When The Bad Plus’s major label debut These are the Vistas was released in 2003, it stirred up debate that few new releases in jazz had done for some while. After the renascent 1990s, when strictures of what jazz was and what it wasn’t had filled the air, playing by the rule book had, in general, become the status quo in jazz. So the arrival of The Bad Plus was a bit of a culture shock.
Here was a band—Ethan Iverson on piano, Reid Anderson on bass and Dave King on drums—who since their formation in 2000 had worked on creating a very specific group identity, described by Dave King in The New York Times as, “white-noise atmosphere, all the instruments colliding, very calamity-driven, chaos-theory stuff.” Seeming to cock-a-snoot at current jazz proprietary, this band’s music, often loud, complex and rhythmic, succeeded in inducing involuntary facial tics among listeners of a more temperate disposition.
Some critics wanted to stab them to death with their pens, yet the band’s off-the-wall abandon, artful deconstruction of staples from popular culture and cohesive group sound soon won them infinitely more friends than enemies. For a start, The Bad Plus's music sounded as if it had been recorded in 2003 and not 1963, and even pop critics, who had long despaired of jazz, were won over. “A spectacular collection of songs that doesn’t require a user’s manual to captivate you,” said Esquire magazine.
Certainly the use of songs by the likes of Kurt Cobain, Blondie and Aphex Twin on that first album helped The Bad Plus’s case in extending their appeal beyond the usual jazz constituency. This undoubtedly irked some critics to whom playing “covers” from popular culture represented something of a betrayal, and many failed to acknowledge the detailed, ingenious and often inspired re-workings, conjured-up by the trio, which often sounded like different compositions entirely.
The Bad Plus quickly realised that one of the problems of covering songs from popular culture is the memory of a song’s original performance is often difficult to disentangle from the song itself. It’s the performance that achieves an autonomous character and not the song. Yet The Bad Plus succeeded in making the songs sound their own, thus forcing listeners to consider them afresh. This of course is what jazz musicians have long done during the music’s productive relationship with popular culture—most of us do not think of Julie Andrews when listening to Coltrane’s 1961 version of “My Favourite Things” or Cyndi Lauper when listening to Davis’ 1984 version of “Time After Time,” for example.
As the original controversy the surrounded the group gradually subsided, the band became a popular draw at festivals across the US and Europe. After last year’s Prog, described by Billboard as “easily the most likeable and listenable jazz album of 2007,” the trio wanted to try some new ideas and broaden their musical concept. So for their next album they decided to continue reworking contemporary songs, but this time clarify them with a voice. They also had the idea of taking compositions from the classical canon and seeing what they could do with them. Both approaches suggested great potential, but both came loaded with problems of conception as much as execution. Here, with the release of For All I Care, the trio discuss the challenges of launching out in fresh directions and the concepts behind them.
So, new approaches for the new album, tell us about them.
Reid Anderson: This being our sixth album, we really have been thinking for a while about changing things up a bit for ourselves and friends of The Bad Plus, and what would be the next logical step for us. I think we are essentially a band that is about songs. Whether it’s other people’s or our own, we’re always thinking of things in terms of songs and it became pretty obvious to us that we should use a singer for the next record. That is the next logical step. So the challenge became who are we going to do it with? We discussed it quite a bit throwing around the idea of maybe someone who is well known or maybe ask somebody who is famous to do it, but then it seemed to us we needed somebody to work with us within the parameters of what the Bad Plus is.
Dave King: Even though we had been this city unto ourselves, we began to talk about what would make most sense in terms of a real departure and that was to bring a singer into record. We had also thought of a guitar or whatever but we didn’t want the music to take this turn sonically. We’re just into this idea of the three of us, this trio and what we’ve been able to do with it. And we felt a singer was a way to go and I knew this singer Wendy Lewis who I worked with in Minneapolis several years ago. She’s incredible, more than ensemble player, she’s not like a diva ‘up front’ type thing. She’s much more this person who can deal with really progressive music, she had bands of her own that I worked with that were always dealing in weird time signatures and stuff. She wasn’t a ‘jazzy’ jazz singer, someone who was going to come in and have that type of mentality that the vocal was to be supported at all times in a polite manner, she was much more experimental, almost like a P. J. Harvey-type character, and we ended up talking about it last summer  and she was really interested.
