loose for me actually.

TP:    Was it loose because of the predispositions of the players or was it loose because of the music?

COLEMAN:  Well, it was loose because of the players, and also because of the way Sam was — because Sam is loose.  But Sam is loose but in a kind of… You know, he was loose in the way that Bird was loose.  I mean, he’s loose, but he knows what he’s doing, and there’s a precision there inside the looseness.  But some of the players were just loose.  My interpretation of the loft scene is it was very loose anyway.  It’s kind of coming off a lot of developments from the ’60s, and players just take it in different directions.  Some players really know what they’re doing and really are working on their music, and others are just sort of in there.  So it’s a mixture of that.  But then again, when you go to the period before, that was happening, too.  But generally speaking, I found that true of that particular scene.  It was very experimental music, and so a lot of times the guys… Sam even put it to me this way at one time.  A lot of times guys just got who they could get, because they didn’t always have a choice of everybody who was on the scene.  Not everybody was into that kind of music or whatever.  So if you wanted to fill out a big band or a group or whatever, a lot of times you would just take who you could get, and it wasn’t always the best cats for the particular situation.  Sam said, “Well, you do the best you can; I’ve been out here a long time.”

TP:    Well, he’d always set up situations, so it wasn’t something new for him.

COLEMAN:  Exactly.  He’s doing the same thing probably in Florida.

TP:    Break it down for me a bit how you see the different components of the music.  What is it that’s so original?

COLEMAN:  It’s hard to describe.  It’s hard to say it’s one thing, because it’s not, and it almost never is.  But rhythmically it’s very different.  Now, I don’t mean necessarily the rhythm section, but the way the melodies laid rhythmically, the rhythms that the melodies were written in.  Because Sam had this very kind of contrapuntal concept, or many lines layered against each other kind of writing.  He does things like turning around the beat and different things like that, which means there’s an odd number of beats in a phrase as opposed to an even number of beats.  Sam would have things turning around, then they would turn back around on themselves and then come back… Some players would call that odd times, but he never wrote out anything in any kind of odd time signature.

TP:    They just fell that way.

COLEMAN:  Well, it was that way.  But you can write anything any way you want to write it.  No matter how out I want to get, I can still write it out in 4/4 if I want to.  He was a master at doing that.  In other words, he deliberately wrote it a certain way so that people could read it.  He told me that, too.  And I noticed this.  I noticed that even though his things were written in 4/4, that wasn’t the way they were.  The same thing with listening to Art Tatum or Charlie Parker or whatever.  There are some things they play which are not in 4/4, but because they’re in that context, people assume that’s what it is.  I don’t know if there’s an easy way of explaining this, but it was an odd number of beats in a lot of the phrases.  [SINGS CHORUS] That’s a 7-beat phrase that keeps turning back on itself.  So every second time it comes around, it’s an even number of beats — 14 beats.  But still, the phrase itself is in 7.  When you’re playing the phrase you can feel that you’re repeating the phrase every 7 beats.  So he had a lot of things like that, which most people don’t have in that music.  It’s a simple thing, but when you have a lot of that happening on top of each other, and you have one phrase doing that in 7 and another one doing it in 5 and another doing it in 4 and another one doing it somewhere else, it has a certain character.  It’s one of the things that I actually copped from him.  It’s one of several things that I’ve borrowed, stolen, whatever you want to call it.

TP:    Any others you’d care to put on the record?

COLEMAN:  Well, there is some intervallic stuff also, intervallic meaning… In every style you can see certain intervals that are predominant and others that are not so predominant.  I mean, there’s only 12 intervals really, but certain people tend to do certain kinds of things.  And Sam’s melodies have certain types of intervals that recur in everything.  This just got in my brain after a while, so it had a heavy influence on my music.  I mean, it’s not just what Sam did, because it’s a combination of a lot of different players.  But some of what Sam did definitely got into my music.  And all these things were coming from his writing more than anything else, because that stuff was just sitting there enough that you could kind of soak it in very quickly, especially if you’re playing the music.  So it’s not so much coming from his playing; it’s coming from what he was writing.  But his writing and playing are essentially the same brain.

TP:    You’re on Colors, the Black Saint record from ’83.  How long did you play with the big band in that first go-round?  Is that around when it fell apart in New York?

COLEMAN:  I did a lot of recording with him I guess up to the time I started steadily playing with Dave Holland — there was a little overlap.  But I would say all between ’79 and ’83 I did a lot of gigs with him, most of which weren’t recorded, of course.  I remember doing gigs at the Public Theater, tons of stuff at Rivbea, gigs all over the place.

TP:    Was he writing original music for that band the whole time?

COLEMAN:  Always.  Yeah, he has tons and tons of music.  The music we’re playing now, none of it is the music we were playing back then.  I don’t remember hardly anything being repeated.  The music we played with Colors was completely different than the music we played in the big band, which was completely different than what we just did…

TP:    And completely different that what was in Crystals.

COLEMAN:  Well, to my mind.  There may have been some things he reworked, like “Beatrice.”  But for the most part, that’s what I’m talking about.  I don’t remember “Whirlwind.”  When we played it just now, I was like, “I don’t remember this.”  Now, he may have played it with somebody else, but I didn’t play it with him.

TP:    How do you see the music on these records as evolving from when you first hooked up with him 15-20 years ago?

COLEMAN:  I hear the biggest difference as the people playing on it rather than so much the music itself.

TP:    In the level of competence?

COLEMAN:  No, I can’t say that, because there were people in the past, like George Lewis and people like that, who were really competent.  Where one person may be less competent in one area, another person may come in.  Well, George is one of those people who really had it together; he reads real well and has a fast mind.  To me, George Lewis and Sam, they represent people who have chosen what they want to do.  They’re not doing what they do because they can’t do something else, if you know what I’m saying.

But I wouldn’t say necessarily it’s a level of competence.  There is a general air today that’s very different than when I first came to New York.  With the guys younger than me, there’s a certain kind of… It’s hard to say.  It could be interpreted as precision, then again it could be interpreted as sterile.  It depends on who you’re talking about and how you’re looking at it.  But in general it’s cleaner.  But that could be not good also.  It depends on how it’s done.  I mean, Bird was very clean, but in a different way.

TP:    Well, you’re very clean.

COLEMAN:  Yeah.  Well, I try to be clean in the way that…

TP:    So is Greg.  You’re precise.  You know what you’re playing, and you’re technique is together, and you’re thorough musicians.

COLEMAN:  Well, I’m very concerned with it being precise, but not mechanical.  I mean, to me Bud Powell was very precise.  At the same time, there’s this sort of spontaneity, almost like a professional raggediness that you hear in his playing, but if you try to practice it you see it’s on a very high level of precision.  But it still has that sound that we used to call in Chicago “the professional beginner” sound.  To me, some players have a high degree of that, and to me that’s the hardest thing to get.  I think Sam has that in his music.  When I was mixing the music, and I was checking out the voicings he was using on “Beatrice” and so on in detail, I mean, there’s some incredible writing happening there that you don’t hear until you really dig down and go into the deeper levels of it.  I mean, I don’t expect the regular person in the audience to hear it.  However, when that detail is there, it adds to the emotional impact of the music, in my opinion.  It adds to the impact and depth of the music, not musical depth, but emotional depth…spiritual depth, for lack of a better word.  With Coltrane’s music you get the same kind of thing, with people who have really dug, and there’s layers and layers of thinking and work and interpretation there.  It hits you a certain way, rather than when somebody is taking it casually, or when somebody has done it on a casual level.

TP:    Talk about him as an instrumentalist, specifically as a saxophonist, and the qualities that really mark his improvising style and his saxophonism.

COLEMAN:  I guess the best word is serpentine.  The first thing that strikes you about somebody is the way they do something.  Not necessarily the notes and things like that, but the way.  And the way is in the sound, the phrasing, the rhythm; those are the things that immediately strike you.  It’s very slippery.  It comes out of what I think of as a certain school of saxophone playing.  It’s not really a school in that they imitate each other or they all went to school or anything…

TP:    It’s an aesthetic.

COLEMAN:  Exactly.  When you go to the older players, there’s always… Certain players that have a lot of depth in their playing, like Coleman Hawkins, you always see a different direction that their influences went — a different way.  For a player like Coleman Hawkins, different schools came out of different sides of his playing.  You see that with players like Charlie Parker, or Coltrane, or Louis Armstrong.  So there’s a certain kind of playing that I can trace back to Coleman Hawkins that I call the “snake school,” which is my best term.  It’s represented by players like Lucky Thompson, Benny Golson, Lockjaw Davis, to give you a few examples.  Even when you get into the more adventurous music, you still have those tendencies.

To me, Sam is in that particular school.  I don’t know any other word to say it.  Because there’s really no term for this; I’m sort of making stuff up.  But he’s in that snake school, kind of in the way… This is my interpretation; it might not be his at all.  To me, Von Freeman is in that school — or he definitely can be.  It has to do with a lot of slipperiness, it has to do with a lot of shifts and directions that they make in their lines and when they’re playing, and the intervals and the rhythm… It’s mainly the rhythm and the phrasing.  Then Sam makes it even more apparent with his phrasing because he has this garbled kind of phrasing, just the way he attacks the notes and does a lot of smears and things like that.  That makes it more pronounced, in my opinion, especially the way he smears the notes.  You can hear this on almost any of his recordings.  If I’m driving along in the car, and Sam comes along on the radio, then you can instantly hear that it’s him.  It’s like right away, just from the sound and phrasing, you can instantly hear it’s him.  For me, the first thing I get is that slippery thing.  It’s sort of like he looks, kind of long and rangy and everything.  And he moves like this, too.  To me, this goes beyond music.  When he’s like directing the band and doing his little dance, for me that’s like a snake dance.  It has that same kind of thing.  And if you ever check out the way he sings the music before the band plays, he sings the shit exactly like it should go.  He’s like “Okay, here we go; one-two, [SINGS].”  He has a certain way that he sings it that really gives you, more than words, how he wants this thing to go — or how he hears it in his head; he’s all animated about it, and that gives you a lot of information.  Everything, the way he’s singing, the way he moves and so on, and then he plays like that.  That gives you an idea, okay, this is how he hears this, this is how he wants it to go.”  There’s nothing he could say to you that would…

TP:    Like the way Monk was physically.

COLEMAN:  Exactly.  There’s a lot of people like that.  And there’s nothing that he could say that would give you more information than watching him move, listening to him sing, just watching the way he is.  He’s just an embodiment of the whole thing.  That’s the best way I can put it.  That goes for his playing his writing, the way he moves, the way he talks.

TP:    Talk about how this project came to be.  Had you been in touch with Sam a lot in the intervening years?

COLEMAN:  Not a whole lot since he moved down to Florida.  But it was always in my mind from the time we did Colors which for me was a disappointment in the production.  I thought it was a great tour, I learned a lot on the tour and I thought we did some great music, but then the tour got capped off by what in my mind was a really sad recording, or representation of it.  After the record came out I was saying I don’t think there’s any good representation of Sam’s music out here.  As you know, a lot of guys who are not real popular are left recording for these real small labels, and many times they have to do the whole record in 5-6 hours, and the mix is thrown together, the record is thrown out there, and there’s nothing happening.  So I thought it would be sad if this great cat left, and there’s like no real representation of his music.  Now, he’s made a lot of small group recordings, and there’s a lot of examples of him doing improvisations with people like Dave Holland and others, but to me the thing that was missing was his writing.  He’s written thousands of things, and the representation is small.  So that was one of the things I proposed along with recording Von Freeman, which I haven’t gotten to do yet.  I always liked Von and I always liked Sam, and I always told myself if it was ever within my power, I would try to see that some of the better quality stuff got recorded from them.  I wanted to record Von with a bigger group also. [ETC.] I knew Sam could do it by himself because he writes everything, so I didn’t have anything at all to do with the music.  I just told Sam, “Well, I want to do something with you; I want to produce, have it be on a good sound quality level, but beyond that, you got it.”  I brought in a couple of people, but mainly I brought in people where he couldn’t find cats or where there were holes.  I didn’t pick the whole band.

TP:    The band is an interesting mix of younger cats who are more, as you say, precise but with an edge, and then people who are contemporaries from the loft period.

COLEMAN:  The bottom line is, it worked out like it worked out.  I wasn’t dissatisfied with the way it worked out.  Had we had more time, probably we could have done better, but I could say that about anything.  I thought it worked out great overall, the whole thing.  I really learned a lot from the experience.  But certain guys who have been playing a certain way a long time, you’re not going to change that overnight.

TP:    I thought there was a great dynamic.

COLEMAN:  I thought there was, too.  The rubbing of these different things produced different effects.  It would have been boring if it was all guys like me or all guys like Ray Anderson or whatever.  The fact that it was different people rubbing elbows made for an interesting mix.  And it’s because of Sam that that mix was there.  It’s not the kind of mix that you could concoct.  If we had concocted it, it would be probably less interesting.  Everybody has strengths.  A lot of the players who were hanging out on the loft scene have a lot of energy, and there’s a lot of raw power there…

TP:    A lot of expression in the horns.

COLEMAN:  Exactly.  So that adds a great deal to the thing.  You find that in a lot of the older music, too, in Duke Ellington’s band and so on.  To me, a lot of the younger guys don’t have that, unless it’s manufactured.  There are players who don’t like that, who say, “Well, that’s bull” or whatever.  But for me, all of that is valid — that energy.  I learned that when I played with Cecil Taylor’s big band, for example. I played with this band, and there was a lot of raw energy there, and if that energy is channeled right it can be killer.  It can get out of hand, but anything can get out of hand!

So I thought it was a really good thing.  I felt my job was to help Sam make this the best we could make, given what we’ve got, given our situation, given the budget, given how much time.   And it helped that we had a gig at Sweet Basil before, which was like rehearsal in a lot of ways, and it also helped that they had a bigger budget than normal, because little problems that came up that took time to work out, and the fact that we had a bigger budget meant we could do that, whereas if we were recording for a real small label that wouldn’t have happened.  What happens with a small situation is that when problems come up, you can’t work them out.  So the chips fall where they may.

