In conversation with andy laverne
Question: What do Frank Sinatra, Stan Getz, Woody Herman, Dizzy Gillespie, Chick Corea, Lionel Hampton, Michael Brecker, Elvin Jones, John Abercrombie, and Neil Sedaka have in common? Answer: theyíve all worked with jazz pianist, composer, and arranger Andy LaVerne.
A prolific recording artist, LaVerneís projects as a leader number over 50. He is also a jazz educator, having released a series of instructional videos. He is the author of Handbook of Chord Substitutions, Tons of Runs (Ekay), Bill Evans Compositions 19 Solo Piano Arrangements, and is the pianist on The Chick Corea Play-Along Collection (Hal Leonard). Andy is a frequent contributor (since 1986) to Keyboard Magazine and Piano Today Magazine. His articles have also appeared in Down Beat, Jazz Improv, Piano Quarterly, Jazz and Keyboard Workshop, and JazzOne.
LaVerne is the recipient of five Jazz Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and is winner of the 2000 John Lennon Songwriting contest for his tune ďShania.Ē He has appeared at concerts, festivals, and clubs throughout the world, and has given clinics and Master classes at universities, colleges, and conservatories worldwide. LaVerne is Professor of Jazz Piano at The Hartt School (University of Hartford) and on the faculty of the Aebersold Summer Jazz Workshops. In a conversation with jazz.comís Eugene Marlow, LaVerne looks back on his decades long prolific career, his early association with the legendary Bill Evans, and his current projects.
You have played with a host of people from Frank Sinatra to--it seems like everybody. Youíve recorded with tons of people including your own albums. How do you manage to do that?
I look back at that list myself and sometimes I find it hard to believe Iíve played with that many people over such a long period of time. I guess you start playing and obviously time passes and you end up playing with a lot more people. As far as the versatility goes, I donít feel my playing is all that eclectic. I read articles about people and they say they have all sorts of influences from world music to rock to all sorts of things. I guess I have influences of classical music and obviously jazz, but even my jazz seems to be focused in a certain area. I appreciate all eras of jazz, but I seem to be focused more in a certain area although I have expanded that over the course of time. I think I started initially with Bill Evans and then expanded from there and then backwards from there. Everybody has their set of influences and, of course, I grew up in the fifties, sixties, and seventies.
Who are your influences?
Specifically, thereís really a group of five pianists who seem to have shaped everything I do in one way or another and they are, not necessarily in any order, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett. And then from there Richie Beirach. Probably not quite as much because Richie also had absorbed a lot of the people I just mentioned, so he was sort of a consolidation of those styles. But he did add some of his own very unique things that influenced me as well.
Why those five?
Iíve pondered that for a long time because I certainly have gotten things from other people. Certainly Monk and Bud Powell and Sonny Clark and a lot of other pianists. But that group of five was really the core of my interest and influences. I think what they share is a certain clarity, creativity and musicality, lyricism, and fire. I guess you could say that about a lot of people, but it seems those five people encapsulate those qualities for me and thatís what appeals to me.
You studied with Bill Evans. How long did you study with him?
I took a number of lessons with Bill over the course of maybe a year or so. And I was very fortunate to have had that opportunity because I donít think he was really teaching very much, if at all, at that point. Itís not like these days where pretty much everybody teaches. I had been going down to the Village Vanguard (New York City) to hear him every night. He would play there for a week or two weeks. I would just go every single night. Then one night on a break he came into the audience and was just sitting with a couple of friends and he was telling them about an apartment he just moved into in the Bronx. I happened to overhear him say that and it was only four blocks away from where I was living with my parents at that time. So I figured, well, okay, I guess Iíll go up and say something. I was petrified to even talk to him. But he was actually very nice and unassuming and I told him I was an aspiring jazz pianist of sorts and he seemed to be interested in that and invited me over. And thatís how it happened.
Was this in Riverdale?
Yes, it was in Riverdale. I was going into his building--he lived in an apartment building on West 246th Street--and as I was going into the building he was just getting into the building too. So we went up into the elevator together. He couldnít shake hands because his hands were so swollen, I guess from perhaps the drug abuse, Iím not quite sure. But that struck me as kind of odd. When we got upstairs he had just gotten a copy of Jazz Improvisation Volume 4 by John Mehegan in which he wrote the preface. That whole book is basically a codification of Billís left-hand, rootless voicings. So Bill gave me that copy and he said, "Here, you take it. I donít need it."
Did he sign it?
He didnít sign it. I wish he had signed it. The only thing of Billís thatís like a signature was when I was playing--this was many years later-- when I was playing with Stan Getz, and Bill and Stan were doing a lot of double-bill concerts together. So we were traveling together: the Stan Getz quartet and the Bill Evans trio. Bill would open for Stan.