Bringing a singer into your own private world of a trio must have been a challenge, because on the album, Wendy Lewis actually sounds if she’s a life-long member of The Bad Plus in the way she doesn’t blur the identity of the group, but becomes a part of it.
DK: I’m very glad you’re hearing that, because that was worked on, that was thought about, and she came in and delivered exactly what we wanted. We arranged the music together, it took a long time. We worked on the music when we were on tour, and we’d hook up a rehearsal studio when we were in New York and fly her out from Minneapolis, talk about each line! Literally some of the rhythms underneath her—we really worked at these poly-rhythms under her vocal, we were really trying to come at it from all these places, some new music, some old music, some country music, some rock, and do it with the same energy. She’s incredible, amazing.
RA: She not there to ‘be the singer’ and be the focal point. She there’s to deliver the song along with us, and we’re thrilled it’s worked out this way, that we still get to be The Bad Plus and there happens to be a voice singing these songs with us.
DK: I just feel that the sound of The Bad Plus is intact, it’s not as if we’re backing some singer, like we got some star or something like that. Every piece, there’s all these elements of improvising and all these things, and she is much more a part of the ensemble as an instrument more than anything and she really worked at that.
Ethan Iverson: We’ve been careful since the beginning to insist on a band identity, and Wendy is a great a pop singer, she came from Minnesota, and was someone who was happy to fit in with The Bad Plus.
I understand you’ve already worked with her on a two live gigs, how did they work out?
EI: We played at North Sea and the Rochester Jazz Festival. They were very successful gigs and our audience appreciated the addition of Wendy. We’re a very tight unit, making records just the three of us and it seemed time to try another element and it couldn’t have worked out better, I don’t think.
DK: She just went over great. She is like another instrument, she’s not standing out in front of us, she’s not this gargantuan personality; she’s got this intense, compressed energy. It’s like this Tom Waits character. She wears this pork-pie hat, not this traditional big dressed, long haired diva coming out. She’s a band member, one of the guys. She positions by the drums and the bass and just goes for it and people were just like, what??? It was so beautiful to have that kind of reaction we did, just to test the waters for touring and both times receiving standing ovations. It’s just been really beautiful. People accepting that it is a natural part of our evolution
It is interesting to reflect how many set jazz ensembles have tried the idea of bringing a vocal into their tightly knit little world, going right back the Benny Goodman Quartet in the 1930s on a live broadcast with Martha Tilton, or Bob Dorough with Miles Davis singing ‘Blue Christmas,’ Johnny Hartman with John Coltrane . . .
RA: That John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman album is one of our favourite records of all time and I think that’s some of the best paying from the Coltrane quartet. There’s something about a band with a saxophone playing songs that makes them more powerful. So often it’s just the back-up to a singer, but with John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman it’s the whole thing.
I think that since the conception of the trio we haven’t felt like playing the Great American Songbook. It doesn’t feel necessary to us to do another version of that music that in a way—it’s not the sound of our life experience, as much as we love all that music. It’s just something that’s been done. As fans of the music, we’re not attracted to hearing yet another version of “Round About Midnight,” you know? It feels more important to us, based on who we are and where we come from and the time we’re living in to try to bring the elements of who we are together and those elements include contemporary rock and pop music, those songs we’ve heard on the radio growing up or hear on the radio now, things that are in the popular consciousness of today. Because we care about the music, and we’re all pretty deep, we come out of a deep exploration of the jazz tradition, each one of us. But it feels like the jazz tradition doesn’t reach the heart of the contemporary person in quite the way I personally would like it to.
DK: I think there’s so much music out there that can be re-arranged and improvised with that will connect with people, which was the whole purpose of playing standards originally, which of course we have done in our lives and even done in the band. We just feel there is something to [playing contemporary pop songs], and we have some strange chemistry with this. and we feel it is a valid thing to work with and improvise with. And it’s a challenge, it’s a real artistic challenge. There’s no other reason to do it. It isn’t ‘big money’ music. We’re riding around in vans, we’re up at five o’clock in the morning, it’s not a joke. We can’t believe someone wrote that it was funny to do a Wilco song. I’m glad I spend 150 days a year away from my children for a joke, do you know what I mean?