TP:    Sam talks about how these pieces are meant to be 50 minutes.  Of course, on a record you can’t do that.

COLEMAN:  Your chops say you can’t do that.

TP:    Do you feel it’s an overly idealistic aspiration on his part?

COLEMAN:  Well, yeah.  It’s kind of like the Braxton music on different planets.  It falls within that area.  It’s an ideal.  To me, ideals are great.  They’re fantastic.  If that’s the ideal you hold in your head, if that’s what you aspire to, that’s great.  But it probably will never be that.  I mean, guys’ lips will fall off if you play 5 compositions of 50 minutes each. People just won’t make it.  However, it’s a great idea, and I see what he’s talking about.  Yeah, it could be like that.  But I also think that would be very boring.

TP:    I guess that’s part of the African thing you’re talking about, is the endless music.

COLEMAN:  Yeah.  I understood what Sam is saying there, but I don’t think that’s ever been realized or will be realized, because it’s just a situation.  Also, there’s a stamina issue.

TP:    Would you elaborate more on your comments in the liner notes about the closeness of the music to the West African concept.

COLEMAN:  Well, one thing is what you mentioned about the different levels of the musician and all that kind of thing.  You find that a lot in African music, where people are participating on the level they can participate on.  You find it a lot in community music.  There’s not the idea of everybody being a virtuoso.  Only some people are virtuosos.  Other people are doing other things, performing other functions.  When I see, for example, Duke Ellington’s band or Count Basie’s band, that’s what I see.  You don’t see a thing where everybody is a virtuoso kind of thing.

The one thing I wouldn’t have done, Sam has this super-democratic thing where everybody’s soloing, everybody gets the same amount of space and all that kind of stuff.  I wouldn’t have done it like that.  I would have let the stronger soloists solo for the most part, or get the lion’s share of the space, in order to bring the strongest characteristics out of the music.  I wouldn’t have let everybody solo and everybody get equal space and everybody have 2 seconds, which is what it comes out to be when you’re trying to get all that music done and get all that stuff in on record.  You have these really short improvisations…I mean, that are not collective.  There’s a lot of improvisation, but a lot of stuff that’s collective, which is like composition.  Everything gets mixed together, and you’re not hearing the individual voices so much.  There were people in the band who are strong soloists in all the different sections, and I would have brought them out more.  In my opinion, it would have raised the level of the music.  But Sam had a different idea.  Sam is a very compassionate guy.  He didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings.  So he’d have guys solo who really shouldn’t be soloing.  That wasn’t their function.  I would have had a bit more role-playing, I guess I’m saying.  In that sense, I’m following the African thing.  I’m not going to have a kid do a master drummer’s part.  The master drummer does the master drummer part.  That doesn’t mean the other guys are less important, because that support part is very important.  A guy like Michael Jordan, he needs his support, role players — he can’t do it by himself.   That’s very important.  But in this day of stars and egos and so on, we don’t think like that – in the West.  We think the star is the most important guy.  Well, that’s not true.  It’s the whole team that’s important, and that’s part of what’s wrong with this culture.

TP:    Greg addressed a quality in the orchestrating where, say, the saxophone lines are doing something totally different than every other section, there are four or five things happening at once within the section, so it’s a whole band where you break down the integers, they’re all doing different things but it locks together.  Then my comment was that it’s not unlike the African concept of stacking rhythms, hatcheting…

COLEMAN:  Right.  But it wasn’t usually in sections like that.  In other words, Sam writes a cross-section.  In other words, a tenor and an alto might be playing with a trumpet and trombone.  Then another two trumpets might be playing with the baritone and another alto.

TP:    He described it as doubling sections.

COLEMAN:  He’s writing things where he’s making unusual groups of people.  It might even be the bass and one horn or something like that.  There’s unusual groups of people doing things, then he’ll play that off against the sound of sections, like the brass section or the trumpet section or whatever.  So sometimes he will have traditional sections playing.  Other times he’ll break those sections up, and it will be like me and the lead trumpet player and one of the lower brass or something like that, and it will be a section.  So you have to keep your ears open, because you never really know until you know the music where you’re going to be paired off and who you’re going to end up playing with, and all that kind of thing.  As a result, you have to be strong and play on your own.

TP:    That’s how the pieces become different with every performance, then, in a structural sense, that you don’t know who you’re going to be paired off with?

COLEMAN:  Well, no.  Within the same piece you’re paired off with the same double. The improvisation is what makes it different.  But from piece to piece, until you know that particular piece, it’s different.  And he has so much music that you can’t remember everything.  So from piece to piece it’s always different.  Most people when they write big band music, they’re writing saxophone section stuff out — this real Nestico type of writing where all the saxophones are playing together, all the trumpets are playing together, all the trombones are playing together.  Sam has some of that, too, but more often than not he’ll break the sections up and have different instruments playing with each other, and that gives a different sound.  It’s a really different sound when you have a saxophone, a trumpet and a trombone as a section, or a saxophone, euphonium and trumpet, or whatever.  That’s a really different sound than three saxophones playing.

TP:    One last general question.  Talk a bit about Sam Rivers’ place in the history of the music.

COLEMAN:  In my opinion, there’s two histories of the music.  There’s the history of what gets written down in the books and what’s known and all that kind of stuff, which unfortunately is what most people are going to know.  Then there’s the actual effect that you’ve had on the music and its participants, and which continues through other people you’ve touched.  In that sense, for me, Sam’s influence on the music is huge, because he’s touched people some of whom are themselves going to make a lot of marks.  I mean, there are a lot of unknown people who have this kind of effect, but Sam is more than unknown, so naturally he’s going to be better known, because he’s been on the scene a long time, he’s lived a long time, he’s played with a lot of people over the years.  So from way back in the ’50s all the way up to now he’s affected a lot of people’s lives, from Tony Williams all the way through to what’s happening today.  As a result, through his own work and through the work of these other people, he’s had a big effect.  To me, your effect on the music is cumulative.  It doesn’t just stop with some records you put out that somebody may think is important or whatever.  It’s mostly the interactions you have as you live every day, and the effect you’ve had on certain people.  I know he’s had a huge effect on my life.  I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if it wasn’t for Sam and people like him.  And if there’s anybody out there who claims that I have a big effect on them, well, again, that’s coming from Sam…

TP:    It’s the line of descent.

COLEMAN:  Yeah.  And it plays out all the way to the public.  It’s not just something that stops with the musicians, because what we do collectively is this music.  Even if somebody like Terence Blanchard had not listened to Sam at all and he had no effect on him, and he has a big effect on me, then when I play with Terence Blanchard the effect is still there, regardless of that.  So it carries on and on and on through unusual ways.  I think he’s a very original voice, and very original voices always have a huge effect, in my opinion, even when they’re not well known.  They always have a huge effect because they’re bringing something different to the mix, to the dance.  Put it that way.  If you’re just bringing the same thing to the dance that everybody else is bringing, well, then, it’s already in the dance — it’s no big deal.  But if you’re bringing something different, everybody is like, “Oh, what, wait a minute, what’s this cat doing?”  So that’s adding something to the overall mix.  He has a much bigger effect than somebody who is just bringing the same drink to the party and then throwing it in the punch when there’s already that in there  than somebody who brings a different ingredient.  He has a much bigger effect because that ingredient wasn’t there before.  That’s the way I look at people like Sam Rivers.

TP:    Please talk about him personally, your relation to him…

COLEMAN:  When I first came to New York, he and Bea kind of took me under their wing a bit.  Not completely; I didn’t move in with them or anything like that.  But they definitely took me under their wing, and I would go over and hang out even when there was no music stuff happening.  See, I was fairly poor and didn’t have a lot happening in terms of where I was living and all that kind of stuff.  So I would just hang out a lot at Rivbea, and a lot of times I’d be hanging out with Sam or Bea or Monique.  Sam encouraged me a lot.  He would talk to me.  It wasn’t like a father-son relationship in the traditional sense, but it’s more like that than anything else, I guess.  I definitely felt they were taking me under their wing and encouraging me.  Bea told me early on… She would talk to me and tell me things that Sam wouldn’t necessarily tell me, like, “Sam thinks you have a lot of talent and you’re going to do a lot, so you just have to hang…”  She would tell me a lot of things that I guess Sam would say but wouldn’t say in front of me.  Sam isn’t a cat who throws around a lot of compliments.  That mainly came from Bea.  But you could tell that she was getting a lot of information from Sam, because some of the things she would say weren’t things you’d think she’d know just on her own.  She would just say a lot of things.  I remember when he first heard Gary Thomas, Bea said a lot of the same things about Gary which I thought really came from Sam. But Sam wasn’t the kind of guy who would say that.  He would just get down to the business of doing the music.  But I felt they took me in, in their own kind of weird way — because they’re kind of a weird lot.

TP:    They dance to the beat of their own drummer, as the saying goes.

COLEMAN:  Yes, and I’m like that, too, and I dug that, and I could relate to it.  So they just encouraged me.  When Sam did talk to me, he really encouraged me to try to stay creative and try to build my own sound.  He always said that for him, that’s what the whole thing was about, was really getting out what’s unique inside of you and getting your own sound.  I got the feeling that if he didn’t do that, he didn’t want to do anything.  I felt that way, too, so I was attracted to that part of what he was talking about.  “The really important thing is you’ve got to have your own voice, you’ve got to have your own thing to say.”  I remember a lot of guys in Chicago saying that same kind of thing.  For me, that was the big message and the important thing I get from his example.  He’s one of those cats like Cecil Taylor and Ornette who just stuck it out over the long run.  If they stumbled, they got back up and just kept going.  That’s like a really big inspiration for me, because I’d see if they can do this in what were harder times than today, then what’s my problem?

Dave Holland

TP:    First, tell me how you first touched based with Sam Rivers and came into his orbit.

HOLLAND:  I met Sam in New York in the late ’60s shortly after I’d moved there.  I remember seeing him around town at various locations.  He’d started rehearsing with Cecil Taylor, who had a place sort of downtown around 18th Street and 6th Avenue, which is in the area I was living, so I used to see Sam quite often — he’d be on his way to rehearsal.  The next time we kind of hung out a little bit was touring in the fall of ’69 when I was with Miles and he was with Cecil’s band, and we were doing some double-bill concerts in Europe.  That was sort of the extent of it until late ’71 or early ’72.  I was living in New York, and I’d just come back from the West Coast after working with Circle.  The band broke up, and I worked with Stan Getz for about a year-and-a-half, and during the time I was with Stan I met up with Sam.  How that happened, just to cut a long story short, was Barry Altschul, who was the drummer in Circle, had started going to Sam’s loft at Studio Rivbea and rehearsing with him in the afternoon, and when I got back into town, Barry suggested I come by and do some playing with him.  That’s how it started, and from then on I started working with Sam, and we played in trio and big bands in quartet and quintet format.

TP:    So you basically were involved in all his different projects.

HOLLAND:  Yes.  I’d say it was from early ’72 until early ’81.

TP:    You’re on Sizzle as well as the other…

HOLLAND:  I am, yes.

TP:    Did playing in those different situations with him involve different demands on you…

HOLLAND:  In terms of the orchestration of the groups, one interesting group that we played in was with Joe Daley on tuba, which certainly presented some new challenges for both of us in terms of how we would work together, both of us playing bass instruments.  That was a particularly interesting and challenging situation for us to work on.  But musically, the majority of performances that I did with Sam were improvised music.  We used no written music.  The only written music that we used was with the big band, and all the other performances, even the quartet-quintet performances… Abdul Wadud did some gigs with us with cello-tuba-bass-saxophone-drums.  All this music was improvised.

TP:    You started basically with a tabula rasa, a blank piece of paper, as you put it to me on the radio.

HOLLAND:  That was it.  We’d just start wherever we wanted to.  The great thing for me was that every night we could really go in whatever direction we felt like going, and it gave us a chance to explore a lot of interesting places.

TP:    Did you hear any of the new record, or any of the music?

HOLLAND:  I haven’t heard the record, and I was out of town when they did the week at Sweet Basil.

TP:    Tell me about playing the big band music.  Did it sound like anything you had been involved with before?  How would you describe the dynamics of it, the demands of playing it?

HOLLAND:  It was certainly unique, original music that Sam was writing for the big band then.  It was quite complex at times.  It involved a lot of overlapping rhythmic cycles, and everybody had to very much be aware of how their part works with everybody else’s, of course, and how they interlocked.  The music seems to span…pretty much like Sam’s playing, it spanned the whole tradition of the music.  You could hear bits of Duke Ellington in there just…in terms of references, I mean.  I’m not suggesting it was at all similar, but only that it drew on a sort of broad range of the tradition of big band writing, and it had conventional harmonic elements and more atonal elements going on.  It was a very broad mixture of things.

TP:    It seems to me that he really relies on the groove function of the bass, that the drums are more coloristic in his concept.  True?

HOLLAND:  I don’t know.  I think that very much depends on the players involved.

TP:    He’s player-oriented.

HOLLAND:  Yes.  Sam very much tried to involve the individual styles of the players into the music and integrate them.  The music would take different shapes depending on who was playing it, of course.  But I don’t know if I could say the function of the drum would be… One good example was Charlie Persip came in one time to play with the band, and that was a very interesting time when he played, because he brought his wonderful experience of playing big band music to that music, and I thought it was a great combination.

TP:    Tell me about the Studio Rivbea scene.  The big band workshopped there.  Was it on a once-a-week basis or something?

HOLLAND:  There was a rehearsal more or less once a week, and we’d run through the charts.  The rehearsals were quite loose.  I was frustrated sometimes because I would like to have had more time to develop each piece.  Sam would run through the piece and work on some sections and then move on to the next one, and I was still interested in developing the piece we just finished with.  The rehearsals moved along quite rapidly.  We didn’t spend a lot of time on each piece.

