Tag Archives: Wayne Shorter

For Danilo Perez’ 54th Birthday, Downbeat Features From 2010 and 2014

Best of birthdays to maestro Danilo Pérez. who turns 54 today. A few years ago on this date , I uploaded a post containing transcripts of an uncut Downbeat Blindfold Test that we did in 2001 and a WKCR interview in 1993. That post linked to a pair of Downbeat articles that it was my honor to write about Danilo in 2010 and 2014 respectively. Today I’m posting the texts of those articles.


Danilo Pérez, See a Little Light – Downbeat 2014

At 2:30 in the morning on the penultimate night of the 2014 Panama Jazz Festival, Danilo Pérez hopped off the bandstand of his new, namesake club in the American Trade Hotel in Panama City’s historic Casco Viejo district. He was exhilarated, and for good reason. Pérez had just concluded the week’s final jam session—a fiery encounter with tenor saxophonist George Garzone, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Adam Cruz—with an exorcistic five-minute piano solo on John Coltrane’s “Mr. P.C.”

“That was like Bradley’s,” Pérez called out, punctuating the point with an emphatic fist-bump. The reference was to the late-night Greenwich Village piano saloon where Pérez was a rotation regular from 1989, his first of three years with Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nations Orchestra, until Bradley’s closed in 1996. That was the year Pérez released Panamonk, cementing his status as a multilingual storyteller who renders Afro-Caribbean and hardcore jazz dialects without an accent.

Earlier that evening, Pérez had focused on his latest release, Panama 500 (Mack Avenue), at a concert at the City of Knowledge, a 300-acre former U.S. military base along the Panama Canal where the festival transpired. The 12-tune suite evokes Panama’s half-millennium as a global crossroads, incorporating indigenous melodies and local variants of African-descended rhythms. On the recording, Pérez fleshes them out with structural and harmonic logics developed over a 14-year run with the Wayne Shorter Quartet, and animates them by unleashing two intuitive rhythm sections—bassist Ben Street and Cruz from his working trio of the past decade, and Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade, his partners with Shorter—capable of matching the twists and turns of the leader’s open-ended improvisations. He phrases with a singer’s malleability and a drummer’s effervescence. The concert marked only the second public performance of the work, but Pérez and his unit—Patitucci, Cruz, violinist Alex Hargreaves and conguero-batá drummer Ramon Díaz—delivered it with precision and flair, overcoming a balky sound system, dubious acoustics, and several obstreperous attendees.

Throughout the week, Pérez, 48, multitasked efficiently despite minimal sleep. He fulfilled numerous extra-musical obligations, analyzing the big picture and extinguishing logistical brushfires. At an opening-day press conference, he displayed considerable diplomatic skills, communicating the festival’s educational mission and socio-economic impact in concrete language that the politicians and bureaucrats he shared the stage with could understand and support. He never removed his educator’s hat. There were visits to his Danilo Pérez Foundation, which offers top-shelf musical instruction and life lessons to several hundred at-risk children, 19 of whom have received scholarships to the likes of Berklee College of Music and New England Conservatory. Furthermore, Pérez participated in an array of clinics, workshops and master classes conducted by faculty and an elite octet dubbed the Global Jazz Ambassadors [GJA], culled from the Global Jazz Institute, the 30-student enclave that Berklee hired Pérez to conceptualize and develop a curriculum for in 2010.

After a two-hour rehearsal on the morning before the “Panama 500” concert, and another one with Patitucci and GJA for an evening concert in which he would play timbales, congas and cajon, Pérez walked to the City of Knowledge food court for lunch. Over the next hour, he discussed his creative process, staying on point through periodic interruptions—a fan asked for a photo; a violinist and a documentary filmmaker stopped by the table for separate chats, as did Oswaldo Ayala, a popular Panamanian accordionist-vocalist who would debut a new project that evening when the GJA concert was done.

“Records for me are like signposts, and now we have to make a lot of new windows through which to enter and exit,” Pérez said. “They really need to know all the little details; otherwise, there are places where we could get lost in the mud. I’m excited about finding ways to open up and get those notes off the paper.”

The little details and the portals coexist in equal measure on Panama 500. In its formal complexity, Pérez hearkens to the specificity of intention that infused his ’90s recordings—The Journey and Motherland, both heavily composed meditations on Pan-American themes in which the drums power through, and also blowing-oriented dates like Panamonk and Central Avenue, on which he imparted a funky, Mother Earth feel to an array of odd-meter claves. But the mood is more akin to the spontaneous, fluid, experimental sensibility—a quality of instant composition—that palpably infuses 2005’s Live At The Jazz Showcase (ArtistShare) and 2010’s Providencia (Mack Avenue).

Originally, Pérez had intended to follow Providencia with a less speculative program of standards and originals, but experienced a creative breakthrough after the 2013 festival. “When I got back to Boston I knew what the record would be, that I wanted to tell the human path of what happened when the Spanish discovered—or rediscovered—Panama and the Pacific Ocean,” he said. “I started writing new material and improvising at the piano constantly for two weeks. I was writing for each person in the band to represent a certain aspect of the experience. The violin can be the Spanish colonizer, and then transform into the indigenous.”

Once in the studio, Pérez decided to give the two rhythm sections repertoire that they had not previously worked on. “I didn’t want the feeling on the record that people have complete understanding or control,” he explained. “The more familiar they were with a piece, I chose to go the opposite way. Before I joined Wayne, I would have been panicking that someone didn’t know all the details.”

Cruz recounted the milieu. “There was a lot to digest and process, and each section has a certain character,” he said. “So we were struggling—a fun struggle, but hard work. He’s looking for a way not to feel trapped by what he wrote, so performing it always feels fresh and pregnant with possibility.” By deploying this approach, Pérez mirrored what Street described as the “completely chaotic” environment that pervaded the making of Providencia. “I told his wife I thought we should make changes in the control room or ask people to leave,” Street said. “She looked at me almost pityingly and said, ‘Danilo thrives on chaos.’”

Upon hearing her words back, Patricia Zarate laughed long and hard. “It sounds weird for me to say my husband is special, but Danilo has a lot of charisma,” Zarate said. “He has a natural predisposition to turn really bad situations into good ones, whether it’s a band that sounds really bad that he makes sound really good, or being in the home of a student who lives in extreme poverty, transforming it into a great party. That comes from his father. I see chaos in front of me; they see a little light that I don’t see.”

Danilo Pérez Sr., a well-known Panamanian sonero of the Beny Moré school, became an elementary school teacher during the ’60s. He experimented with ways to use music as a learning tool in poor neighborhoods, and passed them on to his son, who was playing bongos by age 3 and began classical piano studies at 8. “My father clearly demonstrated to me that learning and playing a piece is not the beautiful part,” Pérez said, who played both piano and drums in his father’s bands from an early age. “It’s the struggle to get it. If you can connect to the actual lesson that the music teaches you, you have learned something profound in that process, and it will stay with you forever.”

Gillespie and Shorter, both musical father surrogates, reinforced this basis of operations. “Dizzy said that people need to simmer,” Pérez said. “Let it come from friction. Let people struggle until they find their place. Don’t try to accommodate it. Wayne also told us that. Don’t rush. Don’t make quick assumptions. A big attraction to working in Wayne’s context is that he took away everything that I could use to recycle. He said, ‘Function from the primacy of the ear and find your way in.’ Dizzy talked about that, too. ‘Listen, listen, listen, and then let the music guide you.’ That’s the way I’m doing things now. I’m just trying to redefine things that I have thought about or worked on for years.”

Patitucci, who hosted the Panama 500 rehearsals at his Westchester home, described how Pérez manifested this attitude. “Danilo’s process is long,” Patitucci said. “He came in at 9 a.m. with stuff, but it was just the starting point. He’d literally investigate sounds all day, have a short break, and then go to the gig. That makes him perfect for Wayne’s music, which is not about quick answers and cliches. It’s about probing, searching, the struggle of finding new sounds and dealing with them. Danilo is not in a hurry, and he won’t settle for something expedient. He’ll go for something much deeper.”

Pérez described this mindset as “almost obsessive-compulsive, like a dementia.” He said: “It’s almost like the time stops. I feel more joy and function better when I do that, like a kid finding and creating, doing one little thing for a long time. It’s beyond what my father explained to me. It’s the most human I feel.”

Again, he credited his embrace of this perspective to Shorter’s example. “I’ve been encouraged to take these risks,” Pérez said. “I’ve been allowed to think that the creative process is invaluable. I’m starting to get into an open door to come up with a vocabulary that has been with me for years, since The Journey and Panamonk. On each of them, I was falling in love with little things in my life, and I feel like they’re coming back at me. I’m not chasing them. They’re coming back.”

Pérez now finds himself at a crossroads not so dissimilar to the one he faced 14 years ago, when he decided to table his burgeoning career as a solo artist and commit to Shorter’s quartet. This summer, He will join Patitucci and Blade on the club and festival circuit as the Children of the Light trio, while Shorter, who pushed himself hard during 2013 with numerous 80th birthday events, stays home to compose. Pérez’s 2014 itinerary also includes several runs with the Panama 500 unit and a duo event with Miguel Zenón. He hopes to revive his long-standing partnership with tenor saxophonist David Sánchez, and a more recent relationship with altoist Rudresh Mahanthappa and trumpeter Amir ElSaffar that developed during a 2010 project titled “Celebrating Dizzy,” as yet unrecorded, on which Pérez applied principles of nonattachment to Gillespie’s oeuvre. Speaking of recordings, he has several possibilities in mind—perhaps a singers’ project, perhaps documenting orchestral work, perhaps a solo piano recital on the kind of repertoire he played at Bradley’s back in the day, informed by such early mentors as Donald Brown, Jon Hendricks and Gillespie.

Topping Pérez’s aspirational queue is to generate sufficient income from his club to buy the building that houses the Danilo Pérez Foundation. “My dream is to create the best listening room in Latin America,” he said, noting that a 7-foot grand piano would soon be installed, and that Rob Griffin, Shorter’s sound-engineer/road-manager since the mid-’90s, will be overseeing the details. “We want to provide a creative space where the musicians who go from Panama to the United States can play and develop artistically when they return, and also bring international artists to perform at the club in a way that complements the foundation. I want the foundation to be there forever.”

The foundation’s genesis dates to 1984, when Pérez, a few months shy of 18, left Panama on a Fulbright scholarship to study electrical engineering at Indiana College in Pennsylvania, where he stayed a year before transferring to Berklee—also on scholarship—in 1985. “I promised that I would come back and give time every year,” he said. Pérez committed four days each year over a nine-year span to a music-social outreach project called Jamboree, assembled big bands and taught private classes. “Although Danilo saw all these things as part of his mission, they were disconnected and unsustainable because there wasn’t an institution that could take care of this mission,” Zarate said. “So in 2003 he opened a corporation to create a jazz festival that had a social component. ‘I really need to do this,’ he told me, ‘and I am going to put in the project all the money that I have saved to buy our first house in Boston.’”

Two years later, Pérez—who had been appointed Panama’s Cultural Ambassador in 2000—met K.C. Hardin, a controlling partner of the real estate development company Conservatorio, which was then purchasing numerous properties in Casco Viejo One of them was the National Conservatory of Music, a four-story structure constructed in the 1670s—it was Panama’s first Presidential palace—where Pérez had studied in his youth. Another was the American Trade Building, a 1917 mercantile structure across a small plaza from the conservatory, that had fallen into disrepair. Hardin offered Pérez the first floor of the conservatory for a decade, at no rent, to house the foundation; in 2013, he gave Pérez complete creative control of the Danilo Pérez Jazz Club on the hotel’s ground floor.

Luis-Carlos Pérez (no relation), 35, a one-time DPF student who earned master’s degrees in jazz composition and music education from New England Conservatory, is the foundation’s director of education. “We try to teach the children human values and good habits through music,” he said in the foundation’s main practice room, which contains a Kawai grand piano, a Ludwig drum kit and a marimba. In a back room are two Apple computers with keyboards, and six PCs for students—five of them pay $40 per month; the rest are on scholarship—to do homework and access the internet.

Profanity is forbidden, as is fighting, and wearing shoes is mandatory. “We don’t teach music in a conservatory way,” Luis-Carlos Pérez said. “They need to play, to feel music like a game. We teach them to make different sounds with their body, that their body is their first instrument. Some kids may be sexually harassed; this teaches them to respect their bodies. We give them rhythm instruments, or melodicas on which they learn little tunes. We also teach teamwork, how to listen to each other. If a kid has an attitude problem, we know it’s because something is wrong at home, so we make them the leaders. That was Danilo’s idea.”

Danilo Pérez’s core notion of privileging process over product also infuses his vision for the Global Jazz Institute, whose students play in nursing homes, hospitals and prisons to give them an opportunity to feel, as he puts it, “that their talent brings with it great responsibility.” “At the institute, we teach that everything is connected,” said Marco Pignataro, a Bologna-born saxophonist who has been GJI’s managing director since its inception. “The act of giving is going to affect what you do on stage. Danilo’s teaching reflects his experience with Wayne Shorter—his sense of harmony and orchestration, the idea that creativity and humanity exist at the same time. Offstage, you’re still improvising.”

“Danilo sees the world as one huge combination of things, instead of ‘music is here and other things are there,’” said Zarate, a music therapist whose mother is a neurologist in Chile. “He was a totally different person before Wayne, who totally connects to music therapy. But while I was trying to figure out how to restore movement in people with Parkinson’s Disease, Wayne was talking about how we’re going to move humanity with music.”

For all his preoccupation with the big picture, Pérez is a stickler for fundamentals and idiomatic assimilation of traditions. “I still believe that the core of this music’s sound design and architecture comes from listening to Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, who created a vocabulary that is so representative of North America,” he said. “I emphasize that the kids be aware of bebop. I want them to look at Charlie Parker as a superhero. Their backgrounds are very similar. You see this music speak to them; it comes from the barrio.”

Pérez describes his own background as “poor, working-class,” recalling how his mother, also a teacher, “saved a penny to a penny to raise our level.” He emphasizes that “to be poor then didn’t necessarily mean issues with crime and violence, whereas now it’s implied. It was a super-optimistic, honorable culture. My grandfather would say, ‘A monkey dressed in silk is still a monkey; possessions mean nothing if you’re a crook.’ Those values were passed on to us. My mother studied so hard! I promised myself that I want to learn all my life. That’s why I went to New York, and put myself in situations where I was uncomfortable. I think the ultimate heritage you can leave for your family is the desire not to want things to be easy. When I’d see Dizzy in a corner with a little pencil and music, or Wayne writing 100 bars, that is where it’s at for me: commitment and passion.”

These first principles will continue to inform Pérez’s implementation of his social-humanitarian vision. “I understood from early on that the component of education wasn’t only for musicians,” he said. “I see so many things that could be changed in my country, and I asked myself whether I wanted to be a person who produced the change or one who just complained about it. I decided I’d do whatever it takes that I feel is ethical and moral, that doesn’t go against the values my parents taught me. Another thing I learned from Wayne is that every time you feel resistance, it’s a sign to know you’re on the right path. Use resistance as a fertilizer.”



Danilo Perez DB Article 2010 (Final):

“I have to take a risk, otherwise I start to freak out,” said Danilo Perez, after downing a second double espresso at Saturday brunch in the restaurant of his Manhattan hotel. “I understood that early on, even when I was playing with great artists. They wouldn’t like it, because I wouldn’t do the same intro, and maybe I screwed it up the second time.”

The 43-year pianist was midway through a first-four-nights-of-April engagement at the Jazz Standard with a new project dubbed Things To Come: 21st Century Dizzy, on which he and his newest band—alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, trumpeter Amir El Saffar, tenor saxophonist David Sanchez, and percussionist Jamey Haddad, along with drummer Adam Cruz and bassist Ben Street from Perez’ working trio—were deconstructing iconic Dizzy Gillespie repertoire like “Salt Peanuts,” “Con Alma,” “Manteca,” and “Woody ‘n You.” It was only their third meeting, and Perez meant to use his ten club sets to coalesce the flow. There were arrangements, but Perez spontaneously reorchestrated from the piano, cuing on-a-dime shifts in tonality and meter, relentlessly recombining the unit into various duo, trio and quartet configurations.

Ultimately, Perez said, he hoped to extrapolate to the larger ensemble the expansive feel he’s evolved over the past eight years with Street and Cruz, one that Street positioned “somewhere between Keith Jarrett’s late ‘60s-early ‘70s trio with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian and Herbie Hancock’s Inventions and Dimensions record.” Street added: “The music has a lot of emotional freedom, but also an unspoken subtext of rhythmic science that doesn’t always need to be directly addressed.”

“It takes time and patience to be able to go anywhere the music takes us,” Perez said. “Our mission is to uncover new territories inside what’s there to create something unique, and then write to that.” Elaborating as the conversation progressed, Perez referred several times to “writing with windows through which people can enter and exit.”

“I don’t want to write in a dictatorial way, that inhibits personality,” he continued. “I want them to put me in a weird spot.” Perez credited Wayne Shorter, his steady employer since 2001, as the source of this imperative. “Wayne writes you this amazing thing, but then says, ‘Forget that, and bring your own idea—I want to hear your opinion of what I wrote.’”

Cruz cosigned Perez’ consistent non-attachment to material. “If there’s even a smattering of routine on the gig, an ‘Oh, this is what we do’ feeling, Danilo immediately wants to throw a wrench—knock all these pieces over and start again,” he said. Mahanthappa added: “More than anyone I play with, Danilo loves loading a set with surprises to keep things fresh.”

Perez also attributed this predisposition to his experience with Shorter. “He’s given my life a dimension that wasn’t there before—to be committed and fearless, and not focus on the result, but let the stuff morph as it wants to,” he explained. “I’m thinking a lot about what in my life is important to portray, and then letting the music mold and take shape as it goes.” He referenced the title of his just-mixed new album, Providencia [Mack Avenue]. “It’s to prepare for the unknown, for the future, almost as though you’re watching something in forward motion. You let ‘providencia’ take place. I’m thinking a lot about movements and movies, even about struggle. And a lot about children—when I play now, images arise of how children make decisions, doing something and suddenly switching to something else, like organized chaos, but keeping the thread.”

Providencia is a tour de force, a kaleidoscopic suite woven from the core themes that mark Perez’ oeuvre since his eponymous 1993 debut and its 1994 followup, The Journey, on which he presented a mature, expansive, take on Pan-American jazz expression. There are dark, inflamed Panamanian love songs; original programmatic works addressing Panamanian subjects on which the woodwinds and voice that augment the ensemble improvise fluidly within the form; and improvcentric combo tunes that incorporate complex, intoxicating Afro-Caribbean meters—Panama’s tamborito on “Panama Galactic,” for example—and highbrow jazz harmony; a pair of cohesive, spontaneously improvised Perez-Mahanthappa duos towards the end. Throughout the proceedings, the pianist plays with exquisitely calibrated touch, extrapolating the beyond-category voice shaped in the crucible of Shorter’s quintet—Mahanthappa describes it as “the history of jazz piano and 20th century classical music, but improvised, virtuosic, reactive, and musical”—onto the ingenious clave permutations and capacious harmonic palette that established his early career reputation.

The precision of the language and clarity of intention on Providencia belies the loose methodology that Perez deployed in making it. Yet, rather than work with a preordained “text,” Perez, in the manner of a film director who convenes his cast several weeks before shooting to work out characters and plot, constructed his narrative after extensive studio rehearsals.