We can understand there is humor, but there is humor in all drama. Ultimately we’re not focused on the humor element. If you want to pull what you want from it, you can. It’s a very disturbing attitude that [people feel] playing anything other than the Great American Songbook is deemed ironic, you know what I mean? We just feel that if you’re a modern musician you have to deal with all kinds of music. We’re doing it alongside Nirvana and Pink Floyd with the same intensity, the energy doesn’t change from piece to piece. Even with this Hearts tune ‘Barracuda,’ that’s really on the line for a lot of people. That’s this rock radio staple, the intensity is complex, the emotion is complex, we’ve added all this stuff to it, and we’re doing it earnestly even though it’s this driving-around-in-your-car rock. It’s like we’re trying to create a more complex base. It’s hard to describe, it’s complex emotions, it’s not just sitting there and going tra-da, ‘a piano trio that jams on a Hearts song.’ That’s such an easy way out! There’s some very serious intent in trying to get some new emotion out of that music, you know?
RA: If I may also add to that, part of the jazz tradition is to keep exploring and looking for new songs to play. When John Coltrane did “My Favorite Things,” that wasn’t a part of the standard songbook at the time. It’s a song that if John Coltrane hadn’t done it you might want to say it’s a silly song, who’d want to do that? But the fact is that he decided to do that song and did it the way it did it became a completely different thing and when you hear John Coltrane playing “My Favorite Things” it’s completely transformed it into something else. There’s a meta text occurring there, and I think the criticisms of ‘abandoning the American Popular Songbook’ or whatever you want to call it, they are separated from the historical reality of what jazz musicians have always done. Why should we, because we’re living now in 2008, why should we be denied the freedom of choice to play music that is more contemporary and meaningful to us?
I was very impressed by your approach to the classical pieces, just four of them, which are like ‘instrumentals’ in the way they nicely contrast with the pieces that include Wendy. Can you tell us a little about your approach to these pieces?
EI: The Bad Plus has always been interested in extremes, and that whatever it was to take it seriously and push it as far as it would go. In a way Ligeti and Wilco are opposite extremes, if you will. There’s not a whole lot of harmony based improvising in the classical pieces. We tried to play them clearly and well with drums. The idea of combining jazz and classical music has been around for a long time, although the stuff from the 1950s doesn’t hold up today because of the improvisation, and the classical music didn’t have the abandon and there was something there that didn’t take off, so our solution was just to play the music, the classical music, and add some great drumming and see what that sounds like. To us it sounds like a piece of great modern electronica. It certainly isn’t our intention to play a head on Stravinsky and then blow on it like bebop, our intention is to play Stravinsky well.
It certainly comes off well on the record, the freedom of the rhythmic approach especially.
EI: I think it’s the way to go. We’re interested in The Bad Plus having each piece, Stravinsky, our own pieces, a rock cover—it should make sense as a song, have organic unity. There are still incredible straight-ahead players around today who play a short melody and there are eight minutes of improvisation, which is still valid in my opinion, but what we’re not trying to do that, however. We have a song and there is improvising in it.
DK: While we were working on the contemporary classical, we were trying to do something that again we felt were things you don’t hear that often, more unprecedented—the idea of a jazz trio playing Milton Babbit, playing Gyorgy Ligeti playing Igor Stravinsky, doing it with these progressive rhythm elements and playing the exact arrangements with no improvising.
Yet these more abstract classical pieces seem to perfectly compliment the rest of the album, the songs with Wendy Lewis.
RA: Exactly, and that fits in with our collective aesthetic, the belief these musics do not need to have a dividing line between them. Ligeti and the Bee Gees can exist on the same CD and make sense—it makes complete sense to us anyway! Also, we like to keep ourselves sharp, facing down contemporary classical and figuring how to do that within the parameters of what we do, it’s a challenge. Playing Ligeti is some work. Every time we played it, it really exhilarated me, it’s this thing where you hold on for dear life until you get to the end.
A nice note on which to end on, thanks guys.
October 28, 2008 · 0 commentsTags:
By Tomas Peña
Congratulations on the release of El Alquimista / The Alchemist, a superb recording.
Thank you so much.
Tenor saxophonist, David Sanchez really shines on this recording. Has he been a mentor to you?
