Assessing Brad Mehldau at Mid-Career

by Ted Gioia

Early in his career, Brad Mehldau was branded as a Bill Evans disciple. Most young pianists would be flattered at the comparison, but Mehldau would have none of it. In what may be the defining moment of his career, Mehldau wrote lengthy liner notes to his Art of the Trio 4: Back at the Vanguard  CD, which began not with a description of the music, or thanking his producer, or the typical quasi-philosophical musings we have come to expect in such settings, but rather as follows:

The constant comparison of this trio with the Bill Evans trio by critics has been a thorn in my side. I remember listening to his music only a little, when I was 13 or 14 years old, for several months . . .

Mehldau continues by offering evidence. “The way Larry and I are abstracting harmony has nothing to do with Bill Evans . . .Often what I am doing in my solo is basing its melodic content on the initial melody of the song. You won’t find the model for this approach in Bill Evans . . .” The entire essay runs for some two thousand words, and though it soon leaves behind the subject of Bill Evans to address many issues, eventually ending up with a discussion of Beethoven, the sheer scope and bravado of Mehldau's liner 'notes' are striking. Jazz fans have grown used to aloof artists such as Miles Davis and Keith Jarrett, who usually keep their CD booklets as empty as possible, and many are even uncomfortable with musicians who try to explain rather than perform -- perhaps a sign of the anti-intellectualism of the jazz world, but definitely an attitude that jazz players ignore at their own risk. In this environment, Mehldau's essay was as subtle as a hand grenade.

Doth the pianist protest too much? Certainly there were similarities between Mehldau’s early efforts and the Bill Evans trio – although many of the connecting points sounded (to my ears) filtered through other influences, perhaps via Fred Hersch who served for a time as Mehldau’s teacher. But with each new recording, Mehldau developed and expanded on his own original voice, and by the time he wrote these liner notes, his trio was exploring new terrain that was more likely to exert an influence on others, rather than display its own influences.

So score one for Mehldau. His essay may not have been diplomatic, but the points he made were valid ones. Most musicians rarely dare to criticize the critics, but with so much sloppy writing and (even worse) sloppy thinking passing for reviewing these days, it's a wonder that more players don't lash out on occasion. And anyone who took the time to listen to the CD that came long with these liner notes – or indeed, just the opening track, where Mehldau and company tackle “All the Things You Are” in a fast 7/4 time – would realize that the setting of this recording might be the Village Vanguard, but we have come a long way since “Waltz for Debby.”

There are many fine pianists in the jazz world today, but it would be hard to find one under the age of forty who has already done more outstanding and innovative work than Brad Mehldau. He has released trio records roughly at the pace of one per year for the last decade, and the quality of this music is exceptional. There are many things to admire in this work, but I would call attention to the following four:

(1) The masterful rhythmic phrasing of Mehldau and his colleagues, who have freed themselves completely from the constraints of bar lines and downbeats: This may inspire comparisons to Evans and LaFaro or to Hancock-Carter-Williams, or Wynton Marsalis’s great Roberts-Hurst-Watts rhythm section from the 1980s, or to Bley or Jarrett, or going back even farther, to Tristano and company. But Mehldau's trio has set up its own rules for this game, and is working its rhythmic reconfigurations at a very high level of virtuosity. It is especially exhilarating to hear them floating over the ground rhythm in odd time meters, all the while maintaining a high level of interactivity and variety in their playing.

(2) The redefinition of left and right hands: If I may be forgiven a gross over-simplification, I could characterize the first fifty years of jazz piano as too dominated by the left hand, and the last fifty years as too dominated by the right hand. Okay, here is another generalization: the first fifty years were too vertical in keyboard conception, the last fifty years too horizontal. (I warned you these were gross over-simplifications, but they are not without their value.) Mehldau has tried to integrate these two opposed visions – vertical and horizontal, bass versus treble – into a unified keyboard style. This is much more than a technical issue, or a question of dexterity. Other jazz players have shown off their killing left hands. Peterson, Corea, Shearing, Tatum, Newborn and others could probably play “Donna Lee” with their left hand while working “Confirmation” with their right. The bigger challenge, however, is conceptual. How does one forge a jazz piano style that brings together left-and-right, vertical-and-horizontal in a pleasing and unified whole. This is a much harder task. There have been hints in the jazz piano literature at what this holistic approach might look like – check out Keith Jarrett’s “In Front” from his first solo piano recording Facing You for an example. But the progress Mehldau has made in presenting a coherent and satisfying solution to this riddle, both in trio and solo performances, deserves to be called a breakthrough. In an age in which jazz innovation (although not necessarily jazz excellence) is always in short supply, we should not take this achievement lightly.

(3) Mehldau’s persistence in expanding the piano trio repertoire: This aspect of Mehldau’s work is perhaps more widely recognized, but it deserves notice here. I could dwell on the specific choices (Radiohead, Nick Drake, the Beatles, Paul Simon), but the general principle is perhaps more important. In the last thirty years, jazz has veered dangerously close to becoming a museum piece. Even someone like me, who loves the jazz tradition and all it represents, must find this troubling. Throughout the history of the music, jazz has refreshed itself by entering into dialogue with popular music styles and different genres (such as world music or classical music). Today we need this type of engagement with new sounds more than ever, and Mehldau is one of the most uninhibited musicians of his generation in trying to open new doors.

(4) Freedom from banality and cliché; The jazz vocabulary has become codified and disseminated with such success during the last several decades -- primarily through the expansion of jazz education programs -- that even the local high school sax player has memorized fifty tried-and-true ways of inserting chromatic licks over a ii-V chord change. The towering innovations of Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker and even (or perhaps especially) John Coltrane are now memorized and regurgitated on every college campus. In this environment, improvising over familiar chord changes without relying on these hackneyed phrases is a far greater accomplishment. Few ensembles do this with more grace or consistency than Mehldau's trio.

Has Mehldau completely succeeded in his endeavors? Some carp that he is often too “cerebral” – a term that I think should be seen as a compliment, because smart playing deserves to be praised, but which in the macho world of jazz criticism is usually a put-down. Well, yes, sometimes Mehldau is very cerebral -- and thank you, Brad, for putting such deep intelligence into your work. Then again, Mehldau often plays with great swing and emotional immediacy or with stark simplicity . . . so these generalizations don’t get us very far.

Perhaps the real issue here is the challenge Mehldau faces in pulling everything together. He has made great progress on many fronts, but in different performances and recordings he has preferred to expand the territory he covers rather than consolidate his gains. So he does not yet exhibit that commanding single-minded personality that puts an identifiable fingerprint on every phrase – at least not to the degree that we find with Monk, Tyner, Evans, Tatum, Peterson, Jamal, Jarrett, Garner and a few others grand individualists in the pantheon of jazz keyboard. Perhaps the nature of Mehldau’s accomplishments, the sheer breadth of what he is trying to do, makes such consolidation impossible. But this pianist has already surpassed my expectations at several points in the past, and I have not yet seen anything to suggest that Brad Mehldau has reached a ceiling or plateau in his development. He is merely at mid-career. And if I expect further surprises from this artist, it is only because he as delivered them so consistently in the past.

Related Links

The Dozens: Twelve Essential Brad Mehldau Performances by Ted Gioia

December 31, 2007 · 16 comments


Letter from Europe

by Stuart Nicholson

The close proximity of jazz to classical music in European jazz conservatories is now leading more and more young musicians to draw naturally and spontaneously on elements of both in shaping an individual approach to jazz improvisation. Unlike most American universities and conservatories where jazz departments and classical departments are often self contained worlds where never the twain shall meet, in Europe, the majority of jazz institutions insist students undertake parallel classical studies.

         Nightclub by Suzanne Cerny

“Most European jazz musicians have a thorough training in classical music,” says Wouter Turkenburg, Head of Jazz Studies at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. “Almost every jazz school in Europe puts an important emphasis on learning how to play classical music. Not only to improve the technique but also to know and understand another realm of music better. All of my students have one hour with a jazz teacher and half an hour with a classical teacher per week. If they fail the classical exams it’s hard for them to continue their study.”

There is good reason for this, as Orjan Fahlstrom, second principal of the Royal College of Music in Sweden, and a jazz composer and arranger in his own right, points out, “In our Conservatory we use the European composing tradition as a huge knowledge database,” he explains. “For us music is music, and absolutely the most important thing is artistic expression. If you don’t have anything to say from an artistic standpoint it does not matter what style you are using.”