“I approached it more as a life event than a record date, different than what I’ve done before,” Perez said, referencing his earlier, more curated productions. “I’m living by the code of adventure, to play what I wish for, without preconceptions. I’m fascinated by human collaboration expressed through music, how people with different interests, different loves, can come together and create. The project was a response to an imaginary question from my two daughters: ‘What are you doing to prevent the world from disappearing? What is going to be left for us?’ It’s an invitation to get away from our comfort zone.”

Similar impulses influenced Perez’ decision to collaborate with Mahanthappa and El-Saffar, both high-concept leaders who work with raw materials drawn from South India and Iraq, their respective ancestral cultures, as well as Haddad, a Lebanese-American who specializes in articulating timbres and meters drawn from North African sources. At the Jazz Standard, Perez deftly wove their individualistic tonalities into the overall sonic tapestry. “I was curious to hear how I’d react to an unknown space, like traveling with a person that you never have traveled with or don’t know well,” he said. “I’m attracted to the connotation of globality—the global feel, the idea of bridging gaps.”


“For me, jazz is the only place where globalization really works,” Perez remarked. He embraced that notion during a 1989-1992 tenure with Dizzy Gillespie’s Pan-American oriented United Nations Orchestra, when his name entered the international jazz conversation.

“Dizzy was a global ambassador, and the idea of doing a project around him seemed appropriate now,” he continued. “I believe that this group can become a sort of healing band. Maybe go to Iraq or India and play a concert with musicians there—have the group reflect how the United Nations or the government should be working.

“When I started playing with Dizzy, I was listening a lot to Bud Powell. Once I played a solo over Rhythm changes, people were congratulating me, but Dizzy sort of said, ‘Yeah…but when are you going to deal with where you come from?’ Later, I somehow added something, and he went CLUCK-CLUCK with the baton, meaning, ‘Whatever you did, just keep going.’ I understand now that by not putting up barriers, Dizzy was practicing his Bahai faith. He wanted to create a cultural passport that functions all around the world, for everybody, and he should be credited for that.”

Mentored by mainstem jazz pianist Donald Brown at Berklee, and seasoned in the idiomatic nuances over a consequential year with Jon Hendricks, who “insisted that I know ALL the history,” Perez drew on Gillespie’s first-hand knowledge of the thought process of such seminal figures as Monk and Powell, whose vocabularies he would assimilate sufficiently to make the rotation at Bradley’s, Manhattan’s A-list piano saloon.

“The education system then was not what it is now,” he said. “They channeled information through the great music of the Western world, mixing that with the rhythms they were working with, and developed a new language. I heard Bach’s flowing lines in Bud’s music, and this helped me start to hear bebop. Dizzy would say, ‘Create counterpoint; if I play this note, find another one in the chord; don’t play all the notes. Position your hands, lift some fingers, and then listen to the sound.’ Wayne talks about it, too: ‘Find the tonal magnetism.’

“When I came to the U.S., something drew me to the word ‘jazz.’ I don’t know any more what it means, but I know the feeling. I understand the emotion from being with the cats at Bradley’s or the masters I played with later. There’s a spontaneity, a moment of joy, something that drives your momentum and makes you feel more optimistic and aware. I realized I had to make a cultural decision to immerse myself in the environment, to hear how people talk, to learn. Then I started making connections—finding common tones. ‘That reminds me of the brothers in Panama—they talk kind of like that.’”

Such experiences bedrocked Perez’ quest to find a trans-Caribbean rhythmic context for Monk’s compositions during the ‘90s, documented on Panamonk [Impulse!], from 1996. The idea germinated, he said, on a 1994 tour with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra devoted to Wynton Marsalis’ arrangements of Monk repertoire.

“They approached that music in a sort of Monk-New Orleans-Panama folkloric way that resonated,” he said. “In Herlin Riley’s playing, I heard the connection between the tambores of Panama and second line rhythms, things that reminded me of danzon and contradanse—it all made sense. I had a similar experience playing with Paquito D’Rivera; I wanted to play jazz and swing, but he focused me on Venezuela and Panama.”

Sharpening that focus were occasional gigs with the Panamaniacs, a short-lived group led by Panama-born bassist Santi DiBriano, who introduced Perez to Panama’s contribution to the jazz timeline—saxophonist Carlos Garnett, pianists Luis Russell and Sonny White, drummer Billy Cobham. Perez contends that the demographic diversity stemming from Panama’s position as a global port produces a cultural mix well suited to jazz expression. He referenced Panama City’s Central Avenue, for which Perez titled a well-wrought 1998 release.

“You hear an Indian cat kind of speaking Spanish, but not really,” he began. “Then a Chinese guy semi-speaking Spanish with Chinese. Then an Afro cat. It’s almost what New York feels like, but in one small country. That’s what one has to portray, that kind of mystical mess—but an organized chaos.”

Within the Panamanian melting pot, Perez was ideally positioned to become an improviser. A child prodigy who studied classical music from age eight, he received first-hand instruction in singing and percussion from his namesake father, now 72, a well-known bandleader and sonero of Afro-Colombian and indigenous descent.

“My father was my first school, my fundamental figure,” said Perez, who became a professional musician at 12, dual-tracking during high school as a math and electronics student at the insistence of his Spanish-descended mother who felt, perhaps from first-hand experience, that music was not a dependable profession. “Music was easy for me since I was little, a language I understood quickly, so he used music to teach me to look at things I needed to function in society—“two plus two is four; four plus four is eight.” At 6 I’d pick up the guitar and start singing, ‘Besame, besame mucho,’ and he would say, ‘sing a second voice.’ ‘Papi, that’s too low.’ Later he had me transcribe Cuban records. Imagine being in that environment 24 hours a day. That connected me to music in intuitively, while the electronics and mathematics—my mother’s side—gave me the discipline and ability to learn things on my own.

“My father said he knew that sooner or later I would decide in favor of music. I think now that I didn’t even have to choose, that I was already walking on the music path and wanted to continue growing on that path. From him I understood early on that being mentored was a key, and I surrounded myself with people that know. I always want to keep being a student, to be in situations I can grow in. Otherwise, I lose touch with how music first spoke to me.”


In 2001, when he first toured with Wayne Shorter, Perez faced a crossroads. Then 34, fresh from three high-visibility years playing trio with Roy Haynes and John Patitucci, boasting a c.v. that already included several influential Grammy-nominated albums, possessing strong communicative skills and multi-generational peer respect, he appeared on the cusp of the upper echelons of jazz leaders. Instead, he subsumed such aspirations, constructing his next decade’s schedule around Shorter’s itinerary and a full-time professorship at New England Conservatory. He started a family with his wife, a Chilean music therapist, established a foundation in Panama to work with gang members, created the Panama Jazz Festival, became active in Panamanian cultural politics, and allowed his music to marinate.

“When I was 16, I promised that if I ever had an opportunity to go out and do something, I would return to my country and give back,” Perez said. “When I started playing with Wayne, his approach reconnected me with values that I learned with my father as a child. I realized that for my music to continue to flow naturally, I need to keep growing as a human being. I need to intensify my promise.”

In their essence, Shorter’s musical lessons were not so dissimilar from Gillespie’s earlier admonitions. “Early on we were playing ‘JuJu,’ and I was playing things I’d assimilated from earlier listening—McCoy—and Wayne looked at me like this.” Perez made his face blank. “All of a sudden, I saw a bunch of horses—I went with it. Wayne immediately turned and said, ‘That’s the shit right there.’ I kept going for that, to the point where it become a state of mind. Every time I thought about music, he looked at me like this”—he deadpanned—“and every time I disconnected myself and thought about an event, a movie, my daughter, my wife, he’d say, ‘That’s the shit right there.’”

Shorter has offered moral lessons, too, delivered as metaphoric koans but always landing precisely on the one. “Wayne made me realize that courage isn’t determined by trying to climb Mount Everest,” Perez said. “Courage is getting in a relationship and going through the struggle. He said, ‘Happiness doesn’t come for free. We have to fight for it every day, and we have to be inspired.’ He talks about no regrets—they leave wounds. He says, ‘Don’t hide behind your instrument—see who you are.’ Develop things. With Wayne you have to have a lot of tools together, but the most important tool is to be driven by your shamanistic side, your role in society as a musician.”

Perez, who left NEC to assume artistic directorship of Berklee’s Global Jazz Institute last September, is walking that walk. He recalled a mid-‘90s fortnight run at Bradley’s playing duo with Jacky Terrason. “It was 42 sets, and by the 42nd I thought I could play anything I heard. It’s endurance, but also a belief developed by doing this so intensely with people around you. Sometimes artists walk this dangerous path of portraying ourselves individualistically, and forgetting that it’s about all of us. People send messages, energy, and ideas; jazz is important because it brings a community together. We must take up the sword. This is a quiet revolution—you dream your passion. That’s what Wayne talks about.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Danilo Perez, DownBeat

The Pile, Oct. 8 — Wayne Shorter, “Emanon”

When I began this blog in 2011, I ran a few installments that I called “The Pile,” comprising primarily reviews of new releases. I soon abandoned this venture, but now I’ve decided — at least for the moment — to reinstate it as a way to keep up with material by artists I’m not writing about, and so might pass by. It sure beats yelling at the computer about the political events of the day.

These reviews are going to be mainly first impressions, based on one listening, so I’ll undoubtedly miss many nuances and subtleties. It also won’t be my best prose.

For the third installment of “The Pile” on this second go-round, here are my impressions of Wayne Shorter’s Emanon (Blue Note).


Wayne Shorter (Emanon) — (Blue Note):


During one of several conversations I had with Wayne Shorter in 2002 while reporting a long profile about him for Jazziz, he told me that, when he was a child in Newark, New Jersey, his mother referred to the time that he and his brother took for creative play as transpiring in “the imagination room.” That phrase is not an idle metaphor — it’s a great descriptor for the way Shorter has operated through 60 years as a game-changing tenor and soprano saxophonist and a prolific composer who significantly influenced the sound of jazz during the course of his still ongoing career.

Shorter’s imaginative mojo has never been more clearly presented than on Emanon, a 3-CD, 2-hour extravaganza, released six weeks ago by Blue Note to coincide with his 85th birthday. It’s the fourth of his five albums of the aughts that documents his sui generis quartet of almost two decades (Danilo Perez, piano; John Pattitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums), captured  in terrific fidelity in a particularly inspired performance at London’s Barbican Theater, where they follow their consistent practice of deconstructing Shorter’s detailed, highly orchestrated compositions, applying an egoless attitude and a telepathic “instant composition” spirit to their collective improvisations, which revolve around the leader’s preternaturally voice-like postulations on the soprano and tenor saxophones, like an 18th century philosophe‘s condensed discourse on the sum total of human knowledge. Emanon is also by far the most comprehensive presentation of the breadth of Shorter’s 21st century musical production and the philosophical and aesthetic armature that underpins it — the proceedings begin with four performances (“Pegasus,” “Prometheus,” “Lotus,” and “The Three Marias”) on which the quartet is enfolded into the 34-piece Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble that knows how to make  “textual” fidelity and improvisation coexist while interpreting the composer’s structurally unfolding compositions.

Shorter appropriates the album title from a 1946 recording by the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra of a medium-tempo Gil Fuller blues on which James Moody, himself a son of Newark, uncorked a much-listened-to 16-bar solo that established him as a pioneer in translating the vocabulary of bebop to the tenor saxophone. The recording — and the efflorescent years of bebop —  coincided with Shorter’s passage from adolescence to teen-hood; several years later, in a band of peers, he’d exercise his imagination muscles by playing on clarinet the trumpet parts from Gillespie’s contemporaneous, iconic recording of Fuller’s futuristic, prophetic “Things To Come.”

For Shorter, “Emanon” (“No Name”), stands metaphorically (but perhaps also literally) for a superhero (perhaps an alter-ego), whose adventures in several parallel universes (you could call them “imagination rooms”) are depicted in a 90-page graphic novel painted in High Romantic manner (William Blake and J.M.W. Turner come to mind) by the eminent  illustrator Randy DuBurke, whose deployment of light and shadow and command of line is a visual analogue for the narratives conjured by Shorter and company. 

Shorter has accumulated an enormous fan base over his sixty years in the spotlight. Not all of the individuals who comprise it relate well to this late period quartet of four masters of rhythm who eschew “swinging” on the grid for an open-ended, breathe-as-one conception  that involves subtle permutation of pulse and texture. I don’t mean this pejoratively, but the music on Emanon isn’t easy listening; it requires sustained concentration, with particular attention to what Perez, Patitucci and Blade are doing within the flow. 

To me, the effort seems well worth the reward. But if this music isn’t for you, there’s Shorter’s extraordinary recorded legacy since he left the Army in 1959 to join Art Blakey for a five-year run with the the Jazz Messengers during which he composed numerous songs in the “hardbop” idiom that are classics of the canon. There followed a 1964-1970 tenure as improvisational foil and primary composer for the Miles Davis quintet, during which he generated 11 Blue Note recordings of his original music that  stand among the treasures of the jazz canon. Then came 15 years of collaboration with Joe Zawinul in the more compositional, plugged-in, groove-heavy environment of Weather Report; and another 15 years in which Shorter stayed plugged in for the most part, making several  albums that further displayed his compositional prowess within the sonic context of instrumental pop.

Just remember that Shorter didn’t become who he is by looking backwards, and it’s a safe bet that he never will.  His  creativity during his ninth decade is Picasso-level. 

(That said, to hear Shorter applying his late period style felicitously within a swinging context, view these two sets at a 2015 Rose Theater concert at which he soloed on arrangements of his pieces by Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s stellar cast of in-house arrangers.)


Filed under The Pile, Wayne Shorter

For Wayne Shorter’s 81st Birthday, A Brief Conversation About Blue Note Records and a Link to a 2002 Feature In Jazziz

A bit of grandmaster Wayne Shorter’s flavor comes through in this brief conversation we had in 2008 for a DownBeat piece in which several dozen musicians talked about their favorite Blue Note recording. I’ve appended it below in recognition of his 81st birthday, and linked as well to a post from three years containing a feature piece I wrote about Mr. Shorter for Jazziz in 2002.

* * *

Wayne Shorter on Favorite Blue Note Recording (Nov. 12, 2008):

WS:   You know like Duke Ellington said what was his favorite composition? The next one. Everything that happened is a work in progress, and that makes it great in itself. But favorites? That’s a controlled selling-marketing thing. It’s time to change just even the way life is perceived, so I’m starting right here. You can put that in. Downbeat can be one of the forerunners in changing how music and everything is perceived.

TP:   I wouldn’t disagree. But I’m wondering if , as a teenager, in your formative years, you were into Monk’s records on Blue Note as they were coming out, or Bud Powell’s records, or Miles Davis’ records.

WS:   I’ll just put it this way. More than…actually, not more than the records… Two guys, Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff, started Blue Note, and they had the perception and the kind of vision to stick to their guns—as Monk would say, stick to your guns. They stuck with something that was almost doomed to be like the low man on the totem pole or the marketplace, or even some people wishing it would fail. But I would say that you don’t have that kind of dedication… I don’t think they set out to be billionaires. But who is like that now? This is the 70th anniversary of Blue Note, and to capture that, who is like Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff, the creators of that record label, and the musicians who created all that stuff then… It doesn’t have to sound like it did then, but who has… I think Downbeat would be well-advised to have their searchlight on who’s the Lone Ranger? Who’s sticking their neck way out there, in the middle of a falling economy and everything like that? The 75th anniversary in this falling economy is the time to create. That’s what I would celebrate for 75 years.

Whatever the music that was done on the Blue Note label expressed the challenge of doing this, the challenge of change. The only constant is change, so to speak. Without naming them all, all those artists that they had…I mean, they weren’t doing “Sunny Side of the Street.” They were not doing the hit stuff, the comfort zone stuff.

TP:   No, they were doing original music.

WS:   Yes. I think Blue Note probably had their finger on something, that you need that kind of resistance in the marketplace, that overwhelming resistance to commercial stuff to be used as fuel. It takes resistance for an airplane to take off. So we can thank the Madison Avenue marketing machine for all of the fights that they put up against originality.

TP:   Did you listen to, say, the Monk records on Blue Notes or the Bud Powell records when you were a teenager?

WS:   I listened to Monk before he was on Blue Note. I didn’t get into music until I was about 15, and I heard mostly on the radio… Some of that music was probably on Dial or Savoy, Charlie Parker and all that. I was listening to a show called New Ideas in Music… I know you want to pinpoint this to Blue Note.

TP:   Well, that’s what the article is about. But I’m all ears.

WS:   Not even being in music, I was listening to Art Tatum. I was listening to Shostakovich, all the classical people—New Ideas In Music, every Sunday it came on. I heard Toscanini do his last performance, where he put the baton down and said “goodbye” to the audience on the radio. Later on, I was checking out the music that was on Blue Note, what inspired the musicians, like, when they went to the movies—some of them talked about it. John Coltrane was on Blue Note for a minute. I know he went to the movies.  Charlie Parker wasn’t on Blue Note. But Blue Note or not, these musicians saw things in life that really escape us now, and I think Blue Note managed to capture a lot of the things that they saw in life. I think that Blue Note was a way of providing not just a musical voice, but a voice of what these guys wrote about, like Horace Silver. He wrote about things. Some song called “Room 608,” someplace, somewhere he had to stay, where he couldn’t pay the rent—stayed in a hoity-toity place. The wrote about and played about those things. If you just look at a lot of the song titles, and shuffled them, like put them in a puzzle, you’d probably get a sentence-tized story. You’d get a paragraph from a lot of the titles. You could spend all day doing that. [LAUGHS] All those titles, it becomes its own lyric. For me, it’s like gathering all of the things that have gone hither and thither and pulling them into a place where you can see what the celebration means of 75 years.

TP: It’s 70 years of Blue Note and 75 of Downbeat, which is a long time.

WS:   Yeah, I guess Downbeat was a voice for things people talk about that you couldn’t get. You won’t get this in the Enquirer. Pre-Internet, you could put Downbeat in that category. If you look up Downbeat on the Internet, you can say… It makes sense.

My job still, in jazz or what we call the creative process, is to break through the very mandates that they want in celebrating the 75 years of this and that, Downbeat and Blue Note. Someone has to break through that, too. That still has to be a creative process, even if you have to come out legless! Send me to the hospital with the veterans. I’m not being facetious. I’m just saying at this point, a lot of us are, symbolically…we can’t run around and jump around like a lot of the young guys do. So we take it like this. We have nothing to lose. Let’s have some fun, man! I’m taking the solemness out of it…the anniversary!

TP:   I hope this will not have been a waste of your time.

WS:   No! Hey, man, communication is important. Even the most difficult areas of communication is a challenge. Life is so complex, and life should be complex.

I’ll see you in the movies. The movie of your life, where you’re the producer, director and actor, describing your own destiny. We need you guys to write more novels…

TS:   We need more everything.

WS:   Yeah, we need it, man. Won’t you join?


Leave a comment

Filed under Article, DownBeat, Interview, Jazziz, Wayne Shorter

Wayne Shorter is 78 Today — A “Jazziz” Profile from 2002

For Wayne Shorter’s 78th birthday, I’m offering a feature piece that I wrote about him for Jazziz in 2002, a year or so before the publication of Michelle Mercer’s excellent biography, Footprints. His amazing quartet with Danilo Perez, John Patitucci, and Brian Blade was then two years old—they continue to evolve and create some of the freshest music on the planet.

[Jim Macnie’s posted a terrific interview with Wayne from a few years ago in which he talks about his relationship with John Coltrane.]

* * * * *

“With Miles, there was no music dogma going on. I can’t remember having ONE rehearsal — even when I joined him. Rehearsing, that’s a fertile time for the dogma to raise its ugly-ass head! What are you going to do with the unexpected? How can you rehearse the unexpected?”
— Wayne Shorter.