Definitely! He started playing jazz much earlier than I. When I was in the military my father told me that he saw an article about David in the newspaper. David doesn’t know it, but that was what motivated me to pick up my trumpet again. Also, I attended Rutgers University on David’s advice.
Given the fact that you are the son of the late Pete "El Conde" Rodriguez, I assume that you grew up in a musical environment.
My father listened to a lot of Cuban music so I grew up listening to a lot of rumbas, Miguelito Cuni and Beny Moré, who was my dad’s mentor. He actually performed with Beny when he visited New York. He was a different kind of band leader and one of the nicest people I have ever met. The band members hung out in our apartment, it was a great environment to grow up in.
Did your father encourage you to pursue a career in music?
He never told me to pursue a career in music but it fell into my hands.
You sing as well.
I used to sing in the house. Do you know that my father never took a voice lesson? He just sang from the heart. I don’t know how he did it; he had such great tonality.
Did your father like jazz?
He respected jazz but he was into his own thing. He liked Miles and Monk. He told me that he used to see Monk walking down Amsterdam Avenue, staring at the sky. He had a lot of respect for Monk. He also saw Dizzy Gillespie back in the day.
Typical Monk! You began your musical career at the age of eleven.
As a child I used to play the maracas but it was just for fun. It wasn’t until we moved to Puerto Rico and I attended the Escuela Libre de Musica that my musical career really began. Being there was like being in music heaven.
It’s a very prestigious school.
You had to test to get in. We had free trumpet lessons every week, played in bands and were taught music theory from the seventh grade on and everything was free! My father wasn’t making tons of money; people often confuse big names with big money.
As I understand it, your father never received the recognition he deserved.
There are a few musicians from my father’s era who did well for themselves …
Unfortunately it’s more the exception than the rule. Nevertheless your father was a class-act, a gifted sonero, excellent dancer and a sharp cat!
That was that whole era; even the jazz artists were sharp dressers.
After Puerto Rico you attended the Manhattan School of Music on a full scholarship.
Yes, I had a full ride there but things didn’t go as planned and I joined the U.S. Army in 1988.
After your discharge you attended the jazz program at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
A few days after my discharge I was a freshman at Rutgers! Two months later trumpeter, Charlie Sepulveda called me and told me that Eddie Palmieri was looking for a lead singer. I thought he was messing me with me because he is such a prankster, but he was serious. Prior to that I had never sung but I went to the audition and got the gig! Afterwards, José Clausell gave me a cassette tape with eleven tunes to memorize. Our first gig was in Venezuela, and to make a long story short, the only rehearsal that we had was a sound check. So my first gig as a vocalist was with no rehearsal and no experience!
How did you make out?
All things considered, I did a great job. I was singing tunes that Lalo Rodriguez and Ismael Quintana made famous with no prior experience! I was with Eddie’s band for about two years; it was like being in heaven.
Did you ever play the trumpet in Eddie’s band?
I alternated sets with La India. When she came on I played trumpet and sang coro (chorus). Touring with that band was great experience because I had a lot of mentors: Richie Flores, David Sanchez, Brian Lynch, who gave me my first trumpet lesson, Conrad Herwig and Jimmy Bosch, one of my favorite trombone players, and Juancito Torres, he was another mentor.
Did you ever record with Eddie?
Not as a lead vocalist. However, my dad and I participated in La India’s first recording, Llego La India via Eddie Palmieri (1996, RMM Records). My father played the guiro and I played the maracas.
What prompted your interest in jazz?
When I was in the military I was a member of the Army band. I remember watching the lead saxophone player and thinking to myself, “This is a lot more fun than playing classical music.” Then I started buying CD’s. The first CD I bought was John Coltrane’s Giant Steps. When I heard it for the first time, I thought to myself, “I have to sound like that?” I didn’t even know anything about chord changes.
At the time I was in the military and dealing with Desert Storm and Rutgers was the only university that accepted auditions on tape. So I sent Rutgers a tape and they accepted me. Then I got discharged, took my entrance exams, and before I knew it I was in school full-time.
Rutgers is where your jazz education took flight.
It was intense, because I was 22 or 23 years old and I was really behind. I was classically trained and had absolutely no foundation in jazz. I took some okay solos and I played from the heart, but when it came to the chord changes I was terrible.