The result is more and more musicians are emerging who are not rooted in the dominant bebop/technicist pedagogy. In a feature in Music Teacher magazine in 2004, UK educator John Robert Brown noted a move away from America as the source of jazz innovation among students in many colleges and universities. Quoting Peter Sklaroff, the admissions tutor at Leeds College of Music in the United Kingdom, Brown said some students want to sound more “contemporary” and European, pointing to the ECM label as a source of inspiration and focusing less on bebop or standard songs, “This has been put to me as a way of avoiding sounding old fashioned.”

Where once musicians strove to sound authentically “American,” many young musicians are now emerging who are unafraid of sounding “European” by way of their classical influences. Pianist Esbjörn Svensson is perhaps the most high profile of this new breed of young musicians, indeed, his latest album Tuesday Wonderland was even inspired by Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier. He studied classical piano at Stockholm’s prestigious Royal College of Music, “The music that interests me very much – music by Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Bartok all those big composers,” he says.

The brilliant young Belgian pianist Jef Neve studied in the Lemmensinstituut in Louvain, graduating with Master of Music degrees in classical and jazz, and going on to post graduate studies in Chamber Music, graduating “cum laude” [with honour] in 2001. His use of classical influences within jazz is both profound and moving. “I don’t see any reason why we can’t use classical influences in jazz music,” he says. “I think that’s the typical European attitude from European musicians – we actually don’t mind that maybe some of our music doesn’t swing. That’s not a rule here, we don’t have that pressure that maybe you might feel as an American, so I think we are more free to adapt these classical elements, like introducing rubatos, tempos that don’t have to stay right in line. Maybe if the music asks for it why can’t we do this or that, use dynamics more and so on.”

The young German pianist Michael Wollny, a product of the Hermann-Zilcher Conservatory, studied classical music from the age of five and has harnessed 20th century contemporary classical influences into jazz with startlingly original results. Nik Bärtsch from Switzerland studied piano and percussion from the age of 8. A graduate of the Musikhochschule Zürich and University of Zürich he brings classical influences face to face with jazz, The Meters and James Brown in his band Ronin. In Italy, Stefano Bollani studied at the Luigi Cherubini Conservatory of Florence where he graduated with distinction. His recent ECM album Piano Solo mixes Prokofiev with Scott Joplin (“Maple Leaf Rag”) and Louis Armstrong (“Do You Know What It means To Miss New Orleans”).

In the United Kingdom, Gwylim Simcock studied piano at Chetham’s School of Music, Trinity College and the Royal Academy and recently devised a solo piano project based on the piano works of Shostakovich. In fact, there is no shortage of European jazz pianists who are unafraid to let their classical background help shape their musical outlook.

Yet jazz musicians turning to classical music is hardly new. In the late 1930s there was a craze for “swinging” the classics – Benny Goodman scored a hit with British composer/arranger Alec Templeton’s “Bach Goes to Town,” the John Kirby Sextet recorded several successful classical novelties by the likes of Chopin, Dvorak, Schubert, Lehar and Donizetti, while Tommy Dorsey enjoyed huge success with Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Song of India.” A few more selective examples might include Igor Stravinsky’s “Ebony Concerto” written for the Woody Herman Orchestra in 1946, Tchaikovsky’s “Arab Dance” and Mussorgsky’s “The Old Castle” brilliantly re-arranged by Gil Evans for the Claude Thornhill Orchestra (Evans would later successfully adapt Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto De Aranjuez” for Miles Davis in the 1950s), while Boyd Raeburn’s arranger George Handy, who had studied with Aaron Copland, was actually compared to Stravinsky in print. Mention also must be made of Bob Graettinger’s “City of Glass” for the Stan Kenton Orchestra during this period, a stunning achievement that is all but contemporary classical music in name. In the 1950s, Gunther Schuller was a leading figure in the Third Stream movement that tried to combine jazz and classical, Duke Ellington turned his hand (and those of Billy Strayhorn) to Tchaikovsky while in Europe, Jacques Loussier sold over 7 million records using classical themes from Bach, Vivaldi, Satie, Debussy and Handel, rather than standards, as a basis for jazz improvisation.

So what’s so different this time? Well for a start, for many the results are more organic than jazz-classical crossovers in the past. As a result of learning two “musical languages” simultaneously, musicians find that elements of one seamlessly bleed into the other through a shared harmonic foundation. In language itself, one might draw an analogy with the rise of “Spanglish,” a mix of Spanish and English involving what is known as code-switching, in the United States in recent years. Spanish, traditionally a major linguistic influence in the south-western states is now set to become the largest minority language in the country; in fact, in a number of US cities Spanglish is already the majority language.

Also, European musicians are well aware improvisation is hardly the exclusive province of jazz. A feature of Mozart’s performances, for example, was his piano improvisations, such as his performance in Prague on January 19th, 1787 where he conducted his D Major Symphony No.38 (subsequently referred to as “The Prague”) and followed it by not one, but three piano improvisations. “When I started to play piano at the age of four Mozart was my hero, and what fascinated me was that Mozart was capable improvising these little melodies and that was something I wanted to do as well,” explains Jef Neve. “So I actually improvised from the very beginning, even before I could read notes, so that’s my starting point. It’s quite normal that I should have this huge classical influence, it’s my cultural heritage, and that’s something that’s been there all my life.”

While these young musicians can swing powerfully, they often don’t choose to, preferring more rhythmic “elasticity” of the sort that can be found on many albums produced by European musicians on the ECM label. There is also an emphasis on melodic, rather than pattern based improvisation and a move away from harmonic complexity to more open structures in the belief that the cyclical song form, sometimes with changes every two beats, forces the improviser to rely more on mechanical (or pattern based) improvisation to negotiate complex changes at the expense of melodic improvisation. “With ‘Giant Steps’ or a complex harmonic structure,” continues Jef Neve, “there is always the danger you follow the mechanical process – chord, chord, chord, chord, chord – a lot of jazz is technique. Melody is lost. I say don’t play 15 notes if you can tell it with three notes.”

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at these developments in Old Europe, with its long tradition of Western classical music that stretches back to plainsong and beyond. History does have a habit of repeating itself, and at the turn of the 20th century, the classical tradition was in flux, looking for new directions and new ways of doing things. This was reflected in Debussy’s non-functional harmony, Skryabin’s attempt to find a new harmonic system and Schoenberg’s revolt against tonality – “composition with twelve notes” – that put an end to hundreds of years of music devoted to the dramatic-expressive ideal.

The conflict between Brahms and Wagner was pulling apart the symphonic tradition; Brahms (considered a conservative) remained true to standard musical forms (the sonata, the string quartet, the symphony and so on) while Wagner (deemed the revolutionary) was moving towards more ambitious musical forms and a use of chromaticism that seemed to threaten the tonal system itself.

New ideas were in the air and there was widespread belief that “the tradition” was now stifling creativity, particularly in France, where the arrival of jazz was seen as a breath of fresh air whose vitality and exuberance brought something new to European art. Composers Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc and Germaine Tailleferre and their unofficial and mischievous “godfather,” Erik Satie all shared a fascination with this new music, which in turn provided them with a source of inspiration in their own works where, they claimed, they “fused art and modern life.” Their work was intended to challenge Romanticism in the hope of invoking a new French art music based on popular sources ? Auric’s suggestion of “blue notes” in “Huit Poémes,” Satie paraphrasing Irving Berlin’s “That Mysterious Rag” in his own “Steamship Ragtime” from Parade that mocked the loftiness of Romanticism or Milhaud’s 1923 ballet La Création du Mond that used jazz influences. The members of “Les Nouveaux Jeunes,” or as they later became known, “Les Six,” believed that art should continue to broaden its expressive resources and that music must be true to itself.

Fast forward to the beginning of the 21st century, where instead of classical musicians looking towards jazz for inspiration, young European jazz musicians are looking towards the classical repertoire for inspiration in the belief art should continue to broaden its expressive resources – just like their predecessors a century before. And, again like Les Six, they too believed their tradition’s overpowering legacy was freezing current practice. Change is in the air in Old Europe, indeed, it is already underway.