“When I was a kid,” Wayne Shorter recalls, “my mother would bring home big boxes of clay from Saturday shopping, and we’d jump right into it. Once we tried to make World War Two on our big round kitchen table. In Russia we painted the Red Army and the Blue Army. The American Army was all olive…well, almost brown. We filled up the kitchen sink with water, made submarines, made little people, and put them inside the submarines, which we placed on the bottom. Another time we tried to make the whole world out of clay — a one-dimensional circle with a globe. We had so much clay we could do land masses. If somebody came by and wanted me to do something, like go to the store for them, she’d say, ‘No, don’t bother him now; he’s in his room practicing. He’s drawing.’ Me or my brother. ‘Wayne and Alan, they’re in the imagination room.’”

That Shorter, pushing 70, continues to spend quality time in the imagination room was manifest on last year’s Footprints: Live [Verve], a free-spirited virtual concert culled from a 2001 tour with his working quartet: pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade. They provide Shorter an opportunity to navigate his music within a fully acoustic landscape for the first time since the 1960s, and help him vigorously deconstruct a set of iconic originals — “Footprints,” “JuJu,” “Go,” and “Sanctuary” — that, as Patitucci says, “everybody and their grandmother has performed live” — for the first time since the recording dates that produced them.

“We’re playing with the attitude that there is no such thing as a beginning or end,” Shorter declares. “To say of a piece of music, ‘Oh, that’s been done,’ is an illusion. It’s almost like saying that at 5 years old you’re so many feet high, and that’s it. You’re going to grow. You don’t feel yourself getting taller, but the process continues. I was working on ‘Vendiendo Alegria,’ which is a piece of music that Miles Davis gave me around 1965. He said, ‘Do something with this.’ I last saw Miles at the Hollywood Bowl before he passed away in 1991. The years passed, and the thought started to coalesce that maybe it’s time to start making some albums where everything is not based upon something original. I’ve got all the time in the world to go for those little subtleties that get ignored and are sometimes sold down the river for a knock-em-sock-em, drag ’em out announcement in the name of innovation or in the name of, ‘Yeah, let’s have something fresh,’ and what’s glossed over and ignored is the lifeblood of what freshness means. What the hell is music for?”

On his 2003 release, Alegria/Joy, Shorter offers some thoughts on the matter. Addressing subjects as diverse as the Portuguese diaspora, English folksong, medieval choral music, Hollywood, and his own experience as a young man in Civil Rights Era America from a variety of angles, he sculpts elaborate fantasy worlds, creating musical lines that take on lives of their own, tracking them with logic and intuition to improvise intricate stories with a minimum of notes, projecting an emotional aura that transcends instrument and genre. Building on group-improvised tracks recorded in the fall of 2000 by the working quartet (replaced on several tunes by Brad Mehldau, Teri Lyne Carrington, and percussionist Alex Acuna), Shorter and producer-conductor Robert Sadin painstakingly layered on the details of Shorter’s vivid orchestrations, working with various configurations of brass, woodwinds, and strings.

It seems that Shorter embraced the notion of music as mutable narrative from the beginning. By his senior year of high school he was writing charts, and he studied composition at New York University between 1952 and 1956. During those years and a subsequent tour of duty in an Army band, he wrote a slew of tunes — among them “Nellie Bly,” “Ping Pong,” “Hammerhead,” and “Sincerely Diana” — that became established as hardbop AABA classics on his subsequent sideman recordings with Art Blakey and as a Blue Note solo leader. He also wrote an attenuated opera called “The Singing Lesson,” inspired by his observations of Italian gangs near the NYU campus in the southern part of Greenwich Village.

“I stopped around my second or third year, when ‘The Wild One’ came out,” Shorter recalls. “I heard that Leonard Bernstein was doing something called ‘West Side Story,’ and I thought, ‘Unh-oh, I’ll catch up to mine some other time’ — which could be now. I have all the remaining pages. I’m going to scrutinize the stuff, rework it, and bring it into its own. To me music is like working with clay. I don’t deify notes, and ‘Well, it’s got to be like when I started.’

“It’s not like ‘Don Giovanni.’ There’s going to be some swinging parts. Not just grooves, but go for it, and still maintain the story. Character actors. The content. The struggle of winning or losing. And a lot of color. Shapes. Obstacles. Obstacles take a musical shape, too. So the audience gets it all. Panoramic. Not just something with an acrobatic, ‘Nice solo, my man.’”

“Wayne has absorbed a lot of the undercurrent elements of classical music,” Sadin says. “It isn’t that he uses violins or oboes, although that can be significant. It’s the structural unfolding of his melodies. The length of Wayne’s things, the way they consistently avoid the usual blocky 8- and 16- measure form is distinct from the vast majority of jazz composition — especially in the era going up to him. His solos also tend to make a big arc and are often quite melodic. He is not content to play through chord changes. He’s working with larger ideas.”

The most recent documentation of Shorter’s increasingly elaborate corpus of original music is the 1995 album High Life, [Verve], a suite for octet and a 31-piece orchestra that, although intended, as Shorter puts it, “to raise the IQ of commercial music,” caught the attention of numerous creative musicians of the latter Baby Boom. But he’s spent the first years of the new millennium paring down and retrospecting, returning to the attitude of speculative improvising that marked his 1964-70 tenure with Miles Davis.

“Ever since he recorded things like ‘Water Babies,’ ‘Sweet Pea’ and ‘Capricorn’ both on his own records and with Miles in ’68 and ’69, Wayne always quoted his own music,” says composer-saxophonist Bob Belden, a Shorter devotee. “That’s when he started to send a message that all his melodies will always be in his book, and he can do with them whatever he wants. He doesn’t believe the dogma that once the 8 bars have been chiseled into stone, you can’t touch them.”

“Wayne’s tunes were always provocative,” says Herbie Hancock of the Miles Davis period. “They would open up passages for your own conception and how you might perform the tune on any given day. Which worked out perfectly for Miles’ band, because we were into reducing things to their skeletal nature, and then each night put the meat on the bones.”

“Miles was famous for changing people’s music around,” Shorter remarks. “Which was hip, though, because the way it was written was square and … bland, let’s put it that way. And Miles brought dimension to it. But when I wrote something, he said it had to stay like it is. Which told me it’s already on its way to being what he wanted. The notes gave him the information. He didn’t have to give information to the music.”

“The first thing Wayne did for Miles, ‘ESP,’ defines the band’s sound,” says Belden. “Where is the melody? Where is the shape? Where is the form? What’s the bass part? What is the true anchor of the song? Well, there isn’t any. It’s the ambiguity. There’s also a level of hipness, the mystery, elegance and sophistication that has yet to be captured by anybody else since Miles in the mid-’60s. You hear it in lines like ‘Dolores’ and ‘Orbits,’ the shading between the major and the minor chord. Also, these guys were all playing the same breath; there were no mistakes. They would discover things at the moment they discovered them, rather than pre-planning it, like most records are made today.”

Although they piggyback their explorations on a much more elaborately rendered set of raw materials than the Miles Davis Quintet operated with in the ’60s, Shorter’s current quartet operates by similar imperatives.

“Wayne brings in highly composed and orchestrated pieces, and we go through them until the form is cemented in everybody’s mind,” said Patitucci a year ago. “Then invariably, he’ll say, ‘Okay, that’s what it is; now I want to delve into it and break it apart and put it back together.’ He wants it new every time — to be expansive, to dwell on the various aspects of the piece at will. You could say the one rule is that there are no rules.”

It takes courage to go out there together and be vulnerable,” Shorter says.  “But John, Danilo, and Brian have the foundation. You take your knapsack, your best stuff that you know, and that’s like a flashlight into the darkness. This band is roll-up-your-sleeves. To them the detail and complexity and orchestration and chance-taking means an adventure, not an experiment. That adventure means facing obstacles and overcoming them, turning poison to medicine. Confronting something. Something some people are leery of or stay away from. Everybody’s life has a dominant something, a self-burden that stops us from doing things. It can appear as a place or a thing or a person — a schoolteacher … a wife. Then you get divorced, and you say, ‘Ah, I got it!’ and then you marry again, but it’s the same wife with a different face. Then you get to a point where you’re flying! People haven’t flown yet. Don’t worry. We’re all going to fly.”


A practicing Buddhist since 1973, Shorter focuses on his Tao, and it seems impossible for him not to frame his discourse in metaphoric koans. He was amused — “You don’t want to get philosophical!” — at my lugubrious efforts to steer our conversations away from the aura of “all that is solid melts into air” and onto terra firma. But although jokes about Shorter’s “weirdness” are legion in jazz circles, there is never a moment when he does not, as the cliches go, know precisely what time it is or land squarely on the one. He knows about labor and sacrifice. The tension between speculation and pragmatism, freedom and form, the high and the low, is a consistent trope in his conversation and a defining characteristic of his life and musical activity.

“He went from the most concrete descriptions to the most blindingly allegorical, sometimes within a short space of time,” Sadin says about their collaboration. Hancock elaborates with a story. “When Wayne has to communicate something important and be lucid in a more general way, he is all of that,” he says. “But even after Wayne had been playing with us for a while with Miles, I often couldn’t follow what he was saying. I just figured, ‘Well, Wayne’s a little out there.’ One day I decided: ‘I’ve got to find out whether this guy is a genius or just a little crazy!’ We had a few days off, and I decided to hang out with him until it was clear to me. So we hung out all night, had something to drink, and I went along with the conversation, and figured out a little more about how to listen and follow and play the games. And my conclusion was, ‘Yup, he’s a genius!’

“Wayne is a moviegoer. It’s his nature to be into drama, and his compositions have always reflected that. The world is his stage. The flow of his conversation is very much like the flow of his music. Instead of detailing every step, he jumps from here to there, and then makes another jump. The details aren’t so necessary to fill in. If anything, Wayne wants to stimulate your creativity to fill in those details, to give a deeper sense of what he wants to impart.”

“I had a world I could go into,” Shorter recalls of his childhood. “It was a combination of things — listening to the radio, comic books, going to the movies, and reading my first book all the way through (Water Babies, by Charles Kingsley) when I was 13. I used my imagination to put it all together. Sometimes my mother would say, ‘Call some nice church girl and take her to a movie.’ But I thought I was weird. I was the lone wolf. I didn’t have time for a girlfriend. Instead, I came home from the movies and wrote my first and only comic book, called ‘Other Worlds.’ I always say I’m writing music for films that will never be made — that no one has the courage to make.”

When Shorter’s grandmother presented him with a clarinet for his fifteenth birthday, the prospect of conjuring epic stories with sound was eminently appealing. “What was filtering through all the while was the background music, what used to be called programmatic music and then got changed to tone poems and soundtracks,” he states. “And the music that provoked further curiosity and investigation and taking action came from horror films and science fiction — Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolfman. It seems like whoever did those didn’t have anybody looking over their shoulder, looking for a hit. I heard bebop and the classic saxophone music on the radio, and I listened every Saturday to a classical program called ‘New Ideas In Music.’ I heard Toscanini conduct his last concert on the radio. I listened to a lot of people. Then I said, ‘This is what I’d like to do, and let me see if I can surprise myself; if I can surprise myself, then I can surprise the world.'”

Shorter heeded the prevailing post-war black culture ethos that individuality is every bit as important as learning the scales and chords. “My mother used to talk about Lena Horne,” he says. “She said, ‘She’s not a singer’s singer, but she knows how to put over that song.’ I filed away that sentence, and its meaning played itself out in other areas. The talk then was, ‘Hey, man, you can be yourself; be original.’ Work on that tone, work on this, work on that. Nobody said, ‘Work on life.’ Except my parents. My parents were hip. Period. Hip to the idea of excellence and giving 100 percent to whatever it is that you do. My mother didn’t go past freshman year of high school, but she was very aware of everything. She always read the newspaper, and she was hip to the nuances of insurance policies. She didn’t take geometry, but she helped my brother with geometry by using the logic of what was going on.”

Bebop was at its apogee, and Shorter’s learning curve was rapid. He got the fundamentals in the solid music program at Newark’s Arts High School and heard Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Kenton, Lester Young and Charlie Parker with strings at Newark’s Adams Theater. He joined a 9-piece teenage band fronted by one Jackie Bland, who, Shorter recounts, didn’t read music, ‘but had the look,” and knew many of Gillespie’s arrangements by ear. “I sat with the trumpet player, and at dances when we did Dizzy’s ‘Things To Come,’ I’d blare out the trumpet part on the clarinet,” Shorter says. “We’d sound almost like three trumpets if we stayed right in the microphone loud. People said, ‘How do you dance to that stuff?’”

After Jackie Bland left, the band named itself The Groove. “We would play before three or four people acting like they’re dancing, and get $1.50 at the end of the night,” Shorter continues. “Then a guy at the YMCA named Mr. Lazar wanted us to play the Saturday night dances there, and taught us to read music. I had been taking clarinet lessons for a year, so the notes were running through me. He brought out ‘Things To Come,’ and we would stay on the first two measures all afternoon until we reached the point where we were playing it as an ensemble. Then we did things like ‘One Bass Hit,’ ‘Godchild,’ ‘Jeru,’ and ‘Israel’. Then we became rebels, and we’d rehearse on our own and do things like ‘’Round Midnight’ or ‘Weird Lullaby,’ the Babs Gonzalez song.

“Word got around that there was this crazy band. The other band in Newark played the Terrace Room and the cotillions and all that. Their hair was coiffed, they had rust-colored jackets with powder-blue pants, and they looked [i]good[i], man. They read music. They made some money. Most of them went to Barringer High School. We called them the Pretty Boy Band. So someone proposed for us to have a playoff, a contest at the Court Street YMCA. It was packed with people. They were playing on a balcony and we were down on the floor. They played ‘Harlem Nocturne’ and we played ‘Ool-Ya-Koo’ or ‘Cool Breeze.’ They played an arrangement of Gershwin’s ‘American In Paris.’ We played ‘Emanon.’ They played something else, and we played ‘Now Is the Time.’ We let them know that we were from some other place. My brother was in the band, too, and he carried his alto sax in a shopping bag and played with his gloves on. It was nice weather, but we came in wearing galoshes and wrinkled clothes. We didn’t have any music stands, so we took two sets of chairs, sat in one, turned the other around to face us, and put up newspapers, like we were reading the newspaper and playing ‘Manteca.’ We went back and forth, back and forth, and at the end, they rated by applause. We won.”

After graduating high school, Shorter got a job as a stock clerk at the Singer Sewing Machines factory in Elizabeth, N.J., where he spent a year wheeling bobbins from one department to the other.

“I didn’t play much that year,” he says. “In fact, the saxophone literally stayed under the bed. But just before the College Entrance Exam, I started to write stuff that we played at dances. My group broke up after a while. The Korean War was going on, and some guys went into the Army. Somewhere in the middle of my first year at NYU, the bandleader of that other band called, and I joined them. They made more money than we did, sometimes $28 per man on the weekend. I wrote 28 arrangements for that band. Once we were invited to play at the Palladium. Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez — or maybe Perez Prado — were there; Celia Cruz was dancing; Mongo Santamaria and Guataca, the percussionist, were playing; and we played something I wrote called ‘The Midget Mambo,’ meaning the small mambo, a toy mambo. I wasn’t trying to encroach on ‘I came from Puerto Rico myself’ and so on. But I liked it. We knew Dizzy and Chano Pozo got their stuff from Africa and mixed it. And when we grew up, mambo and cha-cha were big. You couldn’t get a date if you couldn’t dance the cha-cha. No girl would go to the movies with you. They said, ‘Can you dance?’”

Through his decade with Art Blakey and Miles Davis, Shorter would continue to answer that question in the affirmative. “Wayne’s body of work with Blakey is phenomenal,” Belden says. “His tunes captured that real African-American funk element Blakey embodied, and were still harmonically interesting and captivating harmonically. They represent a sort of hip detachment. And they make a point. They tell you about something. When he joins Miles Davis, his playing becomes much more open, a completely unique, original language — harmonically, articulation-wise, phrasing — that’s not based on anything preceding it.”

“What Miles was doing had a philosophical lean,” Shorter says. “His bands had the freshness that comes with unfamiliarity — always having a bunch of originals, records loaded with firsts. The newness and surprise supplied the drive. Different apples and oranges forming a garden that everyone wanted to be in. That all-encompassing edge of this solar system, and wanting to go into the darkness to see what the other solar system is like.”


Seven years after losing his wife, Ana Maria, in the mysterious crash of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island, and 18 years after the death of their daughter Iska, Shorter has remarried and resettled in Florida from California, his home for 30 years. Fortified by his practice of Buddhism and the ministrations of his new wife, Carolina, he seems refreshed and vigorous, able to channel the spirit that animated his efflorescent first four decades.

“I would say that Wayne’s quartet is the focal point for a new development in jazz,” says Hancock. “Openness is very much a quality, although that wouldn’t distinguish it from many other bands. But another quality is that they depend on trust — in themselves and in each other—in their playing. Creating music for the moment. Being in the moment. Whatever they play sounds like that moment.

“But it couldn’t have happened any time but now. What exudes from Wayne includes all his past experiences — including losing his wife — and him being whatever he is at the moment. What he and the band are doing puts value to everything that happened in his life, including what immediately appears to be negative. I don’t want to take away from the talent of the individuals who play with him. Not all the ideas come directly from Wayne. But although he allows the other musicians so much latitude, his life force presence is very strong, and it helps to bring out all their talent. I’m sure Danilo never played like this before. Brian Blade, too. Whatever they did before prepared them to be able to do this.”

“For composers, it’s almost a decree that the chamber orchestra and string quartet are the height of individualism,” Shorter says, referring both to the content of his new album and the aesthetic that his quartet exemplifies. “Composers like Gabriel Faure wrote things like stories — complex but in color — that let you go away on a trip. The musicians leave their egos at the door. There’s companionship and exchange, and you don’t have one job. You have something to say, someone disagrees, the line you play saves the second violinist over there, then he or she comes and saves your ass!”

“Wayne is a profoundly secular musician,” says Sadin. “He spent much of his life playing in clubs and concert halls. But music as a cultural force rather than product or entertainment is very deep in him, just as the great 19th-century composers — who certainly wanted to make a living and so on — felt they were embodying a cultural mission.”

Which perhaps is why Shorter responded to his personal tragedy with an ode to joy. “I think we’re on an eternal journey, and when we go through the exit doors, it doesn’t mean the journey is done,” he says. “No one can convince me that if you don’t see someone, they’ve been taken away, that they’re gone. Everything can be a work in progress, just like our lives, and I want to support that up to the last moment of this three-dimensional existence. I want the music to reflect the true nature of the journey of life, with its tragedies and joys, and the ability to transcend what is temporary in tragedy, and also temporary in joy, but eternal in enlightenment, which casts out fear, doubt, and all the other teeter-totter stuff that people allow themselves to be victims of.”

Shorter halts his discourse. “I’m getting into some heavy stuff here,” he says with a twinkle in his voice. “But heavy is light to me. I’m going to be 70, and it seems like everything is getting lighter and lighter. Everything that I’m saying seems like it takes a long route. And I’m finding out more and more that the long way is the shortest way.”


Filed under Jazziz, Wayne Shorter

Two Interviews with Drummer Brian Blade

Continuing our mini-series on drummers informed by the Afro-diasporic elements of New Orleans culture, here are a pair of interviews with Brian Blade, who turned 41 on July 25th.  The first conversation, which originally ran on http://www.musician.com,  comes from 2001, not long after Blade had joined the then newly-formed Wayne Shorter Quartet with Danilo Perez and John Patitucci. The second, which ran on the now-dormant webzine, http://www.jazz.com, is a composite of  a June 2008 interview on WKCR and a phone conversation in the spring of 2009.  Most of the expository text comes from my introduction to the jazz.com piece.