That was right around the time Stan produced a record for me, a recording for me with himself and John Abercrombie, Billy Hart and Eddie Gomez, which unfortunately never came out because it was produced for Columbia Records. He produced two records for me for Columbia and I thought, well, my career is set, Iím on the fast track now, no problem. Shortly after we recorded those two records, Stan got dropped from Columbia, so the records never came out.
Who has those masters?
I had them at one point and gave them to a friend of mine who used to be the head of Atlantic Studios in Manhattan for safe-keeping, and he lost them, or he couldnít locate them, so theyíre gone. I donít know where they are.
Anyway, I had given Bill a cassette of that first CD because I wanted him to hear it. I wanted to see what he thought. Eddie Gomez was also on it, so I thought heíd be interested. He took it and he was in the hotel, but he left the hotel before we did so he wrote me a note. It was a really nice note and he said yeah, you know, loved the record and went into some detail about the tunes and everything. And then he said at the end of it, youíre going to be making the big bucks, and it was signed Bill. I lost that note. I donít have anything with Billís signature on it.
Earlier you touched on the subject of surviving in the jazz music business, then and now. Can you talk about that? What was it like 20, 30 years playing in the business, and what is it that a jazz musician has to do today in order to survive? You talked about everybody teaches.
I presume everybody teaches because thatís another income stream.
Exactly. Thatís not the only motivation to teach, obviously, but that certainly is a practical thing to keep in mind. Itís part of the income stream you have to generate these days. Obviously you've got to generate a lot more income now than you had to 20 or 30 years ago. Maybe proportionately itís the same, but the numbers have certainly increased. I think itís extremely difficult. Sometimes Iím amazed Iíve been able to do it myself without taking any other source of work outside of music.
I write for Keyboard Magazine and Piano Today Magazine; Iíve been doing that for quite a number of years. Iíve written a number of books. So tangentially itís not just the playing; itís other things connected to playing and connected to music, at least in my case.
One thing I have noticed is that everybody is in a slightly different space when it comes to their own career in music or what they want to pursue or how to do it best. In terms of giving advice, itís kind of hard because I think the whole scene is constantly evolving and changing. But what I see now from all the teaching Iím doing is I have a lot of younger students who are just trying to get into what Iíve been doing for a long time. Itís difficult for them because, number one, there arenít as many bands around playing and touring as a unit full-time. When I joined Stan Getz, we were on the road virtually almost 100% of the time. I basically didnít need a place to live because it was all hotels and traveling. Now, even if you play with a band on a steady basis, you go out for like a two or three week tour and then youíre back for a couple of months or something. So, in terms of the teaching thing, it seems like now the degrees that are required to teach jazz are getting more and more. If you have a bachelorís, thatís not enough anymore. You need a masterís. Now people are getting masterís degrees and they still canít find jobs teaching.
I donít know what the solution for this generation is, exactly. There are that select handful of musicians, as John Abercrombie calls them, the ďhappy jazz musiciansĒ who are making tons of money. Theyíre playing whatever they want, as much as they want, they get amazing amounts of recognition, reviews are always completely glowing.
Give me some examples.
Well, obviously thereís the established hierarchy of jazz musicians, some of the ones I just mentioned: Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner. Iím sure theyíre not hustling or scuffling for gigs or recognition. When they get gigs thereís plenty of people there and Iím sure they get remuneration that reflects their high status. Thereís also Joe Lovano and John Scofield for the slightly younger generation. Now also thereís Wynton Marsalis and a lot of his followers or proponents. Then thereís a crop of younger generation of players. There are a crop of really amazingly talented guitarists that seem to be on the forefront of developing the music. Thatís what it appears to me at this point. Iím sure there are pianists as well, but it seems like the guitarists are getting a lot of attention these days. So thereís that handful of artists who are very well established and are doing very well and are doing exactly what they want. And then there are the rest of us who are sort of doing what we want and have to do a lot of it to make as much money. We donít make as much money, we never will. Thatís kind of a harsh reality to deal with.
According to drummer Bobby Sanabria one of the major reasons why thereís not as much going or why itís so difficult financially is that the vast majority of jazz radio has gone away.
Thatís a good point.
Do you agree with that?
Iím not really that aware of it because I donít listen to that much jazz radio. I donít get WBGO (Newark, NJ) too well in Peekskill. I know you can listen online but--I have so many CDs and so many things I want to listen to that I donít really find it necessary to listen that much to radio. I find when I do listen to radio theyíll play something I like and then theyíll play five things I donít want to listen to and Iím saying to myself, why am I spending time listening to this stuff that I donít want to hear? So rather than doing that, I just have a master collection of stuff I really like. Of course, that makes it difficult to hear new stuff that you might not ordinarily be exposed to. But to get to the question about jazz radio, I canít say Iím really aware of that. It wouldnít surprise me because the media has changed so much. Another point that you might want to think about is CDs.