Recordings discussed in this article:
Esbjorn Svensson and EST- Tuesday Wonderland (ACT)
Jef Neve Trio - Nobody Is Illegal (Universal/EmArcy)
Michael Wollny and [em] - [em II] (ACT)
Nik Bärtch’s Ronin - Stoa (ECM)
Stefano Bollani - Piano Solo (ECM)
Gwylim Simcock - Perception (Basho Music)

December 24, 2007 · 5 comments


A Conversation with Manfred Eicher of ECM Records

by Stuart Nicholson

The company, whose oft-quoted initials turn out to stand for nothing more mysterious than Editions of Contemporary Music, has gone on to become the most important imprint in the world for jazz and new music.
                                                                                                                                    Phil Johnson, The Independent (UK)

There are a lot of jazz recordings being made these days. It seems every musician wants their work enshrined on compact disk. With more albums than there are buyers for them, so much goes unheard or unnoticed in record shops or on the web. In an idealized past, things seemed so much simpler. In the 1950s and 1960s, for example, Alfred Lion’s and Francis Wolff’s Blue Note Records was widely recognized as one of jazz’s premier labels.

                                                        Manfred Eicher (photo by Marek Vogel)

Fans bought their records unheard because Blue Note stood for something tangible. The main thrust of the label was simple, singing themes and direct storytelling solos. Today, collectors eagerly seek out the original vinyl while CD reissue programs, often including previously unreleased material, continue to this day. Books have been written about the label and its cover art while both have been the subject of doctorial theses. Discographies have detailed every recording session and every release. But what of tomorrow? What label will talked about, written about and listened to in the same way as the old Blue Note label is today?

Chances are it might be a label that emerged just as Blue Note was being swallowed up by the huge United Artists conglomerate at the end of the 1960s. ECM began as a tiny operation in Munich run by Manfred Eicher, who had studied at the Berlin Academy of Music and had begun to make a name for himself as recording assistant with the classical label Deutsche Grammophon. After borrowing 16,000 deutschmarks to get started, he released his first album Free At Last by Mal Waldron in 1969 to modest sales and favorable reviews.

Today, ECM – an acronym for Editions of Contemporary Music – has a catalogue in excess of 1000 albums and has remained independent during a period in which most other important jazz labels have changed ownership at least once. The range of music Eicher has recorded is astonishingly broad, with more than 900 titles made under his personal direction that range from American and European jazz in all its diversity to music that is beyond the convenient categories demanded by an industry that likes its products plainly labeled.

Eicher is one of a select band of record producers that might include a Walter Legge in the classical field, a Teo Macero in jazz and a George Martin in popular music who have shaped the aesthetics of recording. When you buy an ECM recording, you are immediately aware you are buying into the notion of recorded music as artistic expression, from the packaging and art work through to the way the music reveals itself upon playback, emerging from total silence.

Yet despite the ultra-modern image ECM cover art exudes ? the eye catching cover photographs, the immaculate sans serif typography ? it comes as a surprise to discover their offices are above a shop unit in a grey Munich industrial estate rather than in one of those glittering shrines to modern technology of the sort you find in Seattle ? all glass and trendy aluminum architecture with, at the very least, a small man-made lake and water fountain out front.

But ECM is less about a place, more about a state of mind. Like the paintings of the 19th century Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich, an ECM recording is as much about internal landscapes as external ones. There’s a resonance to the music that invites contemplation, challenging you to find a deeper aspect of yourself.

Eicher is unconcerned with boundaries and categories ? if the music in question has an integrity and originality that appeals or moves him, he will record it. Commercial considerations do not come into the equation.

Thus bassist Dave Holland and the Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem not only co-exist in the same catalog, but on the same album without incongruity, linked by the fact they are both wonderful musicians. Such a collaboration, which also includes British saxophonist John Surman, reflects Eicher's creative role as producer in coming up with the unexpected by drawing together musicians from different continents and backgrounds to collaborate and exchange musical ideas in order to create a new musical language of the moment, yet without robbing them of their own individual voices.

Each year, every year, the label releases some twenty to thirty albums and many of them are bought by fans of the label simply because they are ECM recordings. In 1979 the label earned the first of many Grammy Awards with In Concert - Zurich, October 28, 1979 by Chick Corea and Gary Burton for “Best Jazz Instrumental Performance,” with the duo earning another Grammy in 1981 for Duet in the same category.

The remarkable success of the label enabled the launch of the ECM New Series in 1984 with Arvo Pärt’s Tabla Rasa that immediately turned heads in the classical world. A forum for fresh approaches to both new music and the classical repertoire, the New Series has enabled Eicher to produce works from the likes of Heinz Holliger, Gavin Bryars, Steve Reich, John Adams and Giya Kancheli. In 2001 he received a Grammy Award as “Classical Producer of the Year.”

Today, with ECM’s fortieth anniversary on the horizon, Eicher continues to open doors to new musical experiences. “It is clear ECM is a European company,” he says. “My cultural experience is where I’m coming from, it’s my approach to music. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux once said, ‘You wish to see, listen; hearing is a step towards vision.’ That dialectic is something we have used as a leitmotiv in our catalogue. For me it says everything.”

Just a broad question to begin with, what is it about music that moves you and what moves you the most?

The mystery. The mystery of things past and things to come, the memory also of things that I heard, and the sounds that I remember from my childhood, especially sounds of nature by the lake and at the seashore. Sounds have always opened perspectives for me. Out of sounds, music evolves.

Some jazz artists I have interviewed speak of precisely this, of how they were influenced by the ambient sounds of nature, a very rural influence – and their approach is very different to, say, the urban sound of New York jazz.

Absolute silence exists everywhere, be it in the urban space, in New York, or, say, at North Cape. I was born in Lindau at the Lake of Constance. And I remember that the light and the winds would become sometimes very intense and wild, so, while watching the waves, you could get the impression that the lake was transforming into the rough sea.

It is interesting that you talk about the visual aspects, because in interviews you often speak of your love of films as well as your love of music. How have films influenced your aesthetic direction in music and perhaps vice versa?

When I studied music in Berlin, across the street was the famous cinema Am Steinplatz. Whenever I had the time I disappeared, diving into the dark room of a cinema. It was the time of the Nouvelle Vague, Godard, Bresson, Truffaut or the films of Bergman, Antonioni, Rossellini…Of all the art forms film and music are most closely related, both consist of motion and rhythm, sounds, tones, and the tones and intonation of light. Cinema seeks immediate and definite expression through gestures, intonation of voices and nature sounds. This system inevitably excludes expression through contacts and exchanges of images and of sounds and the transformation that results from them. In music, I’m consistently looking for something that is also not the given. Recording is always a transformation of things. Every session is a new morning. What is essential in recording is “Die Gestalt”. But we always need the score and the musicians who play the music. Above all, content is the secret.

Turning my original question on its head, when you came to direct a film, how did your vision of music influence your decisions as a film director in terms of your approach?

Well, so far I made only one movie together with Heinz Bütler, a Swiss film maker, called Holozän, based on the novel Man in the Holocene by Max Frisch. This piece of fiction has the characteristics of a musical score, rhythm, various motifs and their variations. Max Frisch charts the crumbling landscape of an old man’s consciousness as he slips away from himself towards death, towards reintegration with the age-old history of our planet. It is poetry of the mind rather than the senses, sparse and austere, with every detail chosen for its resonances. It was shot in the Ticino-mountains in Switzerland and in Iceland, and it was a wonderful experience to work with Erland Josephson with his great sensitivity toward text and music. Here we used the Adagio molto out of Bartók’s 5th String Quartet as a main motive and sounds of rain and rain again.

Can we also talk about the influence of American jazz on your musical outlook?

Well, the post-war generation was looking with very open eyes and ears pointed to America, and I was also fascinated by these sounds I heard from old shellac records of American music, not so much the swing era, but from the “Birth of the Cool” onwards. At 18, after high school, I was allowed to fly to America, and I went to the Village Vanguard and heard Bill Evans with Scott La Faro and Paul Motian. That was my first encounter with New York and America and since then I was admiring this music. The great development that happened in the 1960s, including the so-called October Revolution, was a big influence on me, Bill Evans, Miles Davis, Paul Bley and Ornette Coleman. I was very much influenced by American music per se.

Even today the inspirational energy coming from the States is still strong and evident; I’m convinced that this is still true for many European artists. I can never forget the great experiences when American bands came to Europe, I heard John Coltrane with McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones at the Deutsche Museum, it was the first time that I heard “My Favourite Things” … By the way, who was the impresario of Jazz at the Philharmonic?

Norman Granz

Norman Granz, yes, he brought all these bands over to Europe. He was regarded as an entrepreneur with a lot of business-skills and instincts – but after all, he brought the music!

