In conversation with roswell rudd

By Tomas Peña

"You blow in this end of the trombone and sound comes out the other end and disrupts the cosmos." Rosswell Rudd

At an age when most musicians are looking forward to retirement, Roswell Rudd still has that twinkle in his eye! Aside from his recent collaborations with cuatro player Yomo Toro (El Espiritu Jibaro) and guitarist, David Oquendo (Encounters), he heads up a quartet and an improvisational trombone band. And when things gets to be bit much he flees the city and retreats to his farm in Kerhonksen, New York, where he gigs with the universe. During his six decades in the music business Roswell has seen it all, yet he remains an optimist, a generous and warm individual.



Let’s go back to the moment when you first realized that you were destined to become a musician.

It had a lot to do with my family. My father was an amateur drummer who enjoyed having jam sessions at home. When he wasn’t playing along with his 78s, he was beating the drums, inviting people over and making noise. That was the atmosphere I grew up in, people collaborating, getting together and seeing what comes out. That’s where it all starts and what keeps everything going. So I always go back to that. I have had some schooling, I know some theory, I write, arrange and put things together, but everything goes back to the jam sessions.

Roswell Rudd by Roberto Citarelli

What kind of music did your father play?

My father played Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and the Chicago guys … Eddie Condon, Bix Beiderbeke, you know, just a whole lot of good early jazz recordings.

I understand that your mother was a huge fan of Gilbert & Sullivan!

Yeah, she was into that.

Who showed up for the jam sessions?

Mostly friends, it was a party atmosphere, you know what I mean? (Laughs)

Getting back to the moment when you were inspired to become a musician. . .

When I first heard Louis Armstrong. I went to a private school in upstate New York where most of the kids were New Yorkers who were farmed out to private schools. They used to bring me down to these clubs and concerts (in New York. One day a school buddy took me to hear Louis Armstrong at a movie theater just off Times Square. At the time Louis performed between films, so I had to sit through the film, The Crimson Pirate three times to see him again! It was a commercial thing but Louis radiated so much warmth, creativity and inspiration that I just melted. I shook his hand and he said some beautiful things to encourage me. I believe it all started with him.

How old were you at the time?

I was probably fifteen. There was another time in 1948. The first live jazz band I ever heard was a pick up band from New York City; they were handsome, spectacular guys. There was James P. Johnson on the piano and a bass player named Pops Foster. These guys stomped! I think I was about 12 years old at the time, but it was Louis Armstrong that really compelled me. After I met him I thought to myself, “I want to do for someone what Louis did for me.”

You started playing the French horn at the age of eleven.

I was playing the French horn and the trombone. The first horn that I brought home from school was a mellophone, just like the one on top of the cupboard (points to his horn, which is sitting atop a kitchen cupboard). When the school realized that I loved to blow they put me in the high school orchestra, one of those big, symphonic regional high school bands of the time. They threw me in the French horn section and the conductor was very smart, he had a buddy system where he placed people who had little or no experience next to someone who knew how to read and follow the conductor. So he buddied me up with a guy name John Gilbert, who taught me how to finger and read the parts.

And you were also playing the trombone?

I accompanied my father at home. My first public performance was with the French horn. Then everything changed, my family moved to Connecticut and I started going to a private school and meeting these kids from New York. When I heard what was going on, my focus became to return to New York, which I did around 1959 or 1960.

Like many people of your generation, you grew up listening to the radio.

At the time jazz was a popular music. What was so amazing to me was the fact that that there was all of this improvisation going on in a popular music.

And it was danceable!

Yes, and I think that’s why it was so important to me, because there was, call it Free Jazz, or freedom being expressed in popular music. To a certain extent there still is but those guys were really improvising!

Vocalists were more prominent back then. Tell me about the impact of vocalists like Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Al Hibbler.