As I wrote in my preface to the earlier piece, Blade, then 30, was “one of the few drummers with a distinct personality in hardcore jazz—credits include Kenny Garrett, Joshua Redman, Pat Metheny, and Mark Turner—who also has stamped his imprint on popular music through stadium gigs and recordings with Joni Mitchell, Daniel Lanois, Seal, Emmylou Harris, and Bob Dylan.”

At the time, Blade had just released Perceptual [Blue Note], the second release by Fellowship Band, on which the leader and his unit—Kurt Rosenwinkel, guitar; Myron Walden, alto saxophone; Melvin Butler, tenor saxophone; Jon Cowherd, piano; Christopher Thomas, bass—interpreted original tunes by Blade and Cowherd that drew on a range of heartland folk styles, with guest turns by Lanois and Mitchell punctuating the flow.

What were your earliest musical influences?

The way I was brought up, boundary lines were never laid on the ground between people or the music. I always felt comfortable trying to surrender to the situation, no matter what banner may fly above it. You’re always trying to serve the song. My father is a minister and a great singer. My brother, Brady, Jr., who is five years older, is also a drummer. He left for college when I was around 13. He had been playing drums in church all this time, and when he left it was like everyone turned to me and said, “Okay, it’s your turn.” It was my duty, in a way. I never thought about it in terms of continuing into the next decade.

So you were just plunged into the waters of drumming, as it were.

[laughs] In a way, in the church environment, but there it was okay, because there’s tolerance there.

What was the sound of that music?

My father would tell me of his memories, and how there wasn’t even a piano; when he was coming up, people would clap their hands and sing and stomp their feet. I played right behind a great organist named Colette Murdoch, and there was piano and, of course, myself and the voices. Hindsight reveals that it taught me the essentials needed to be a part of a group, not only as a musician, but as a human being.

You mean beyond technique, in terms of the spiritual aspect of participating in a collective.

Absolutely. These people who would sing these songs didn’t come to music in a methodical way. They didn’t study it. They just sang, because it was praise! Hopefully, that’s what you’re trying to reach for. People get used to structure and chord progression. But when you’re not aware of these things, the spirit has to move you. So you surrender to that. I think it means a lot. Of course, it’s good to have balance. Now that I am playing music and making recordings, I want to know more and more.

Was Shreveport anything like New Orleans in microcosm, a smaller version with a lot of cultural influences coming in?

Not really. In a way, you could split the state of Louisiana in half culturally. Where I grew up, at the northwestern tip, there is this triangularity. Texas and Arkansas and Louisiana collide there. So it’s quite different from New Orleans, being this port of entry for so many cultures. It’s more inland, so you don’t have such a thick soup, so to speak, on the streets.

Was there a lot of blues?

Oh, absolutely.

A lot of country music?

Absolutely. Bands from the South and from across the globe would come to Shreveport. I saw the Modern Jazz Quartet there, Dizzy Gillespie was my first concert, the Neville Brothers would come through… So the Diaspora was presented to me.

Did it all seem like a continuum to you?

It absolutely did. That’s another wall that never came up for me, the sacred and secular. I’m still trying to do the same thing, and hopefully project the same feeling. I was always playing in high school, different music. When I went to New Orleans it just became more of a concentration on instrumental and vocal jazz music.

It’s interesting, because your teenage years coincide with the trend toward compartmentalization of music in the broader media – more compartmentalized radio, MTV is beginning. Maybe in Shreveport it wouldn’t have hit quite so strongly.

Yes. I’m thankful for the folks I grew up around in Shreveport, because everybody was open to so many different things. Even the ones who weren’t had a certain discipline that they wanted to share with me, and I am thankful for that, too. But I always knew, no matter what, that playing the music was always a joy, whether it was jazz or an R&B gig, or playing with a country band. It was always the joy of it. I try to carry that into every situation.

How do you prepare for the different feels of, say, swinging on the ride cymbal in jazz vis-a-vis, say, laying down a rock backbeat?

I think it’s important that you realize what the situation requires. No matter what your strong suit may be, hopefully you can find that singular thread that knits the music together, rhythmically. Again, for me, it all boils down to serving the song. Technically, I draw on the things that I’ve practiced, that I still practice, listening to recordings and trying to learn how Elvin Jones might execute something, or Art Blakey, or John Bonham for that matter — people who have created a sound, possess such an amazing groove and a great sense of tone and projection. When you analyze and absorb as much as you possibly can, it sets you up for any situation.

Let’s talk about some of your major influences. You’ve mentioned Elvin Jones as your hero.

Yes. Fortunately, I’ve been able to see Elvin several times over the last ten years actually, and God, it gets better and better every time. A Love Supreme was one of the first records that sticks in my consciousness. It’s an ideal that you aspire to. Also the things that Elvin plays on “Ballads” with only the snare drum, bass drum, cymbals and hi-hat. It sounds like a village of folks playing rhythm! He can create such a wide dynamic.

I should also refer to my teachers in New Orleans. John Vidacovich was and still is important. Sometimes when I hear him I think, “Oh God, I’ve stolen everything from Johnny V.” But hopefully that’s not the case. Aside from having always the deepest sense of groove, Johnny is always concerned with this sort of melodic motion coming from the drums. He moves the music and shapes it, and kind of gets inside of it. He’s more of a philosophical teacher than one that taught in a methodical way.

He did that great book with Herlin Riley.

Yeah, New Orleans Drumming. Totally. Herlin is another from New Orleans, and David Lee, Jr., who used to play with Sonny Rollins. Herlin to me almost embodies what New Orleans is. It’s like a perpetually modern approach. When you hear brass bands in New Orleans, the arrangements are like turn-of-the-century, coming into 1900! But the grooves and approaches are still evolving. So Herlin somehow takes these street rhythms, and breathes into them a new perspective from a New Orleans viewpoint.

I used to hear David Lee play trio all the time with the alto saxophonist Earl Turbinton and the bassist James Singleton, and also in a piano trio with Ellis Marsalis. He always moved the music forward, kind of an unwavering force, totally swinging all the time, never losing sense of that motion. As a teacher he had me learning the names of certain beats — “This is a Merengue, this is a Calypso.” It was very specific. He had me playing out of books. A very methodical way of approaching the drums. He and Johnny Vidacovich had very different ideas of what they felt they needed to impart to me, and I kind of got the whole picture. It was good to have both perspectives; each is valid, and I don’t think you can have one without the other.

Was Ed Blackwell’s sound universe a big influence on you?

Absolutely. In Ed Blackwell there’s this Africanism, moreso like a Western African playing a drumset, in a way. He’s always playing these sort of little conversations within this four-legged instrument! It’s interesting how many ideas can come from one place.

Which emanates pretty directly from the fact that New Orleans historically was a place where drums could be played.

Totally. I used to go to Congo Square. From what I’ve learned, a slave would walk from Mississippi just to be there for a day, you know, to have this vigil, this drum… There is storytelling in the instrument and what you put into it — but only what you put into it, I think. You have to go to it wanting to tell people something. If you’re only playing beats, then what is it for?

In New Orleans there are certain idiomatic things that you have to do in playing certain functions that traverse the whole timeline. Was that part of your experience there?

Well, I did march in a few parades during Mardi Gras. For me, the most fun thing is to see the brass bands, and how the past, present and future all collide at that very moment when you’re listening to them. I listened to Paul Barbarin records at the suggestion of Ernie Ely, who is another hero of mine down there. I was a busboy at a little place on Decatur Street called the Palm Court, where a guy named Greg Stafford played trumpet and Ernie was the drummer. The way they played the swing beat was real! They were playing these songs the way I felt they should be played, with the sensitivity but the passion for it. It wasn’t as if it was something relegated to olden times.

Have you studied in any systematic way African music, Afro-Cuban music?

Only as a music fan. I love to listen to music, and I buy a lot of recordings. Most recently I’ve gotten into this singer who I think is from Mali; her name is Oumou Sangare. The drums are very soft on these recordings, but the rhythm is so strong. I think that’s what creates a groove, the interplay, and realizing that you may not have to do so much as the drummer to create something quite intense.

Is the science of rhythm in those cultures a different perspective than the trapset philosophy?

I think using all four limbs, perhaps it’s easy to get wrapped up in that, like the fact that you can create quite a complex landscape of rhythm. But to find that singular thread that makes the music live, that’s always the challenge. I’m a big fan of Paul Motian, and particularly Elvin Jones. Just one strike of the cymbal, there’s something transcendent in the sound.

You also mentioned John Bonham. Who are some of the people who influence the approach you take in your Rock life?

Well, for me John Bonham stands as one of the great drummers of any time. This density that comes from his sound and his sense of groove is unbelievable. So laid back, too, but at the same time moving the music forward. I always admired him. As well as Levon Helm of the Band records. He has this feeling that comes from a certain part of America, like Tennessee…


[LAUGHS] Well, there’s this thing that happens, like all these musics, Country and Bluegrass and R&B, they all kind of collide, and out of it comes someone like Levon Helm. You hear the Motown sound and you hear these Stax records; all of these grooves kind of come out in his playing, but it’s uniquely him at the same time.

What’s the attraction of Paul Motian’s sound?

Johnny Vidacovich introduced me to Bill Evans records, because he liked Paul Motian so much. He possesses this amazing looseness that is so lyrical, but also at the same time the pulse. People sometimes miss that Motian really moves and gets inside of the music. It’s quite a different approach from records where you hear Art Blakey or Philly Joe Jones play the drums. But at the same time there is this swing and, like I say, this pulsation that injects the music with a good feeling.

You were talking about David Lee being extremely specific and almost pedagogical in his teachings. Tell me about practice — what you practice now, and how much you practice? Or is it more bandstand-oriented?

Since I have been on the road quite a bit for the last six or seven years, it has been difficult to practice regularly, and it’s important to take advantage of the time you have. On the road a lot of it happens mentally. I play the guitar every day regardless of where I am, because I can take it into hotel rooms! It’s good to have that musical connection, no matter what.

When I’m at home and do get to practice, I like to sit at the drumset and play time for periods of ten minutes at a time. Sometimes I play song forms, but sometimes I just play time, make this continuous line of different things so that hopefully, in live situations which are so unpredictable and when all this stuff goes out the window, your physical instinct will kick in. I try to get around the drums comfortably and play things that I hear, challenging myself to execute things. Usually it’s the distance from your head to your hands that’s the problem; you slow things down and speed it up again, that sort of thing.

What was your practice like when you were younger and forming?

In New Orleans I spent a lot of time playing with my friend Christopher Thomas, the bass player, in bands with Peter Martin or Nicholas Payton, or just the two of us for an hour or two on different tempos, playing blues or song forms or just quarter-notes together to see how disciplined we could be, to see where each of us felt the pulse and if the groove was together. I think it’s important to have companionship with someone, to try to find your place in a group. Because you’re going to be playing with people hopefully! There won’t be many solo drum concerts coming in the future for me.

So as important as it is to tell narratives and so forth on the drums, it isn’t going to happen without extensive preparation.

I don’t think so. Some folks just have this ability to tell a story, but I don’t think anyone can bypass these fundamental things. I don’t think anyone wants to really! Most times it’s lonely, like spending time in your room, listening and trying to see how things are played and how to get a certain sound, so then you can hopefully be free of it once you play more and more with every experience.

A final point. Rather uniquely among drummers of your generation you’ve made a mark in the Pop and Jazz worlds. But your imperatives seem to come out of jazz in a very profound way, and to inflect your stance towards the other areas.

Well, jazz definitely is predominantly what I do play. I’m not offended by the word “Jazz.”

Some people are.

Yes. Well, I think we get caught up in terminology too much. Maybe it’s just where I grew up, but for me the music was this singular thing. I never put up too many walls between genres and all this. Maybe that’s presumptuous or puffed-up to say, I don’t know, but…

That said, what does jazz mean to you?

There’s the improvisatory freedom that you don’t really experience in other musics. Within the forms and constructions you play, it gives you the opportunity to take flight and create your own picture with each performance of maybe the same piece, or with a different group of people, or with the same group of people — you challenge each other to tell a story every time. It’s the improvisatory freedom which makes it magical. It’s unseen. Hopefully you go with no preconceptions, so that it truly is of the moment. That’s the beauty of jazz music. Not to say that you aren’t playing songs, because that’s also the challenge: With that freedom, can you really create this narrative and take the listener as well as the people playing together on a journey that completes a sort of circle.

* * * *

In 2008, after an eight-year gap, Fellowship—comprising the same core personnel stated above—performed on Season of Changes [Verve], a succinct, streamlined suite on which Blade shaped the flow through subtle permutations of groove and drum timbre.

During that interim, Blade had toured extensively with Shorter, Redman, Garrett, Herbie Hancock, Bill Frisell, David Binney, Edward Simon, and other upper echelon improvisers from different points on the stylistic spectrum.  In the process, he burnished his stature among his generational peer group. In a Downbeat Blindfold Test a few years back, after remarking on Blade’s “real old-school sound,” drummer Jeff Ballard said: “Brian’s choices are amazing. What he plays is all for the composition. His mix of texture and tonality is perfect for that moment in the whole tune. So is his matching of sound to what’s going on in the placement. Also, he’s got patience with the biggest P on the planet. He forces things not to be automatic.”

Shortly before the jazz.com piece appeared,  Chick Corea had hired Blade to play the second half of a long tour by his Five Peace Band project with John McLaughlin, Garrett, and Christian McBride, made a similar point. “After working with Brian for a couple of tours, he’s become one of my favorite drummers of all time,” Corea stated. “He thinks as a composer, and he’s very expressive. He carries the tradition not only of Philly Joe Jones and Roy Haynes and Tony Williams—in my mind, he kind of holds the torch of the creation of jazz drumming—but he also does what might be considered, in more conservative music, radical things. Like playing very quietly, Or not playing at all, or playing very edgy and bombastically, all within the same framework. He came in and the whole set turned around.”

This interview was framed around the release of Mama Rosa [Verve], on which Blade  plays not a single beat on drums, but instead communicates with his voice and his guitar, revealing himself to be a first-class singer-songwriter. The 13-tune recital includes 10 Blade-penned songs that comprise a quasi-autobiography, touching on themes of faith, family, love, loss, and remembrance. Blade sings them without affect, allowing the power of his words to come through with phrasing and nuanced articulation. Lanois, the date’s producer, counterstates Blade’s message on guitar, Kelly Jones provides eloquent vocal harmony, and Fellowship colleagues Cowherd and Rosenwinkel also contribute to the proceedings.

“Revealing more of ourselves is always daunting,” Blade stated in the publicity materials attendant to the release. “But I feel like I need to keep challenging myself and peeling away layers to get to the core of who I am and what I have to offer.”

On Mama Rosa you reveal a side of yourself that you haven’t previously offered to the public. It’s a suite of music that includes ten songs you wrote while touring over the years. Can you tell me how the recording took shape? Is there an overall narrative arc, and did the songs fit cleanly into it? Was a lot of production involved?

As you say, it has been running parallel to my writing for the Fellowship Band, but in a very private way. Everything on the record was recorded at home on my 4-track, and it gave me enough satisfaction just to know, ok, they exist, and I’m fine with that. I’m thankful that I’ve had a little bit of time to write down my memories and experiences, and thoughts about my family, and life in general, and connect them with music. Some of those original four-track recordings are on the record as I did them in my little room, or various rooms around the world. But then it got to the point where I’d share them with my friend Daniel Lanois, and he encouraged me to try and make an entire record of it. As we went through the process he’d say, “Ok, I don’t think we can better this version from your home recording, so that’s on the record.”

Which of these songs is the first that you wrote, and when did you write it?

I guess “After the Revival.” Yes, that first song. I want to say on guitar, at least 12-13 years ago, even before Fellowship music started to come to me. It was a song written from the perspective of my mother, say, 1964, when she’s about to have my first child, my brother Brady. I was trying to think of what she might have been feeling at that time. My father is a pastor, so he often used to go out to preach at revivals when we were growing up. He was trying to build a home and take care of his family, but also go forth with his own mission as a minister. It’s really all about my grandmother Rosa, who is my mother’s mother, and also my mother and brother.

Can you tell me something about Rosa? Is she from Shreveport?

Yes, she is. Basically, she always took care of people’s houses, like a housekeeper her entire life, and she ran several kitchens at Southern University and places like that around Shreveport, Louisiana. Actually, the cover photograph is from the Jaguar Grille, which is the Southern University kitchen there. She’s a sweetheart! So I felt it was fitting to dedicate the record to her, and what she means to me, and hopefully the songs embody the joy she brought to my life and to so many other folks.

I gather you’ve recently moved back to Shreveport.

I’ve been spending more time there since I gave up my place in New York, just to connect with them more than just Christmas every year, as I get older and they get a little older.

This happened about two years ago. Has living there had any impact on your musical production? You remarked in conjunction with this recording (and I’m paraphrasing) that in a certain way you feel it’s time to be more open about who you are.

Well, maybe so. I don’t think I was ever concealing anything necessarily. But particularly with this Mama Rosa music, they almost feel like diary entries to me. It’s kind of like, “well, do I want the world to read my diary?” No, not really. But at the same time, it’s my music, too, which is something I love to share. So I felt, well, I  have to let it go in order to move forward and feel like I’m doing the right thing not only for myself, but for the grand scheme of things.

When did you start writing songs?

I want to say ‘96-‘97, just before the first Fellowship record came out.

So the process begins during or right after the time you’d been on the road with master singer-songwriters—Emmy Lou Harris, Dylan, Joni Mitchell.

Exactly. And Daniel Lanois.

Who you met in New Orleans. Was writing something that always had interested you? Did it start to emerge for you at that time?

It did, particularly from being around my friend Daniel Lanois, and watching him in the process, how he would write down ideas and form them into poetry and connect them with music. Obviously, Joni Mitchell, too. She’s my hero and my greatest inspiration for this way of seeing a story unfold, and putting down your observances and experiences in some way that might strike against someone else’s life and experience. That’s why I think her music endures and keeps getting deeper and deeper, the more I listen to it. It’s always a privilege to be around her and to be around Daniel or Emmy-Lou or Dylan, and to see the attention they place on all the elements of storytelling.

Are you or have you been a big reader? I noticed in an old interview that you majored in anthropology at Loyola University in New Orleans.

Yeah. I always sort of wanted to be Alan Lomax in this life, just go around finding cultural significance through people’s music. In a way, I’m doing it as a musician, strangely enough, not necessarily documenting other people’s music, but trying to take in as much as I can, and having it distill itself in me. It’s a constant research, a constant study, and you’re never there—you’re just on the trip, I think.

You moved to New Orleans in ‘88. How soon after arriving did you meet Daniel Lanois?

It would have been around ‘91-‘92. Maybe a little later.

By then, he’d already produced Dylan.

Yes. The second record, For the Beauty of Wynona, was about to come out, and he was going to go on tour with Darrell Johnson, who played bass with the Neville Brothers at the time. Daniel made a record with them called Yellow Moon. But we met and rehearsed at a little theater in Algiers where he was holed up, and became fast friends. We went on the road for three months, and we haven’t stopped since. We’re bound as brothers.

Was he the person who led you to Joni Mitchell and Dylan and Emmy-Lou Harris?

I was already very aware of their music and a fan.

I meant personally.

To Joni…yes, I guess to Emmy and Bob as well.

Songwriting. Apart from the inspiration and the message behind the words, it involves a specific craft. Did it take a long time for you to develop the craft?