TP:    Could you give a sense of the ambiance of that time, of the ’70s, the music that was happening in lofts, the spirit of the time, the various overlapping circles in New York City, and where Sam fit into that.

HOLLAND:  I think there was a feeling amongst the community that there was a need for some alternative performance spaces, and there were some places opening up.  Ornette Coleman had a place in Soho where he started doing performances.  That was the first thing I remember in that way.  Various other people decided to do that.  Sam opened up his loft, which is actually where he and his family were living, and it became a whole family affair.  It was wonderful.  He, his wife Bea, the daughters and his son all pitched in and helped run the place, helped to make it a very personal kind of thing, a very personal environment for the music to happen in.  It literally put on these wonderful series of concerts which gave musicians a chance to really develop and focus in on their ideas musically and without any commercial constraints.  So it was sort of the breeding ground for a lot of very interesting musical ideas that were being developed during that time, and that weren’t being heard in New York.  Of course, this kind of activity brought together people, and of course opportunities then came up for those groups to work in Europe and elsewhere.  So it was a very important time of people coming together and organizing their music.

TP:    And Rivbea was a key center within that.

HOLLAND:  It was a key center.  The lofts often tended to gravitate around certain groups of musicians or certain approaches to music, let’s say.  There was a loft called Environ…

TP:    John Fischer’s place.

HOLLAND:  Exactly.  And they tended to have one policy… Well, there were overlapping things.  But each loft would have its own set of groups or people that it presented.  There was a very wide range of different things going on.  It was not only a place to perform, of course, but a place to rehearse and a place to congregate for the community of musicians, to come together and discuss what’s going on and to share ideas and so on.  These kinds of places that come along every now and then provide a very important function to the musical community.

TP:    Is there something about Sam Rivers’ personality that makes him… He’s someone who seems to organize a scene around him wherever he is.  He said he did this in Harlem when he first came to New York, and in Boston as well.  What are the dynamics of his personality that make him so charismatic and attractive to other musicians?

HOLLAND:  Well, Sam is a very dedicated musician, to his music, and he’s also dedicated to realizing it and bringing it to fruition in performances and so on.  He was probably one of the ones who was very independent-minded as a musician.  He didn’t wait for people to say, “Would you like to do this?”  He would take the initiative.  So this was why I think that Sam would often have a scene around him, because he was someone who would take the initiative, would have the vision and the drive to put things together.  Also, he is a great composer.  Although his small groups that I was involved in during the ’70s were all open form performances, without any written music, his written music is very distinctive and very personal, and shows a very individual approach to writing and to thinking about music.

TP:    If you were to describe him as a saxophonist to someone who was unfamiliar with him, how would you do it?

HOLLAND:  Sam is a very inclusive player.  He uses all his musical experience when he plays.  That’s something he taught me when I was playing with him, was the idea of just bringing it all into the music, all your experiences into the music.  So when you listen to Sam’s playing and listen to his written music, you hear that range of experience he’s had, from Blues through more traditional forms and up to the present with his own original music.  I think one of the things that’s very interesting in his playing and very individualistic is his approach to rhythm.  He had an influence, I know, on quite a few musicians who worked with him during the ’70s in terms of how he used rhythm in his written for the big band, his overlapping cycles, and the way he utilized rhythmic fields and so on in his music.

TP:    How would you assess his place in the history of the music, particularly in his time?

HOLLAND:  Sam is a player that spanned a number of developments in the music in his career and in his life, and he’s somebody who was able to keep some continuity going through those different stages and have the later things that he’s done still echo the experiences that his earlier music had.  A lot of players, particularly during the ’60s and ’70s who were playing this open form music didn’t bring that kind of experience to the playing, to the music that Sam had, and Sam brought this great foundation within the tradition of the music, but then found a way to express it in this contemporary open-form way.

Chico Freeman

TP:     When did you first hook up with Sam?

CHICO FREEMAN:  I guess it was 1976, when I came here from Chicago.

TP:    Did you know him before?

FREEMAN:  No, I didn’t know him before.  I met him here.

TP:    How did you link up?

FREEMAN:  I guess when I came around, you start come around, hanging, trying to get known and meet people, and I think I met him… I went to Rivbea because someone told me… Well, I’d heard about it before.  When I went over there I met him and Bea.  He had a big band going, and he hired me.  First he heard me (I think I sat in somewhere or something), and then he hired me.

TP:    You’d been involved in the AACM Big Band for a number of years.  Did his big band sound really distinctive?  Original music?  Was it very striking to you?

FREEMAN:  Definitely original music.  His whole style is original.  It was quite different from the AACM Big Band or Muhal’s big band.

TP:    Talk about his style, and what’s original about it.

FREEMAN:  Well, his way of writing.  He has a style he’s developed that’s linear… I mean, he juxtaposes lots of different lines together and things like that, so he’s got a linear juxtaposing approach to lines that he has.  I think it comes from the saxophone.  But he plays good piano, too.  He has I guess like polychords for the harmonies that he does, and then he sort of adapts that to the way he writes lines and things, then he juxtaposes the lines and the harmonies together in the same way.  I remember Don Pullen was in the band when I was there, too.

TP:    Dave Holland was talking about his concept of cyclic overlapping rhythms.

FREEMAN:  That’s it exactly.  I called it juxtaposition.  But cyclic overlapping or juxtaposition.

TP:    How was it different from your experience in Muhal’s band.  Talk about how he ran the band, about his personality as a bandleader, and also, extrapolating from that, about the ambiance of Rivbea and its position in the New York scene at that time as you experienced it.

FREEMAN:  He was different than Muhal in that Muhal was more… Muhal as a composer approached it more from a piano perspective, I think, and Muhal also ran the band very… It was a great band, to tell you the truth.  I really loved working in Muhal’s band.  The Duke Ellington approach was involved, even though it was newer things we were doing.  Sam’s approach was a little more loose in the sense that… In that way they maybe were similar.  There’s a lot of freedom of expression, a lot of solos and things like that.  Sam’s music being so different… And the reading was a challenge.  Reading his music is not easy.

TP:    Why.

FREEMAN:  It’s difficult. [LAUGHS]
TP:    Just because it’s so dense.

FREEMAN:  Yeah, it’s dense, and a lot of things going on, and sometimes the saxophones are playing with the trombones, and then the next you know they’re playing with the trumpet.  There’s a lot of things happening.

TP:    So you can get a sort of vertigo being in a section, like orienting yourself to where you are.

FREEMAN:  Yeah, you have to find that out.  You’d spend five rehearsals just finding out who’s playing what you’re playing, or rhythmically.

TP:    And Sam said the parts sometimes involved you playing 8 bars written and then 8 bars free, and going back and forth…

FREEMAN:  Yes, that, and there were all kinds of things he was doing.  The interesting thing about Rivbea and the ambiance is that Rivbea was kind of self-contained.  It was a rehearsal space, it was a performance space, and it was also a kind of conceptual musical…like a school.  It wasn’t a school in the typical traditional sense of a school, but it had that kind of a… Let me change, and call it a workshop.  It was a workshop kind of situation.  So at the same time Sam was running this big band, he also had his trio with Dave Holland and Barry Altschul during this period.  I used to get a chance to listen to them a lot.  But Sam also made it a place where not only was it for him to showcase his bands, but it was a place where other bands and other musicians had an opportunity… Sam is the reason I pretty much started my European career as a leader.

TP:    How so?

FREEMAN:  Well, Sam had this big concept… He would take the Rivbea Orchestra, which at that time was Barry Altschul, Dave Holland, myself and some other people I can’t… Byard Lancaster, different people who were playing; I can’t remember everybody.  But he had the orchestra, and we went out to do the Northsea Jazz Festival, and there he had a whole night, not just one concert.  That night there was a concert by the orchestra, then we broke down into smaller groups.  I had a small group which was with Dave and Barry, myself, and a vibes player, and I did a concert.  In this case, I was playing my own original music.  Sam allowed that, which was very interesting.  There were a few different groups that the band broke down into.  In a way, that was like my first festival to play as a leader, even though I was in the Rivbea Orchestra.  From that, my response at Northsea, which was really very positive, Sam introduced me to his agent, and his agent began to work with me, and that’s how my career started.  So that was due to him and Bea.  So I have a lot to thank him for.

TP:    Was the music that the Rivbea Orchestra was playing similar to what the orchestra at Sweet Basil played last year and that’s on the record?

FREEMAN:  Some of it was similar.  Not all of it.

TP:    How has it evolved over the years?

FREEMAN:  Well, Sam is an amazing guy.  He has a mind like a steel trap.  He remembers things.  He’s amazing.  Sam used to be in a group called Roots, which at that time was Arthur Blythe, Nathan Davis, Sam, myself, Don Pullen, I think Santi and Idris Muhammad.  I remember once, something happened to the music; it got lost, or some arrangements on a couple of charts got misplaced somehow.  And Sam remembered the whole arrangement, and he wrote the arrangement out, all the parts.  He remembered everything.  He wrote everybody’s part out.  Shocked me.  I mean, I was amazed.

And Sam knows 270 million songs. A lot of people listen to his music, but they don’t realize the standards… He knows every standard…I shouldn’t say every standard that was written… But once we had a test on the bus, man, and everybody tried their best to find a song Sam didn’t know, and no one was successful.

TP:    If you were to try to describe the way he plays saxophone to somebody and what’s distinctive about his style, how would you do that?

FREEMAN:  Well, that’s difficult. [LAUGHS] His style.  How do you describe his style.

TP:    Steve Coleman used the word “serpentine,” and compared it to the way he moves and talks and gestures.  Osby said he reminded him of your Dad.  I don’t know if he means that because they’re about the same age, or because they have similar references and came up under each other.  He’s very vocalized.  He plays like someone who played a lot of blues, which he did.

FREEMAN:  Yeah, I would agree with that.  Serpentine sounds like a good word, too.  His lines are elusive.  They angle.  He’s angular in his lines and stuff like that.  I don’t know if he reminds me of my father.  They have completely different style.  I think they’re both great musicians.  I would compare them in the sense that each has their own distinctive style.  My Dad definitely has a sound, and so does Sam.  It’s a different sound.

TP:    If you were pick a word or image to describe his sound, how would you do it?

FREEMAN:  I’ve never done that actually.  Nothing comes to mind right now, one word that would do it.  The colors that he has are… What distinguishes him more to me, and what I hear are his phrases and the way he begins and ends a phrase.  He sort of sings at the end of a phrase.  He plays a line, and when he rests that last note sings.  He sort of sings it.

TP:    He’s been singing since 4 years old in gospel choirs.  What was your general impression of the week at Sweet Basil and the way the record came out?

FREEMAN:  I thought the record came out really well.  The week at Sweet Basil was good.  I mean, we had great musicians in the band.  The saxophone section particularly was… And the trumpet section was great, too, I must say.  Then of course, having Joe Bowie and Ray Anderson, I like both; those are two of my favorite trombone players.  I really enjoyed the band, and especially the musicians who were there.  And the music was definitely a challenge, and as a result it was good to be there among that caliber of musicians and playing that, and also to take Sam’s music.  You see, with all of that cyclical juxtapositioning and those angular rhythms and things, it was interesting to bring dynamics and all of those other things to that, and make that music live.  It was a challenge.  So I found it to be very interesting.  Yet at the same time, I said it sounds quite complicated, but at the same those complications are built on a basis of simplicity.
TP:    Very advanced structures over a primitive beat.  He always puts the dance beats on it.

FREEMAN:  Yes, it was simple bass.  The bass was simple.  Harmonically it was not… For the solos, the chords were pretty simple and basic, and also the beats and rhythms, but the structures of… The melodic structures were quite complicated, rhythmically and… Again, it’s where he placed things, and he inverts things, and starts things from the middle and from the inside-out and from the outside-in, backwards-to-front and front-to-back, and all in different kinds… Cyclical and juxtapositioning by offsetting them here and there.

TP:    As he put it, it’s like higher mathematics to him; he can’t make a mistake.

FREEMAN:  I’m telling you, it’s his own system.  He’s worked it out.  He’s the master of his own thing.

TP:    Anything you’d like to address that I didn’t cover?

FREEMAN:  Nothing I can think of, except to say he’s responsible for a lot of musicians, helping a lot of musicians and being there for a lot of guys.  He’s always embraced rather than rejected, and I think that a lot of us owe him a debt.  He’s been around for a long time, and he’s definitely one of the innovators and major exponents of this music.

Bob Stewart

TP:    When did you first become aware of Sam Rivers and involved in his music?

BOB STEWART:  That was actually when I moved to New York, around 1966-67.  There was a couple of year period there when he rehearsed uptown at 134th Street, at Bethune Elementary School.  He used to do every Thursday or something like that for a couple of hours.  Carlos Ward on alto saxophone and Charles Stephens on trombone, Joe Gardner, Hamiet Bluiett, all these people were in the band when we would rehearse up there — way before Studio Rivbea.

TP:    What was that music like?

STEWART:  Stylistically, in terms of how he was writing, it was some of the most difficult tuba parts I’d ever seen to that date.  Because he was writing for the tuba, just like he was writing… A lot of composers at that point wrote the tuba part like they were writing a baritone saxophone part.  They just had me paralleling the baritone, which was pretty boring most of the time.  And he was writing for the tuba just like it was another horn.  He wrote in a linear fashion, so that everybody had their own lines, which is what created the harmony more than as… I think he wasn’t thinking so much contrapuntally as he was in lines, so that formed the harmony of the piece.  So the tuba parts were really intricate and difficult rhythmically and interval jumps and leaps that would be in the part…

TP:    Did you have rhythmic responsibilities that other horns didn’t have within that?


TP:    So as a tubist in Sam Rivers’ Big Band you’re playing long lines, and you’re just one of the horns.