And now you are meeting with success in the American market yourself, how did that come about?

Well, we were lucky to record with people like Paul Bley, Marion Brown, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Paul Motian, Dave Holland, Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell – I cannot name all of them. They made their first important recordings for us, so we had a good chance to be heard in America, and these musicians influenced a lot of players in Europe. Here we developed some musical ideas of our own with Jan Garbarek or Terje Rypdal especially, and formulated a differently shaded language of trans-cultural music. I wouldn’t say only European or only American, at this time everything was in motion, there was so much travelling back and forth. Gradually a new music started.

We are where we are in 2007. We are in an era of increasing technological change. How have these changes have affected your personal aesthetic to music and how have you reacted to these changes, from analogue to digital and now to MP3 files, to preserve what you hear in your mind’s ear?

These changes are significant indeed; especially MP 3 is obviously not in line with the quality of sound we produce. It’s a paradox – recording in the studio and the concert hall, we seek for the best and most differentiated sculptures of sound, truthful to the given music. And then … all the problems begin. However, talking about technical innovation, things are much more complicated than just comparing digital and analog. In the analog mode we had many limitations as far as distortion was concerned, so the digital change was welcomed by many audio engineers because it offered possibilities of widening the dynamic range. I still prefer the sound and the aesthetic results of the analog era, but at the same time we are able these days to develop some very good ideas and sounds with digital technology. It is not only bad or only good. The question is: what are we aiming for? So from time to time we have to decide what the difference really is and not just have an “opinion” about it. Let’s put it this way: Bach at the organ, admired by a pupil, once answered: “It’s just a matter of striking the notes at exactly the right moment.” That’s precisely it: let us place the microphones exactly at the right spot where they should be.

I guess what I was thinking of was whether you had an ideal sound and whether that ideal sound was analog and if so, whether you were trying to reproduce that sound in a digital format or are you using digital for what it is?

I grew up in the analog era and I was sharpening my ears and listening-capacities with analog in mind, including all the drawbacks which were also part of the reality – just think about the limitations of editing. But perhaps that wasn’t a limitation at all because it required a much higher awareness of the recorded material. We always had to ask ourselves if a certain edit is justified. Although, when new recording developments arrived, we were ready to try different microphones and microphone positions. Then, in the early 1970s, came the revolution of the Lexicon reverb, a very good musical instrument and a close friend of mine … Anyhow, time changes our perspectives. Think, for instance, of the legendary engineer Rudy Van Gelder. I remember the ideological debate about whether Blue Note was manifesting the “real” or a “manufactured” sound. It seems that at that time, all the musicians were playing into the same microphones. When they had to be moved once in a while, it is said Mr. Gelder only touched them with gloves. Now, in retrospect, everybody glorifies this time. I remember when we debated that in the 1960s, there was an ongoing discussion between well-known musicians that I met and later worked with about the merits of Blue Note, of Creed Taylor productions at Verve and CTI or the productions of Orrin Keepnews or Teo Macero whose work as a producer I always admired. Today, after all these years we tend to say that everything was supposedly “better” then. But if you want to keep alive a catalogue of almost 40 years you have to decide how you want to preserve the old tapes because you have to make them available to the listeners again.

Recently I had an experience with the so-called re-mastering. I was listening to a tape made in 1983, an analogue recording of a piano trio and the tape had degraded in these years because analogue tapes do change if they are not played now and again. They often lose treble and brilliance which is quite a natural effect, this material lives, it lives from within, so if you compare it to the “original” sound, you will have a different listening experience today, especially with the different converters used then and now. So, it’s not only a question of whether this is a better listening experience, it’s unavoidably a different one. If you really want to compare the two, you have to listen to both under the same circumstances.

Now we are in the age of music downloading, we are told that these days only two people in ten buy the music they are listening to, while nine out of ten people are interested in music.

People spend lots of money for concert tickets these days, but they seem to be unwilling to pay for recorded music. Many artists’ careers were very successfully driven by live recordings. Downloading cannot be an alternative, since the quality is so questionable. Here again you have the paradox that we are producing at 98 KHz and then the data is reduced to a minimum resolution [on downloading]. As we can’t abolish them, let’s hope that these formats will further improve. Differentiation is the key word. As an artist I think, I can only produce what I produce. We offer the original, we invite the public to listen to the original and live with it.

Young audiences don’t value the artefact in the same way as audiences did say 20 years ago – or even 10 years ago.

The LP cover has gone, this artifact is not there but many young people are still eager to seek out the best. If they can’t find it we have to be more diligent to make people know that these things are available. That’s also your function as a journalist, to draw attention to things of quality based on your reporting and philosophy and that’s a responsible job actually.

In one interview you called the ECM story “a personal journey with others,” and I was wondering if you could bottle memories in the same way as you can record musical performances, what your collection of bottled memories would be from your journey with ECM – what would you have on the shelf?

The joy, the inspiration and the struggle continue. Yet, I’m not looking through a glass darkly. In the beginning you might get the idea and then afterwards you think: can I realise it? It has always been a book of questions. “Above all summits is rest”, says Goethe in his beautiful line, but then, to continue in my own words, at a new level, all the questions start anew. It’s as if you are on a hill and you look over the landscape and say ‘Wonderful,’ but if you climb up to 2.000 metres you overlook a much wider panorama, and you see more clearly because the air is different, and your feelings and empathy are different.

Finally, you were born in 1943 and you are constantly in motion and in one magazine feature they said everything in the ECM world begins and ends with you. What will be the end after you have done your four score years and ten, where will ECM be then, what happen to it? Will it come to an end or will it continue? How do you see the future?

I hope we will be able to do what we do now. I think ECM has a wide and wonderful music collection that will always reside within me, without me, this is the biography of the musicians, of my self and the label. It is a documentation of nearly 40 years’ work. It’s one thing actually, and if we closed this chapter and someone else turns the page he will probably regard what is there with admiration and affinity. So I am in that sense a person who believes good things will survive. So many musicians have given their best and their first ideas to a new musical direction.

Thank you.

December 24, 2007 · 3 comments


A Conversation with Phil Schaap

by Andy Karp

Over the course of his extraordinary career in jazz, Phil Schaap has played many roles: radio host, nightclub promoter, record producer, researcher and educator. But the role that perhaps best defines Schaap—one he was seemingly born to play—is jazz griot. Like the West African griots, he is an oral historian dedicated to preserving culture and lore. Schaap has spent most of his 56 years absorbing stories and collecting information, often directly from the musicians themselves. He has amassed an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz eras and styles, particularly swing and bebop. His command of biographical and discographical information astounds even the most erudite jazz fans. Yet it’s Schaap’s talent for weaving this information into the context of American history and pop culture that makes him an exceptional teacher, both on the air and in the classroom.

For nearly 38 years, Schaap has been sharing his knowledge with the listeners of Columbia University’s WKCR-FM in New York. His long-running programs include “Traditions in Swing” and “Bird Flight—an all-Charlie Parker show—as well as marathon “birthday broadcasts” for Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Lester Young and others. Since the late ’70s, Schaap has maintained an academic career, teaching jazz at Rutgers, Princeton, Columbia and Juilliard.

      Phil Schaap

Much of Schaap’s educational efforts are now focused on Swing University, a program offered by Jazz at Lincoln Center, the high-profile New York cultural institution for which Wynton Marsalis serves as artistic director. One of the most popular courses is “Let Phil Schaap Make You a Jazz Expert in Eight Easy Lessons.” Schaap also teaches advanced classes on Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. Other faculty members include big band trumpet legend Joe Wilder, pianist-composer Dick Katz and jazz writer Ed Berger. spoke with Schaap recently about Swing U, his formative experiences in jazz, and his passion for preserving jazz history.

What was the impetus behind Swing University, and how did it evolve?

Actually, it’s just a crystallization of what I do, which is I train listeners, and try to enlighten and enlarge the jazz audience. The audience is an essential ingredient, and given the smallish size of the audience and it’s aging out, the replenishing of the audience is probably the most grave concern in jazz at this moment in time, in my estimation. I’m determined to do it, and Swing University is one of the primary avenues.

Where do you see new recruits to the jazz audience coming from?