It’s a good thing that in my time off from the road, or even on the road, I  put down every little fragment, or thought, or word, or chord that might be an inkling to something whole, something larger, a full song, a full idea. In those times, it’s almost like a meditation. You just try to stay in it as long as you can, to focus on the thought. Hopefully, I’m getting better and better at that. Same with the Fellowship Band music. I’m trying to write specifically for the guys in the band and for myself to hopefully get in on this story, to be able to deliver it and know it well. I guess the challenge is to do that…well, not necessarily quickly, because you can’t rush it. The process is still a mystery to me. You’re still almost grabbing…reaching out into the darkness for these little points of light, and you’re not sure where they’re coming from. But if you can just be in the moment and hold onto it as long as you can… It’s hopefully getting better.

But from what you’re saying, storytelling has always been an abiding interest for you.


I’d imagine that your time in New Orleans perhaps influenced you to apply the notion of storytelling to the way you think about drumming.

New Orleans was my first time away from my family, starting college in a whole new community, one of the greatest places in the world, so unique in feeling and just the emotional vibe on the streets and the beat that lives there—and my teachers. John Vidacovich was very important. There’s a deep sense of groove, but also a deep concern with creating melodic motion from the drums, with moving and shaping the music. He’s more of a philosophical teacher than one that taught in a methodical way. David Lee had me play out of books, and placed names on certain beats—one is a calypso, another is a Merengue.

I guess along the way, my experience in New Orleans finds its way into all my music. Unconsciously, it’s just a part of how I go about making music.

Your creativity emerged on this very solid foundation. It sounds like a similar process was at play in your songwriting.

I must say that my teachers definitely gave me that foundation. You’re always grappling with that place between your head and your hands that you want to connect, and not have a gap between what you hear and what you execute. I used to go to Congo Square, where a slave would walk from Mississippi just to be there for a day, to do this vigil and play the drum… There is storytelling in the instrument, but you have to go to it wanting to tell people something. If you’re only playing beats, then what is it for?

Now, with the songwriting, I felt I was a little on my own. But the thing is, even before I met Daniel or Joni or Bob Dylan or Emmy-Lou, their records existed. What I definitely know is that when I hear something that touches me, then I go into the analytical process after it touches me, to say, “Ok, what is it that touches me about it? And can I put it into words? What makes it so emotionally powerful?” So I try to step away from my own writing and hopefully have that objectivity as well. “After the Revival.” What is this song trying to tell you? Who’s involved? Where are we? Is it in a specific place? Is it literal or is it more metaphorical? When you start to put words on things, too, perhaps it gets a little closer to the bone. Joni Mitchell’s influence also infuses the instrumental music, the Fellowship Band music, and it’s just as close to my heart as the Mama Rosa songs, but when the words enter the picture it’s maybe a slightly different trip, a more personal trip.

A lot of the songs on Fellowship Band’s Season of Changes sound like they could very well have lyrics, and for all I know, they do and you haven’t recorded them.

Some of the songs do begin with a lyrical idea, but then they end up living in the instrumental world. I guess I’m never so sure as to where a song is going to end up living. The process is that either I end up develoing this one sentence into a full lyrical idea, or else that idea is just a starting point that will give me the instrumental story. I’m never sure. Maybe that’s the great thing about the mystery, too. It throws you into the process, and you just have to take the trip.

When did you form Fellowship Band? You’ve had a fairly stable personnel.

It starts with Jon Cowherd. Jon was already at Loyola when I arrived in New Orleans in 1988, and we became fast friends and played all the time. That was the genesis of the band, actually—not knowing it, of course, until a decade later, when we made our first recording. A year or so after I met Jon, in 1989 or 1990, Chris Thomas moved to New Orleans to attend the University of New Orleans, to study with Ellis Marsalis. So there was this trio core in New Orleans that was the beginning of the band.

You must have met Myron Walden after moving to New York in the ‘90s.

Yes. I met Myron at Manhattan School of Music. I was playing with Doug Weiss and Kevin Hays, and Myron was there.

It’s hard to think of too many other bands in which I’ve heard the excellent tenor saxophonist, Melvin Butler. His sound seems perfect for what you’re trying to do.

It is. Melvin’s tenor voice, and how he delivers melody and emotes the feeling, the essence of what I feel the music is… He’s just a gifted person. It’s in his heart and in his soul. He went to Berklee, and had relationships with Kurt Rosenwinkel and musicians in New York, like Debbie Dean and Seamus Blake, who were all at Berklee during that same period of time. I met Melvin through Betty Carter, when she hosted her first Jazz Ahead at BAM. At the time, Chris Thomas and Clarence Penn were in her band. Peter Martin, too. Melvin is a very studious man, very much on a mission. He’s a professor now. Ethnomusicology. He’s busy writing, but he’s got a dedication to the band, which I’m thankful for.

Do you hear the drumkit differently playing with Fellowship than with other people?

I don’t necessarily think it’s different. The vocabulary is all the same. Within each situation, I’m primarily trying to do the same thing—serve the moment, serve the song. Thankfully, I’ve been given that liberty in almost every situation I’ve been a part of. Sometimes I’m amazed. I’m back there, I’m looking at Wayne Shorter, and thinking, “God, this is what I do!” There he is, the very man himself. When you encounter your heroes, it becomes even deeper and greater to you in terms of your reverence and respect for them, and love, just as people.

Are you composing or thinking of the overall sound of the Fellowship Band from the drums? Or are you thinking in a similar way as you would as a sideman, reacting to the flow around you?

That’s interesting, because obviously, I have a connection with Jon Cowherd… Whatever Jon brings to the table musically, I know I’m going to—hopefully—give the right thing for it. Myself, after I’ve written something, I then have to leave the guitar and sit by the drums, and it’s really kind of new for me at that moment, as if I’m playing someone else’s music. Especially when it’s in the hands of the people in my band, all of a sudden it becomes alive to me. So I have to create a part for myself in the moment. I suppose I’m always doing that. Insofar as how it fleshes out in terms of the group dynamic, I think everyone is sensitive to finding their thread and fabric, so to speak. That’s what I’m always trying to do.

As a working drummer in live situations, you always have to play the room. One week you might be playing the Village Vanguard, after spending a month playing concert halls with Wayne Shorter.

True. I think a lot of it comes from my earlier experiences, firstly playing in church in Shreveport, and doing many, many gigs in ballrooms and hotels and lounges, all these different environments, different musics. That has informed my ability to adjust, to adapt to the environment quickly and say, “Okay, this is the sound,” and be able to fill it but not overwhelm it. It’s always a challenge. Every day is a different experience.

Can you speak to the band’s name, Fellowship?

I guess the big idea is what I hope to present with the music itself, this bond and this solidarity, not separatism or things that place boundary-lines between us. The music is perhaps not always easily defined, but I would call it our folk music, and it’s based on our relationships.

In a previous conversation, we spoke about the role of location being crucial to your broad conception of music—American heartland music. Shreveport is situated more or less equidistantly between the Delta, the Bayou, and the Ozarks, which is the confluence of a lot of streams, I suppose you absorbed a lot of them as a kid.

I suppose I did. Gospel, of course, being at the core of it. But then, I heard so much music. Chuck Rainey and the Neville Brothers, Asleep at the Wheel, this kind of cross-section of Soul and Country and roots music, as well as all the recordings I was trying to listen to. So yes, it is a curious place, right at that point in Louisiana.

Have your experiences with Wayne Shorter modified-morphed your views on presentation, or forms of tunes, or how you tell a story on the drums?

It’s definitely given me a greater degree of courage, to take chances. That’s what I love about Wayne. He’s such a master, such a genius composer, such a funny man. So for him not to rest on what he’s already established, absolutely the bedrock of this music, his unrivaled compositions… He’s still searching for new pathways and a different direction every night. So I try to do that myself. There is that unknown, which Wayne embraces wholeheartedly, and he’s brought us into that, like, “Okay, flashlights on—let’s adventure.” But then also, Wayne is always writing and bringing things in, and often, as a trio, Danilo and John and I will go through things at soundchecks. We may not get to them for a while. But Wayne is always planting seeds, and the growth comes slowly but surely.

The concerts give the impression of being 60 minutes of collective improvising, with occasional references to the tunes. How does it function? Are there cues? Is it just that you’ve been playing together for so long that you have that mutual intuition?

Right. After nine years, that unspoken language develops, just from that immeasurable amount of time together. But beginning from nothing, there are points at which someone might actually play something that we are familiar with. “Oh, I know that melody.” “Oh, do you want to play that?” “Okay.” You might agree, and everyone goes there, but sometimes four threads of thoughts are intertwining. So somehow, within all that variance, comes a singularity as well. Wayne loves that. He loves for you to make your choice and stick with it.

There’s a quality of real sound-painting, almost as though he’s seeing the sounds as colors and shapes as he’s creating them.

His imagination is so incredible, and you can hear it in his tone and his improvising. I think of it as always this cinematic view running. There’s also the symphonic aspect of everyone’s vision. It always seemed to exist in Wayne’s music, all the records I bought while I was in college, all of his Blue Note recordings, and later his Columbia recordings, and obviously Miles’ quintet with him, and also Weather Report.  He always projects some other idea somehow, something bigger, something out of this world. Wayne is such a pictorial thinker, and he has such a cinematic, descriptive eye, and it’s great to feel like we’re part of that vision that can make his music. It’s perfect on paper. As far as I’m concerned, we just have to play what’s on the page and I would be so satisfied with that. But he wants to break out of that form almost immediately, before we even get to it, to create something that’s all of ours, so to speak. It’s been such a privilege with him to hear and just play one note, and what’s in that note is so profound and beautiful. But it’s also been great for me and for Danilo and for John to have played together for so many years now where we can walk out on the wire, so to speak, with no script, and improvise, compose together for the moment. It requires a great deal of trust, and also simultaneously, ambitiousness, and patience to put yourself in a vulnerable place, and hopefully have your instincts kick in and deliver the goods.

You mentioned how important the recordings that Wayne Shorter was on were to you as a young guy. Parenthetically, I once presented a track of yours to a veteran drummer in a Blindfold Test, and he mistook you for Tony Williams, which indicates your command of that vocabulary. Could you speak of the drummers you studied early on?

As to Wayne’s recordings, of course his Blue Note recordings with Elvin Jones, but I also initially tried to absorb Art Blakey as much as I could. Max Roach as well. Definitely Tony Williams. After I met Greg Hutchinson and Clarence Penn, they said, “Man, you need to check out Philly Joe Jones, you need to check out Papa Jo Jones.” So obviously every thread connects. Then you start to look at the progression. You can hear Papa Jo in Elvin. You can hear Art Blakey in Tony. Even Tony at 17, you’re talking about a fully formed genius. He set the bar so high, and you can hear that he absorbed the history of not only swing, but how to command a sound at the instrument. I guess I’m trying to do the same thing. Those are my pillars.

Were you an emulative drummer as a kid? What I mean is, would you try to play as much like Elvin Jones as you could, or as much like Art Blakey as you could, or as much like Tony Williams as you could, and then form your own conclusions out of that to become Brian Blade? Or was it more an osmosis thing?

Well, at home, in practice, I would try to. I did a little bit of transcription, but also less writing of it and just sitting at the drums and trying to learn how to execute these things that I liked. But when you’re playing in a situation with people, you make music in the now and not play something that you… It becomes a part of you, hopefully, and you can transmit it, but I know where it came from. I had so many opportunities to play all kinds of music. I was always listening to Steve Wonder, and Earth, Wind and Fire, or Todo! Again, these connections. Like, I’d hear Jeff Porcaro play a beat, and then later I would come to hear Bernard Purdie, and say, “Oh. Bernard Purdie!” I’d start to go deeper into the roots of where things come from. Sometimes when I listen back to things and hear myself, I think, “Wow, there’s New Orleans!” It’s always there, that pulse and memory of that place, my teachers and heroes there. It all has formed my way of playing music and seeing the world to a certain degree as well.

Did guitar precede the drums for you?

No. Violin did, however. But after, I guess, junior high, the line got blurry—I started playing snare drum in the sort of symphonic band. But for me, the guitar… I never had a great connection with the piano. So for me to be able to travel with this acoustic thing, and feel like, “oh, these little gifts are coming to me, and if I have 15 minutes somewhere as we travel along…” You never know. So I always like to keep it with me, and even if I get a fragment of an idea, who knows? It might develop quickly. But at least I was there to receive it.

Did any of the tunes on Season of Changes stem from guitar explorations?

Absolutely. “Rubylou’s” and “Stoner Hill”. The one song that I wrote at the piano is entitled “Alpha and Omega.” John and Myron do this amazing improvisation that precedes it, and then connects to that little piece of music. I’m proud of that one. I fancied myself in my room, the electricity had gone off, and I’m at my little piano, and Laura Nyro kind of came into the room a little bit in spirit!

When you played at the Village Vanguard with Fellowship last spring [2008],  the distinctive sound of Kurt Rosenwinkel was prominent within the mix. Jon Cowherd sat stage left at the piano, Rosenwinkel stood stage right, and, as I believe you mentioned at the time, their sounds comprised the pillars through which you navigated. Speak a bit about the band’s texture, the sound you’re hearing from the unit in your mind’s ear.

Obviously, Kurt’s brilliance and expressive power and eloquence comes from this core love of harmony. Also John, the same thing. This interweaving conversation is happening within every beat. They’re constructing these, I guess, monoliths! As a band, when it all comes together, the lines move in a linear way, but then also move in blocks, as these stacks. I often write that way. Not so much long lines, but more sung, shorter phrases perhaps. Jon and Kurt are able to make those two chordal instruments not collide with each other, but create a sort of fabric, and we all are able to stand on and jump from these posts.

Kurt Rosenwinkel was one of so many consequential musicians who developed their musical ideas at Smalls from the mid ‘90s on, as is well-documented. At that time, you played there regularly on Wednesday nights with Sam Yahel—the ambiance was more a straight-ahead, kicking drum thing, signifying on the approaches of some of the drummers you mentioned before. Can you talk about those years?

I miss it. To go down to Smalls with Sam and Peter Bernstein, for a while, every Wednesday, helped me. In our development as people, but specifically as musicians, you hit these plateaus, where you feel, “okay, I’ve been able to express these things, but I’m stuck there now.” So you have to place yourself in situations where you’re going to be challenged. With Sam and Peter, it was always a feeling, “wow, I have to raise the bar,” because they were really talking on a high level. It helped me so much. And it was fun. You’d walk out of there at six in the morning, and it was as if, “Okay, we had an experience tonight.”

But it seems that towards the latter ‘90s, leading up to Wayne, you started to move from “blowing” drumming to longer-form sorts of things. Now, this is a gross generalization, since everything goes on at the same time. But I’m wondering if there’s a kernel of truth to this observation.

I suppose so. I feel my writing became much more compact on Season of Changes—little 3-minute statements, very short sentiments. But we’re also able to balance that with, say, Jon’s writing, “Return of the Prodigal Son” or “Season of Changes,” that are much more of a trip, much more of a landscape through the mountains and valleys. I don’t know. It’s ever-changing. Maybe I’ve got another suite in me somewhere around the bend.

You mentioned that you started playing snare drum in junior high school.

I started playing drums when I was 13. My brother, Brady, who is five years older than me, was playing in church. At the time, he was leaving for college, so it just seemed it was my time to step into the seat in church once he left. It was an unconscious move, really. It just felt like, “Oh, that’s your duty.” “You want to play? Oh, great.”

You once mentioned to me that when you started playing drums in church, you were directly next to the chorus.

Yes. But particularly the organist—or piano, depending on which side and which church we were in. There’s been three locations of our church, Zion Baptist. We started in one part of Shreveport when I was very young, and for most of my life we were in a second location. Once I moved away to college, we moved to yet another location. So it was a different arrangement within each church, but very similar. The choir is always behind the pulpit, and the piano and organ are always behind the left and right, and the drums could have been on either side.

That’s a very dramatic context in which to play drums every week. Did those early experiences have a big impact on the way you think about playing drums now?

It is definitely the ground on which everything stands for me. Every situation which I’m a part of, that initial experience of serving the song, where it’s about praise and not some show or entertainment, but the rhetoric and being in worship service…I feel like every time I play, I’m in that place, even in an unconscious way. I think it gave me a certain focus to hopefully get out of the way! Obviously, there’s a lot of practice that we all have to do to get better at playing and expressing ourselves. But those lessons and that experience is where I come from, I think, in every other situation.

Can you speculate similarly on whatever impact your father’s sermons or rhetoric may have had on the way you express yourself and tell stories?

Yes. Actually, I’m writing a song for my dad right now, because we’re going to make a record for him later this year. I guess a lot of times, people don’t necessarily see Biblical stories as being connected to their lives. But my father had this great ability to break down parables. Often in church, when something speaks to people, they say, “Make it plain!” By “making it plain,” it’s like, “ok, I see what you’re saying; it’s real to me in this moment, in my life.” I’m trying to do that with songs. My dad definitely has inspired me and influenced me so much in trying to make it plain, these things that sometimes can be heavier thoughts or seemingly abstract.

Does the “Make it plain” notion have anything to do with the way you approach playing drums in the flow of things?

Perhaps it does. I remember my brother, when I was starting to play in church, would say, “It’s all about the train.” Keep the train moving. Just the simple thought of CHUG-CHUG-CHUG, seeing my role as being the train, so to speak, or the engine of the thing. Then you find yourself in that description. Ok, maybe the train is a colorful train. Maybe the train makes little stops on its route. So I try obviously to express myself, but at the same time not lose my sense of responsibility in a situation.

Eight years ago, you told me, “Jazz definitely is predominantly what I do play. I am not offended by the word ‘jazz.’”


Then you followed up with a remark that we get caught up too much in terminology.

I think so. Perhaps it’s so loose… I wouldn’t say it’s impossible to define what jazz is. But maybe it was something much clearer to folks when it was somewhat popular music, say, from the turn of the last century til as late as the ‘60s. You could look to Miles Davis or Louis Armstrong, and just say, “Ok, this is jazz.” But as things became much more combined and influences started to come together, those lines started to disappear as to clear definitions. But when I think about jazz, certain folks come to mind. Thelonious Monk. Duke Ellington. Or hopefully what the Fellowship Band is doing I would call jazz—but other elements and feelings come into our music as well.

Hopefully, what we provide for each other is this trust, the confidence to take chances. We don’t want to rely on what we played last night, or any automatic rote actions. We want to be in the moment as well, and surprise ourselves, and surprise each other, to have that mutual connection and know that everyone is completely submitting themselves to the whole idea. I think the audience feeds off of that. I’m not comparing us to the John Coltrane Quartet, but they are the example of what great group interplay is and the power that comes from that. Each individual is so virtuosic and delivering such emotional power on their instrument, but then there’s even something higher that we can reach together, something unseen, something that is a grace that’s been given.


Filed under Drummer, Interview, Jazz.com, New Orleans

Joe Zawinul’s 79th Birthday Anniversary

Joe Zawinul (b.July 7, 1932-d. September 11, 2007) was one-world oriented long before digitization and Internet.  In the spring of 2002, I had two chances to speak with him by phone, once while he was on the road with Zawinul Syndicate, his working band, and later during some down time at his Malibu home, as he geared up for the summer European festival circuit and a fall tour backing a new album called Faces and Places [ESC]. It was the latest in a string of deeply personal dates on which Zawinul refined and elaborated the signature sonic blend — memorable melodies, mighty grooves, trippy textures and virtuosic instrumentalism — that he first established during the ’70s  with Wayne Shorter in Weather Report. Famously  unwilling to dwell on his past, Zawinul lately had retrospected at length on his crossroads years, prompted by Sony Legacy’s spring 2002 single CD reissues of Mysterious Traveler [1974], Tale Spinning [1975] and Black Market [1976], and by the fall 2002 appearance of Live and Unreleased, a long-awaited collection of 18 bristling selections culled by Zawinul from six concerts by different editions of the band between 1975 and 1983. A native of Vienna by way of the Carpathian Forest, Zawinul at 70 retained the indefatigable, aggressive persona that helped him make his bones in the jazz business from almost the moment he arrived in New York from Austria in 1959.