STEWART:  Right.  That’s one of the reasons why a number of years later, ’81 and  ’82, I did two what I called Tuba Spectaculars at St. Peter’s Church, covering all phases of the tuba.  In ’81 Major Holley did a presentation, Ray Draper did a presentation, Howard Johnson did one, I did a duo with Arthur Blythe, a whole series of things like that.  The next year I did a presentation of the tuba through the composers Sam Rivers and Gil Evans, and it showed how they both were writing for the tuba, although very differently.  Both composers inspired me to play my horn in a very different fashion, because the stuff they wrote was very difficult to play but each one very differently difficult.

TP:    Is it difficult just because it stretches the limitations of normal technique on the tuba?

STEWART:  No, it’s within the technique of any instrument, although it’s not something that a tuba player gets to see every time, because not everybody is as creative as they are.  Alto players I’m sure see this kind of all stuff the time at that point, but it wasn’t something that a tuba player wouldn’t see all the time.

TP:    Were you ever involved in his free improv situations?  He did a lot of that with Joe Daley in the ’70s.

STEWART:  No, I never did any of that stuff with Dave Holland and Bobby Battle and Barry Altschul and Warren Smith… It was an interesting presentation during that period with tuba and the bass.  But it was right after I’d done all these rehearsals.  Then he went down to Rivbea, which is when he formed that group.  I didn’t rehearse too much with Sam once he formed Studio Rivbea.

TP:    Because you didn’t play with him downtown, you played with him uptown.

STEWART:  I played with him uptown before he went downtown, all the stuff that was formulated going downtown.  It was almost like Minton’s before it went downtown.

TP:    So that was a real serious workshop atmosphere right after he moved here.

STEWART:  Absolutely, because we weren’t getting paid for that, and he didn’t have a whole lot of gigs, so we were just going up there and rehearsing with Sam.  Like I say, it was as enlightening to me as it was to Sam, in terms of he could hear his arrangements.

TP:    That’s what he said, he had all these arrangements and nobody available in Boston to play them.

STEWART:  Exactly.  So when he brought that out, I said, “Whoa…” I still have some of that stuff at home, as a matter of fact.  I xeroxed it all.  It was so difficult it was like working on an etude book or something.  Sam’s etude book.  It was a great thing for my eyes during that time, and it expanded my technique.  This is one of the reasons, like I say, why I did those concerts.  Because Gil Evans didn’t write in such a technically difficult way, but in terms of what he’d ask you to do… He had some things that were very-very high.  He wanted the texture of a tuba to play up high on its instrument, like high around middle-C, D, F, above that, while trumpet and other instruments were playing toward the bottom of their instrument and playing right next to where I was playing, or even play in unison with me.  But there was a tension, because the sound of my instrument up high and theirs from down low…my instrument created the tension.  That’s another thing I learned from Gil, how he would do that with instruments, how he would do that with the tuba, putting it up high while bringing… At the time, Lew Soloff was playing trumpet.  Having Lew playing like in thirds with me, except I would be above him.  So it created this really interesting tension in the band while not necessarily being loud.

TP:    A number of musicians who play with him say there’s a sort of vertigo effect in orienting yourself in the music at any given time because of the overlapping rhythmic cycle concept that he uses.

STEWART:  You had to depend on people differently.  In a regular big band, you can count on somebody going BIH-DE-DAP–UNNH.  You can kind of pop off of a whole section dropping at a downbeat or a …and-a-4, or whatever it happens to be, so you can kind of know where you are.  But in Sam’s music you had to listen differently.  It wasn’t like the kind of cliche places where you can depend on what your part went like.  You had to listen very differently in terms of where the accents were.  It’s rhythmically unique.

TP:    He doesn’t sound like anybody else.

STEWART:  He doesn’t sound like anybody else at all.  Nobody else.  I mean, the closest thing that even feels like that is the way that David Murray writes, but not really.  Just in terms of the ensemble, there’s a…I don’t want to use the word “confusion”… You can’t relate it to all the regular stuff that you do in a big band, and therefore finding out where you are or who you play your part with.  Because quite often it’s very difficult to figure out who you’re playing your part with, so you have to get your cues a different kind of way.

TP:    Let me move to last year and your impressions of the week at Sweet Basil, and relate the music you were playing to what your experience had been 32 years before, and how you like the record.

STEWART:  I love the record.  I was honored to be a part of that project, because it was nice watching this music evolve to now from ’66 or ’77.  Particularly if you think of the whole evolution, if you have a definition of jazz, part of that definition is how musicians evolved and how the technique evolves.  The technique becomes more evolved, and musicians become much more agile on the instruments.  And to watch that very same thing happen in my lifetime is very interesting how a lot of these instruments and musicians hadn’t been used to looking at parts like that coming out of regular big bands.  We never really played his music well then.  But 30 years later, when a few of the same people were in the band… Hamiett Bluiett and I were the only two original members.

TP:    Then there were a bunch of people who played with him at Rivbea, and then some young guys with a different aesthetic.  An interesting mix of musicians.

STEWART:  So it was interesting.  There were three layers of musicians in that group.  Really four, because his rhythm section from Florida is brand new.  And it’s interesting hearing that music really played well, finally after all these years, and people coming back to the music as well as coming to the music fresh, and people that have been in the music for maybe the last ten years rather than 30… Hearing that music having all the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed.  It was absolutely marvelous listening to it and being a part of it.  We did a thing at La Villette in France, and it was a packed concert, and people just were going wild.

TP:    There’s a primal thing.  The energy is just amazing.

STEWART:  Absolutely.

TP:    If you were going to describe it to someone who hadn’t heard it, what would you say to them?  In its advanced, current iteration.

STEWART:  It’s hard to describe.  You could tell them it’s a big band, but it’s like no big band they’ve ever heard.  You tell them it’s big band arrangements, but it’s not like any stereotype of any kind.  Either stereotype or non-stereotype.  If you think about the creative big band things that Gil Evans did for Miles, or the creative big band things that were being done by Thad Jones and Mel Lewis… Still it’s creative, but it’s creative differently.

TP:    Does it sound connected to the tradition to you?

STEWART:  Absolutely.  It’s in the tradition similar to the tradition label that was put on Duke Ellington’s music when they called it “jungle music.”  It’s similar to that tradition, in that, while being contemporary, he’s reached back some kind of way and brought up spirits from old, that… I feel like I’m playing in some kind of African big band.  Just the rhythmic qualities of it and the way the lines are moving very independently of each other, which you hear a lot in African music.  It reaches back to particularly a rhythmic sense…
TP:    The way he put it was it’s very advanced harmonies over primitive… He always puts the dance element into it, and he used the word “primitive” not in a pejorative sense, but more primal, old…

STEWART:  I think that’s what I just said!  It’s a very contemporary music, but still it calls up spirits from way back.

TP:    One more question.  Your impressions of Sam as a saxophone player, and the salient qualities of what he does.

STEWART:  I’ll just give you my experience.  Having known Sam and heard a certain way he plays from the early days, I was thinking of him as an avant-garde saxophone player.  I knew he had chops and I knew he knew what he was doing, but I never really heard him play that other way.  About 12 years ago I was in Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band, and I was so surprised to see he had hired Sam Rivers to be either first or second tenor player.  Right after that Dizzy hired him for his quintet, and Dizzy was straight-ahead compared to what Sam was doing.  I was surprised.  Then when I heard him play in that style, I was absolutely floored at the depth of this man’s knowledge.

TP:    He has a very vocalized sound, doesn’t he.  Steve Coleman used the word “serpentine.”

STEWART:  Oh yeah?  That’s the way he writes, too.  He writes very similar to the way he plays.  I mean, if you don’t hear him sing those parts… That’s one of the things he was doing over in Paris when we did that concert.  He started singing the beginning of the tunes, just to put the feeling into the band.  Before we even got a chance to play, the audience erupted.  He would do it with such energy. [SINGS]

Anthony Cole

TP:    I want to focus this conversation on the Orlando scene.  Give me some sense of Sam’s impact on Orlando and maybe the impact of Orlando on him as well.  Tell me something about the venue that the big band plays in.  I also want to talk to you about your personal interaction with him and role in the big band, more or less.

ANTHONY COLE:  It’s pretty easy for here.  I moved here from L.A. in ’91.

TP:    So you moved to Orlando the same year Sam did.

COLE:  Yes, exactly.  When I moved here I pretty much had retired from playing the drums.  I was playing piano in a jazz quartet and I was going to spend more time on the piano, more or less, than the drums.  My mother, Linda Cole, who is a fine vocalist around here, pretty big around here, was going to jazz jam sessions that they were having at what  was known as the Beecham Jazz and Blues Club at the time.  It’s now known as Sapphire Supper Club — same club.  Every Tuesday night there was a jazz jam going on, and she was pretty much begging me to come over here and go to one with her.  And I didn’t… I had a plan in mind when I moved here from L.A., and I pretty much didn’t want to get into the rigmarole and the hustle-and-bustle and all that, but I went with her, sat in and played some drums.  Sam Rivers had just moved to town, and he happened to be there, and saw me play.  He sat in and did a tune.  We didn’t play together, but after that time he was trying to track me down.  Long story short, we hooked up.

As far as the scene here at the time, there wasn’t much of a scene, other than like anywhere else where you have some local bands and a couple of places where those bands plays, there wasn’t really much of what we know to make a scene.

TP:    You do have the studio musicians.  Like a pool of hungry musicians, as he put it.

COLE:  Right.  Well, all the musicians are out at Disney, playing out at Disney.  You come here and get a job out at Disney and it’s making you good money, so you sacrifice a lot of whatever…

TP:    Creativity.

COLE:  Exactly.  To do that.  Well, I had the opportunity to do that and iced it, because I had got here once a lot of cats were already doing that, and I had got to see the results of that, and knowing that I would lose a lot of my freedom I decided to stay broke.  But anyway, the impact that Sam has had on this area is… Well, he’s pretty much brought to the forefront the reality of jazz, avant-garde jazz, free jazz — however people want to classify the music, because it’s just music, if you know what I mean.  In reverse, the impact it’s had on Sam is the response from the younger generation that he’s gotten from his music, not as much the older generation, or your older jazz crowd.  It’s been the younger crowd that he’s moved here, because his music is closer to the lifeline of what’s going on now.  It doesn’t bore you, it doesn’t just swing along, it actually moves.  I think everyone has been surprised.  I think Sam has been surprised with the response in this area, and of course everyone has been surprised with having a living jazz legend living in this area.

TP:    So in Orlando it’s a situation where Sam Rivers, who is an icon of avant garde jazz, although he’s also, as he likes to make sure you’re aware, a strong traditional musician…

COLE:  Totally.
TP:    …has a large audience, and has touched a chord amongst young people in Orlando.

COLE:  Moreso.  Moreso than the older generation.

TP:    You gave me some sense of why you think that is.  Could we hone that down a bit, get into some specifics, the inner dynamics of the music that make it so appealing.

COLE:  Well, the fact that, like I said, it’s life music.  It moves!

TP:    You mean it has a beat, it’s danceable…

COLE:  It’s danceable if you want to dance.  It’s listenable if you want to listen.  If you want to close your eyes and slip off into a cosmos somewhere, it lets you do that.  It’s life music.  I mean, we have to specify it as certain things because of specific instrumentation or whatever we know as categories or descriptions.  But the music lends itself to whatever you need it to be!  That’s more so like straight-ahead jazz… Swing music is for swing people who dress up and swing-dance, and it’s got that thing.  Contemporary jazz is for those people who love to listen to that boring kind of music.  The thing with Sam’s music, as it’s always been, is that it moves, it’s got life, it goes in and out.

TP:    Were you familiar with Sam’s work in the ’60s and ’70s at the time you met him?

COLE:  A little bit.  Not extensively.

TP:    Are you now?

COLE:  Yeah, a lot more.

TP:    I’m just thinking of the role of his drummers in the ’70s.  He worked with Barry Altschul, who coined the term “freebop” to describe what he did, and it sort of hit me when you were describing the rhythmic component.

COLE:  Exactly.  And that moreso with the dance music.  Sometimes there’s more of a backbeat, like a lot of other trios Sam had.  He’ll tell you himself there’s once again a new direction with the trio he’s gone in.

TP:    You are someone who has an equal comfort zone playing the piano and plaing the drums?

COLE:  I’ve been playing drums since I was 3 years old, and there’s always been a piano around.  My mother plays piano, my uncle Carl played piano, there’s a piano in my grandmother’s house.  Piano is just a natural.  It’s a toy that’s always been there.  It’s nothing that I ever really sat down and went, “Okay, I’m going to do my scales.”  I grew up in an entertaining family.  I come from the Cole Family.  It’s like the Jacksons or the Osmonds.  You know what I mean?  I didn’t have much of going outside and jump-roping or big-wheeling and throwing balls and shit.  I was in the house rehearsing for Christmas shows and Easter shows.  I’ve always been on stage.  So there are things that come naturally to me because it’s just always been there.  If you grow up around nothing but mechanics, you’re going to know a little something about a car.  So it’s just that… We all sing.  I come from a family of singers.  So that’s the primary instrument, is the voice.  I started playing drums when I was 3…
TP:    You sing also.

COLE:  Mmm-hmm.

TP:    Is that part of your career in Orlando as well?

COLE:  yes.

TP:    So you’re not just making your career playing creative music with Sam.  You’re doing a range of activities.

COLE:  Yeah.  My life has been my career.  Whatever, if it involves something musical, then I’m there.  That’s what the career is.  For me, a career has never been anything intended or like aspired or anything.  I’ve never known anything else.

TP:    How specific is Sam in directing you in your function as a drummer with the big band?

COLE:  He just hands me the music.

TP:    Then you interpret totally.

COLE:  Mmm-hmm.  Totally.