Anywhere. Any and all are welcome. I obviously am working on younger people because there’s more bang for the buck. If you teach somebody who’s seventy five about jazz, unless they pass it on to somebody relatively speaking quickly, it’s a short-term gain. If you teach somebody who’s 20, it’s got much more potential. The number of people and the whole concept of music appreciation for jazz is really the issue. If you had music appreciation for jazz on any kind of grand scale, you’d probably be able to nurture at least a niche audience for a while.

How do you help younger students, who may be put off by the sound of old recordings, come to terms with swing and bebop?

Hopefully I have some facility, and other educators have some facility to help students grapple with the timelessness of the music. It’s not that we’re trying to get you to listen to arcane music. If recording had become operational in 1514, it would be a non-issue. The issue is an artistic one.

There’s also a sociological aspect. There’s a great deal of Americana involved in the story of jazz, and in fact I believe that post-Civil War to 1950s civil rights history is actually easier or better taught through jazz illustration than almost any other avenue allowed to you.

You’re uniquely qualified to teach Swing U. Growing up in the Hollis neighborhood in Queens, New York, you had jazz musicians such as Roy Eldridge and Lennie Tristano as neighbors. As a young person, what impression did that make on you?

Obviously, it’s my being. I got a no longer repeatable education in jazz because I learned from its originators. I grew up when the prophets were largely still alive and I profited from their being nice to me. My experience is profitable only by my being able to pass it along as it was passed on to me. Basically, I’m your medium. Jo Jones and I used to listen to records in the late afternoons when I was growing up. And he also demonstrated a way of listening to a record, how to study a recording.

Was he also a neighbor?

No, Jo wasn’t a neighbor. I met him when I was five years old when he and my mother chatted backstage at the Randall’s Island jazz festival in 1956 when the Count Basie band played. She implied or maybe said directly to him, “Well, that’s all well and good, but my little boy here knows more about it than I do.” He asked me some tough questions and I got them right, so he volunteered to be my “new baby sitter.”

Your dad, Walter Schaap, was involved in jazz in Paris in the pre-war years.

Yes, he was the translator for Delaunay and Panassié. [Charles Delaunay and Hugues Panassié were members of the Hot Club of France and published some of the first formal jazz criticism.] He was involved with jazz because it was the music of his generation. He got heavily got involved until he—being wiser than me—discovered there was no job in jazz.

Didn’t he know Sidney Bechet?

He knew him well, yes.

Did he know Django?

He was Django’s English teacher.


 Wynton Marsalis

Wynton Marsalis, artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, comments on the importance of Swing University and Phil Schaap.

What are the main goals of Swing University, and why is it integral to JALC's educational mission?

Education is a very significant aspect at what we do at Jazz at Lincoln Center – we have so many programs for people of all ages: WeBop! for the little kids, Essentially Ellington programs for the high school kids and for the bigger kids, a program called Swing University. Swing U gives adults the chance to learn about the history of this great American art form and to gain an appreciation of its many styles from master teachers who know and have performed the music at a world-class level. For example, you’ve got the legendary and award- winning pianist Dick Katz who teaches a class about Teddy Wilson and Thelonious Monk who Dick actually knew and worked with.

Swing U is a cornerstone of JALC's educational mission since it's an essential and unparalleled way to build an informed and enthusiastic audience for the music. For us to be able to teach the history of the music and then make it come to life in our concert halls and club is an opportunity to integrate all the things we do in a complete and holistic way. It’s been our mission to play, teach and love jazz.

How does Swing U benefit from Phil Schaap's extraordinary knowledge of jazz as well as his unique teaching talents?

What Phil Schaap brings to Swing U is an intimate familiarity with jazz and its makers and an ability to convey that knowledge and love of the music in a way that people find highly engaging. For students, the ability to learn from and talk to a walking encyclopedia of the history and lore of jazz is what makes Phil's classes so unique and so popular.

You are a living repository of jazz lore. How do the stories and anecdotes you’ve collected inform your teaching?

Students like stories better than rote learning. The stories are particularly important in a new field like jazz studies that relies more on pop culture than some more established fields of study. But the stories have to be secondary to the premises of the course you’re teaching.

I’ve been blessed. The reason I know a lot about jazz is that I was trained by the original jazz musicians. And I’ve got to train somebody with my training, and create some form of system, whether it’s writing books or creating at school. It’s got to be converted and now, because otherwise eventually I’ll be just as dead as Jo Jones currently is, and what difference does it make that I had an ice cream cone with him in 1956. It’s gone.

Do you see yourself primarily as a preservationist?

I’m a preservationist in this regard. Jazz music largely emerges in the 20th century. But it doesn’t just belong to the 20th century. I believe it’s an art deserving of continuity because of its quality. Regardless, if it emerged in 1614 or 2006, I would feel the same way. It’s defined by its artistic value.

Lester Young happened to play his best obbligatos and his most frequently recorded obbligatos to classic singing and even less-than classic singing in 1937, ’38, ’39 maybe and a couple of more ones in ’40 and ’41. But the real point is, Lester Young established a very important concept—how to accompany a singer—and illustrates through his recordings a way to do it. And if you’re unaware of the recordings and you’re unlucky enough to have to reinvent the wheel, how are you going to have it again? I have faith that this is of enduring value, and I am trying to be one of the facilitators of it being allowed to endure.

December 06, 2007 · 10 comments


Remembering Benny Carter

by arnold jay smith

The most beautiful thing I ever heard about a musician dealt with the late Benny Carter. He was at the bedside of the dean of jazz journalists, Leonard Feather. Each day as Leonard lay in a coma Benny played his alto sax for his friend. I can’t think of a more moving testimony to the compassion of this legendary musician, whom I eventually came to call friend.

      Benny Carter, Photo by Herb Snitzer

Benny played anything he laid his hands on, from piano to trumpet to alto sax. He also vocalized when so moved. He led bands of his own and ghosted others. He composed for the movies, sometimes with on-screen credit, and other times just for credits. Quincy Jones gives him all the credit for his own movie career. Benny was among the first African-Americans to write for Hollywood. And he was vocal about it, bringing others such as Q into the fold.

Naturally my first intro to him was via vinyl. To a neophyte jazzer it seemed his name was everywhere: playing on an album by the Chocolate Dandies; arranging and conducting the Basie Band; on Jazz At The Philharmonic sessions both formal and otherwise; the “Funky Blues” sessions with fellow saxophonists, altoists Charlie Parker and Johnny Hodges, tenors Ben Webster and Flip Phillips --quite a reed section that; making those house party-like sessions with Dizzy Gillespie; the recordings for Norman Granz's various labels Clef, Verve and Pablo; Montreux Jazz Festival all star jams.

Two particular favorite recordings recommended for fans: Further Definitions (Impulse!), which redefined section writing by showing that Benny never aged worth a damn. The front line boasts Benny and Phil Woods, altos, and Charlie Rouse and Coleman Hawkins, tenors. Jazz Giant (Contemporary/OJC) is a multifarious affair with Webster, Frank Rosolino, trombone, Leroy Vinnegar, bass, Barney Kessel, guitar, Andre Previn or Jimmy Rowles, piano, and Shelly Manne, drums. Benny blows alto and trumpet. I still use both CDs as examples in my jazz history classes.

But there was another side to Benny Carter, jazz giant. In addition to being a perfectionist not only about the music he wrote, who performed it and how, and what we called it, he was rather particular about who wrote about him and what we said.

I first became associated with Benny Carter in the late ‘70s via Elliot Horne, then handling publicity for RCA Records. Elliot virtually took me by the hand to Princeton University, where Benny was holding down a chair. In that august semicircle were Benny’s late biographer Morroe Berger and his teenage son Ed, now one of the people who makes the Rutgers Jazz Institute function. (An ongoing friendship has endured with him as well.)

Benny seemed to like the questions I asked. That informal relationship led to an interview for the antecedent of JazzTimes, Radio Free Jazz, headed by Washington, D.C. record store owner Ira Sabin. Benny and I met in his hotel room during a New York gig at Michael’s Pub, a noisome room remembered mostly for Woody Allen’s Monday night gigs. It was at Michael’s that our friendship was cemented.

The owner of the room fashioned himself a jet-setter who refused to silence his audiences and never dimmed the lights. At one point it seemed everyone in the front seats was noisily inattentive. So this neophyte loudmouth reporter stood up and shouted for them to “please listen to this man; he is trying to tell you something.” Gil Weist, the owner, noted neither for his tolerance nor his love for jazz musicians, was on his way to my banquet with fists clenched, jaws set and smoke coming out of his ears. Then two things happened: Benny said “thank you” from the stage, and John Hammond who had been sitting directly in front of us (I was Hammond’s guest) stood up and begin an ad hoc in-your-face lecture on the greatness of Benny Carter. Weist turned on his heels without missing a beat, and the show continued amid heightened interest in the artist.