Al Hibbler was a blind singer with the Duke Ellington band in the mid 30s; he was the guy who did the original version of “Unchained Melody.” He also did “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and “Do Nothing ‘Till You Hear From Me” and at least a dozen other Ellington hits.

And then there was Ella!

Ella Fitzgerald phrased in such a way that the bands who backed her up would end up phrasing with her. She had a way of making her statement in such a way that the whole band would change up to accommodate her and she made it better. (Laughs)

As s student at Yale University you performed with a band called “Eli’s Chosen Six.”

Yes, I started at Yale in 1954. It was a college band and we performed at fraternity houses and other colleges along the Eastern seaboard.

One writer wrote, “All of Rudd’s future endeavors—including his landmark collaborations with Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, John Tchicai and Steve Lacy—grew out of the lessons learned while playing rags and stomps for drunken college kids in Connecticut.” True or false?

Again, there was a party atmosphere and the informality of the jam session.

Eli’s Chosen Six made two recordings, Eli’s Yale University Dixieland Band for Columbia records and another recording that is not listed in your discography.

The second recording was for a label in Long Island. I can’t remember the name of the company, but I recall that it was a slightly different band. There were two guys from New York who sat in and the feeling was a little different. The first recording was more the reality; the other recording was made a few years later.

In 1961 you recorded New York City R & B with Buell Neidlinger and Cecil Taylor.

That was the third time I recorded and the first time I recorded in New York. The band included Cecil Taylor, Billy Higgins on the drums, Buell on the bass and all of these great horn players: Clark Terry, Steve Lacy and Archie Shepp. That’s an interesting recording, I knew Buell from my college days. His idol was Jimmy Blanton, who was Duke Ellington’s bass player. Buell had me take these recordings, transcribe them and make sure that I had the bass stuff written out like classical music. That was his statement. So that was a new experience for me. I had been sort of jazz arranging, which was as far away from Yale University as Timbuktu. So that was my first project. It was very informative and it sent me down a path that I am still on today.

We are getting a little ahead of ourselves … let’s go back to the start of the bebop era. One writer wrote, “It has been said that bebop is the worst thing that ever happened to the trombone.” What do you make of that statement, true or false?

I don’t know if bebop was the worst thing that ever happened to the trombone. When Charlie Parker came along everybody wanted a piece of what he was doing. If you were a bass player, you would take what you could handle, the same thing for the trombone. For the more unwieldy instruments, I guess bebop was a big challenge. But, you know, there are people like Slide Hampton who played the trombone like a piano.

Here’s the important thing about bop for me When these high school guys started bringing me down here one of the things that was going on was Jazz at the Philharmonic and Bird (Charlie Parker) was there. . . I had no idea what he was playing. I only knew that it was fantastic. I kind of knew what Armstrong was doing. I would go to the trombone and play those riffs, but Parker was on another level. As far as I am concerned that’s the most sophisticated type of improvisation in the world.

Everybody should spend a part of their lives on that because it is a part of everything you do in music; I don’t care how free, how theoretical, how academic it is, bebop is in there. There is a European harmonic theoretical foundation and an African modal rhythmic foundation in bop. As far as improvisation goes, bebop is a music conservatory for the world. Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker took all of us to school!

That squashes the rumor that you skipped over the bebop era and went straight from Dixieland to free jazz.

I grew up in collective improvisation and that was what I heard with Archie Shepp and Ornette Coleman, so I was very much at home with that. There was probably a theoretical part that was very new to me, but as far as just being comfortable in an atmosphere of collective improvisation and making up a complimentary part to what was going around me, I had no problem. I was more comfortable with that than sitting in a big band reading complicated charts. So that was natural to me and when I heard those guys doing that I went right along with them.

You wrote your first composition to the words of the American poet e. e. cummings.

Yeah, e. e. cummings. I have never been able to find that poem. I put a melody to his words. That was during the late 50s.