I was going to ask you about that.
It just seems the whole industry is imploding. Itís collapsing like a house of cards. Itís kind of scary.
Itís all going digital?
Itís all going digital and not only that but nobody seems to be buying much of anything anymore, they donít have to. They can get it all for free somehow, whether theyíre downloading it or sharing it with people.
Then why produce a CD?
Thatís an excellent question. That has me in a quandary because it seems like in more recent times in my career Iíve been more focused on recording than live gigs. Iím tired of traveling and going through the hassles that you have to go through and it seems like traveling is getting more and more difficult. But I want to keep playing and keep producing new product and I really like recording. Itís kind of a solitary process in a way, but at least you can document your music and get it out there to people interested in hearing it. Now this method of getting your music to people seems to be evaporating. Iím not quite sure where itís all going.
Letís talk a little bit about your music. Youíve been composing and arranging other peopleís work for some time now. Has your compositional style changed? Has it evolved? And, if so, how?
Yes, Iím sure it has changed and evolved. I have been writing for a long time. I started writing when I was just learning how to play. I guess it was just always part of what I liked to do. Even before I started playing jazz when I was playing classical music I was writing fugues and sonatas in those styles. So it was just, I guess, that creative part of me that needed some sort of outlet. And I always took that as just part of what I did in music or as a musician. But as far as how my writing has evolved, itís funny. It seems to go through stages of either more dissonance and then back into more consonance and then maybe a combination of those factors. But I think itís more of a refinement now than a radical evolution. It seems like Iím more sensitive now to melodic development and a lot of my writing seems to be paring down elements, not only melodically, but also rhythmically and harmonically, just to get to the pure essence of what it is Iím trying to write. It seems like the melodies are getting more sparse and the chords--theyíre as complex as theyíve been over the years. Theyíre not getting more complex. I seem to be able to meld them with more conventional chords better. I feel like my writing and playing is improving as time goes by which, to me, I think, is a good thing, even though Iím getting older. I look at some of my idols that I mentioned before and I prefer to listen to their earlier periods than their more current periods.
Why is that?
Iím not quite sure. It seems like when it gets to a certain point it gets almost to be either a caricature of what they played earlier on, or they changed directions a little bit and Iím not quite as interested. Weíre still just searching and developing where other people kind of reached a plateau of style and then just kind of went with that, you know, to play to larger audiences or something.
How do you keep your chops up? Iíve spoken to other pianists and they say they spend two to three hours a day on exercises, reading repertoire, doing classical material, reading charts, just working at it every day. Do you feel like you have to work at it every day?
I donít really feel quite that way and maybe that might be reflected when you hear me play. I just did a gig recently at the Gitano in New York for a couple of nights and by the end of the last set I felt like I could pretty much play anything I wanted to. Of course, when we first started I felt pretty good, but I could see I had some place to go. So for me, playing at home or practicing, itís never the same as actually performing and being on either a gig or recording. I play at home and Iím constantly playing and doing things, but itís not the same intensity level as when youíre actually playing a gig.
Thereís more adrenaline going on when youíre playing a gig and that changes your performance acumen?
Yes, Iím sure thatís part of the equation. Thereís also the interaction between people you canít get if youíre just playing at home by yourself.
Youíre talking about the other musicians on the set?
Yeah and the energy coming from the audience as well. There are all those factors that when youíre in a solitary state just practicing, you canít duplicate any of that. So for me, luckily, chops have never been a major issue. I have enough technique to execute what it is I need to execute. As a matter of fact, getting back to Bill Evans, I remember one of the first things he said to me after I first played for him when I was still in my teens, he said, ďBoy, you sure have a lot of technique.Ē Iím sure that came from all my years at Juilliard and I never really thought about it. I just did what I was told and it evolved that way.
Youíve studied at Juilliard and Berklee and the New England Conservatory?
How much of your background was strictly classical?
A large part of it. Obviously not at Berklee and New England. Well, I shouldnít say ďobviouslyĒ with New England because they have a great classical department. But I was studying with Jaki Byard there. Certainly at Juilliard there was no jazz program at the time I was there. I didnít even know anything about jazz at that point in my life. I was a little kid. I studied there for many years.
When did you start there at Juilliard?
I started when I was six years old. So I was obviously not in the college at that point.
Iím smart but Iím not that smart. Although in my lifetime somehow Iíve managed to be a child prodigy and a late bloomer.
What do you mean a late bloomer?
I feel like Iím just starting to get to what I need to get to musically in my career as well, and Iím 60 years old, so thatís what I mean by late bloomer.
You definitely donít come across as 60 years old.
Maybe intellectually and emotionally.
So when did you leave Juilliard?
I was in high school, so probably around 15 or 16.