Years went by. Benny and I exchanged telephone calls. There was a party for him at another defunct club, Carlos I, where a documentary on his life was being filmed, and our friendship blossomed. Some time later, when Gary Giddins and John Lewis formed the American Jazz Orchestra, a jazz repertory band, I was lucky enough to be asked to publicize their first event, a concert of Benny Carter’s music. This freshman journalist had become, for 15 minutes at least, a facet of Benny Carter’s history.

Birthday greetings phone calls became almost expected. The scene shifts now to the '90's -- by the calendar and also almost by Benny's age. I was working for jazz publicist-cum-author Peter Levinson. One of our accounts was a CD collection of Benny Carter compositions called Central City Sketches (Music Masters). Needless to say I began shouting the praises of that CD, as by this time Benny had become a household name in and out of jazz. I had a friend who was an editor and a jazz fan at The Wall Street Journal. Nat Hentoff was their regular jazz columnist, but I wanted a different approach with a higher profile. The Wall Street Journal does not often place jazz pieces on its front page. I asked for it, and got it!

We set up the live-by-phone interview with a crew at Benny’s California digs, feeding to New York. The reporter and I had gone over the fact that Benny does not like anyone interviewing him who has not done their homework on Benny Carter and his contributions. The reporter complied and right out of the box the Benny was asked about Central City Sketches and how he writes suites. Benny quietly said that he doesn’t write suites. “Fine,” the reporter goes on. “Can you tell me about your extended compositions?” Now Benny is somewhat agitated and replied again in the negative. End of interview. A publicist’s worst nightmare. I was never again able to get a Journal front page. The reporter and I barely spoke after that. Seems they went to some expense to get the placement. Benny and I joked about that many times. To me, however, it remains one of those moments I would love to have back, shouting, “do over!”

Years. Birthdays. Then Ken Burns Jazz which I scrutinized microscope-like, as I knew I was going to be asked to comment on his film. I am not a happy camper. Among the many flaps, there are only two mentions of Benny Carter, bookending the Swing Era.

Flash ahead and Peter Miller, one of the producers of “Jazz,” became a guest in my Jazz Insights series at the New School. Amid a heated discussion among my students came the query: "Why so little Benny Carter?" Miller said almost embarrassedly, “Some people interview better [for documentary television] than others.” I found out later that Benny gave mono-sentence answers to questions put to him by someone whom he perceived hadn’t done his homework. Déjà vu WSJ?

Benny at 90. He swore he wouldn’t work on that day. I called his home. Message said he’s in Europe, actually Scandinavia. Seems someone had an assignment to get hold of Benny Carter and researched it well enough to pique his interest.

December 06, 2007 · 0 comments


A Conversation with Stefon Harris

by Eugene Marlow

Stefon Harris has established himself as the leading vibraphonist of the younger generation through a series of exciting leader dates for the Blue Note label, as well as on high-profile sideman collaborations with Joshua Redman, Kenny Barron and Kurt Elling, among others. Harris recently sat down with's Eugene Marlow for a lengthy give-and-take on his development as an artist and the current state of jazz music.

I'd like to start by asking a couple of questions about your background, because everything I've looked at says nothing about where you came from, how you discovered your musicianship, etc., etc., can we get into that a little bit?

Oh, sure. No problem.

How did you get into vibes and marimba in the first place? Perhaps a better question might be when did you discover you were a musician?

It's interesting. I think I was always a musician. I can remember being a very small child and banging on pots and pans, and I remember watching cartoons and not really paying attention to the cartoon and just listening to the music. As a child I could sit and listen to A-tracks at the time, I could listen to them all day. I think there's something that was always inside of me that was leaning towards music.

Do you come from a musical family? Anyone else in your family a musician, composer, or player?

No. My older brother is a fairly talented player though, he played trumpet. But he's not a musician now, but it's clear he also has a love of music. He deejays.

Did you go to any special high school to study music or was it when you really went to the Manhattan School of Music that you started to study more seriously?

I went through the public schools in Albany, New York, in upstate New York. And there was a not-for-profit organization called the Empire State Youth Orchestra. That was really, really a fantastic opportunity for me to study with one of the greatest teachers in the world.

Which is?

Richard Albagli. he was my private teacher, I started studying with him when I was in about eighth grade. And it was only classical music. I hadn't really played any jazz at this point. And he just was an unbelievable musician and an incredible teacher who taught me a lot about music from the perspective of emotion, passion, and conviction, not just theory.

How did you graduate towards the vibes and marimba?

When I was about six or seven my family moved into an apartment, and someone left an old beat up piano behind in the apartment. And in the bench of the piano there were a bunch of books for kids. I remember taking those books and looking at the pictures, and I actually figured out all the notes on the piano from the book. So at a very young age, I taught myself how to read music. In second or third grade I was playing piano for the school choir, reading the music and playing the parts. So by the time I started taking lessons in about fourth grade in the public schools, I could already read stuff that was more advanced than the other students.

So, to keep me occupied the teachers would say, well why don't you try the clarinet. So I'd take the clarinet, and after a little while I'd be more advanced than the other clarinet students because I could read. So they'd say, try the trombone, try the flute, so I ended up playing all the band instruments. I played bassoon, trombone, French horn, terrible saxophone, horrible at trumpet, but I played most of the instruments in the band. Percussion just happened to be one of those ones that I came across. My true love is for the music itself and not necessarily for the instrument. It was really a fairly random decision to become a percussionist. I took an audition for the Empire State Youth Orchestra. I auditioned on clarinet and on percussion because those are my two strongest instruments. I got alternate on clarinet, and I was accepted as a percussionist. I could've been a clarinetist if it had gone the other way.

Did you go to marimba first and then the vibes? Which came first?

Definitely marimba first. I played a lot of classical literature on marimba. I didn't really start playing the vibraphone until college, when I really started to discover jazz and I heard Milt Jackson and Bobby Hutcherson, Lionel Hampton, people like that for the first time.

Was this at the Manhattan School of Music?

Actually I started at the Eastman School of Music.

In Rochester, New York?

Yes. Again as a classical major, and that's when I first really started hearing the great vibe players, the great saxophonists, like Charlie Parker and Joe Henderson. It was at that point and my freshman year, after getting bit by the bug of jazz music, I decided to leave Eastman and move to New York to be closer to jazz. I went to the Manhattan School of Music for the rest of my undergraduate.

Did you do a graduate degree at Manhattan as well?

I did. Actually, my undergraduate degree is in classical percussion because I didn't think I was really good enough to audition for the jazz program at the time. So my undergraduate degree is in classical and then I stuck around and did a graduate degree in jazz.

Can you recall the first time you ever heard something that was in a jazz vein?

Well I can't recall the very first time, but I can recall listening to Charlie Parker's “Now Is The Time” in my freshman year and having some other students there explain to me about how the chords were moving, how he's keeping track of the rhythm, and there was just this sense of spiritual liberation that I absolutely fell in love with. And it didn't take much to convince me. I found the music very spiritually exciting, but also intellectually challenging. The fact that you have to have such incredible ears to play this art form, I just was fascinated with that and decided to begin to study more seriously.

It's my impression the current generation of young jazz musicians, and even the previous generation of young jazz musicians have been more classically trained than previous generations, and that's made a difference in the music. Do you agree with that?

Well it depends on what type of difference. That's a tricky question. If you have a generation of people who have studied classical music primarily or before studying jazz, that's going to affect the music for better or for worse. So I would agree that it has had an affect. I think it's more about the institutionalization of the music than it is about studying classical music.

What do you mean by that?

Now there are a lot more jazz programs in schools than two generations ago. They didn't really have a lot of jazz programs in high school or colleges at that point. So people were learning directly from experience, from hanging out in the club back in the day, whether it was Birdland, or the Vanguard, maybe a younger musician who was hanging outside the club waiting to hear Charlie Parker or some situation like that. Whereas today there are programs, big bands in the high school, so kids are learning from a much more academic perspective.

I want to get ultimately to talk about your musical vision, but I have to ask this intervening question. How do you answer the apparent problem that there are all of these programs in high schools and colleges, and graduate degrees-- you can get PhD's and DMA's now in jazz music--but there are apparently fewer clubs, fewer people going to clubs, there are fewer people buying jazz CDs. It seems to have gone in contrary motion. How do you answer that?