The piece, which appeared in Jazziz, was a fairly brief Q&A that distilled these two lengthy conversations, which I now present in their entirety. Please forgive some of the repetition between the April 22 and June 7 texts.

Joe Zawinul (4-22-02):

Your history is one of looking forward, thinking to the next project, not looking back.  But you seem very involved with this series of Weather Report reissues and the double CD of live, unreleased material that will be released in the fall. Why?

The only thing I would like to say is that it’s a couple of generations since we played, a lot of young people never heard of us, and because of that it is really important.  The music sounds fresh and new, to me newer than what I’ve been hearing these days. It can be almost a second career for a band like we were.

During the life of Weather Report you became a master of using the studio in constructing an album.  Can you address the contrast between live Weather Report and studio Weather Report?

One thing was very important, and Wayne and I were in total agreement with this: We did not want to go on the road and play the concerts, and have the records beat us.  We always were concerned that we make music in the studio which was playable on stage, without any help other than what we had.  And I think we were very successful doing this.  People were often shocked that the live performance not only sounded better in terms of the instrumentation, but had also this added fire which you very often don’t really get in the studio.

Can you talk about the impact of the increasing sophistication of technology in the ’70s and ’80s on your composition and performance?

Well, I am an improviser, and I improvise off sounds.  My normal procedure is, I find a sound which I enjoy to play with, and I will have some music.  There is no question.  There are thousands and thousands of different instruments and thousands of sounds.  It depends on what your taste is.  I use them as tools and nothing else.  For me it is like a hammer and a nail.  For me an instrument is meaningless until somebody plays it.

But that being said, one reason why Weather Report had the impact it did was the newness of the sounds.

Those were the sounds I chose.  I used hardly any factory programmed sounds, because I couldn’t do much with these. I tried to modify everything there was for my taste. As a matter of fact, for my own satisfaction, I could not let myself have always the same sounds.  I just knew very well how to dial stuff up and get myself a nice timbre I could feel good with.

So you did a great deal of research and investigation into the properties of the instruments you were using.

I was very fortunate.  I had a great company for many years — the Korg company — which supported me.  Here again, I hardly ever used any factory sounds; they always had something missing for my taste.  That doesn’t mean that they might not be good for other people.  But I learned how to modify things, so it would come to that point where I say, “Hey, this is me.”

Weather Report started off as more or less an acoustic band in the first couple of records…

That is not entirely correct, because we actually were never an total acoustic band.  I already had played electric piano with Cannonball Adderley a few years before Weather Report started, and from the very beginning I had with Weather Report an electric piano with a couple of attachments.  I had a ring modulator, for instance.  I had a wah-wah pedal.  I used to prepare the acoustic piano; I had tapes in it or sometimes put tambourines in it, all kinds of little things to make the acoustic piano sound different than it sounded.  This is my trip.  I’ve enjoyed fooling around with music since I was a very little guy, and I’m still enjoying it.

You mentioned in one of the interviews that you met Wayne Shorter right after you arrived in New York.

I met Wayne when I was just starting with Maynard Ferguson’s band — we played together for five or six weeks, before Art Blakey hired him.  I immediately knew this guy is somebody special.  We were talking at a bar right next to Birdland, which was called the Green Lantern, and Wayne sang for me an opera he had written when he was 17 years old — at that time he was 26.  So I said, “Damn!  This guy is really special.” Then I heard him play. I always thought Wayne Shorter was just on another planet.  Wayne was very familiar with the Classical masters, from Bela Bartok and Shostakovich to Brahms and Beethoven.  He’s a very educated musician, and he had also the street smarts.  From that time, we discussed that one day we would have a band.  Then I met Wayne again in the studio when I wrote that song for Miles, “In A Silent Way.”  We had met off and during the interim also, while I was with Cannonball and he was with Miles.  But at that particular time, Wayne was not in Miles’ traveling band any longer, and he told me he had tried out a band that didn’t work out.  All of a sudden, we decided to make our own band. By that time, I had spent 9-1/2 years with Cannonball, and I had written a lot of music, and I was kind of ready.  I wanted to interpret my music as I wanted.

I guess you both were ready to do your own music and stop being sideman.

That was not the issue, the sideman thing.  I think neither Wayne or myself were on a particular ego thing.  It was just a matter of when you have a lot of your own music, there comes a time when you want to interpret it exactly how you feel it.  In all the things I wrote for Cannon (and very often, it was a really good interpretation of that music), it was never exactly like I would have done it if I would have done it totally as I wanted.

Within the various iterations of Weather Report, how much of what you were writing was tailored to the personalities of the band?

Pretty much everything.  Because I had Wayne’s tone in mind.  In the beginning, I used the tone and the facility of Miroslav Vitous, who was an excellent contrabass player. Later on, we had even more personalities, like Jaco Pastorius, who had such a tremendous individual sound. It was very easy to write for people like that.

The three album reissues — Mysterious Traveller, Tale Spinning, and Black Market — represent the period when you switch from Miroslav Vitous to Alphonso Johnson, and therefore, the switch from acoustic to electric bass.

Miroslav played also well electric bass.  But we thought when we heard Alphonso that he would be the right guy for this band.  I told Wayne: That direction we were going was fine, but now we want to do something else.  We want to go ahead.  I wrote songs like “Boogie Woogie Waltz” and “125th Street Congress,” on which we played for the first time a beat that a lot of hip-hop artists have.  I have about 50 recordings of that beat being sampled.

Do you play the drums yourself?

Yeah.  I’ve played drums all my life.  I’m not a drummer, but I play the drums.

So in constructing rhythms, which is so integral to your compositions, you have a very specific notion of exactly how you want that drummer to be.

Oh, there’s no question about it. We were a rhythmic band. We had our grooves which took us over, which brought us to where we were.  Nice grooves with a lot of space, and of course with phenomenal players.

Were you teaching the drummers the grooves?

Oh yes.

In other words, how much personality would the drummers be bringing into interpreting your pieces?

Pretty much.  A lot.  We never liked yes-guys, you know, who agree with everything, and who wouldn’t be able to offer something on their own.

You’ve commented in a few instances that jazz drummers per se, for instance Tony Williams, wouldn’t necessarily have been the best drummer for Weather Report.

No, he wouldn’t have.

What’s the difference between what a jazz drummer would do and what a Weather Report drummer would be?

That’s very difficult to say.  Our first drummer, Alphonse Mouzon, for instance, was an excellent drummer.  He could groove in a jazz way, he had played R&B, and he was an extremely good reader who had played on Broadway shows. The next guy, Eric Gravatt, he was my favorite, because he could do many, many things.  But someone like Tony was too much of an individual, with too much of a heavy ego.  Nothing wrong with that, believe me.  But if I have serious good ideas for rhythms, and if somebody who doesn’t want to do that, you don’t have that music any more.  I think Tony was a genius, but he wouldn’t have been the guy for us.

What percentage of Weather Report music was composed and pre-thought-out, and what percentage of it was improvised?

In the beginning, everybody brought a few lines in, and we just improvised over that.  Then I wanted to get a little more system in it.  We were either magic or we were not happening, and that bothered me.  I thought we should have both, where we have that magic but can always fall back on a solid structure of music.  Wayne and I, of course, agreed.  I must tell you that in the 15 years of working together, we never had an argument about either money or business decisions or the music.  It was a great relationship.  Anyway, we started to create…bring more structure into the music with Mysterious Traveller — and for this, you need different people.  Slowly, we developed into a serious band.

But one thing I must add is that all of my compositions are improvised. All the compositions are improvisations.  One talent I do have is that I am a form improviser.  I can improvise for long stretches, and there is a form to it.

Have you always been a form improviser, from your conservatory days in Vienna?

Yes.  I didn’t even think about this.  When I started improvising symphonic pieces, then I realized things are happening like they were really thought out.  But when you improvise, there is no thought.

I’m assuming you have perfect pitch.


Is playing Classical music, say the music of Brahms, similar to improvising for you?

No, not at all.  It’s the opposite.  When you play a composer’s music, it is set.  It can be interpreted different.  But there will never be a change of any kind of note in this composition.  It’s not that I can play paraphrases on these composers.  That music had to be played as it was composed.  So you cannot compare it to that thing when you sit down and you improvise.  But I do enjoy and I did enjoy playing Brahms quite a bit.  He lived in Austria all his life, and he was a similar guy, like I am, in loving nature and going hiking and looking for mushrooms in the forest, and drinking a lot.  He was cool, man.  For some kind of reason, I didn’t know that when I had to study music in those days.  I didn’t like to play Mozart.  I didn’t like to play Bach.  They didn’t really do nothin’ for me.

Why not Mozart?  He was also Austrian.

Yeah.  I love Mozart.  I cannot tell you why.  It’s just a feel.  For me, it really did nothing for me playing it.  For some reason, when I play those Rhapsodies of Brahms… Later on, I played with Friedrich Gulda the Haydn Variations on a world-class setting, and that was really some wonderful, wonderful times, man, to play Johannes Brahms on two pianos with a fellow who is one of the great ones of all time.

When you practice, Mr. Zawinul, do you do it on the electronic instruments or on the acoustic piano?

On the acoustic piano.  I play music every day, but I play a lot of acoustic piano.

What is your attitude to practice?

My attitude to practice is that practice is a lot of physical stuff.  I like to sit down, especially… On Wednesday I’m going on tour.  I’ll do a lot of stretch exercises.  There was one teacher I played for.  His name was Dr. Paul Weingarten.  He had to leave because of the Nazis, and I still had one lesson with him.  He was then the Director of the Vienna Conservatory.  He was a Liszt pupil, the last pupil of Franz Liszt.  He taught me some exercises, and I am doing them still.  They are stretch exercises.  It’s like an athlete, man.  You have to have your fingers really together.  And then I just play.  I do play Bach sometimes.  I enjoy playing “The Well-Tempered Piano,” some pieces.  It’s a good thought exercises, and there’s a lot of clarity in this music.  And I play exercises by Pischne, and they are just exercises where you hold four fingers down and one plays, and then you hold other fingers down and the other plays.  They are rather difficult, but they are very good for you.  I’ve been playing all my life, they are not difficult to play, but if you don’t play for a while, these things… I always find them challenging.

You have to keep your muscle memory.

You’ve got to have the muscle memory.  It is great.  Then I just…how do you say…an attack… You have to attack it in a different way.  That I do miss on some… I wish there would be more synthesizer players out there who play synthesizers as what they are.  Synthesizers.  Not pianos.

So for you, a synthesizer is a synthesizer and a piano is a piano.

Exactly.  And a lot of the guys out there (and they may be great musicians) I feel are playing too much piano on the synthesizers, and it doesn’t sound good.  Each sound needs another technique, another way of attacking it, a different way of playing legato, playing staccato.  So it’s a matter of dealing with sounds.  I love to deal with sounds, and all of my sounds are played differently.

Within your composition, are you thinking of rhythm first, or harmony first…

I think of nothing.  I just sit down, and I turn my tape recorder on, and I’m gone.  And that’s it.

Is that with the acoustic piano or the synth?

It doesn’t matter.  The instrument doesn’t matter to me.

When do you first recall becoming aware of the Moog or the Fender Rhodes?

Well, electronic pianos I started playing rather early.  I did my first tour I think in ’49, in a hillbilly band, and we played in this hotel (in Austria, this was), and it was an American officers hotel, and in the basement of this hotel was a chapel for the American officers, and they had a Hammond B-3 down there, and they allowed me to go and practice there every day.  So that was my first experience with organs.  But even before that, I was very early in my life an accordion player, and as you know, accordions have those different…we call it registers, where you have different stops, each stop represents a different sound.  So even in those days when I was a kid, I was fooling around with these different timbres.  As a matter of fact, one time I stole a little piece of a billiard table cover, that green felt, and glued it into the sound-board of the bass side (is it the left side) and on the right hand side in the sound board.  And the sound I got out of it was very similar to the sound I had when I played “Black Market.”  So it started with playing in American clubs in the camps after World War Two, in 1949, ’50 and ’51.  There were a lot of Wurlitzer pianos, and that’s where I started playing the Wurlitzer which I later on used on “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.”

In almost every interview people talk to you about Cannonball Adderley, and you usually don’t even address him musically.  It was such an amazingly diverse band.  It was so conceptually rich.  Looking back, it’s astonishing how much music was accomplished in that decade.  What sort of bandleader was he for you?

You know what?  When you talk about Cannonball to me, you’re talking to me about my brother.  This guy was such an incredible human being.  He was a phenomenal musician.  Cannonball Adderley was the most underrated great musician ever.

Why do you think so?

I don’t know.  Maybe because some of the music we played was maybe too much geared for… We had fine music, believe me, in this band.  But sometimes the band relied too much on playing the hits.  About this we had quite a few arguments during those years, especially with Nat.  I used to say, “Hey, man, we are the hit, not the hits.”  The band was such a good band. We had so much to offer, we didn’t have to play “‘Dis Here” and “Dat Dere” and ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” all the time.  You know what I mean?  When there was so much other good things.  There were times during the last two or three years I was in the band when they often told me to put the set together, especially when we played the big concert somewhere, at a convention or something, and we only had 30 or 35 minutes to play.  I always put the set together.  That’s I think when we really opened up.  Cannon played a little bit of those hits and showed what the band could do, and it was very nice.

Was he a bandleader who encouraged your personality to come out at all times?

We never talked about this kind of stuff.

It just was.

It was, yes.  But I had the great fortune… We used to travel in those days still a lot with cars, and I was always with Cannonball in the car.  We had the contrabass in the station wagon, and the other guys were in the other station wagon.  To talk to Cannon all those hours on the road, it was amazing.  He was very educated.

He was a schoolteacher, a professor.

He was a professor.  He was brilliant.  He taught me about Austria and old history and stuff like that, about the Vienna Congress, and Metternich, the great political figures in those days.

He was a student of history.

Yes.  You could talk about everything with Cannon.  He was not only one of the great, great musicians I’ve ever had the honor and pleasure to play with, but also an intellectual actually, with the street wisdom.

A highly educated man.

Highly.  But loose, you know.  Down to earth.

And somewhat Rabelaisian in his habits.  I’ve heard stories about his chowing down.

He was chowing down, all right.

You have a piece on World Tour, on the double album, called “When There Was Royalty.”


I guess it’s one of your improvisations that got recorded.  And I can hear how much you listened to Art Tatum.


Can you talk about some of the great jazz pianists you admired?

Oh, man.  We’re going to have to sit here for another 3 hours.

Well, I could sit here for 15 minutes anyway.

I’ll tell you.  For me, Art Tatum is about as great a musician as ever lived.  For me, Duke Ellington was a great piano player.  Because of his greatness as a composer and as a bandleader, it was such that many people forgot, or didn’t recognize what a great piano player this guy was.  But for me, Art Tatum was a guy…it was unbelievable.  I don’t think there has ever been one who could play the piano… Yeah, technically there are people who can play the piano.  But what he did with it, it was just unbelievable, and you hear it today and you heard it yesterday and you’ll hear it in a hundred years. It’s going to be always the major force in jazz piano playing.

I hear bebop in that piece as well.  I hear certain Bud Powell things as well.  Were you very involved assimilating him and Bebop?

I was involved in everybody, man.  I started with George Shearing, and I still admire George Shearing and love his music, and his touch.  And Erroll Garner was one of my big, big favorites.  Bud Powell.  Art Tatum, of course.  Unreachable.  I fooled around with this stuff.  Ben Webster shared an apartment with me at one time, and we used to practice a lot, and he played with Tatum, and he knew how to play the piano, and he showed me a few things.

He was a good stride pianist, right?

He was a HELLUVA good stride piano player.  He knew all that little inner stuff.  You know, I can hear pretty much everything anyhow.  But he showed me how he did it, and it was very interesting.  But anyhow, to come back to this “When There Was Royalty,” on the very day I picked this tune, at home I just brought my Walkman up and played.  Because I read this “Downbeat” interview Ben had done in 1963 or sometime, and he was talking about, “Yeah, today’s piano players, they ain’t having no fun.  In the older days, like Fats Waller, they used to smoke and they used to drink (Art Tatum was a big drinker), and talk to the people and played the shit out of the piano.”  And I thought to myself, “‘You know, I am this kind of guy, actually.” I can talk to people while I’m playing.  I do some overdubs sometimes, and have a conversation.  “But let me just do that, man.”  I turned the tape recorder on and I played this, and that’s what I left on the record.  It was one of those real instinctive kind of, “Come on, man, I can do a little something.”

You used to live on East 12th Street, right?

Yeah, lately.

Did you ever go to Bradley’s?

Yeah!  A lot.

That was a place where piano players had a good time and drank and so on.

Oh yeah!

Back to Weather Report.  Did you break with your past in a very deliberate way, or do you see that as of a continuum with what you were doing up to the age…

I think everything in life is for everybody.  It’s not just me.  You cannot step out of your own shadow.  I just felt like I was a musician who was always able to grow.  And I am a much better musician, if I may say that, than I was when I was with Weather Report, when I was co-leading this band.

But it’s all a continuum.


But in summing up with Weather Report, you said towards the beginning of this conversation, that you thought the music sounds new, almost newer than what people are doing now.

There is no question.


This I don’t know.  Because for some kind of reason, with the return to bebop, it has stopped being played… The music has not developed in any kind of way.  Because record companies put this in front of the people so much, this return of Bebop, that it almost was bad if you played anything electronic or something like that.  You know what I mean?  And not being played on the radio, I think what it did is a lot of people don’t have any idea what this music was all about.  Now, I think, in all sincerity, that the last serious movement in jazz was Weather Report.  The last one really where you can say, hey, this was something different and something which has lasting power and longevity.

You’re calling it “the last movement,” though.  What was it a movement of?  We can look at this historically.  We can look back on it as something that was a generation ago.  What did the movement represent?

It represented what we were doing.  We played jazz.  That was also misinterpreted.  We actually come from jazz and we continued to play jazz, with different tones, with different timbres and a different form.  We definitely went away from the AABA form, from the general American Song form, and we went all the way from Bebop.  But in all of our playing (and you can check it all out), we even covered some of the old tunes.  We covered on one record Duke Ellington’s “Rockin’ In Rhythm.”  Many things we did, whatever we played, when we didn’t listen to jazz music, it was just different… And what happened afterwards, it was nothing new.  Nothing single new…I don’t think anyhow.  And it doesn’t really matter.  I’ll tell you the truth.  It does not matter.  But I think to imitate a music, regardless how great you’re doing it, it’s never going to be as good as an original.

Wayne Shorter these days is reinvestigating his older material, retrospecting on 35 years of compositions with a younger band.  Have you heard them?

I heard the band only for about 15 minutes last year when I was on tour, and just before I left the hotel, it was around midnight, I turn on the TV and there was Wayne Shorter from Montreal.  It blew me away.  He played here yesterday in Los Angeles, and I couldn’t go.  But hey, whatever Wayne is doing is always going to be good.

It’s less a matter of comparison as to note that he and Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, to name three people in recent years, have been going back and revisiting their past, kind of picking up loose ends in recent years…

God bless ’em, man!  God bless ’em.