In 1962 you recorded Into the Hot (Impulse) with Gil Evans and Cecil Taylor, followed by School Days (1963, Hat Hut) with Steve Lacy, Dennis Charles and Henry Grimes and Four For Trane (Impulse) which would be the first of many collaborations with your colleague and friend, Archie Shepp.

I immediately felt a rapport with Archie, musically and with the way we think. We managed to do quite a few things together but the thing we did most was rehearse. We rehearsed a lot!

You might be skipping over some time I spent with a great pianist named Herbie Nichols. We spent about two or three years together. He was teaching me and I came up with occasional gigs for us.

There seems to be a void with respect to information on the Free Jazz era. What do you remember most about that time?

As I mentioned, I grew up around collective improvisation. That’s what the new musicians were doing. With bebop it was one person improvising and a rhythm section supporting them. With Free jazz it didn’t matter how many people were playing. We were doing spontaneous call and response in the moment, and we realized that it was an infinitely rich musical resource.

What do you remember about the music scene, the venues, etc.?

I can remember performing in people’s living rooms, lofts, and cellars and basements that we fixed up ourselves, and there were a few clubs, like Slugs. The whole thing was very grass roots. Occasionally we would perform at the Five Spot. I don’t think we performed at the (Village) Vanguard until the 60s.

As time went by free jazz became more popular.

And we developed a following. So it was time for our generation to get into these other roads, other places and other spaces.

What’s the biggest misconception about the Free Jazz era?

People would come up to us and say, “You guys can’t play the changes, you don’t know your music, you’re just bullshitting, you are like children who are learning for the first time and taking it out to the public when you should be in school practicing, practicing, practicing.” I guess the music did have kind of a rough edge, and to some it sounded like we were fooling around as opposed to the guys who were really serious. I think the biggest criticism for me was somebody telling me, “You’re just playing shit.” To which I would reply, “I have been working on this shit for 30 years!”

Free Jazz tends to elicit strong emotions. Lest we forget, Ornette Coleman was punched in the face by a fellow musician during a performance.

I remember going to hear Cecil Taylor one night and people were shouting, “I am leaving!” Cecil was right in the middle of a number and he was really pushing the envelope and this guy got up, spun around and said “It's shit!” and ran out. The next night, and every night thereafter, he was back and he sat right next to Cecil. This is what we had to adjust to. For some people it was like a hallucination or possession or having to go through some kind of religious experience.

That brings us to 1966, 1967 and Live in San Francisco with Archie Shepp (Impulse), New York Eye and Ear Control with Don Cherry, Albert Ayler, John Tchicai and Gary Peacock (ESP), Until with Robin Kenyatta (Atlantic). Mama Too Tight with Archie Shepp (Impulse) and Live at Donaueschingen (SABA). Those were very productive years for you.

That was the famous year when Thelonious Monk took an orchestra to Europe. Much of the footage from the film Straight No Chaser was taken from that tour. So it was great sharing the stage with Monk and also with Miles. That was when he had the quintet with Tony Williams and Herbie Hancock.

Forgive the digression but I want to talk about the importance of Thelonious (Sphere) Monk. He’s one of those rare musicians who come along once in a lifetime. What did Monk mean to you?

Monk came to my home town in 1954. At the time I was just leaving high school and Monk’s 1947 and 1948 recordings (on the Blue Note label) had just started to come out. I already told you about Charlie Parker and the effect he had on me. Well, Monk hit me even harder because he was so clear with his statement. Monk’s logic was irrefutable and thanks to him I started to hear Parker and a lot of other music where velocity was so important better. Monk had these tempos and made statements that were anti-velocity, with plenty of space, except every so often he would purposely turn things upside down! But if you stuck with it you started to travel.

I came to New York in 1960 wanting to do more of that and Steve Lacy, who was crazy about Monk, and I got together and we followed him around. In time we got to know Monk’s songs and we came to realize that we could capture the sound with a soprano saxophone, trombone, drummer and bass player. I worked with Steve Lacy and Herbie Nichols for three years. I am happy to say that I am as immersed now as I was then.