Who mentored you at Rutgers?
In school it was Ted Dunbar and Kenny Barron; in the street it was David Sanchez, Charlie Sepulveda and Brian Lynch.
What year was that?
Eventually you started sitting in with groups and gigging around town.
I started gigging in downtown New Brunswick. Believe it or not, I started out in the mess hall and in downtown cafes.
It’s a great way to hone your chops.
Then I got a gig at a big Pizza Hut. They didn’t pay us but they let us keep whatever we made at the door. We charged $3 per person and promoted the heck out of it. On some nights we made $50 a man! Also, I used to come to New York and perform at the 55 Bar.
At what point did you start performing with more prominent artists?
In 2000 I performed with Carlos “Patato” Valdese’s band. That was a jazz gig and it was a lot of fun. At the same time I was the musical director for my father’s band. I also played the trumpet and sang coro with my sister, Cita. My father’s band was killin’!
You and your sister recorded an album with your father.
Generaciones (Generations). It’s a great album.
Who else did you perform with?
I was doing a lot of different things. I was a background vocalist for Johnny Rivera, Frankie Negron and La India.
You also toured with Bebo Valdés?
That was in 2005. The funny thing is how I got the gig. I called trombonist, Louis Bonilla and told him that I wanted to check out the Mingus Big Band and he told me that Bebo was looking for a trumpet player. At first, I thought he was pulling my leg, but it turned out to be true and I got the gig. That’s the gig that got me back into the jazz scene. When my father died in 2000, I was so depressed that I stopped playing the trumpet for three years, so that was a very important gig. From there I moved to Texas and I started working on my Doctorate’s Degree.
In 2006 you recorded Mind Trip, your first recording as a leader. By all accounts it was well received. Your former mentor, Kenny Barron described you as, “An amazing composer.” What were your thoughts as you created your first project?
I was just trying to put out a CD. Prior to that I kept telling myself, “I am not ready, I am not ready.” So I wanted to overcome that and put out a record because I needed something to generate work. All of the band members were professors at the university and colleagues so the project was very inexpensive. I actually turned a profit! And it was a great way to document where I was (musically) at the time. What’s interesting about the recording is that we did a two hour rehearsal and went right into the studio. The majority of the tracks are first takes. It’s the next best thing to listening to the group live.
Most of the tunes are original compositions.
All except for two tunes: Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance” and Coltrane’s, “Soul Eyes.”
What’s the jazz scene like in Austin, Texas?
There’s a good jazz scene there. When I first showed up I told myself that I was going to concentrate on my jazz career. I really believe that if you ask the universe for what you want you will get it, so I started doing local gigs and getting myself in shape. I performed a lot at a venue called the Elephant Room; it was Austin’s Village Vanguard. In 2006 I performed 67 local gigs.
In December of 2007 you moved to New Jersey. What have you been up to since then?
My wife and I started a record label and we used the money I made from Mind Trip to make La Alquimista. I also released Triangulum with saxophonist Paul White and drummer Rob Kazenel.
Let’s talk about the repertoire for El Alquimista.
All the songs have a history. The suite is dedicated to the university where I worked. If you look at the titles, “Who Do I Trust?” “Patience,” etc, it tells a story. Enough said! "El Indio" is dedicated to my dog that passed away. He was a 120 pound bull mastiff who acted like a human being.
I read that (the tune) "Scorpion" has an interesting back story.
Believe it or not, I was practicing in front of my fireplace and a scorpion crawled into my jeans and bit me! Thankfully, the bite was not poisonous.
"Por Si las Moscas, Roberto." That's an odd title.
The tune is based on the chord changes of Miles Davis’s "Solar." A friend described it as "Solar" on acid!
What about “Shambala”?
It’s about inner peace and starting over. "El Alquimista" is a tune I wrote about fifteen years ago. The title comes from the book, The Alchemist by Paul Cohelo. It’s the story of a man who travels around the world in search of himself, only to find that he is back where he started
Yes! But I had to go through everything I went through to be where I am today. In hindsight, not playing the trumpet for three years is the best thing that ever happened to me. At the time I didn’t think I would ever pick up a horn again. I was so convinced that I would never play again, that I sold most of my instruments.
To hear you play, one would never know it.