TP:    Does he have specific parts for the drums, or does he sing it to you…

COLE:  A lot of times I get the same charts the bass player has, or I’ll get just a map-down of stuff so I know who’s blowing, who’s soloing.  It differs.  But a lot of times I pretty much just get an outline of what’s going on.  With the big band for me a lot of times it’s just all ears.  I mean, there’s things on paper that I definitely follow, where it’s to be followed, but most of the time… When Sam hired me to play in the big band, the only thing he said is, “You don’t have to play any different than you do in the trio.”  So that’s pretty much the door that he gave me.  That’s what he wanted.  But at the same time, there’s a different thing that happens to me when 15 horns are playing.  It’s like driving down your street or driving down a big boulevard, same car, same driver, you’re just in a different place.

TP:    Would you describe a bit how playing with Sam this last decade has affected your sensibility and aesthetic as a musician?

COLE:  Well, it’s confirmed a lot.  Sometimes there’s things you think out of tradition and custom, there are things you think aren’t kosher or acceptable, some things you should keep to yourself or whatever.  And Sam has really pointed out the fact musically moreso that everything is correct.  Nothing is wrong.  Music is music.  It’s all beautiful.  When Sam hired me, he hired me for the musician that I am.  He never once has said, “Well, it should go like this” or “this is what… When I started playing saxophone…well, when I got a saxophone or started messing around with it is when I first went out on the road with Sam, which is in ’92.  I asked him if he’d give me lessons.  He said, “No.”  He said, “Just make up your own scales.”  That’s all he said to me.  So his instruction is moreso, “Do your thing.”  Of course, you’re always going to have influence.  Of course, there’s always things to grab from, but there’s always a specific individual behind the instrument, and that’s really… He’ll tell you in a minute, he’s gone out of his way, especially at the time when Coltrane was happening and there were other saxophonists around…he went out of his way to not sound like someone else.

TP:    He says he listens to everything so he can not sound like them.

COLE:  Right.  Sometimes it’s a conscious effort.

TP:    Talk about the experience of the week at Sweet Basil that germinated these two records, and the experience of the recording.  It’s a very different group of musicians what I’m sure you’re in touch with in Orlando.

COLE:  Well, for me the whole time while that was going on, I was just pretty much thrilled at working with all these musicians who I’ve heard on record and seen on album covers and TV so forth all this time, and actually being in the driver’s seat for these cats.  The music, I eat and sleep it, so the music… For me it was like a haze.  I mean, I met everybody!  And anybody who I didn’t get a chance to meet, they were at the club.

TP:    Everybody got to meet you.

COLE:  Well, yeah, in that case.  But Anthony Cole is a new name.  Chico Freeman is not a new name.  Greg Osby is not a new name.  So for me it was a different pair of shades than for everybody else.  Everybody else, it’s “Holy shit, who’s this drummer you’ve got?” blah-blah-blah, and I’m going, “Oh my God, finally it’s beautiful to meet you.”  And THEN we all played music.  It was kind of like that.  It kind of went in that direction.

TP:    you were there because you belonged there.

COLE:  Yeah.  But a lot of times I don’t really know what goes on behind the scenes with a lot of things.  I’ve got so many irons in the fire now that I just take each moment full on as it is.  Kind of like switching channels.

TP:    Is this the only situation for you in which you’re playing drums in a band?

COLE:  No.

TP:    So there are other bands with which you play drums, other bands with which you play piano, other bands with which you play saxophone, and they are different functionally than Sam’s band.

COLE:  yes.

TP:    Sam talks about wanting traditional musicians because they can play free in a minute but free musicians can’t play traditional.  You’re a traditional musician within that formulation.

COLE:  In that formulation, yes, because I’ve learned the basics.  I can sit down and play “As Time Goes By,” your basic II-V-I chords, those things I learned while I was living out in L.A.  At that time, Free was the last thing you could get me either to listen to or play, because I was learning the inside structure of things.  Now, for me… It’s different for other guys.  But for me, once I got to that point where I knew how to do all that, now, where else do we go from here?  It took working with Sam to feel comfortable or okay a lot of times in the beginning about going out or playing free.  As a drummer, I’ve always been a firehouse; that’s never been a problem.  But on other instruments… It wasn’t even until I started playing saxophone that I understood that instrument being able to take everybody else somewhere else.  Because I’m a drummer, a drummer can make or break a situation, blah-blah-blah, but a lot of times a drummer can’t lead something into free.  A lot of drummers don’t know how to lead into free.  It’s always the time thing.  And when I started working with Sam… Because I’ve worked with a lot of horn players.  When I started working with Sam, he was the first horn player I worked with who would start screaming through the horn in the middle of something.  And that for the first time encouraged a whole different reaction from the drums than I had ever experienced before.  So in that case, that’s one thing he did as far as the influence of the free drumming.  Because like I said, normally you’re used to leading people somewhere.  Sam will take you where he wants you to go.

TP:    In that connection, talk about the way the band on the record interpreted the music vis-a-vis the Orlando musicians who presumably play the music every week.  Some of these guys haven’t played the music for 30 years, some of them not for 25 years, some had never played it.  Talk about the way the Orlando band sounds different.

COLE:  Well, it’s obvious.  With Sam’s music… It’s like if you’re playing something every week for the past 5-6-7 years consistently, not only are you going to have an idea of what something should sound like… A lot of these guys in New York were around when Sam’s thing was going on a long time ago, but from that time up to the record, a lot of other stuff had gone… A lot of people aren’t in contact, whatever; hadn’t played the music.  So the guys up there pretty much know Sam from that time and are familiar with him then, but not necessarily familiar with the way he’s interpreting his music with another band.

TP:    How would you say his interpretation has changed from then to now?

COLE:  I really don’t know, because I don’t know that much about the Then.  I know a lot more about the Now.  If you listen to other big band albums that Sam…

TP:    Well, Crystals is the most notable.

COLE:  Exactly.  And from Crystals to now you can just hear a difference.  I can’t speak for other people.  The only way I know… For me, the experience was cats in New York who know Sam but haven’t played the music for a long time, and cats down here who play the music all the time who haven’t hung out with Sam as much as the other guys in New York did at one time… The CD down here by the big band down here is coming out pretty soon, and you’ll be able to hear the extreme difference immediately between cats who are paying Sam’s music every week and guys who are all-stars.  Now, there’s no bash there.  An all-star is an all-star.  But the guys down here play Sam’s music all the time.

TP:    Right.  So they’ve internalized everything.  It’s second nature.

COLE:  Exactly.  They’re a lot closer to the music.

TP:    Could you tell me a bit more about the Sapphire.  What does it look like.  Break down who you think the audience is.

COLE:  Well, it’s a big supper club.  They have all kinds of music there.  I mean, it’s a supper club.  They have big concert venues there, but it’s a big supper club.  It’s got a dance floor, a big bar, a big-ceilinged place.  It’s the old Blue Note that was here; the same spot that was Valentine’s, the Blue Note, Beecham’s Jazz and Blues Club — it’s the same location.

TP:    What other acts play there?  National acts?

COLE:  Certainly.  National acts from all ranges.

TP:    Who’s been there this last month?

COLE:  I don’t go there unless I’m playing.  I’m right down the street, and play there all the time.  But they have everybody. It’s not like one specific kind of music.

TP:    It’s like a showcase type of place.

COLE:  Yeah, but it’s also like a big concert hall and BIG acts.

TP:    How many people does it hold?

COLE:  Oh, it can hold maybe up to 700-750 people, tight.

TP:    Good sound system?

COLE:  Yeah… A reasonable facsimile for probable cause!

TP:    But the audience that comes on Monday nights is specifically Sam’s audience that he’s built up since ’91.

COLE:  No.  Whoever comes on Monday night is there to see whoever’s playing on Monday night.  It differs.  Sam isn’t there every Monday.  They have different acts every night.  Sometimes they have all ages shows.  Or Punk Rock shows and there’s nothing but kids there.  So it’s a potpourri.


Filed under DownBeat, Sam Rivers, WKCR

Recent Pieces For The Morton Report

For the last few months, I’ve been contributing pieces to a general interest zine called The Morton Report, which is starting to make its presence felt in the more mass market regions of the Internet. If anyone’s interested, I’m offering links to an interview with guitarist Stanley Jordan in conjunction with his new recording, an interview with graphic designer Cey Adams on the branding of Def Jam, a review of Columbia/Legacy’s recent official issue of five Miles Davis concerts in Northern Europe in the fall of 1967, a review of the new Manfred Eicher documentary, Sounds and Silence, and an email interview with Pat Metheny about his recent Nonesuch release, What It’s All About.

Also, if you haven’t seen it, the current issue of DownBeat is running a feature article of mine on Steve Coleman.

I’ll return to the archives next week

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Blindfold Test (Uncut) From 2002 With Branford Marsalis, Who Turned 51 Yesterday

Anyone who knows Branford Marsalis, even a little bit, knows that he is never loath to speak his mind. That being said, Marsalis—who celebrated his 51st birthday a day early at the unveiling of the Ellis Marsalis Center Of Music in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans, his home town—approached this 2002 Blindfold Test in a rather diplomatic mood.

By the way, Branford’s new release, a sax-piano (Joey Calderazzo) duo recital entitled Songs of Mirth And Melancholy [Marsalis Music], is a lovely, introspective recital.

* * * *

1.    James Moody, “That Old Black Magic”  (from YOUNG AT HEART, Warner, 1996) (Moody, ts; Mulgrew Miller, p; Todd Coolman, b; Billy Drummond, d.)

[TO PIANO INTRO] Oh, it’s Thelonious Monk!  It could never be Thelonious Monk because the eighth notes are way too even.  Swing, goddammit!  Shit is swingin’!  The bass player is using one of those irritating pickups.  But my initial guess, based on the sound of it, would be Ray Drummond. I’m wrong.  It has that sound, though.  It’s swinging, whoever it is.  When you listen to the pickup, you hear the bass sound, but you don’t hear the characteristics of the instrument.  There’s only like DUM-DUM, you don’t hear like DOOM-DOOM.  The pickup is evil, man.  It’s a Communist plot. [Your brother…] That’s just a joke, though.  We just do that shit to make bass players mad, and it works every time.  If you’re going to play that fast, why not play it in that tempo?  To me, all the chords are right, and the saxophone player is playing on the chords, but the solo doesn’t have like a shape.  If you listen to it, it’s like harmonically correct, but it’s not… The chord structures are right, but the solo’s not… I prefer not to play that way.  I prefer to play a solo that has an arc to it, like a beginning-arc-end, with the structure of the chords, where like it’s a singable thing.  He sets up a motif, and then he goes elsewhere. [Any idea from the sound who it is?] No.  If I had to guess, I’d say Lew Tabackin.  Clifford Jordan?  But he never really played that fast. [pianist] Double time.  My guess would be Mulgrew Miller.  Yeah, that’s Mulgrew for sure. Is the bass player Peter Washington?  He walks lines like Peter.  The saxophone player is bedeviling me now.  I don’t know who it is.  I give up.  Who is it? [Moody] No shit.  Man, I don’t remember Moody’s sound being that mellow ever.  Ever!  I would have never guessed it.  But now that you say it, he plays the way Moody plays.  But the SOUND threw me off.  5 stars for Moody.  Who’s the bass player?  That was Todd!?  Shit, yeah, man. Moody’s a classic, man.

2.    Tim Garland, “I’ll Meet You There” (from STORMS/NOCTURNES, Sirocco, 2001) (Garland, ss; Geoff Keezer, p.; Joe Locke, vibes)

Boy, that’s a thin sound.  The higher up they go, the thinner it gets, a la Jan Garbarek.  It could be a lot of people. It’s a beautiful piece, but it spells along chord guidelines rather than coming through it.  I was listening to this, and I started thinking about the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto.  The chord changes are changing like crazy, but the melody line is almost more mathematical than melodic.  But it’s a popular writing style, a lot of people do it, so it’s a matter of personal choice.  It’s like they taught us in harmony class when we were 15, the best resolution in music is that of a half-step.  The saxophone player… Mark Turner. Chris Potter.  It could be Stefano DiBattista.  There’s a lot of cats who play that way.  Dave Liebman.  He plays the shit out the saxophone, though.  See that? [ASCENDING LINE] That’s just not my taste.  It’s a beautiful orchestration.  Everybody’s playing great.  [AFTER] Got me.  5 stars. Joe Locke’s bad, man.