In your view, what is Monk’s legacy?

The clarity of his statement, the intelligence, the emotion and his ability to develop logical improvisations out of these compositions, and by logic I mean logic in a wide sense. Not just 2 + 2 but maybe 3 – 4½. Like I said, Monk’s music was not predictable. It was a lot like life. Something falls off the wall and you just have to deal with it! I think the best illustration was a performance at the Five Spot where he disappeared while the rhythm section was playing and Charlie Rouse was taking a solo. They went on for awhile and then I noticed Monk coming from the bar area, and he timed it so that just as soon as Charlie Rouse was finishing his last chorus he dervishes, comes in on the piano at a funny angle and makes this cluster sound. So he worked with that accidental thing, unwound it and laid it out for everybody. In other words, he took what we thought was an accident and he dealt with it like a great composer. That’s where my foundation is.

When did you teach ethnomusicology at Bard State College?

That started in 1972. I had been working on and off for the musicologist, Alan Lomax. I was his Field Assistant.

Coincidentally, you and I have a mutual friend who is one of your former students. I am speaking about vibraphonist Steve Pouchie, who started out as a business major at Bard and ended up studying music, thanks to you! He remembers you as a “bohemian guy” who took his students on field trips in the woods and taught them the art of “cosmic mutual notation” or playing free. Years later, you composed, “Pouchie and the Bird,” which speaks to that experience. [The tune appears on the recording, El Espiritu Jibaro with Yomo Toro.]

Bard is an old private college. At the time the music department consisted of three people teaching classical music, but there were many students who wanted to write their own music, play jazz and study the history of jazz for college credit. My official title was Visiting Lecturer. The routine was, I would take the train up to Bard in the middle of the week, teach classes from the afternoon into the evening, then get up the next day, teach some more and take the train home. Basically, I helped the students do whatever they wanted to do with music and I also recommended them to other people who could help them. With respect to Steve and some of the other students, I was a conduit. I also offered a course in World Music and conducted an improvisation work shop and jam sessions.

In the process you changed a lot of lives.

Well, I have always felt that you are your own musical boundary. I helped the students explore themselves.

No doubt you gained a lot from the experience as well.

Well, that's what teaching is all about. Invariably, former students come up to me, no matter where I might be and thank me. Somehow the music took the students to a very deep place inside themselves and opened them up. Music touches you and frees you.

Where else did you teach?

I used to do after-school programs in Bed/Sty (Brooklyn) at Powell’s. I also did a Jazz Interaction work shop at a school in New York and I taught at the University of Maine.

What was the curriculum like at the University of Maine?

Well, that was a state college so I pretty much had to teach prescribed courses. Having said that, I did what I do under the heading of whatever the state called for. The important thing was that the students were learning and progressing.

What year was that?

Let’s see, I taught at Bard from 1972 to 1976 and at the University of Maine from 1976 to 1982.

During the 70s you recorded with the New York Art Quartet, Gato Barbieri, Mercelo Melis, Don Moye, Steve Lacy, Beaver Harris, Carla Bley, Enrico Rava, George Gaslini, Sangeeta Michael Berardi, Rashied Ali, Eddie Gomez, Don Cherry, Charlie Rouse, Barry Harris and Mal Waldron, among others.

Then we go into (what I call) the Soundscape era, which is the late 70s to the early 80s.

I performed at Soundscape on two separate occasions. The first time I performed with my wife, son, a drummer and a bass player. About one year later I performed with a student band and some musicians from New York. It was a wonderful experience.

What do you recall about Soundscape?

I really didn’t know much about it until Verna (Gillis) and I got together ten years ago. She keeps all of this stuff related to Soundscape at her home in upstate New York. At the time I was living and working in Augusta, Maine, so I was out of touch.