But not for you.


 Zawinul Syndicate.  First of all, is the new record, Faces and Places, coming out soon?

It’s coming out in September.  It was very bad timing to put it out.  I just built a great studio here in my house, and it took longer than expected.  You know, when you start from scratch, you build everything, a house and everything.  But in fact, today we’re mixing the last tune, and the record will be mastering in two days in New York.  Then the record will be out in September.  It would have been a bad time to come out anyhow, in May, because it’s summertime, and the economy is a little funny, and the soccer World Cup in Europe is very important, and people don’t go out so much… But anyhow, it will come out in September.  And I can tell you: Get ready, man!  It’s a good one.

Is it all new material?


So this is all new material, written in the last three or four years?

It’s totally new material.

Is it entirely a studio recording?

Not entirely.  There are three little introductions we did live, one in Australia, one in Paris, and a little tag on another tune also from a Paris concert.  But the whole thing is very nice.  I have Paco Seery.  He is back in the live band, by the way.  Etienne Mbappe, who’s from Cameroon, a wonderful bass player.  I also have Richard Bona in the band… It’s the rhythm section I had on the Salif Keita record, Amen.  It’s a good one.  We’ll see.  I think it’s my best record.

Who’s on the tour?

Paco Seery on drums.  Etienne Mbappe singing and supreme bass player.  Amir Chatterjee, guitar player from India, who is one of the foremost singers in the world, I believe.  And Manolo Badrena, man!

Are you going to be playing in New York?

Not in a while.  I want to wait until the record comes out and everything is real settled and so on.  I really don’t have time this year.  I’ll be 70 in July, and in Europe is a lot of action about this, so I’m doing a lot of traveling and running around…and doing things!

70, and you seem to have the energy of someone much less.  How do you keep yourself involved?  How do you keep yourself active, going from day to day?

Number one, I box three times a week.  I’m in really phenomenal shape.  I’m feeling good, man.  Thank God, I’m healthy, I have a great family, a good wife.  What is there in life, you know?  That’s it, man!  I play music and make a good living with what I like to do.  That’s a blessing, so I’m very, very grateful.  And I hope to be around for a long time, because I have good ideas, man.

When you talk about the people who comprise Syndicate, they’re from every corner of the world, from Africa, the islands, India.  Your AOL handle is Mulattozi.  I don’t know if there’s any particular question I have…

Why, you mean.  My kids are mulatto.  So that’s what it is.

It’s 30 years since Weather Report was formed, and the world has become much smaller.  In jazz right now, in New York anyway, you have people from all over the world playing jazz.  They know jazz idiomatically and they have what they bring from their own culture.  A wonderful hybrid is being created.

Oh yeah.

It’s an amazing time in this music because of that.

Well, the great black jazz masters have done it.  They started it, coming from Africa.  And I’ll tell you something.  Look at Africa.  Africa is happening.  I’m going this month, I’m going to Senegal and to the Ivory Coast.  I always love to play in Africa.  It’s a wonderful thing.  The people have so much energy.  They’re very sophisticated.  That’s what’s so great.  That will make the music again what it used to be.  I don’t mean in terms of the actual music.  I’m talking about the power.  Because this music that the great jazz masters created, that was the true world music.  It covered the whole world.  There is no music anywhere where you don’t hear something of that in there.

So Louis Armstrong, Ellington, Charlie Parker…

All of that.  All that!  Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis.  All of these great masters, what they put in there in the earlier part of the 20th century.  It was the greatest art form of the 20th century.  And slowly, becoming such a global thing, and that’s going to add to it.  Nobody gonna take away nothing from nobody.  It’s going to be very interesting, the future.

Where do you see yourself in that continuum?

I am me, man.  I am an individual.  I have a wonderful future, because I am doing what I am doing. And actually, nobody is doing what I am doing.  Which is okay.  There are many people playing synthesizer, but nobody plays the way I play.  I’m not saying greater.  But nobody plays like I play.

I don’t think anybody brings together all the elements you bring together in the way you do it.

Because it’s still mine.  I’m not copying nobody.  I’m not playing African music.  It’s my music.  But I have a global sense.  Because I’ve been traveling all of my life, I know so many great people all over the planet.  And I am not a music listener, but I am an observer.  I am observing things.  I’m inspired, man. That’s all.

* * * *

Joe Zawinul, #2 (6-7-02):

How was the tour you just did?

The tour was tremendous.  We rehearsed three days in Leverkusen, Germany. Then we started the tour in Amsterdam, in Mountquake, which is the best club in Amsterdam. It’s huge.  It’s like a showcase kind of place.  We have played there several times, and there were 200 or 300 people out there who couldn’t get in. It’s a big place. So that was tremendous, and it started there.  Then we went to Germany, and we had about 11 or 12 shows in a row, without a day off, in Germany — Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt, the major cities.

Then we went to Western Africa for five days, to Senegal. We played at the Biennale in Dakar.  This is a big three week presentation, with film and the visual arts, concerts, exhibitions, all different things, a tremendous cultural event.

Like what they do in Venice every couple of years with art, but from an African perspective.

Yes.  This time they did it in Dakar, in West Africa.  We played in Dakar, a wonderful show, and then we went to St. Louis, which is about three hours north of Dakar, and we played a tremendous show there for the second time.  We played there in 1997, and our concert then was an historical one.  People said… The promoter had a press conference when we went to Dakar, and he said that they had celebrated the tenth year of their festival, and that was the best concert they have ever had.  I haven’t been there, so I don’t know.  I’m just saying what he said.  But we played very well, and it was a huge success.

Then we went back and played at Parc Florale, which is an outdoor place in Paris, an afternoon concert.  The people don’t pay to get in there.  We had about 15,000 people — a tremendous concert.  Then we went to Vicenza in Italy the next day, also a big town; they have a beautiful festival there.  Then we did an actual Norway tour, which is very interesting.  Normally we play in Oslo, and perhaps we play a festival in Molde.  But this time we played six or seven towns in Norway, and that was tremendous.  We ended up in Tomse(?), which is way up there where the midnight sun is not just a myth, it’s for real.  It’s way more north, the Arctic Circle.  We had great shows.

After that, I went and played a quick concert in New York with Wolfgang Muthspiel for the Austrian Cultural Forum.  This is a new building.  Now I’m home for a few days and getting things together, then I’m leaving for a few weeks and going on a six-week tour for all the festivals, and then we’re going on and starting my publicity tour in September.

So this is going to be another one of these years where you’re working 200 days of the year.

Yeah, minimum.  Minimum.  Because we made this record… Have you had a chance to hear it?

Yes, it came yesterday, and I’ve heard it about four times.  On this last tour have you been playing music from the record?


How has the music evolved?

What do you mean?

Well, I presume that when you take a band out and play a bunch of music, because you use such strong-minded musicians, the music takes on a life of its own.

Yes, it’s very different.  But it is… I cannot say it’s better.  It is different.  The record is very organized… And live, it’s phenomenal.

You made a comment when I spoke with you the first time that you never wanted to make a record that you couldn’t match or exceed live.  Obviously, with the LIVE AND UNRELEASED material, it’s a very different perspective.  How has the difference between a record and a concert performance changed for you over the last 30 years?

One thing is, a concert you play, and that is it.  You play a song and you have to live with it.  When you make a record… What I tried on FACES AND PLACES is to have a studio record, but with the strength of live performance.  I think we have done very well on that.  It is still a studio record with all the qualities of sound, but it has a lot of good things on it.

How did you go about doing that?

Number one, I never changed my improvisations.  Most of what I play, what you hear on the record, is the original improvisation before anything else was on there.

So before drums, before bass…

Before anything was on there.  Those are my original… I had a little drum sequencer put together, and then I just improvised.  And on a click track, I improvised on my laptop.  All this was done while I was on the road a couple of years ago.  I did all this in the hotel rooms, etc., and improvised.  One thing I wanted to do, in order to keep it fresh, like I have in life, I did not change anything of mine, and just add things.  Then I found… Back in my band is the great Paco Sery, and he plays phenomenal on the record.

But for you in your improvising, in the core moments of any particular piece you do, is that… You don’t need any other instruments to help get you going.


Rhythmically, bass-wise, orchestrationally…

Well, that’s what I do.  I play bass also.  I have a click track perhaps; that’s the least I have.  Or sometimes I just put down for myself a nice little pattern.  But not a pattern… I have good drum sounds, and I can play them on the keyboard.  So I improvise a drum track for 7-8 minutes.  Just improvise a drum track.  That’s it.  It’s stored, I go to the next one.  Then I play bass, and already a melody with this.  So it’s really coordinated.  On the tunes where I play bass, that’s already happened.  Like on that song, “The Rooftops of Vienna,” I play keyboard bass, and the right hand decides what I play on the right.  It’s already like it was originally improvised.  So that gave me the advantage.  That’s what I did with Weather Report things, too, to keep my improvisations, and then we’d play it.  But I never changed my original ideas.  All that stuff was improvised originally.

Do you create strict scores off the improvisations, or do you present orally and let the musicians work things out according to your instructions?

Well, I cannot tell them what to do.  And they are so good in doing that.  Paco, of all them, is the most incredible, because he puts so much time in it, and he really works hard to learn the core of the music.  For instance, when I went to Germany with the tapes to overdub Paco, I had beautiful little things for him to be inspired, and then I just let him play, and that was it.  He heard the concept, what I wanted the drums to play, and BOOM, he got it.  And I’ll tell you something.  He played sometimes four or five different tracks on the whole drumset. When we more or less analyzed the whole thing and put it together, my son Ivan and me… Ivan is the co-producer and engineer on the record.

He has been doing this  for a while.

Yes.  And when we did that, there was not one mistake Paco made.  There was not one beat which was not correct.  We just had to add a few things.  Because there were a lot of tracks, and we had that, and then we made a choice of what would be the best for the particular parts of the songs.  But in general, this guy was flawless, man!

Then already at home I had Richard Bona, when he was out here in Los Angeles, come by.  Everything worked very magically, in a way, because all those guys are overdubbed here in my studio.  They were just at the particular time when I needed them in Los Angeles.  Like Zakir Hussein plays beautiful on “The Tower of Silence.”

Where did you make that tune?

I improvised it.

Where were you?

Oh, I don’t know, man.  I was on the road, and after the concert I had my laptop already set up in my hotel room, and I just sat down and then I played an hour or two.

It was beautiful.  I kept thinking of the Tower of Babel and then the Tower of Silence.

Well, let me tell you something, man.  What really happened is that the Tower of Silence is an actual tower in Bombay.  Now, listen to this coincidence.  When I had Zakir Hussein, who lives in Bombay, overdub on this tune, and I told him this is the story of the Sutras, which is a caste that’s one higher than the Untouchables — a very low caste in India.  However, they are allowed to be teachers and they are some of the best musicians.  But what’s significant and what actually fascinated me about these people is believing (they have their own beliefs) that nothing in the world should be squandered and wasted.  So when someone dies, they call the family together, they say goodbye with a beautiful hookup, and they put them on the top of the tower, and they lower him down, and the bell rings, and the wall just comes down… It just dismantle that whole thing (you know what I mean?) and eats that flesh out. Then after about 45 minutes, it’s done, and then 15 minutes later they put the body back up, and then they burn it with flowers, etc.  That is their concept.  That’s about this tune.

Now, when I told this story… I didn’t have to tell this story to Zakir Hussein about the Sutras, because he knows that.  But he said when he opened his window in the morning, in Bombay, there is the Tower of Silence.  It is a funny coincidence.  That introduction is fantastic, with Amir and me doing that duet introduction.

Another tune I kept going back to was “Borges, Buenos Aires,” both parts.  I’m interested in what you read and your…

I don’t read any more.  I don’t read any more and I don’t listen to music any more.  But what I do is… I am apart.  I am not telling anybody to turn things off, like on the bus, for instance, when people want to listen to music.  So I get a little sense of that.  Or my son or my kids, when they are home for Christmas, and they want to play some music, I never say, “No, turn this off” or anything.  But for me, alone, I don’t listen to music.  And I stopped reading a long time ago.

But I did read a lot.  I read a lot of philosophical essays and books of great, great minds.  That I did.  And one of them was Borges, Jorge Luis Borges.  I read this book, “Labyrinths,” and I don’t understand it until today.

You finally understand it or don’t understand it?

I don’t understand a thing of it.  Except for I made this tune up because I love Buenos Aires, and I improvised this tune, and I think it’s a nice story about this complex, very sophisticated, but down to earth place, and with the greatest literary mind in the history of this country.  Borges was a serious genius, like Bertrand Russell, Spinoza, those kind of people.

Who are some other writers, thinkers that influenced you?

In terms of literature, you mean?  I like Krishnamurti, an Indian philosopher. I like the Realists.  I read Schopenhauer and Spinoza, Descartes, many… Karl Marx.  I read a bunch of stuff.

Were you influenced by Viennese thinkers, Austrian thinkers?


Schnitzler, Karl Kraus, people like this?

Not so much.  But I know about them.  I’ve got to tell you, I’m a street kid, and I got late to this.  I was a grownup and had a family when I really started reading a lot.  In those days, when I was in Cannonball’s band, there was not that much to do, except for playing.  So I spent a lot of time just buying books, and reading… Bertrand Russell was one of my favorites.  I like Nietzsche, I like Schopenhauer…

You read them in the German, of course.

In English or German.  It doesn’t matter.

But I guess in Cannonball’s band, given his personality, reading was a natural thing to do.  You’ve described him as such a polymath, so well read and informed.

Oh, yeah.  He was something else.  See, we used to drive together in the car, in the station wagon, because we had the contrabass in there, and so it was usually Cannon and me in the car.  So we had long, long, long hours.  In the old days we drove from New York to L.A.  So we had a lotta-lotta hours to talk.  I was always amazed by his overall knowledge.  He was a worldly man.  One day he taught me about Austrian history.  He talked about Metternich and the Vienna Congress.

And you didn’t know about this before.

No, man.  I come from a working class family, mostly on the streets, you know.  I studied music, I was not an idiot, but those things didn’t interest me.  I had no idea about it.  One time I went with a friend to see Thomas Mann live.  Even as inexperienced and as uneducated, may I say, as I was, that did something to me, and I got into reading certain little things about philosophy and so on.

I read the biography that came out.  Have you seen it?  Have you read it?

Which one?

“In A Silent Way.”

Not really.  Because I never authorized that.  I don’t like that guy, and I didn’t authorize it.

Well, it seems like you spoke a lot to him.

Well, I did years ago.  Every time I came to London, we had an interview.  And I liked him at the time.  He’s a bright kid, and his brother is one of my good friends.  But he did one thing I didn’t like, and when that happened, then I cut it off.  I don’t like it.  I didn’t want to do the book.  He did it against my will.  But that’s okay; he can write a book. I read a little through it.  I think it is very readable.

Well, he’s certainly thorough.  He interviewed a lot of people.

Right.  I’ve got to give him the respect for that, and that’s due.  I think he wrote a good book.

I think what that book would indicate is the stature you have in many kinds of music.  You’ve influenced several generations of musicians by this point.  This may be a corny question, but I’ll go with it anyway.  Did you foresee the course of your life before you came here in the 1950’s.

Not foresee.

Did you feel that the sort of thing you accomplished would be possible?


What gave you that confidence?

I thought it was possible.  I thought it was possible, but it was rather improbable.  I didn’t know a single person in America; not one single person.  So it was something to come here, have $800 in your pocket, you go to a country with one suitcase and a bass trumpet — and that was it.  I went to Berklee on my four-month scholarship, and things just developed very well.  I always say I’m just really grateful to be here, man.

Apart from your talent, what do you think it was that people initially saw in you?  What do you think it was that Dinah Washington saw in you?

Well, she used to say that I had Ray Charles’ soul with a touch of George Shearing.  That was her explanation.  She used to say that about me in front of the audiences, “Yeah, here is a guy from Vienna with the blind man’s soul,” she said. [LAUGHS] The soul of Ray Charles, the touch of George Shearing.  Something like that.  So maybe that’s what she heard.  I don’t know.

But you said in the book and many other times that your first attraction to black culture was the film “Stormy Weather,” that you snuck in to see the movie many times…


What was that response?  Can you pinpoint it?  Because chasing it down seems fundamental to what you did in the 1950’s.

Yes.  I’ll tell you something.  It was for me so different, the whole atmosphere of these people.  Number one, I fell in love with Lena Horne, with her singing and her beauty.  I wanted to say, “I’m going to go to America and marry this woman.”  I was really very much impressed by the whole thing — the music, the way the people moved. The sense of humor touched me, too.  Because it’s very close to the humor street people in Vienna have.  It was without a question for me the greatest influence of all I wanted to do.  I was then deciding, “This is what I am going to do and I will play with these people.”  Because I was a big fan — and actually still am — of Glenn Miller and all the great dance bands, and Harry James and Tommy Dorsey.  You know what I mean?  However, when I heard then Duke Ellington and Basie and Jimmie Lunceford, that had another kind of quality.  Then I heard later on…

You must remember that at that particular time, in the Nazi period, jazz was not allowed.  Afterwards, it was very expensive.  We couldn’t get any records.  We were an occupied country by the Allies, the Four Nations.  There was nothing we could do.  We barely survived.  There was no food, there was no water, no gas.  It was a totally bombed-out city.  And everything was kind of hard.  But I was lucky because my piano was probably destroyed, I couldn’t practice on it, but across the street from me was a guy I knew for quite a while who was a little older, and he had a piano.  So I went to his house to practice, and he had jazz records.  That’s where I got into it.  Later on, they had a program that was called “Strictly Solid.” It was every day at 1 o’clock in the afternoon, just when I came home from school, and I never missed it.  There was one hour where they played all the good stuff, Jazz at the Philharmonic, and I started hearing Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Oscar Peterson…

So you assimilated the sound of swing that way, and you were adept and gifted enough that you could internalize it just through hearing it.

Oh yeah.  And I was a big fan in the early days of Erroll Garner and George Shearing.  I used to copy them.  It was kind of fun.  I’d go to a club, and I’d play a piece… I learned it totally from the record, and I’d really play it like that.  I’d play it fairly good.  I did little Art Tatum things.  I was a student, as I am today.  I am a student of the game.

It’s interesting. In a sense, you became very much an insider in black culture.

Oh, yes.

You played with Dinah Washington and you played with Cannonball Adderley for ten years.

I played also with Harry Edison and Joe Williams’ band.

And Ben Webster.  But then, simultaneously, you’re still a Viennese, and you’re looking at it from an outsider’s perspective, but it resonates so deeply with you.

I don’t understand that.

You come from Vienna, and you’re looking at it all through the filter of your experiences.

Of course.

And especially as you grow older, your connection to your Viennese heritage becomes more and more palpable.  It’s interesting that you were able to retain your own identity, that fundamental core of your formative years.

Well, but then it was not.  That takes time.  I was a total copyist.  I copied everybody.  I was so heavy into Lennie Tristano’s music, we had a whole band based on Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh’s band.  Then we had something else.  Then Horace Silver came along, and Horace Silver was a big influence on me.  It’s one of those things.  Step by step, man.  When I came to America, I still didn’t have a style. I just copied everybody.  But there was something in it, maybe.

When did you start to have your style?


With Cannonball.