3.    Steve Coleman, “Embryo” (from THE ASCENSION TO LIGHT, BMG-France, 1999) (Coleman, as, comp.; Shane Endsley, tp; Gregoire Maret, har; David Gilmore, g; Anthony Tidd, eb; Sean Rickman, d)

Checkin’ out that Ornette!  Oh, that’s that harmonica player everybody’s using in New York now.  Tain just used him.  I can make a general guess.  Music from the loft scene.  That club down there.  It’s not from the Knitting Factory?  I’m not saying a Knitting Factory.  I’m saying the scene, the loft scene. [Yes and no.] The saxophone player’s not giving me anything to go with.  Ah!!! Steve Coleman.  Bingo.  Thank you, Steve.  I was waiting, “throw me a fuckin’ bone here, man; give me something.”  Well, he changed his style up. That’s cool.  I think he’s one of the great thinkers of jazz.  I don’t agree with some of his outcomes at times, but the thing that I love about him is that he and I… I can sit down with him and have an earnest dialogue about the history of jazz, and it never gets into, “Well, man, I’m trying to get my own thing, and cats listen to those old cats.”  I mean, there’s a little bit of that in him, but not to the point where he would just intentionally disregard 60 years of history out of fear.  His intellectual curiosity is fantastic.  I enjoy him a lot.  I like his playing.  That’s what I liked about Miguel Zenon, is he checked out Steve as well.  But he even found a way to incorporate it… When Steve does it sometimes, it sounds like angular and removed.  Zenon took it and made it mainstream almost.  But it’s great when you hear a cat who had an influence, since he obviously grew up not only listening to Steve Coleman.  Whereas a lot of guys tend to pick their one hero, he clearly listened to other things, and that’s what makes it not sound like a ripoff or a shitty imitation. [You said he changed his style.] Well, you remember when he was doing the M-BASE thing.  It’s like the band was always shifting.  Nothing was constant.  The bass lines weren’t constant, the rhythms…the drums weren’t constant.  So now it’s more like this is real like Afro-Cuban, or even African moreso, or even Sumatran, something like that.  I like that motherfucker, man.  I always did. I didn’t buy into the whole M-BASE thing. I think it was a great marketing idea to give it a name, but I didn’t buy into… One of the things that Steve understood is that if you give your direction in music a name, people will jump on the bandwagon and buy in, whereas if he had just called it “jazz,” people might have just gone, “Ah, what is this shit?”  It gave it a mystique and it gave it a philosophy, so then you could have people jumping on the bandwagon. They could say, “I’m into M-BASE.” But they didn’t really withstand the test of time, as those kinds of trends don’t.  But his music withstands the test. I think giving his music a title like M-BASE didn’t really do it justice, because it made it seem it was separate of the jazz continuum — and it isn’t. It’s very inclusive.  It’s very much part of the jazz continuum to me.  It’s not some brand-new sect.  It would be like if Ornette Coleman took his music and gave it a name, which he eventually did with Harmolodics.  But when he first hit the scene, there was none of that.  He was playing, and people dug the shit, and people hated it, and then the people who hated it were forced to deal with the fact that it was some hip shit, and then they either pretended to like it or just kept their mouths shut.  But M-BASE… Then all of a sudden you had all these other musicians making records in the M-BASE crew, and a lot of them didn’t have the same historical expertise that Steve did, so the records couldn’t sustain themselves.  I think if Steve had done more to talk about just the tradition of the music and all the shit that he actually did listen to, if he wanted to start a movement that way, he could have furthered it.  But then it would have meant more homework for the people who chose to embrace M-BASE than less homework, and they seemed to go the path of less homework rather than more.  But Steve has never gone the path of less homework.  He is a studious, studious cat.  5 stars.

4.    Jerry Bergonzi, “Paul Gauguin” (from Nando Michelin, ART, Double-Time, 1998) (Bergonzi, ts; Michelin, p., comp.; Fernando Huergo, b; Steve Langone, d; Sergio Faluotico, perc.)

Another long-ass intro!  Jesus!  It’s great to hear Wayne getting his due.  For a whole lot of years people slept on him, so I’m happy. It’s a great piece.  It’s Wayne’s shit.  I am definitely not a person that you are going to see criticizing somebody emulating a great musician.  That’s amazing.  Who is this? [AFTER] Is that Bergonzi? Man, he sure did change up his shit.  Some bad shit.  The composition is Wayne, even to the point where when he hits the low note, he drops off.  But then the solo is real Coltranesque.  Even when he hits the upper register notes, he growls and makes them lighter the way Coltrane used to.  I’m going to have to get me some more Bergonzi. He’s one of the bad motherfuckers. 5 stars. The entire compositional structure was Wayned out.  But that was great.  I don’t know this cat, but I want to check out his record.  Man, Bergonzi sounds great.  He has such a fat sound!  I’m all for that.  Not as a finished product, but everything is a work in progress.  How old is Nando Michelin?  We’ll see when he’s about 40-45.

5.    Don Braden, “Fried Bananas” (from THE FIRE WITHIN, RCA, 1999) (Braden, ts; Christian McBride, b; Jeff Watts, d)

I like that section.  It was nice.  He went with a theme and he sat on it through the chord changes. [Any idea who the bass and drums are?] No. It’s good to hear people do Sonny Rollins, too.  Good to hear Sonny get his due.  I have no idea.  Nobody.  The drummer is either Tain or it’s somebody biting off Tain.  It’s Tain.  Is that Bob Hurst?  It ain’t Revis, because he don’t play like that.  Whoever he is, he’s not using a pickup, and I’m grateful for that.  I don’t think.  Wait a minute.  I can’t tell on this record actually if they’re using a pickup or not. I have no idea who the saxophone player is. [IMMEDIATELY UPON BASS SOLO] Christian McBride.  Nobody else can play that.  I believe in the Ray Brown joke, “Oh, drums stop, very bad luck, next comes bass solo.” [The safari joke.] Yeah.  Ucch, bass solos.  Who wants to hear this besides bass solos?  The only bass solos I really like hearing are Jimmy Garrison’s solos.  They’re germane to the piece.  I mean, this is technical prowess.  But… You know what I mean?  But it’s like having a center who can run a forty in 4.2. [That’s a good thing.] It’s a good thing, but ultimately his job is to sit in the trenches and kick people’s asses, not to run out for a pass. [It’s also to lead the runner.] Centers don’t lead runners.  Guards lead runners. [Centers do lead runners.] Centers don’t lead runners, dude. [Kevin Mawae leads runners.] Oh, yeah, when they’re going up the gut.  But it’s not his speed; it’s his strength. [AFTER] Is that Don?  See, Don’s changed his playing up a lot.  I would have never guessed that.  So I’m glad I shut my mouth.  If you put on one of Don’s early records, or the stuff he did with Wynton, he sounds nothing like that.  So bravo for him.  I wish they’d used a bigger studio.  The room is so small that it can’t capture the personality of the instrumentalists.  When Tain hits the drums, it’s… That’s why I didn’t know it was him.  The ceiling is so low, and they probably have him in an isolation booth so the cymbal doesn’t travel, so they have this really light sound.  So it’s not EQ; it’s the room.  Cool.  Don Braden, 5 stars.

6.    Joe Lovano, “Tarantella Sincera” (from VIVA CARUSO, Blue Note, 2002) (Lovano, ts; Byron Olson, cond.)

They had such a beautiful thing going, and then they ruined it with that waltz.  I had my eyes closed… Oh, well. Is Gil Goldstein the arranger on this.  It’s reminiscent of work that he’s done.  The first time I really heard his work was on a Milton Nascimento record called “Andaluce,” and I was like, “Wow!”  I don’t know who the tenor player is.  I’ll keep listening.  It’s Lovano.  Bad-ass cat.  One of my favorites.  I prefer less notes on ballads.  But that’s me.  Joe is always doubling.  And who can argue with Joe?  I can’t.  5 stars.  Joe Lovano. The man.  Beautiful song.  You’re going to send me the name of the record, so I can cop it. [Any idea of the song’s origin.] No… Oh, he did another one of those?  It smacks of a marketing ploy.  He did one for Sinatra a couple of years ago.  I mean, maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m totally full of shit, but I’m really convinced that people who are Caruso fans are not going to go and buy Joe doing Caruso.  I’m a fan and I’ll buy it.  But the point is that Caruso didn’t write anything.  So if it’s a Caruso record, it’s actually a Verdi record and a Puccini record.  Caruso didn’t write anything. [This is all vernacular music, Neapolitan street songs that Caruso recorded at the turn of the century.] I understand that.  But from a musical point of view, it’s a record about Neapolitan street songs or Neapolitan love songs or whatever you want to call them, but Caruso is the bait. I’m not a fan of the bait.  I’m not saying I’m not a fan of the recording.  If Joe Lovano comes to me and he’s on my label and says to me, “I want to do songs that Caruso sang,” I’m not going to say, “No, you can’t do it.”  I’m going to say, “Great, but can we call it Neapolitan love songs instead of Caruso?”  Because ultimately, those things have never been proven to work.  That’s all I’m saying, that these records come out all the time, and I don’t know who they’re trying to market it to, but most of the people I know that like opera don’t make the cross. In that Diana Krall market, they like Diana Krall. It’s not the music she sings.  It’s Diana Krall.  So any time you’re in an environment where the music speaks for itself… I mean, Joe Lovano is Joe Lovano.  I don’t think he has to do anything other than make records, and people will buy his records, and the more records he makes, the more people will buy them.  Maybe I’m being naive here.  But I think if the records were marketed as a continuation of the greatness that is Joe, rather than a record-by-record target concept, I think that it will serve Joe and the company better.  It will be more beneficial.

7.    Sonny Stitt, “I Never Knew” (from THE COMPLETE ROOST SONNY STITT SESSIONS, Mosaic, 1959/2001) (Stitt, ts; Jimmy Jones, p; unknown, b; Roy Haynes, d)

He’s got a Gene Ammons thing and the Charlie Parker thing, which to me equals Sonny Stitt.  Sonny Stitt, I’d say.  Lester Young. Go ahead, Sonny!  But the vibrato was like that Chicago blues swinging kind of funky gritty… Yeah. My Dad was playing with Sonny in 1975, when I was 15.  I was like a true Louisiana boy, respectful of my elders. “Come here, motherfucker!”  Then he said something else.  “Let me hear you play.”  Oh, that’s all right.  You’re working on the shit.”  And he kept going.  So finally, I said, “Well, you know what that shit is, Mr. Stitt.”  He goes, “No, son.  I can curse.  You can’t.”  I went, “Yes, sir.” [LAUGHS] It was great. Wynton was teasing the hell out of me.  “Trying to be one of the big boys, huh?  Curse in front of…” “Shut up, man!”  But I’ll never forget it.  He came back later on that year and played at the Jazz and Heritage Festival, and there’s a picture of us with Stitt.  It’s great. [Do you know the tune?] Nope.  Never heard it.  [“I Never Knew”] I didn’t.  I just love hearing this, because it’s an amalgam of things.  The Kansas City kickin’ shit from the ’30s, the jump blues players like Bird.  It’s all one thing, and it eventually codifies itself as a person.  But you never escape your influences.  Unless you make sure you don’t have any, then you don’t have to worry about it. [piano] One chorus?  That’s not fair. So I have to guess.  Because I couldn’t tell.  Hank Jones?  Close!  The drummer? [Roy Haynes] I was going to say Roy!  That’s amazing!  But I was sure it wasn’t him, so I said, “Nah, it ain’t him.” In this context… Well, Roy is one of those amazingly versatile musicians.  5 stars.

8.    Seamus Blake, “Children and Art” (from ECHONOMICS, Criss Cross, 2000) (Blake, ts; Dave Kikoski, p; Ed Howard, b; Victor Lewis, d; Stephen Sondheim, comp.)

Mmm!  Talk to me, Papa.  Whoever it is, is talking.  It’s beautiful.  Mmm!  This is beautiful.  I love restraint.  I’m a huge fan of restraint. [Do you know the tune?] No.  But if I had to guess… Is it a jazz composer?  Okay.  I don’t know the tune.  It’s a pretty song.  They’re playing it great, too.  Mmm!  Oh, giveaway.  Seamus Blake.  I’m not a fan of that echo.  That’s how I knew it was him immediately.  But it sounds great.  They’re playing the song great.  But it immediately lost its timeless quality as soon as that shit started — to me.  The whole point of effects, especially when you’re doing popular records… It’s like it’s all ear candy when you’re doing it.  It’s more like for the artists and… People don’t even notice a lot of that stuff. And that music lends itself to that.  It’s almost like listening to Beethoven with a doubling effect.  For what?  So the song is beautiful and it’s going, and then this shit starts, and it throws you in another place.  Well, it threw me in another place.  It may not throw other people, but it definitely threw me in another place. Oh, well.  Go ahead, Seamus!  He’s a bad cat.  I like Seamus. [It’s a Sondheim song.] I don’t know it.  I’m not a big Broadway guy.  I’m a medium Broadway guy.  Band sounds great. 5 stars for Seamus.  No, 4 stars for Seamus.  He lost a point with that fuckin’ effect! [LAUGHS] Deduct a point.  The digital delay gets a one-point deduction.  That was Dave Kikoski?  It’s just great to hear cats in a moment of repose, with some restraint.  Their playing takes on a whole different character, and that’s great.  I’m happy to hear that.  Ed Howard on bass?  No kidding.  Cool.

9.    Evan Parker, “Winter vi” (from THE TWO SEASONS, Emanem, 1999) (Parker, ts; John Edwards, bass; Mark Sanders, d)

That took some practice.  Took a lot of practice to get that together. It’s not going anywhere.  It’s just sitting there.  Sometimes playing out has a purpose, and sometimes it’s just playing out.  To me, this is just playing out.  The saxophone player has practiced a lot, and he has all this technique at his disposal.  But what his band is playing is not affecting his outcome at all. He’s just playing what he plays. And it’s formidable. It’s hard stuff to play.  Versus hearing somebody like David Ware, who is definitely influenced by what his band does, this just seems like they’re not playing what he’s playing and he’s not playing what they’re playing.  It might be Garzone; this is the kind of stuff he… But I don’t know who it is. [Evan Parker] Oh.  Okay.  Evan Parker’s English.  I know him.  I mean, if you listen to Cecil play or you listen to Horace Tapscott or David Ware, they have a different thing to it.  Even a sonic thing.  They don’t seem to be dealing with the sonic thing.  It just kind of meanders.  For me.  Well, I should qualify it.  Come on, man.  You remember me in the old days.  I spoke with complete absolutes.  I’m wiser now.  For me, the shit don’t work.  I want people to understand that this is my opinion.  This is not dogmatic fact.  It gets louder in volume, but it doesn’t change in intensity.  It doesn’t build as a group.  It’s just getting louder because the drummer is getting louder. He’s not getting louder.  It’s the difference between loudness and volume.  It’s not voluminous.  Like, when Trane and them did this shit, it was like… You know the record that just came out, the Olatunji sessions?  Man!  When that shit starts, it fucks you up immediately.  This doesn’t do that for me.  But… 5 stars.