Between 1986 and 1992 you were absent from the New York music scene. One writer described that period in your life as a “rough patch.”

I lived in Woodstock and Accord, New York for a time. Actually, I was looking to get back to New York but I didn’t have the wherewithal, so I started living in that part of the world. I didn’t perform for about a year, but I practiced and composed a lot. Later, I worked at the Granit Hotel, backing up stand-up comedians, singers, dancers and fire eaters. I had never been involved in that particular niche before, but I learned a lot from the experience, and it put food on the table. It saw me through some hard times.

When did you connect, or rather reconnect with Verna Gillis?

Actually we reconnected in 1998. I would see her because she lived not far from where I lived. In fact, she refurbished the Accord train station (in upstate New York) and made it into a performance space and a community center.

Is it still there?

It’s still there but it is no longer a performance space. Also, in 1981 we collaborated on Interpretations of Monk with Barry Harris, Steve Lacy, Don Cherry, Charlie Rouse, Mal Waldron and Muhal Richard Abrams.

In hindsight, do you view that period in your life as a slump?

I would call it a change of direction. When I left New York in 1976 there was nothing happening. I couldn’t find work in New York for several years.

Why is that?

There just wasn’t enough happening. I had a few commissions to write stuff and perform, but there was a lot of space in between. At the time I was driving a cab and working as a part-time clerk for the city. That’s when I moved to Maine. I had a job; I was teaching and I developed a life there.

Getting back to the Granit Hotel. . . .

I was at the Granit Hotel from 1986 to 1992. While that was going on I was doing delivery work and odd jobs in Ulster County to fill in the rest of the time. Periodically, I was invited back to the Alan Lomax Project.

Did your work with Alan Lomax on Song Style (Cantometrics) and the Global Jukebox projects prepare you to go beyond the periphery of Western music?

It certainly helped. I started working for him in 1964. It was very intense, 9 to 5, five days per week, and it was difficult integrating that into the things I wanted to do in New York. Sometimes I would work for a year and sometimes I would have to lay off and do something else around New York City. On and off, I worked with Alan for about thirty years.

What exactly is Cantometrics?

Cantometrics is a way of listening to a recording or a performance and analyzing it by ear through the use of 37 parameters. When you code the relative presence or absence of ingredients you come out with a profile of a song style in a specific culture. So you do this all over the world, at the tribal level, urban level, high cultural level, and you get patterns for all of this stuff and you can kind of see how traditional music is laid out across the planet.

What about the Global Jukebox?

It was an extension of Cantometrics, for people in middle school or high school. It was computerized, so you could sit down at a computer screen and access a map of the planet, press a button and access a particular culture and its music. It was an educational component that Alan was trying to develop but it got stalled so it never made it into the public arena.

What happened?

Part of the problem was that Alan micro-managed everything and there was a lack of communication between the workers. At the end of the day there were too many unfixed train wrecks, in the music data at least. After that, he had a stroke and was out of commission. Sadly he died about a dozen years ago. His daughter tried to resurrect the project a few times but she was unsuccessful. As far as I know, all of the materials are sitting in a room on 41st Street. It’s a great archive. I hope I am wrong.

Nevertheless your time with Alan Lomax served as a good training ground.

Look, when it comes right down to it when you perform and compose music you are dealing with sound. Also, there is something called ear training. I was so adamant about ear training with my students that they called it ear straining! (Laughs) When you play music with others a lot of what is achieved in the way of a good performance has do with how well you listen to the people you are playing with, not only how well but how deeply you respond as well as the adjustments you make intuitively in order to blend in. It makes all the difference between something that has the juice and something that doesn’t have the juice. So any kind of ear training, and especially the work I did with Alan Lomax was very helpful. It gave me more chops and more ears.

In 1994 the project came to a close. What happened after that?

I continued to work around Ulster County doing various odd jobs and began traveling to Europe again. The gig at the Granit was gone, but David Winograd was working with some local guys and I worked with them. I also started going back to New York to play isolated gigs. In other words, I started getting out again.