Well, that would be a multifaceted answer. I don't think there's a simple answer to that. The first thing that comes to mind is just the basic principle of economics of supply and demand. Meaning, if the supply is too high, it kills the demand. I actually think that there are too many musicians right now, if there ever can be too many musicians. I think the market is somewhat flooded. And I think throughout the history of this music, you've always had big stars. And a big star creates a story, and a story creates a buzz, and it creates interest in a consumer. If a consumer walks into a situation and there's 150 new albums this week, usually it's overwhelming and they'll walk away. There's probably 200 other corporations trying to advertise something to them and trying to get them to spend their money. So I think that actually the supply is a little too high and that's hurting the demand.

Percussionist Bobby Sanabria is always complaining that he's training all these terrific musicians and there are no places for them to go really, except for a few of them maybe.

Right, I mean, you really have to tell a story. There has to be something special about you. And I would contend that many of these younger musicians are very, very special people and are very, very gifted musicians, but if the market is flooded in a manner in which you cannot hear that story heralded, then that's a problem for the consumer in terms of trying to decipher the masses of advertisements coming their way. I'm actually an advocate of top 40 or some variation of top 40 radio in jazz.

What does it take for a person to separate himself or herself from the mass of musicians out there?

Well, the main quality I would say is you have to be very perceptive. You have to be aware of the changing times, what's going on culturally, and then you have to find your strengths and weaknesses and understand how you fit into that big picture. How does your skill set, how is it applicable to what's going on right now? For myself, coming from a classical background I was able to be an outsider, which worked to my advantage in many ways, because I didn't grow up in the jazz culture. I remember going to the Vanguard in New York City for the first time, and thinking, “Wow, this is a basement” after having two or three years earlier played Mozart in these incredible halls at Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. So my whole perspective was very different.

I actually saw when I was in college that many of these jazz festivals were starting to lean more towards R & B and pop music. And then I saw that a lot of the classical festivals were starting to introduce jazz for the first time. So as my career developed, I tried to go that direction. I tried to go in the chamber music world, as opposed to hustling to get into the jazz circuit, which was really suffering and still is suffering to this day. I think a lot of my success at this point is because I have come at it from a different angle. And I learned a lot about what it takes to be in the chamber music world in terms of being able to tell a story, the importance of being able to give master classes and be articulate and explain what you do, and just understanding how to carry yourself in that circle I think has helped me considerably. And then also understanding that you have to tell a story, with every record that I make, there's a reason behind why I make the record and I put a lot of thought into it. And I share that story in the press when the record comes out, as opposed to saying “Oh, you know, these are some tunes that I just like and I decided to put them together.”

That's a natural segue to talk about your vision. I'm looking currently at two of your CDs and one of them is your earlier work, and the other is your latest CD. The first album is Black Action Figure, and then, of course, I've listened to African Tarantella. I've also heard you play live. The first time was at the Newport Jazz Festival for a gathering of jazz journalists. I think that was in 2000. Then of course I heard you last year at Iridium. I think you've done six CDs at this point.


There's a real evolution in terms of your approach or your style, or maybe just your feeling tone, but Black Action Figure is a lot edgier then African Tarantella. The latter seems a lot mellower, and perhaps even introspective. Is my perception correct, or has your vision of how the music should sound and how it should be played evolved in the last seven, eight years?

Well, absolutely, and one thing that, one principal that I try to stick to is that I don't want to make the same record twice. I try not to put out a lot of CDs --- not until I am really moved by something and I have great clarity that this is something I feel I need to document. Otherwise I won't make a record. So, each of my records I think has a very different sound, whereas you might say that Black Action Figure has a lot of edge, and when you go into The Grand Unification Theory, which is much more spiritual, or more of an intellectual component to it, and the arranging, and the conception of how it's structured. African Tarantella, is for me is a very reflective type of record actually. It's a record about the realization of cultural heritage in the music, and finding my space in the lineage of this art form. It's a record that documents the realization about how serious this music really is for me.

What do you mean by that?

Meaning it's not just fun. For me as a young African American I look at this art form and I really see that it's not just something that is an interesting science. It's a part of my cultural heritage, and is an incredible lineage I can look back to and find myself inspired by and see that the bar is set incredibly high, so it really gives me a great deal of motivation. I spent months just studying scores and getting inside Ellington and Strayhorn's mind as well as I could, and allowing that influence to come through me. But also being very clear that when we do play the music, it's not to imitate. I don't think the record sounds anything like it's 1942 or whatever the year was, I think it was made in '68, the New Orleans Suite. I think that when we do play it, we play it with our own experience, but there's a connection between what came before us and what's going on right now in the music.

How would you describe your vision musically as opposed to aesthetically or culturally?

My vision musically, I would say it's ever evolving. I would say that one of my greatest assets at this point is that I'm so young in this art form, that there's so little I know. Every time I turn the corner and see something new, it changes my world. In terms of a concrete vision that would be laid out that I would follow, until the day I pass, I don't have anything like that other than to say that I'm very open, and I want to learn, and I'm interested very much in the science of organized sound. I'm trying to get an understanding of how things are put together, and how that translates into emotion. But that's ever evolving. Right now I'm more inspired than I ever have been in my entire life.

Why is that do you think? Is it your age or have you hit the groove in terms of your acceptance of things outside yourself? How would you explain that?

I think it's about growth. I think it's about vision and understanding. Every year of my life has been an improvement from the previous. And this year is absolutely no exception. I've learned new things about harmony that I didn't understand before, that have become incredibly clear. And I have a strong path laid out to study and work really hard to gain a better understanding of this concept that I now have in my mind, which will definitely come out in the next record or two, there's no question about it. This is why I don't document a lot of records because now I have this vision in my head. I'm working on it, I'm writing a book on it, and as I get it into my playing, once it's there, and really strong, and I would feel it's worthy to be documented, then I would make a record.

Tell me about this book. What's this about?

It's a book about understanding harmony from the perspective of emotion and physical movement. Meaning that a chord is really a collection of emotions, and if you understand how two notes ring together and how they make you feel, that's how you learn to hear it. If I'm on the bandstand and someone plays a chord, I don't immediately think “Okay, that has the sharp 11 and the nine.” I don't translate into theory. The first thing I need to do is say how does it make me feel. Once I understand how it makes me feel, then I recognize how to create that feeling using notes.

For example, there are some notes that really make you grind your teeth that have a lot of tension, if you have like a flat nine interval. So, if there's a moment in the music where the emotion is building and building and it comes to a peak where it's just about to break, I know how to create that intensity. So it's not about thinking theoretically -- I have to have a sharp nine chord here -- it's more about the emotion. If the heavens are getting ready to open up and we're reaching out and it feels so strong, I know I can use a sharp nine with a sharp five on a dominant seven chord. I've been breaking down every chord type basically that I come across and try and identify how I relate to it emotionally. Why? The reason I'm doing this is I think the audience doesn't care about theory. The connection between the performer and the audience member is the emotion.

That's right.

When you play with love, when you play with fear, when you play with jealousy, people know it, they can feel it, and that's what they connect with. The most essential elements for me in my development at this point is to really understand how to translate these notes and tones into emotion.

You chose the words fear and jealousy, why did you choose those particular emotions?

Oh, because music is a very complex science that embodies all of our emotions. We all know fear and we all know jealousy. And we all know love, and we all know compassion, not always pretty words that come to mind. Sometimes you have to play with that, you have to be honest when you're on the bandstand, and you have to play, if you have fear, you have to play with that type of fear. And people will relate to it and they'll connect with it as long as it's honest. There's a certain level of honesty that is incredibly beautiful, and music is healing in that regard. It's healing for the performer. It's one of those times in life that's an example of that incredible dichotomy that exists between the structured society and when you get on the bandstand. There is no structure with regard to expression. You really just let go. Doesn't matter what you're supposed to say or what you're supposed to think, what's politically correct, you let go, you really have to be honest with yourself, and let it flow. And I think people really appreciate that.

This is the complete opposite of a lot of the music, particularly in the classical world, and to a certain degree I think in the jazz world, of music that was written intellectually. And in a way you could say that even bebop was a departure from emotional music to a more intellectual music. I'd like you to respond to that. Do you think that's correct? And two, are we looking at a new era of jazz music, where it's going to become more emotionally-based as opposed to intellectually-based?