10.    Eddie Lockjaw Davis-Zoot Sims, “Groovin’ High” (from THE TENOR GIANTS, FEATURING OSCAR PETERSON, Pablo, 1975/2001) (Davis, Sims, ts; Oscar Peterson, p.; Niels Henning Orsted Pederson, b; Louis Bellson, d)

This is going to be a slopfest.  This is a slopfest coming up, because the tempo is faster than the guys that are playing can play it.  This is going to be hard, man, because it’s old guys.  This is hard to identify.  For instance, Don Byas when he was younger, was influenced by Coleman Hawkins, but by the time they got older and were playing together, it was hard to tell one guy from the other.  These are older guys.  [They were both about 50] They’re older guys. At slower tempos it would be easier to tell.  This is a great song.  The version Bird did, Dizzy and Bird, where they had the little.. [SINGS THE BREAK] I think Milt Jackson took a solo on it.  Great. [Zoot’s solo starts] That first solo could have been by almost anybody.  But they were playing in a style that Coleman Hawkins used to play and then gave up as he got older.  It could  have been Don Byas or it could have been Zoot Sims. [The first one could have been Zoot Sims?] I think so, yeah. [How about this guy?] Al Cohn.  That’s what my guess would be, because Zoot and Al always played together.  Al always had more of a… [This is Zoot.] Oh, this is Zoot?  I’m getting them confused.  I don’t know who that first guy was.  Like I said, it could be anybody. [Lockjaw Davis] I would have never in a million years guessed Lockjaw.  Never.  Go ahead, Zoot!  Who the hell’s the piano player?  That’s what I don’t like about these things, that nobody listens. [FOUR BARS] Oscar Peterson.  Can’t nobody else play like that, except Art Tatum, and he wasn’t playing on these.  Is this some of that Jazz at the Philharmonic shit?  Whoo!  Feel free to take a breath, Oscar.  Is he hitting the hi-hat and kick drum? [SINGS DRUM PATTERN] I’ve got three guys in mind.  The first is Jo Jones, the second is Louis Bellson, and the third is Buddy Rich.  Bellson?  Yeah, that’s the style.  Louis could swing his ass off.  I got to play with him once.  It was a pleasure.  We don’t need the Rock solo, Louis.  Thank you.

I would never have guessed Lockjaw, because he didn’t play fast tempos.  Every record I have him on, he’s not playing anything that fast.  Medium-up, but not like that.  That’s just too fast for him.  The tempo is now almost half of what it was.  Almost a half-time faster. [It’s a show.] Oh, I know.  Believe me.  Fuckin’ Tain takes a solo, you come back and it’s just [SINGS ALL BEATS INTO EACH OTHER] Funny thing about drum solos, particularly in Rock bands, they look and sound great at the concert.  You hear it back on the tape, that’s what it sounds like.  But Louis, man, the motherfucker could play.  He kept adapting.  That’s the amazing thing.  You wouldn’t expect a guy his age to play that, because he was clearly listening to a lot of Rock drummers, and that’s a cool thing.  My Dad’s going to be mad that I missed Lockjaw, but hey.  I never heard Lockjaw play a tempo like that.  You got me good.  5 stars.


Filed under Blindfold Test, Branford Marsalis, DownBeat

NEA Jazz Masters 2012: Von Freeman

For the thirtieth and perhaps final installment of the National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Masters Awards, the NEA selected  a quartet of  hardcore individualists, who have steadfastly followed their own path through the decades: Drummer Jack DeJohnette, tenor saxophonist Von Freeman, bassist Charlie Haden, and singer Sheila Jordan. Stalwart trumpeter-educator  Jimmy Owens received the 2012 A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy.  Heartiest congratulations to all.

Von Freeman’s designation is particularly gratifying to this this observer. Active on the Chicago scene since the end of the ’30s, when, after graduating from DuSable High School, he got his first lessons in harmony from the mother of his DuSable classmate Gene Ammons. Before enlisting in the Navy, he briefly played in a big band led by Horace Henderson (Fletcher’s brother), he marinated slowly towards his mature conception. As perhaps his most famous acolyte—and close friend—Steve Coleman put it recently: “Von looks inward a lot. He’s not a person who buys a lot of books or any of this kind of stuff. He just meditates from the inside. So it took him a lot longer to develop this thing. He told me himself that he didn’t feel like he understood harmony until he was like 50 years old, which is kind of late.”

Indeed, Freeman was 50 when he made his first leader recording, Have No Fear, produced for Atlantic by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who hired Sam Jones and Jimmy Cobb to swing the proceedings along with Chicago pianist “Young” John Young.  Although he never left Chicago,  his discography—and international reputation—has multiplied, and he has remained at the top of his game.

I’d heard Von a number of times during my ’70s residence in Chicago, and was able to continue doing so once he began gigging in New York at  the cusp of the ’80s, after recording four two-tenor sides with his son, Chico Freeman on side 2 of a fine Columbia recording called Fathers and Sons (the rhythm section was Kenny Barron, Cecil McBee, and Jack DeJohnette; Side 1 featured Ellis, Branford, and Wynton Marsalis). The audiences were usually on the small side. I can recall a winter engagement at the Public Theater maybe in 1982 when about 15 people heard Von play non-stop for two hours with Albert Dailey on piano and Dannie Richmond on drums; twenty years later, after he’d turned 80, I saw him do the same thing at Smoke before a much more crowded house on an extraordinarily kinetic set during which he kept prodding pianist Mulgrew Miller with the exhortation, “Be creative!”

I  had the honor of hosting Freeman on at least three—maybe four—occasions on WKCR after 1987. I’ve posted below the proceedings of a conversation conducted on January 19, 1994,  a bitterly cold week when Von, for the first time, was headlining a quartet  at the Village Vanguard with Michael Weiss on piano, Rodney Whitaker on bass, and Greg Hutchinson on drums. The weather dampened the turnout, but not the heat of invention. [Note: I’ve interpolated a few of Von’s remarks from an earlier, 1991 WKCR appearance.]

* * *

I was at the Vanguard for the first set last night, and I gather you’d had maybe a 45-minute rehearsal.


But the group sounded like you’d been on the road for a month or so.

VF:    Well, those guys are great, man.  And they listen.  To me, that’s one of the biggest parts of it all, listening to one another and appreciating what… I know it sounds old-fashioned, but it still works — for me.

It seems to me that that’s something you encourage in your bands.  Having seen you with a number of groups and a number of young musicians, you will set up impromptu situations in the middle of a piece, like a dialogue with the drummer or dialogue with the bass player, to keep everybody on their toes.

VF:    Oh, yes.  But that’s old-fashioned, actually.  All the older cats did that.

Do you mean old-fashioned or do you mean something that’s happening as part of the natural course of improvising?

VF:    No.  What I mean is, I never really try to leave my era.  I might mess around with it a little bit, but I’m from that other thing.

When you say “that era,” what do you mean by that?

VF:    Well, I mean I’m from that Jazz thing, from Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, all the great big bands of that era.  I used to go to a lot of rehearsals, actually, and I used to notice the way that things were done.

Who were some people whose rehearsals struck you?

VF:    Oh, like Horace Henderson.

Well, you played a little bit with Horace Henderson before you went in the Navy.

VF:    That’s right.  And Horace Henderson, man, knew how to  rehearse a band!  And I was amazed.  Like, I didn’t know nothin’ about nothin’ when I was in his band.  He would take me aside and say, “Now, listen.  All you got to do, young man, is listen.”  He said, “And don’t play too loud!” — because I was full of hire and full of wind.  17, you know.  I was ready to blow, baby!  He said, “Just cool, and play like you’re playing in your living room.”

And man, let me tell you something.  I was once in the one of the warm-up bands in Atlantic City, and the great Count Basie Band was playing.  Man, I was sitting in the front seat talking, and a lady was talking to me, and the band was shouting.  But it wasn’t loud.  It was weird!  It was eerie.  These cats were swingin’, and Count did not have a mike on the piano.  And you could hear every note he played.  Well, from my previous instructions I could tell what they were doing.  They were just playing like they were in their living room.  And it came out as one big, beautiful, soft, quiet-with-fire sound.

So I try to inject that.  Because I hate to hear little bands sound like big bands.  Ooh, that disturbs me.  I see four or five cats making enough noise to sound like a concert band, ooh, it gets on my nerves.

Also in that period were you able to talk to older saxophone players?

VF:    Oh, sure.

Were people willing to pass down information to you?

VF:    Oh yeah.  They were beautiful.

Who were some of the people in Chicago who served that role for you?  Because you’ve certainly served it for a couple of generations of young Chicago musicians.

VF:    Oh, yes, I’ve been lucky that way.  Well, like I told you last time, we talked about Dave Young, who just passed last year.  And…oh, listen, Tony Fambro, Goon Gardner…

Who played with Earl Hines for a few years.

VF:    Yes.  Oh, listen, just so many guys.  I couldn’t begin to name them all.  Because at that time, the information was freely given.  Everybody was trying to encourage the younger guy, because they realized that was the future.  Nobody was hiding anything, no information was classified.  Because at the end of the thing, if you don’t have the feeling, nothing’s going to happen anyway.  You can show a guy everything you know, but if he has no heart, he might as well deal shoes or something.

As you’ve discussed in probably three thousand interviews, you were a student of Walter Dyett, the famous bandmaster at DuSable High School…

VF:    Oh, yes.

…along with maybe a couple of dozen other famous tenor players.

VF:    Oh, yes, that’s the land of tenor players.  Everybody plays tenor.

But you never repeat yourself!  So what’s today’s version of your impressions of Walter Dyett?  And also, the musical talent at DuSable High School when you attended in the 1930’s?

VF:    Well, during that time, Walter Dyett was the man on the South Side of Chicago.  We’d all tell lies to go to DuSable.  Because they had these school districts.  And everybody wanted to be in his class, and get some of that baton across the head, and get cussed out by him — because he was free with the baton!

A democratic disciplinarian.

VF:    That’s right!  But he taught by osmosis more than anything.  He would encourage you to be a free spirit — with discipline.  And even today I can see how important that is, to be as free as you can, but have discipline — in all things.

You’d been playing music since you were little.

VF:    Oh yeah.  I’ve had a saxophone stuck in my mouth since I was about three.

And music was in your family.

VF:    Well, actually, my father fooled around with trombone.  Of course, my mother is still in church and almost 97; she’s always been a choir singer and tambourine player, and she’s sanctified, so that beat, baby.

So you’ve really been listening to a whole range of music since you were out of the womb.

VF:    Yes.  Because my father actually dug concert music, see.  The only thing I didn’t hear much of was Blues — Blues per se.  I heard Louis, Fats Waller and people like that play the Blues, and he had some records by Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, the classic blues singers.  So I guess I ran the gamut of musical expression.

When did you start going to concerts and different events on the South Side?  There was so much music in Chicago in the Twenties and Thirties, and I imagine you grew up right in the middle of a lot of it, and you were probably playing a fair amount of it from a pretty early age.

VF:    Oh yes, I played in some things.  But you must understand, though, that during that era there was a lot on the radio.  Like B.G., Benny Goodman was on the radio, Count Basie was on the radio, Earl Hines was broadcasting right from the Grand Terrace in Chicago, Fats Waller was on the radio, Jimmie Lunceford, Erskine Hawkins (who just passed), a lot of the big bands were played on the radio.  And they were doing remotes from different parts of the country.  So that was a thing that, of course, a lot of the young guys can’t hear because you don’t have that any more.  Duke was always on the radio.  You might even go to a movie and see a Jazz band in the movie, which you hardly ever see now.

A lot of the bands would stay over in Chicago, too. Say, the Ellington band might be someplace on the South Side for two weeks, and they’d be in the community.

VF:    That’s right.  Well, we had, of course, the Regal Theatre and the Savoy Ballroom, and all the big bands came through there, and that was right on 47th Street, right in the heart of the South Side.  I’m very lucky to have been a part of that scene and play with a lot of the guys in the bands.  When I say play with them, I had a little band, they might have sat in with me or something.  And it was beautiful just to stand beside them or stand there and watch them in person.  Because there’s so much to learn from just watching the way a person performs.

Who were the people who impressed you when you were 14, 15, up to going into the Navy, let’s say, around 1942?

VF:    Actually, they were mostly trumpet players.  See, I played trumpet for about twenty-five years.  And Hot Lips Page, man.  You don’t hear much about that cat, but that cat was a beautiful cat, man, and knew how to lead and rehearse a band.  And the way he played, I guess it was out of Louis, you would say.  And Roy Eldridge; I was with him for five minutes.

He lived in Chicago for some time in the 1930’s, too.

VF:    Yes.  So those two trumpet players impressed me with their power and with their know-how about how to treat the public and how to treat a band.  All that is very important if you call yourself a bandleader.  See, there’s a whole lot of people standing in front of bands that are not really bandleaders.  I would call them front men.  But being able to have the men, not demand any… It’s a terrible thing to have to demand things out of your sidemen.  It shouldn’t be a command.  It should be a thing where they respect you so much that they want to do things to take care of business.

Well, on the tenor you’ve credited your style as being an amalgam of listening to Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, who both were around Chicago a lot.

VF:    Of course.

When did you first hear Hawk and when did you first hear Prez?

VF:    Well, see, Coleman Hawkins was a personal friend of my Dad’s.  But now, Prez….

How did they know each other?

VF:    You know, I never knew.  My father loved the cats, and he’d hang around them.  You know, he was a hanger.  He’d hang out with them.  He was a policeman, but he was a different type of policeman; he never arrested anybody or gave out tickets or anything!  So he was hanging with the cats all the time.  And I’m certain that’s how he met Hawk.

Prez I met personally because I would hang out at the Regal.  Whenever Count Basie came to town, man, I was sitting down front, me and my little cats that would hang out with me.  We all knew Prez’s solos note for note.  We’d stand there, and Prez would run out.  Of course, Prez would look at us, because we were right down front making all this noise, and we… Like, they’d play “Jumping At The Woodside,” and we’d wait for Prez to come out.  Well, Prez used to say…[SINGS REFRAIN], but he’d play all kinds of ways.  We were singing his solos, hands up in the air like he’d hold his horn, and he looked at us like he wanted to kill us!

But Prez was beautiful, man.  I was crazy about him personally.  Hawk, too.  And Ben Webster was one of my favorites.  See, I would say that my style, if I have a style, is just a potpourri of all the saxophone players.  Because I have so many favorites.