In 1994 you recorded Dark Was the Night with Allen Lowe.

Yes, Allen Lowe brought me out. Dark Was the Night was a combination studio session and a live recording from Providence, Rhode Island. Allen is a very interesting person, but that’s a story for another day.

In 1995 you recorded New World with Terry Adams and Wozzek’s Death with Allen Lowe.

Yeah, that was with Terry and his band, NRBQ. This group had achieved an organic sound after years of being together on the road. Factoring my self in with them was inspirational. Wozzek’s was an unusual approach to musicalized storytelling. Also on Allen’s Wozzek’s album are two tracks of my music, "Concentration Suite" and "Bonehead." At the time I was strongly focused on compositional process, so I recommend these pieces as resources dealing with that.

1996 was a banner year for you in terms of recordings: Out and About with Steve Swell, Rumors of an Incident with Elton Dean, Bladik with Keith Tippett in 1996 et al and Terrible NRBQ with Terry Adams.

I like to think that Steve Swell was the person who officially brought me back out of retirement, although I wouldn’t exactly call it retirement. In 1997 I played and recorded with Elton’s band and recorded with NewSense.

You also recorded as a leader on The Unheard Herbie Nichols, Volumes 1 & 2.

After doing the thing with Steve Swell at Cadence, I got the idea to do something that I had wanted to do for a long time, music that I worked on with Herbie Nichols. This was not music that he had recorded before. It was important to me to see how I had grown in this music since 1963. I brought the idea to some friends in Buffalo, New York that I had been playing this music with on and off. We recorded the album in one weekend and we recorded fifteen songs. It was released as 2 (separate) CD’s.

That would be with Greg Millar and John Bacon Jr.

That’s right. The recordings received a mixed reception.

Why is that?

For some people, the combination of trombone, guitar and drums for an hour and ten minutes was a bit difficult, but I thought that what it revealed about Herbie and us was fantastic!

Next, you recorded Hallucinations with Glenn Hall. 1998 was an important year for a number of reasons. First, you recorded with the Ab Baars Trio on Four.

That’s a remarkable recording for the great Ab Baars Trio plus and for a track that I did, “The Year was 1503”, which was the first time I had done any stand-up on a recording. My experience’s at the Granit Hotel, and playing for comedians was the inspiration for the scenario. When you play for comedians you have to watch out, because they improvise a lot and off of everybody when it’s really happening. Anyway "1503” is like comedic theater with characters out of the band, people playing and all of that.

Also, in 1998 Verna Gillis’s husband, Brad Graves passed away and one month later your wife had a stroke and was admitted into a nursing home.

Yes.

That’s where your bond with Verna took root.

I had some contact with Verna before that time. I played in her performance space in Accord and before that at Soundscape. When I heard about her husband passing I called and wished her well, gave her my condolences and told her to keep going. We eventually got together sometime after that.

As things progressed you came to the realization that your head was in a World Music mode. Perhaps not so coincidentally, Verna had done all of this work in the World Music scene.

She brought people like King Sunny Adé and Youssou N'Dour as well as a lot of South American musicians to the states for the first time in their lives.

Not to mention Cuban musicians who had come to New York via the Marielito Boatlift.

When they arrived Soundscape became their Tuesday night convergence for some years. Soundscape was a universe unto itself.

In 2001 you and Verna traveled to Mali (for the second time). In fact, your trip is well documented in the film, Bamako is a Miracle [see it on YouTube], a terrific and very telling documentary. I was absolutely mesmerized by the film.

During the first trip we performed with kora player, Toumani Diabate at the French Cultural Center. It went so well that we returned the following year and recorded Malicool.