Well, I can only speak from my perspective, I can't really speak for other musicians and to say that they're going to be playing more emotionally, I don't know that. I sincerely hope that would be the case, but we'll have to see. With regard to bebop, it was a manifestation of almost a concerto movement in the art form. It was about the virtuoso. And you can tell in the compositions, half the compositions were just heads that they wrote so that they could get to the improvisation. And that's an incredibly important movement, because it really took the art form to a level of virtuosity that no one could deny. And it allowed these musicians to be recognized and respected as the true geniuses they were. But like every art form, there are movements, and each movement represents a different element of the art form. I don't particularly want to play bebop, I study it, I learn from it, but that's a different era, it's a different sentiment, it's a different emotion than what I can relate to, because I didn't grow up in that time. I think it would be counter-productive for me to spend too much time trying to reiterate the sounds of the 40s and 50s. That's a losing battle. There's no way I could ever sound like Milt Jackson. And the opposite is probably true as well. Many of the older musicians would not be able to relate to what some of the younger musicians are doing now because of a different set of experiences.

So what kind of jazz era do you think we're in, or about to enter, or have entered?

Wow, it's really difficult to see when you're in the middle of it. But one thing I will say in terms of having some idea about where it's going. I do think that the idea that jazz is chamber music now and it's considered in the same realm as classical chamber music, is going to have a positive effect in terms of work, in terms of perception. Certainly the work that Wynton Marsalis has done over the years has helped to bring more financial credibility, to make it comfortable for people to donate money to the art form. I think the fact that there's so many institutions starting new programs every year, there's more and more money being fueled into the music. It seems to be going in a direction that's a little more institutional. Then I hope that what'll change is that many of these institutions will start bringing in practitioners to teach, because the practitioners are going to understand this emotional connection that we're talking about. They're going to really have a good sense of what the music is about and they'll pass the music on to the next generation in that manner.

Is this why you're on the advisory board of Chamber Music America because of your chamber music orientation?

That's certainly part of it. I also really believe in their mission and what they're doing to help out the field. But I like to be an active member of the community in general. I also do a lot of work with WBGO among other organizations, because I feel like as a musician we have a certain perspective that many others don't. We benefit from each other and if the voice of the artist is not present, sometimes the music can be looked at in too much of a business sense. And sometimes it's too touchy feely. Where the non-musician can be too sensitive about taking a stand on something. And I think it's important to take a stand on occasion to help determine, or to help have a clear observation of where the music is and what it needs.

I sincerely hope again, if there were one thing I would change in the field that I think could have a major impact, I really think a top 40 format in radio would help considerably. I think it would bring a connection back to the number of records sold and the amount of airplay. People are overwhelmed. They hear a song once they may say “I like that,” but half the time they don't get to hear what the song is. So if they hear it a couple of times, the second time they say, “Oh, I really liked it,” then they get to know what it is. Then they start to request it. Then maybe someone shows up at your concert and says, “I want to hear track number seven, that's my favorite song.” And then once you start that type of momentum, then maybe you could end up with a hit song. The other benefit of top 40 is that you would have one song being played consistently throughout the country. I'm also a big advocate of satellite radio because it does accomplish this. When you do that, then you potentially have a hit song which could end up in a movie, it could end up in television commercials, it could just expand way beyond the limited market that we're generally focused on in terms of the consumer.

It could have a life.

It can have a life of it's own. And when you look at the history of our industry, it has been that way. “Body and Soul” is a classic because it was a single, because “Body and Soul” was on every jukebox across the country, one song. It's a tough argument. It seems to be divided by generation ironically. A lot of younger musicians and younger people I think are on board with that type of thinking. But I find the older generations don't buy into that. That's one of those things I feel is going to be important in terms of the momentum of this music, because it also makes it more competitive, and you hear fewer musicians. The market is flooded right now. I think you should only hear a few musicians on the radio. They should be the greatest musicians in the world played on the radio and that's it. If you get a song played on the radio, you should be dancing in the streets celebrating because it was so hard to get there. And for a musician like myself, if I'm not good enough to get on the radio, if my stuff's not getting played, I'm going to practice ten times harder because I'm driven and I want to get on the radio, which is going to make me that much better a musician, which is going to raise the level of the field overall.

Is there anything that you'd like to say about what you do that I haven't asked you?

The only thing I would say is that I'm a huge fan of this art form. I really do think it is one of our greatest contributions to the world. I really think it is incredible. It is one of the very, very few art forms that is truly, honestly democratic. And it's filled with love, and compassion, and fear, and hatred, all of those elements are present in the music. It's incredibly holistic, and a very, very honest art form. And it is a really special thing to experience live, a big part of the truth in this music is something you have to see live.

You use the intellect to expand on the emotionality of the music, not the other way around.

Right. I have another one of those mantras that I have written upstairs on my music stand. I think creativity is overrated. I really do think it is. I think it's much more about individualism than it is about creativity. Isn't it about individual creativity?

Well there's a difference. When you say that I created this there's an ego element that's present there. That means I took A, B, and C, and I switched the order and created C, B, A, and therefore this is my creation. Whereas the way I look at music, it's more about discovering. That the truth about who you are, the way you're going to play is already inside of you, all you have to do is learn the theory and the harmony so that you can express that which already exists. So, the perspective is more about discovering the music than it is about creating.

And it's more about being the individual that you are, not about creating a new voice, creating my own sound. It's more about discovering your sound, when you listen to the tone that certain people get. When you listen to Dexter Gordon’s voice and you listen to the way he played, is there any other way he could've sounded? There seems to be a direct connection to the way people walk, to the foods they eat, the way they dress, and what they express in music. So many times the over-emphasis on creativity, particularly at the college level, you end up with people who come up with creative things, but they're not substantive. They're not quality. You can have something that's very creative, but does that mean it's good? We need more cultural authenticity, more so than creativity. We need people to tell the story of whatever it is their culture is. Because once you tell the story of your true culture, there are other people like you who are not musicians, who are doctors, who are storekeepers, or what have you, who come from your culture, who will hear a bit of themselves in the music and take ownership in it.

That's beautiful. That is a quote. That's a headline, and I totally agree with you. It's about authenticity. I wouldn't say cultural authenticity, although collectively that's what it is. But it's about individual authenticity and being who you are, and true to yourself. I think that's what you're saying. Is that correct?

Absolutely. I mean, when I say cultural authenticity, I think it's inevitable that there are people like you. So even if you're thinking individually, you're not the only person on the planet who thinks that one way. There is always going to be a group of people who can relate to any one idea I believe. It's a tough path to walk but it's a beautiful one, and I think it's the true gift of art, and why art is significant for children. It's not just about understanding theory; it's about unlocking the potential that's inside of someone. Helping someone discover who they really are and that journey inward. Once you get off of that, then it becomes more of, I don't know, is it art for the sake of math or, I don't know.

I always ask myself the question, why should someone like what I do? And when I go to see pop concerts now, I understand why a lot of people like pop concerts, there are some that I like, one thing, I can think of Alicia Keyes for example, I saw her perform. And I thought that she gave everything she possibly could. I cannot believe that she sings like that every night. This is not about the quality or the technique or the pitch or anything of that nature, it's about the soul, about the feeling of really giving everything you possibly can. Just like a great athlete, like Michael Jordan, why is he so significant? He's significant because he expanded the potential of the human body, of the human spirit. He did things with this physical capsule that no one had ever done before. And I think musicians are supposed to fit into a similar space. We're supposed to do things with sound that no one's ever done, we're supposed to push it so far, to be so honest to give as much as we can of ourselves so that people are overwhelmed. That's what I feel when I listen to Miles Davis, when I hear John Coltrane, or Louis Armstrong, I mean it's overwhelming for me the level of honesty. I always say cultural authenticity because that's what it sounds like to me. When I hear John Coltrane I don't hear the individual, I hear that political climate he lived in, I hear that region of the world he lived in, I hear the fashion, the clothing. When you hear Bird, you hear the slickness of a zoot suit, or whatever it may be. And then hear someone like Cecil Taylor or something totally different. You can imagine the way he might dress, and the mentality he may have based on the sound. Very honest.

This interview could turn into a series. Stefon Harris, thank you very much.

Stefon Harris’s web site is and is part of the JazzCorner community of hundreds of official jazz web sites and more.

December 01, 2007 · 1 comment