One thing that’s very distinctive and makes your sound almost instantly recognizable is that you change the dynamics of a song constantly, almost like you were singing it like a Blues singer.  From one phrase to the next you’re in a different area, and you always have control.  How do you do that?  Is it a lip thing?  Do you do it with the fingering?

VF:    Well, a person last night pulled me aside and said, “Man, you’re really fooling around with that horn.”  But I just think that’s a Chicago thing.  Because I think all the cats from around Chicago play like that.  To me, we all sound something alike.  I don’t even realize what I’m doing, because what I try to do is very, very hard, and especially as I get younger.  Because I would like to be able to do like I used to see Bird do and Roy do.  Man, they’d come on a gig and didn’t say nothin’, and start playing.  Sometimes Bird wouldn’t even tell you what he was playing.  But he was so hip, he’d play some little part of it, and you’d know what the song was.  And it would sound like an arrangement.  I’d say, “How did he do that?”  Because most people have to have music written out, and rehearse people to death.  And Bird would play with us, and he’d elevate us to another level.  I’d play, man, and I wouldn’t even realize it was me playing.  I’d say, “What’s going on here?”  But it’s just that man was so powerful.  Roy Eldridge was so powerful.  Hot Lips Page, I played with him, man, and he just said, “Hey, son, come here.”  Boom, he’d start playing, and he would just take you in.  And I think that’s all it is, that you rehearse and practice, rehearse and practice, practice and rehearse, and get out there and say, “Hey, I’m going to do it.”

Well, I think at the time when you were encountering Charlie Parker, you were part of the family house band at the Pershing Ballroom and different venues in Chicago.

VF:    Oh, yes.

So you’d be up on the stage with Bird or whoever else would be coming through Chicago.  That lasted about four or five years, didn’t it?

VF:    Yes, it did.

Was it 52 weeks a year?

VF:    Well, yes, because that was the only little gig I had, really, at the time.  I was glad to have it, I’m telling you!  And it was so beautiful, because I met all of the great cats… Every one of them was just great, treated us great, and tried to help us — because we all needed plenty of help.  They’d tell us chord changes, say, “Hey, baby, that’s not really where it is; play C-9th here.”  So it was beautiful.

And I really didn’t realize how great it was until I looked around, and all the cats were like gone.  You know, man, it just breaks your heart, because some of them left so early, you know.

One thing I really remember, man, I was at the Pershing Ballroom upstairs this time (actually, this was called the Pershing Lounge), and Ben Webster used to come by, man, and he’d sit around… You know, I always loved him, and I could never get him to bring his horn, could never get him to play.  And he would say “Oh, baby, everybody’s forgotten Daddy Ben.”  I said, “Man, ain’t nobody gonna never forget you.”  And I played some of his tunes, you know, that he made famous.  And my biggest thing was I’d buy him those half-pints!  But hey, man, things like that, when you turn around and you think back, and all the cats are like gone.  And I just wish I’d have asked him a million questions.  But I never really asked him anything, except how did he get that beautiful tone, and of course, he laughed and told me, “Oh, just buy a number-five reed” — something like that, you know.  So I find myself giving cats the same thing.

Did you?

VF:    Yeah.  You know, you go get a 5-reed, and you couldn’t even get a sound out of it!  But so many things that… The great Art Blakey said something that stuck with me.  He said, “Hey, man, you have to earn it.”  It’s best to let people find it.  If they don’t find it, well, hey.

[OF THE SELECTION TO FOLLOW] You’re backed here by a top Chicago rhythm section, Jodie Christian on piano, Eddie DeHaas on bass, and Wilbur Campbell on drums, with whom you go pretty far back.

VF:    Oh, listen baby, we go back to DuSable, actually.  Well, I’m older than he is.  But it’s generally the same era.  And Jodie, well, I’ve known him since he was very young.  So it was a thing where we had… But I always like to include this, that it was just luck.  Because I didn’t take any music in there or anything.  And they said, “Hey, man, what are you going to play?”  I said, “Hey, how do I know?”  So that’s the way that was.

[MUSIC: “It Could Happen To You” (Never Let Me Go [Steeplechase], “Mercy, Mercy Me” (You’ll Know When You Get There (Black Saint]]

I’ll tell you, man, I was sitting there listening to “Mercy, Mercy Me” — I think I was in another kind of mood!  But it’s all a part of saxology.  Yeah, that tenor saxophone, man, it’s just… That instrument is just so open.

People call it an extension of the human voice, and you’re certainly a tenor player whose voice, right from the first note you know it’s Von Freeman.

Well, thank you.  But actually, what I just try to do is fitting in, try to get something… I wouldn’t even say that I have a style, really.  I just go with the flow.  That’s what I try to do.  I’ve played in so many different types of groups and bands.  See, because when you have children and you’re trying to raise them, man, you have to do a lot of things, whether you want to do them or not, to  earn a living.  So I’ve played in all types of bands, polkas, played Jewish weddings — just all kinds of things.

I’m sure each one of them was the hippest polka band, or the hippest…

VF:    Well, you know, sometimes cats would look at me and say, “What is this nut doing?”  But I always tried to find a little something where I could lean into it.  So I’m open to all types of music, all types of feeling, and try to play up to my potential, which I think is one of the secrets, is trying to express yourself.  Because that’s the only way that I play, is to try to express myself and still please people.  Not all of them, but let’s say at least 50 percent of them.

Well, I’d say you’ve probably had experience at dealing with 99.9 percent of the possible audiences that a musician can encounter.

VF:    Yes, I certainly have.  And I’ve found out as long as you’re being true to your own spirit and your own feeling, someone will dig it.  So that’s the premise that I go on right today, is just get up and try to really express myself.  And if I express myself honestly and truthfully, I find that I move somebody.

One of the first groups that I worked with, I can’t quite remember this man’s name now, but he was the drummer. The only thing I can really remember about him was he sat so low. He sat like in a regular chair, and it made him look real low down on the drums. I said, “I wonder why this guy sits so low.” You could hardly see him behind his cymbals. And we were playing a taxi dance. Now, you’re probably too young to know what those were.

I’ve seen them in the movies, but I’m certainly too young to have experienced them first-hand.

See, what you did was, you played two choruses of a song, and it was ten cents a dance. And I mean, two choruses of the melody. When I look back, I used to think that was a drag, but that helped me immensely. Because you had to learn these songs, and nobody wanted nothing but the melody. I don’t care how fast or how slow this tune was. You played the melody, two choruses, and of course that was the end of that particular dance. Now, that should really come back, because that would train a whole lot of musicians how to play the melody.  I was very young then, man. I was about 12 years old. I was playing C-melody then. That was my first instrument. That really went somewhere else, see, because that’s in the same key as the piano. But it was essential. And of course, I worked Calumet City for years, and I learned a lot out there!

That version of “Mercy, Mercy Me” put me kind of in the mood of some of Gene Ammons’ recordings, particularly “My Way,” where it just spiraled up..

VF:    Oh yes.

He was a couple of years younger than you, and you were probably in the same class at DuSable for a few years.

VF:    Oh, yes.  Oh, man, the Jug!  Jug’s one of my heroes of all time.  See, the Jug came from a musical family.  His father, of course, was the great Albert Ammons.  And his mother was a beautiful woman who played Classical music on piano.  I used to go by Jug’s house… She asked me one day, she said, “Son, you’re playing by ear, aren’t you” — because she had been on her son about that years earlier.  She said, “The ear is beautiful, but you should learn more about chords.”  I said, “Really?”  And she said, “Hey, come over here,” and she sat down at the piano and started playing chords.  That actually was my first knowledge (I was about 14) about chords.  Because I always played by ear.  They used to call me Lord Riff, because I could riff on anything.  I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was riffing by ear, you know.  And she started me out.  And his brother, Edsel, was a pianist that played Classical music.

Oh, Jug was miles ahead of all us little guys, because he had this musical history out of his family.  Plus, the Jug was a great dude.  He used to take me aside, give me gigs.  It was funny, man.  He used to hire me to play in his place, and I’d go out and they’d say, “Where’s the Jug?”  I’d say, “Well, the Jug, he…”  “Not you again!”  But I survived it, see.  But I give the Jug a whole lot of credit, because he just sort of opened up the saxophone around Chicago.  But again, he’s one of those cats that was playing in between Hawk and Prez, just like the rest of us.

Someone who went to DuSable also who was a little younger than you was Johnny Griffin, whose career started very young.

VF:    Oh, that’s another one of my heroes.  Well, Johnny picked up a horn one day and got famous.  He’d been playing two hours!  That’s the kind of genius he is.  Well, Johnny Griffin is… In fact, I credit Johnny for the upsurge in my career, when he invited me to play along with him at the Lincoln Center.  I had never really been critiqued by the New York critics.  A few mentions about whatever playing I was doing.  But when I played the Lincoln Center with Johnny, he had his great little group, and they put me along with two of the greats from New York, and I brought along John Young, and we played — and the critics really praised John and myself.  That really boosted my career.  Of course, Johnny had nothing to gain by putting me on the program with him, because when you have two tenors, they’re going to start comparing folks.  But I just love him for that, for having had the guts to even do that.

That’s sort of a stylized outgrowth of something that happened very naturally in Chicago, with a lot of musicians getting up on the bandstand and doing what’s called cutting contests…

VF:    Yes.

That, of course, is something that people might think of when they think about Jazz and Chicago.

VF:    Oh, surely.  Surely.  So when Johnny did that, he had nothing at all to gain by putting me on there.  But it was just beautiful.  The last time I saw him, I kissed him and I said, “Thanks, baby.”

Sonny Stitt is another one of my heroes.  He taught me so much about saxophone.  See, I toured with Sonny.  A lot of cats weren’t that hip to Sonny, because Sonny had kind of a cold attitude.  He loved perfection, and he didn’t stand for anything less.  But to me, man, he was one of the all-time greats on the saxophone.

Well, on your 1972 release for Atlantic, which has been out of print for a while, called Doin’ It Right Now, Ahmad Jamal wrote a little note about you which I’ll read.  It says: “Great musical ability is found in the Freeman family.  My introduction to this fact dates back to my first years in Chicago, beginning in 1948.  During the Forties and Fifties were the golden years for the saxophonist in Chitown, and Von Freeman was in the thick of things.  I had the pleasure of working with Von, George and Bruz, and certainly considered this family an integral part of the music history.”  What’s your memory of Ahmad Jamal coming to Chicago?

Well, you know, he was around Chicago and not really doing that much.  I happened to have a little gig at a place called the Club De Lisa, which used to be one of the main spots, but it had been burned out a couple of times and it had really gotten down to nothing.  And that’s where I first met him.  And I said, “Man, you play beautifully.  What’s your name?”  He told me.  And I said, “I’ve got a few little old gigs.  Will you make them with me?”  He said, “Yeah, man, but I’ll tell you.  I’m not much of a band player.  I’m a trio player.”  I said, “Man, the way you play, you’ll fit in with anybody.”  He was playing sort of like Erroll Garner then.  And man, he came with me, and he stayed about two years or so.  And I just thought he was just great.  Of course, I was proven out, because he went on to make history on the piano.  Beautiful little cat.

Another pianist from Chicago who influenced a whole generation of Chicago pianists was Chris Anderson, who was in your Pershing band in the Forties.

VF:    Oh, man, the same difference.  The same difference.  I was playing this great big old skating rink at 63rd and King Drive, and here was a little cat standing over there.  The piano player didn’t show up.  I said, “George, we ain’t got no piano player, man.”  He said, “Well, you play the piano.”  And I was getting ready to play the piano, because I jive around a little bit on piano.  And I heard a voice saying, “I’ll play the piano.”  I said, “Who is this?”  And it was this little cat.  I said, “Come on over here, man.”  Shoot, that little cat, man, he taught me things I never knew existed.  See, he’s a harmonic genius.  And he was crippled and blind, but he had all this strength and this heart, you know.  I said, “Man, what…?  So he stayed with me a long time, until he went to New York.  A great, great player.  Never got his due.  But boy, he was doing things harmonically speaking that people are just now playing.

In the last few years he’s done trios with Ray Drummond and Billy Higgins, and really elaborated his sound.

VF:    Yes.  And speaking of Ahmad, now, he hung around Chris for a long time, see, before he went to New York.  Before that thing he made at the Pershing that made him famous, “But Not For Me” and all that, he had been hanging with Chris.  So Chris was one of the cats.

One of the great drummers in Chicago, who only did one incredibly badly recorded record, was Ike Day, who Max Roach used to speak about with great enthusiasm. I know you worked on the bandstand with him a lot.

He and I used to hang out; we’d go around playing tenor and drum ensembles together. He was a great drummer. Hhe was one of the first guys I had heard with all that polyrhythm type of playing; you know, sock cymbal doing one thing, bass drum another, snare drum another. He was very even-handed. Like the things Elvin does a lot of? Well, Ike did those way back in the ’40s and the late ’30s.

I know he liked Chick Webb, and he  liked  Max Roach. He was with Jug a long time. There was another tenor player around Chicago named Tom Archia, and they were in a club for a long time — and he was the drummer. He was very well-rounded. He swung. And the triplets you hear people playing, that’s really part of Ike Day’s style. He did it all the time. He had that quiet fire thing, which I notice all great drummers have.  They can play dramatically but still not be blaring.  It’s sort of like playing the trumpet.  Playing the trumpet so it’s pleasing is hard thing to do — and still have drive and fire.  So I think of the drums the same way.  See, a lot of cats make a whole lot of noise.  They’re not trying to make noise, but they’re geared to this high sound thing.  Then other cats can play the same thing on the drums, but it’s much quieter.  And of course, it moves the ladies, because you know, the ladies love that quiet, sweet thing with a lot of force, with a lot of fire.  And of course, my darlings… I always try to please my darlings, baby!


Filed under Chicago, Interview, Tenor Saxophone, Von Freeman, WKCR