There are a couple of defining moments in the film. The first is the scene where Toumani is wrestling with a Monk tune. In the midst of everyone’s frustration, Verna calmly asks you to lay out and let the musicians work things out amongst themselves. Aside from Verna’s brilliance, it demonstrates the fact that when you are out of your element you have to just roll with the punches. Like it or not, you were on African time!

That’s true, Verna had her finger on the pulse. We were able to get through that.

The other moment is when Toumani says to Verna, “I heard a lot of negative things about you before I met you, now I don’t believe it” and Verna and he give each other a victory hug. Malicool was nominated for a Grammy, correct?

You are right, the film is very telling and it goes into the nitty gritty of it. Suffice it to say Africa and New York exist in different worlds of time.

In 2002 you also recorded Roswell Rudd and Archie Schepp Live in New York and Seize the Time with the Nexus Orchestra. In 2003 there was Sex Mob with Dime Grind Palace, and in 2004 your wife passed away. You didn’t record again until 2005, with the Mongol Buryat Band. How you came into contact with Mongolian throat singers is quite a story. I read somewhere that they were performing in your neighborhood.

There were two guys, Odserun and Tuvsho. They were in the area, performing in the public schools and wherever they could to create some interest in the throat singing phenomenon. When we heard that they were in the area we put out a call and had them over the house and they started singing and I got out my trombone. I couldn’t believe what was happening. There is something about that kind of singing that just goes with the range and the sound of trombone.

The end result was Blue Mongol.

That took a couple of years. The original jam session was my self and two singers. The next time Tuvsho came with Badma Khanda, a great singer and three instrumentalists. I started writing some pieces for them, or I should say I was writing pieces for us, I was integrating myself into what they were doing. The year after that, about 2004 or 2005 was when we did the album. In 2006 we did a U.S. tour. We played on the East Coast, Chicago and the West Coast.

How was the music received?

People were amazed and transfixed, the same way that I was when I first heard Odserun and Tuvsho sing in my living room. It’s transfixing. I don’t know if the recording captures the music, because it’s such an acoustical thing, it’s all based on harmonics. It’s something that has to happen in a natural acoustic space, but it’s so strong that I think at least some of it translates to the recording.

From there you went on to collaborate with the great Puerto Rican cuatro (guitar) player, Yomo Toro.

The collaboration with Yomo goes way back to Verna’s earliest days of producing. I have traveled and performed in Europe, Canada and Africa and beyond but I have to say that the experience with Yomo Toro and (drummer) Bobby Sanabria was really hard for me in a good way.

Why is that?

I will say it one word, CLAVE!

Ah! The dreaded clave! Say no more, if you don’t come from clave it can be a very difficult concept to learn.

Well, if you are brought up in it, it’s one thing. If you have to learn it and reapply it to everything you have experienced in your life that’s another thing. I call it the science of clave. I had to work with it as a science before I could get it to an art. Anyway, what an experience, I really grew from this. Both of these guys are incredible teachers. Bobby does it one way … he breaks it all down and lays it all out theoretically as well as logically. With Yomo, it exudes from his character. He plays it for you, sings and makes the air move around you so that you pick it up by osmosis. That’s been the most challenging thing so far.

In 2007 you went back to your roots with the recording, Keep Your Heart Right.

There are some very early songs and more recent songs on that recording. It was the result of discovering a singer named Sunny Kim, who is South Korean. She was a student at the New England Conservatory when Steve Lacy and his wife were on the faculty. Sunny has tremendous vocal resources; there is just nothing that she won’t take on. Anyway, we did a memorial for Steve and it was a great thing. It was two hours of Steve Lacy sounds, his compositions and his songs. It was a tremendous experience for me. That’s where I met Sunny.

About a year before that I had started working with a great pianist named Lafayette Harris, so I pulled together rehearsals with Lafayette, Sonny and myself and we started to grow the material and develop a chemistry with one another. And last year we brought bassist, Brad Jones into it and we had ourselves a quartet. We traveled to Italy twice this past summer and we have two things coming up in New York in October. It’s a very enjoyable group. A lot of the material has never been performed and there are a lot of new things going on.