Yes, in the later part of Cannonball.  Because then, they also wanted… I had to play roles.  One piece had to be a little bit like Bobby Timmons, and another piece had to be a little bit like Victor Feldman, etc.  So I was communicating in a way that… I think the music I wrote was good.  But the playing was still… I would call it tentative.  Because I really didn’t have my place yet.  You see?  But after a while, the confidence grew, and I started hearing other things.  Sometimes it was part of something, because where I wanted to go, the band was not.  It was a great band, there is no question about it, but either we played standards or we played some of those songs which are more in the gutbucket style, rhythm-and-blues-influenced.  Which was great!  I learned, and I was paid for learning, and I’m very happy about that.  But on the other hand, when I started to develop my own thing, it was a little bit of a hold-back, but I didn’t allow it to be.  I just said, “Okay, I’m hanging in there, I’m doing everything, and slowly, I’m going to move this whole thing a little bit around.”  Especially after 1965, I started writing a lot for Cannon.  And a lot of good tunes, different forms.  Like “74 Miles Away,” if you’ve ever checked this out, is a helluva tune in 7/4.  And the “Hipdelphia” and things like that.  I had 55 tunes Cannonball recorded.

That many!  I didn’t know that.  Have you ever reworked any of those tunes for…

No, never.

So you let those lie where they are.

Let it be.  That’s okay.  But it was a great, great experience, working with a great musician like Cannonball, and I learned so many things.  They also made mistakes, and I learned from them, too.  I think it’s all a work in progress.

Do you see what you do now as in any way a continuum from what you did before Weather Report, before “In A Silent Way”?

Ah, I cannot tell you.

Do you feel connected to that still?

No, not really.

In your tunes I hear things like shout choruses and other things you abstracted from the conventions of the time, like a James Brown horn section or…

Well, really, I’ve been doing this for a long time.  But I’ll tell you another thing.  There’s a song on FACES AND PLACES called “The Spirit of Julian C. Adderley,” and that kind of reflects that time.  I wanted to do this on this particular CD.

Another tune that’s lovely is “Cafe Andalusia.”  Did you write that recently?

Yes, that’s one of those improvisations I talked to you about.  Also, Cannonball is a recent thing. But I wanted to have… Because he always liked that church thing, Cannon did, and I wanted to have something with a Gospel type of… I did it with the Perry Sisters; they are very beautiful singers.  It was a very complex tune for them to sing.  But it came out okay.

When did the Caribbean tinge begin to enter the way you heard music, and that way of hearing rhythm and phrasing that became so distinctive to you?

That was early.  In 1952, I played with a great saxophone player from Vienna, and I played with him in Munich.  His name is Hans Koller.  He is still alive.  He’s really a giant in my country.  He played with Dizzy’s band sometimes, and with Benny Goodman and all this.

Attila Zoller did things with him.

Attila Zoller did a lot of things with Hans Koller.  I did a few things with Attila, too, in Vienna.  He was a great guy.  God bless him.  I was a teenager, I still went to school when I met him.  He was our hero.  He was a cool guy.  Unfortunately, he’s gone.  But he’s still here.

So what happened in this club I played in Munich, which was called the Bongo Bar, there was a band from Trinidad, and I got early exposure to this music — the West Indian music, for instance, Calypso and stuff like that.  So that is an old thing with the Caribbean.  I was never much of a listener to… I’ll tell you, before I did the Salif Keita record [AMEN], I never listened to African music.

Is that so?  It’s hard to imagine that that’s true, because…

Well, it is true.  Whatever I tell you is true.

I’m sure it is.  I wasn’t suggesting that you were lying.  It just sounded like such a meeting of the minds.

It was.  Because it is natural for me.  This music was so natural for me.  When they sent me this, I just said, “I’ll do that.”  It was just right up my line.  I told Salif, “I’ll tell you something.  I will not touch the tradition of your music; I want this to keep intact.  On the other hand, I want to keep what I do also intact.  And then we’ll make another music out of these two.”  What I later found out is that when they were kids or teenagers, they listened a lot to Weather Report.  So when people ask me today, “How is it all of a sudden you have those African influences?”… It is true.  I have influences from Africa and African music.  But they have, at minimum, as much from what we’ve done with Weather Report.  When they first heard “Black Market” and “Mysterious Traveller,” they almost died over there.  The bass player in my band now, Etienne Mbappe, who is a wonderful bass player and singer, as you can hear, he told me that when he first heard “Black Market” and he heard Jaco play, they all… They had cassettes in Africa.  Those LPs were copied down to just some cassettes, and they just sold for a dollar or something in the villages and so on.

Richard Bona told me that he dug Weather Report a lot also.

Exactly.  So they know all that music, man.  They grew up with that stuff.  And Mbappe just last week told me, “You know, when I first heard that and I heard Jaco play, I said, ‘Wow!'” He was blown away.  He thought it must be an African bass player.  They said to me that when they saw the name Zawinul, they thought it was a Zulu name.  So it was weird, man, the way they grew up with our stuff.  They say that they used to get together… Youssou N’Dour and those guys, Habib, a bass player in Youssou’s band…all those guys used to sit together and listen for hours to Weather Report.

I can see a kind of African organization in the Weather Report music, a lot of things going on in parallel.

But at that point we never listened.  Neither Wayne or me, we never listened to it.  I swear to you, man, I never listened to an African band.  It wasn’t even available.  But I was not really that into it.

So you never heard Fela at that time, or those…


Now, Miles was interested in African music…

I never recognized that.  I don’t know if he was or not.

In the autobiography he talked about Fela.

Then it is true.  But the only people I knew… I worked with an African lady, with Letta Mbulu, from South Africa, and with her husband.  They were part of Cannonball’s band at times.  He brought them in when there was an interest for that, because we didn’t have a female singer around.  That was kind of nice, to play some of that music.  I found this to be interesting.  But in general, I never heard anything about it.  So when Island Records called me at that time to do the Salif Keita thing, I’d never heard about this band.  And it was fun to do.

So the people who play Zawinul Syndicate now are primarily very influenced by your identity of 20 and 30 years ago, and in many cases probably conceptualized their approach to their instruments through hearing that music.

Well, you know exactly what you’re talking about.

Now, how do they affect you?  Hearing them react to your ideas from that time and now, how does it affect the way you write?  Are you writing for your band in certain ways?

Not really. I don’t think about those things.  I am improvising, and the moment you improvise, you don’t think anyhow.  The moment inspiration starts, rational thinking stops.  Now, you can put this down and write it in stone, because that’s what it is.

I’d like to ask about your relationship with Wayne Shorter. You said you met him at a place near Birdland called the Green Lantern, having a drink, and he sang you something from an opera he wrote when he was at NYU, which I believe was “Nellie Bly,” and I think that cemented…

No, it was another one he sang — “Emmanuelle.”  “I wonder where Emmanuelle…” When he sang this to me, it sounded like Alban Berg’s work or something like this. I said, “Damn, man!” I was only about a month maybe in America when I met Wayne.  I met Wayne actually at Ham and Eggs, where him and Booker Little and me had breakfast late at night. I had met him through some other…Lee Morgan or whatever… Bobby Timmons, I think it was!  Then we went to the breakfast place, and then we went to the Green Lantern, which was right next to Birdland.

You know, last week, when I was in New York, I went by Birdland. [LAUGHS] I walked down 52nd Street.  My kids were born on 52nd Street!  But I wanted just to experience it.  Because the concert I played at the Austrian Cultural Forum is at 11 East 52nd Street.  So I wanted to just walk by — I had that day off — and experience New York again and 52nd Street.  I spent so much time there.  Everything is different.  I walked by, and on 52nd Street the exit, the back exit of Birdland, stinks just the same as it did then!  With the garbage and everything in New York.

That doesn’t change in New York.

That doesn’t change.  Everything else changed in front, but the door and the steps still go down there.

But you had breakfast with Wayne and Booker Little.

Yes, at the Green Lantern, and that’s where he sang for me his opera he wrote when he was 17 years old.  And he wrote the libretto and all that stuff, so I was really impressed.  Plus, I heard him play.  I think that was one of the Monday night sessions at Birdland, and he played, and everybody was talking about there’s a new tiger in town.  He’s really great people.

That’s when he’d just gotten out of the Army, and he was doing sessions at the Turbo Lounge in Brooklyn with Freddie Hubbard and all this stuff.


Then you were together in Maynard Ferguson’s band for about a month.


Which began the friendship, I guess.

No, that was always.  Right from the beginning we had a great understanding.  Because he knew a lot about… Wayne is a very educated man, and he knew a lot about the music of Stravinsky and Alban Berg and Bela Bartok.  We used to hum the stuff like that.  We had a good time.  Then we were talking about one day maybe we’d make a little band together. It was funny.

So you crossed paths occasionally during the ’60s, and then you get together right around the time of “In A Silent Way,” and that happens.  Then you have a 15-year partnership.

Well, it never ended.  We’re still partners.  Now there is coming practically a new record.  The first new record in practically 20 years comes out with LIVE AND UNRELEASED.

But I’d assume he was the fundamental tone you had in mind in setting up the pieces and orchestrating for the band.

For me, that was always the most important thing, is the tone of a person.  I listened yesterday to this double-CD, and Alfonso Johnson was a giant.  He was phenomenal, man!

There are still going to be some changes on LIVE AND UNRELEASED.  It’s a little long, and I’m going to cut out a couple of parts.  Otherwise it’s fine.

I have 18 tracks, 8 on Volume 1 and 10 on Volume 2.

That’s probably correct.

It doesn’t always happen that energy projected on a concert stage gets projected through a recorded document, but in this case it does every step of the way.

I think so, too. When I listened to it yesterday, I wanted to take my time to do that… I said to myself, “Damn, man, this is really-really good stuff.”  Now I do understand what people must have heard.  Because this was all live.  When we did, for instance, “Where The Moon Goes,” when you think that a quintet can do all that we did, with singing and at the same time playing some very complex line against the singing… In this particular tune, that little duet that Omar and me are doing, that little solo exchange… Anyhow, I can tell you that the whole thing is going to have an impact again.  Because it is good.  It’s very good.

How did the selection process break down?  Did you select all the material or was it divided between you and Bob Belden?

Well, Wayne in general didn’t write as many tunes as I did, so we had to juggle around to have enough of Wayne on there.  But I think we got that now.

One thing that’s for sure here is that you get a lot of Wayne’s saxophone playing stretching out in an improvisational context.  In the day, his fans wanted to hear him improvise more, and anybody who wants to hear that…

They’re going to have PLENTY, man!

Did listening to it give you any further insights on how your sound evolved?

Well, another thing we did, which I am so happy about, is that we never… We were not all that bothered about talking about music and all of this.  We just said one thing. “Let’s not do tomorrow what we did yesterday.”  That is very important for me to do.  Do something different. We have a band which is a work in progress, and that’s what we should keep.  And that’s what I still do. I am little freer now, because all of the arrangements I am playing now, especially on stage, I can change every night because I don’t have any other melody player.  So I have a little bit more of a conversation with myself, because there is no counter guy like Wayne.  That’s okay.  I have to live with that.  I have a very great rhythm section.  I have a great guitar player.  And Manolo is in the new band, as then.  He’s back in the band for six years now, I guess. He’s not that much on the record.  But he is very prominently featured on the live things.  The double CD is a really nice example of what happened 25 years ago, because it sounds awfully fresh, man.

A lot of the practices you established with Weather Report seem to be things you’re refining and finding new contexts for with Zawinul Syndicate.

I hope so.  I put a lot of time into Weather Report, and I still do.  I did this in Cannonball’s band.  That’s what I want to teach the guys in my band — not to be sidemen.  I don’t need yes-guys around.  I need people who have a personality, who say sometimes, “Yeah, maybe we want to do this a little different” or something.

So you need people who feel you, not who learn you.

Exactly.  People who understand that feeling.

You’ve said before, and I think it was borne out on this recent Weather Report tribute record on Telarc, how difficult it is for other people to play your music.  What does someone else have to do to make Joe Zawinul’s music sound idiomatic and Zawinulesque?

To be.

To be Joe Zawinul.


So is your music going to be able to become part of the repertoire of the future?

Oh, that I cannot tell you. I really don’t care about that.  Because it’s never been possible.  It’s never been possible for Charlie Parker that anybody plays his stuff.  When the music becomes complex… Like, all music that’s kind of complex, people don’t really feel it.  What you were talking about is this Jason Miles stuff?


It was a catastrophe!  It was one of the great catastrophes.  And do you know that we had the right, Wayne and me, to say no to that.  But then we said, “But okay, let’s do that.”  They have some of the best musicians today in America on this record. And it really shows, and it will show now when LIVE AND UNRELEASED comes out, the difference between this stuff.  In a way, it’s what I’ve always said, that our music is not playable by other people… It’s really true, man!

You said that you don’t listen to music by yourself, but pick it up from being on the bus with your band or your kids, and no doubt when you’re out on the road you hear things by proximity.  Do you hear anything out there these days that impresses you?

I haven’t heard much, I’ll tell you that. There is one group I heard, and I don’t know who they are… I saw a video of a group from Maghreb. This is the Algerian areas.  This is a group of five female singers and four hand drummers who play the same beat, and a solo viola player who plays the viola on his knees.  That is some of the music…it’s very close to my music, in a way…  He plays with the bow.  And there’s another guy with similar music who plays a type of oud that’s called a ghembre.  This music is very close.  But I’ll tell you, I’ve never heard this before, and somehow it is very close to my music.

In jazz right now there are people… I think you foreshadowed something, though it’s hard to say you had a direct influence on this. There are musicians all over the globe who can transcend their locality and interact with musicians from everywhere else just doing what they do.  And there are musicians all over the globe who know jazz, and they bring their own culture to it.  There’s a circular feedback loop where American musicians pick up on what they do, they’re picking up on what these musicians do, and things happen.

I think this will happen more.  If America can start to understand that there are other people in the world who can play music, too, that’s important.  When we grew up, we grew up with American music.  Everything else didn’t matter in the world.  And there was a certain ignorance in us which was handicapping us, but we only found this out later.  But when we were in Vienna, my friends and me were total racists in terms of a reverse racism.  The only thing we liked was black musicians.  There was a time when we were terrible, man, with that stuff, and it was unfair and it… It was not only unfair. It was stupid.  Because there’s a lot of people in the world who can play music.  You’ve got to be open and check out what this is.

But what I’ve learned most from is from marketplaces. I travel a lot, of course, and I go and just check out the people, how they interact and how they react.  Like, this “Day In Tunisia,” it’s called, we’re talking about “Cafe Andalusia.” I was there, and this is pretty much the feeling I got out of there.  So I’m trying to tell my story through my feeling, not with any kind of analytical sense or copying anything.  I don’t want to copy nothing.  I’ve got plenty… I’ve got a resourceful soul. You know what I mean?  Because I’m into this for a long time.

But what I’m really happy about is that finally younger musicians in America start opening up their heads also to other things, and that is great, I think. You never should forget your tradition.  For me, the great black American musicians in the first part of the last century created the greatest art form in the world — for me.  The greatest cultural form ever.  I mean, for the 20th century, the music of Duke Ellington and Armstrong and the great Art Tatum, and Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles… They created a music which was the greatest art form for me.

And what’s happening today, it’s because (I don’t know why) people are being…maybe from the record companies, being almost forced to play this kind of music.  And it’s really bad, because number one, they don’t play it as good, not even nearly, and it handicaps them from going on their own and starting to think for themselves.

I think a lot of them went that direction… I’ve talked to a number of people from that group.  And I think they feel that when they were coming up, that music was being taken away from them and they have to reclaim it.  So it becomes a matter of reclaiming their tradition, from their perspective.

Well, that’s a point.  But I think if you have tradition, it doesn’t mean that everybody should play the same way.  And I don’t think anything was taken away from anybody. I mean, everybody in the world within a couple of years knows where this music came from and who were the ones who played it better than anybody.  I mean, nothing has ever been taken away.  This is maybe a little paranoia.

Well, stuff was unavailable at the time, or was being buried, people might say.

I don’t really think that’s the case.  I think the recording companies wanted to do… There was nothing new happening, and so they will rehash bebop.  Which is okay.  It gives a lot of good and great musicians an opportunity to make money.  Because to me, one of the great musics in the world ever is bebop. I love bebop.  But I also love to grow in life, and not being stuck in the mud.

Well, there’s the wonderful solo piano piece, “When There Was Royalty,” that you put on the WORLD TOUR album that amply shows your feelings about bebop and Tatum.

Well, it’s not so much bebop.  It’s just piano fooling.  Piano fooling is a good word.  Because that’s what the old masters could do so well.  People were talking to people while they were playing, and fooling around.  The piano was just a toy.  And that’s what I wanted to do on this particular piece, not to… It was a short improvisation, and I enjoy doing those kinds of things sometimes.

Can you tell me where the poem “Success” comes from, which directly follows the solo piano piece on Disk 2 of WORLD TOUR?

That is a poem by Erich Fried.

Is it about the war?

No, it is not about the war.  It is about a life, which I, in a way (I must tell you this) related to myself.  Because the way I grew up, two years later there was a revolution, then there was nothing but wars until 1956.  We were actually occupied.  So the first 20 years of my life, practically speaking, were handcuffed.  And there was no being a real child.  It was another kind of world. It was a tough life.  Poverty and revolutions, war and danger always; bomb attacks two years in a row, every day, every night.  It was a tough life. So when I heard this poem, it directly… I mean, I’m not so egotistical to put it on me.  But when I heard it, it affected me.  When it said “I was born when I was 10 years old and I died when I was 20,” and then it goes on, “And when I was 80, I spoke about life and when I was 90, I spoke about the future”… I like that.

Do you think we can trace your feeling of never wanting to look back and retrace what you’ve done to the conditions of your formative years?

But that doesn’t mean I am trying to separate myself from the past in that kind of way.  The past is for me very, very here.  But it’s not for me in mutable terms to talk over and over.  But man, I had a very happy childhood, I must tell you.  Very happy when I was a kid.  We didn’t know anything better.  That’s what it was.  We had what we had.  We shared.  I had a wonderful father and a great mama.

You said you were self-providers, and so you were self-sufficient and able to take care of yourself.

Well, no.  My grandfather.  My grandfather had 16 kids, and they had a very small farm, and they were in the category in those days that was called “self-providers.”  But you know what that means when you have a lot of mouths to feed.  You have 15 chickens, you have 2-3 geese, and we had one cow and one sow, and we had to work.  My grandfather was a poor man.  He had more or less one little acre where he can grow corn and potatoes.  So when I spent time out there… I was sharing the time between the big city and the country.  There we were self-providers.  But I didn’t have a vacation in those years, in my formative years.  In the summer I went out there into the woods, and worked every day, man, from morning til evening, to bring wood home, to bring the leaves home for the cow and for the animals, and cutting grass and weeds and whatever.

So you’ve been working all your life.

All my life, man.  I love to work.  This is my motor.

You were talking about fooling around at the piano, and in our first conversation you told me that you went to Bradley’s a fair amount when you were living on East 12th Street.  Did you ever play at Bradley’s or do the after-hours?

I think we played one evening, Miroslav and me, in the ’70s, just bass and piano.

Why did you move back to California after the time in New York?

We have grandchildren, my son Ivan’s kids, and when we saw the way they grow, and they were kind of locked up… Also, we had this beautiful loft; it was great, we had our studio there.  But after a few years, my wife and me decided we missed it… We used to live in Malibu before.  I missed it to get out in the morning, man, and don’t have to put a lot of clothes on to get the newspaper and the milk or whatever.  And slowly, it developed to almost like, “Hey, why don’t we go back.”

It’s like Paradise out there.

It is.  By the way, there is a book coming out now that is an authorized biography written by Gunther Baumann. It’s a great book, I think.  There’s a lot of pictures.  It’s coming out at the end of the month; the presentation is on the 23rd of June.  Then it will be translated. It’s a good one.

1 Comment

Filed under Interview, Jazziz, Joe Zawinul, Weather Report