You went through high school at Juilliard, is that correct?
Yeah, I didnít go to high school in Juilliard, I went to the High School of Music and Art in New York that is now the LaGuardia High School.
And then you went from there to Berklee and then to New England?
No, I went from high school to Ithaca College and then from Ithaca College I transferred to Berklee and then from Berklee to New England.
Of that total experience, who would you say was your strongest influence in terms of your playing or your musical experience or musical training experience, including the Juilliard experience?
Certainly from a theory and a pianistic standpoint, Juilliard certainly had the major impact on me.
Anybody specifically there?
It was a woman by the name of Mrs. Kurka, Robert Kurkaís wife. Robert Kurka was a contemporary composer who died while I was at Juilliard. He died rather young; he was probably maybe in his forties or something. But she was my teacher for many years and she taught me well. She knew what she was doing.
You must have been a good student as well.
Actually, I was not that big on practicing as much as I should have, but fortunately my talent carried me through part of that. In any case, from a jazz standpoint, even studying with Bill and Don Friedman and Jaki Byard and Richie Beirach, I learned a great deal from all those people, but I think I learned most of the stuff I know about jazz from other musicians Iíve played with over the years. Just playing and figuring it out myself, which people these days donít seem to be doing quite as much. Although I must admit that some of my more advanced students, regardless of what I show them, they just kind of figure it out themselves anyway.
You really have to find your own way.
I think you do. People can show you tools and information, but itís how you put all that together yourself. I was reading something recently, it mentioned you can teach people how to paint, but you canít teach them what to paint. I think itís the same with music. You can teach them how to play music, but you canít teach them what to play.
Let me close with an open question. What would you like to say about your music experience, your playing, or the music industry or the jazz business? Anything that comes to mind that is fairly close to your heart at this point?
I would like to talk a little bit about what Iím doing now. I have this group, as you know, that I formed about four years ago, a piano/organ trio that I really love playing with. I feel that somehow I have found what seems to be a more or less unique setting for myself. There are a number of reasons. I play piano, thereís a Hammond B3 organ, and thereís drums.
Who are the players?
Well, itís been Gary Versace, a great organist and a pianist. It was because of his playing that actually I got the idea to form the group in the first place. But Gary has been really, really busy. I have a gig coming up with the group and unfortunately Gary is going to be out of the country. I knew this day was going to come where I would be at a crossroads either deciding to get another organ player or to just play piano trio which I certainly would be happy to do. Iíve been keeping my ear to the ground for other organists in case this would occur, and it has. So I found a guy by the name of Brian Charette who coincidentally went to college with Gary Versace and who knows him quite well. But they have a lot of similar influences and they seem to have a similar approach to playing the instrument that I really, really like.
Is drummer Danny Gottlieb still with the group?
Danny Gottlieb is also one of my long-time great friends, one of my closest friends and favorite drummers, but he lives in Florida. So it hasnít been that easy for him to get up here to play gigs when I need him. But I have found another drummer I really love playing with. His name is Anthony Pinciotti. We met about ten years ago when he was a student at the University of Miami and I was down there playing--doing a clinic and playing a concert--and he was recruited to play with me. And I said wow, you know, this guy sounds really great. He ended up moving to New York and it was through Gary, actually, Gary had mentioned him and thatís when I made the connection that I had met Anthony several years ago. And so Gary and I played with Anthony and it was fantastic. Anthony and Brian Charette are the latest incarnation of this group.
The reason I really like playing in this group so much is it gives me the opportunity to do what I like to do best which is not only solo, but to comp. And, you know, if youíre playing in a piano trio with a bass player, youíre comping behind the bass solo. But the bass solos donít happen necessarily on every tune. They might, but even if they do, they donít generally last more than a few choruses. And when youíre comping behind the bass, you have to tone it down somewhat because itís a different texture and timbre and you have to adjust to that. But when Iím comping behind an organ solo, itís like comping for a horn player or a guitar player. So, thereís no holds barred there. Plus just the texture of the piano and the organ together is such a rich, beautiful sound to me. Somehow I stumbled on this because I hadnít really heard a group like this before and I want to stick with it. So like Bill Evans did years ago, when unfortunately Scott LaFaro died, he had to get another bass player. So he got Chuck Israels. But when Chuck Israels left, he got Eddie Gomez.
It wasnít too bad then.
Yeah, it wasnít too bad either. But Iím sure I will be playing more gigs with Gary again as well. I just have to look at it like itís an evolution of this concept now rather than a group of just three people who have to remain the same. Itís that group and my duet with guitarist John Abercrombie that incidentally has turned into a DVD recording. That duet has been an ongoing thing that I just love doing also, playing duo with John. Weíre been such good friends for such a long time that itís just another part of my musical expression that I really love doing.
I think on that note weíll close. Thank you Andy LaVerne.