That’s just one of many projects that you are currently involved with.

This is one of the configurations that I hope will go on for a good long time, so that we can find out more and more and more about ourselves.

I know that your collaboration with guitarist/vocalist David Oquendo has been completed, however, it has yet to be released. What is the name of the recording?

In English it’s called Encounters.

That would be Encuentros in Spanish.

I have to talk about David Oquendo. He’s like Yomo Toro, Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington, people who come along occasionally, who are a school unto themselves. So for me it was another opportunity to learn and grow from the experience. This is a record of standards from his experience, my experience and our experience, because what happened in the 40s and 50s in our art was absorbed and assimilated in the Caribbean, Europe and all over the place. Even though we come from different backgrounds we were familiar with a lot of the same material.

One of the things that fascinated me about Oquendo was his scat; he does this mouth percussion thing that is just killing. He told me that there was a time when drums weren’t allowed on the street (in Cuba); you had to have permission to play the drums so the mouth and body percussion became something of a substitute for playing percussion on the street. He recounted that there were times when they would be standing around doing this on the street and it sounded so real that people would call the cops! I don’t think he does it publicly, I guess it’s kind of a private thing, but David is full of this kind of stuff. There is a lot of street in David.

When will Encounters, be released?

Soon, all the votes are in.

In an interview you said the following: “I consider myself very fortunate to have lived to see the fruition of so much labor. The frustration of not being able to quite get into the mainstream and whatever it takes to support yourself this way, I think McCoy Tyner called it a privilege and so I kind of think that is humbling to, to have gotten to this point to have the privilege of supporting myself this way.”

That’s right, over the last ten years I have gotten a lot more thanks to Verna and the collaborations that she has arranged for me and the things that I have been able to do for myself. The quartet with Sunny Kim is one such thing, and another is the trombone band. We will be coming out with that in November.

Tell me about the trombone band.

It’s brass music, trombone music—three trombones, a tuba, bass and drums. We just participated in the Lake George Jazz Weekend. There was a group there called Pucho and the Latin Soul Brothers, they came on after us and carried on the spirit of the music at the festival. T the music was fun, entertaining and accessible. The beauty of my band is that I can go just about anywhere with it. I can play dance music, folk music, some edgy stuff and pretty much do whatever I want to do. Judging from the response we have received thus far I think we are going to be fine.

In closing, you seem to have achieved the best of both worlds—an apartment in the city, a house in the country—you even get to jam with the cosmos now and then. Who could possibly ask for more?

You got it Tomas, you got it man!

It’s a great place to be and you deserve it. There are a lot of artists who deserve it and don’t live to see it. You are the exception to the rule, one of the lucky one’s!

There are no endings Tomas, only beginnings.

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October 11, 2008 · 4 comments

  • 1 jay // Oct 14, 2008 at 06:42 PM
    wonderful interview. never enough written about this griot master improvisin syncopatin musical trickster. thank you.
  • 2 priscilla // Nov 05, 2008 at 03:24 AM
    Hey, Roswell! this is your sister who just read this interview while watching the Obama victory returns. What a night! I learned so much reading this interview. I especially love the way you use language to describe what the music does for you and to you. I also loved reading your words about Bop b/c that is the music I love so much. It was quite a gift that Hop gave us--all those jam sessions and the drums morning till night. I'm glad you talked about that. Have a safe and wonderful trip to Europe with all those bones! love, Pris
  • 3 Peter Stone // Nov 06, 2008 at 10:31 PM
    Who or what is Roberto Citarelli? He is cited in some places as author of this interview, whereas the name of Tomas Peña is in the by-line.
  • 4 Ted // Nov 07, 2008 at 12:37 AM
    This article is by Tomas Peña, not Roberto Citarelli. The byline is correct. Roberto Citarelli is credited with the photo.