A lot of people think I am just a singer, or that I play salsa jazz. When I was in the salsa scene I wasn’t considered to be a good trumpet player because I don’t play like a salsero. I played more like my mentors, Freddie Hubbard and Booker Little.
How’s the recording doing thus far?
It’s doing well, I am really excited.
Is there a CD Release Party and future performances in the works?
I would like to have my CD Release Party at the Jazz Gallery, I am working on it.
Good choice, the Jazz Gallery is one of my favorite venues. Good luck! I hope to see you there.
Thank you, Tomas.
October 25, 2008 · 2 commentsTags:
By Ted Panken
Few musicians under 40, let alone hardcore jazz guitarists under 40, project a more immediately identifiable—or more broadly influential—tonal personality than Kurt Rosenwinkel, whose most recent recording, the self-released The Remedy (Artist Share), documents a spring 2006 Village Vanguard engagement by Rosenwinkel’s quintet.
Born October 28, 1970 in Philadelphia and raised in the City of Brotherly Love, Rosenwinkel spent three years at Boston’s Berklee School of Music, and moved to Brooklyn in the early ‘90s. As the decade progressed, using the Greenwich Village club Smalls as a base of operations from which to do research-and-development, he developed his idiosyncratic concept, one blending an original, virtuosic approach to navigating the guitar and an efflorescent compositional imagination.
In 2003, Rosenwinkel emigrated to Zurich to assume a teaching position, moving to Berlin in 2007 for a tenured professorship at the Jazz Institut. No longer a taken-for-granted “local,” his New York performances are now major events, as evidenced by the large turnouts at the Village Vanguard during his week there last March in conjunction with the release of The Remedy , and at Smalls during a two-night August engagement with a nascent cooperative quartet featuring pianist Aaron Parks. We caught up with Rosenwinkel during the latter visit.
Let’s talk about the dynamics of doing a studio recording vis-a-vis a live one.
The first thing that comes to mind about the difference between the two is that when you’re recording in the studio you know that you can stop and start again. I always thought of my studio records as an opportunity to craft compositions, and there’s this idea that you can perfect or improve the song as part of the process of recording. You know that you can do a better take, that it’s possible to play it again and maybe do it better, so you can make the real mistake of stopping. Of course, live, you don’t think in those terms. You start, this is the moment, and you’re sharing that moment, no matter what happens, with not only yourself and the musicians, but a whole audience as well. The most important aspect about what you’re doing is the fact that you’re sharing a moment with everybody there at that moment, in real time. Also, I have a more visceral connection with the sound, because I’m not using headphones. I guess you could say the contexts produce a different psychology or frame of mind; you get different results or can reach different places. One thing that happens to me when I’m playing live is a kind of disappearance or immersion. Somehow that kind of disappearance allows me to fly more, almost like I’m flying on the wings of the audience.
That being said, I love recorded music. I love the fact that you can make something that you can just put on and press “play’ and there it is. It’s important to me to create recorded music, because that’s what’s going to be there after I’m gone, and it documents what I’m creating as an artist. That’s the end product. A live concert is in the moment, and that is its own thing. But ultimately, the recordings are going to be there.
Were you conscious of the fact that you were recording while you were on the bandstand at the Village Vanguard?
Right around that time, I heard about another live recording that a band made in New York—they were somewhere for a week. The approach they took was to do the studio mentality live. In other words, they would play a song several times and edit down the solo forms to make it more concise and put out that concentrated, direct message. From talking to the musicians who were involved, it seemed like a very difficult and conflicted thing, because it ran against the grain of what they normally would do live. It was interesting for me to hear this then, because I’d already had the idea—and this really reinforced it—that I wanted not to change anything at all for the purposes of recording. I decided that we were going to record the gig, but we weren’t there to make a record.
So you were documenting, but without an end goal in mind, as it were.
That’s right. That gave us the freedom to not have to think about the recording.
What position in the week does this recording represent?
All of the songs on the record come from either Thursday night or Saturday night, and we recorded Thursday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday. I listened to everything, and just picked the best stuff.
How has your Artist Share experience been? Have you made back your investment?
We haven’t really sold all that many records, so there’s a lot more to sell, and we still have almost recouped. Already at this point, we’re safe in the investment, so we can continue to reinvest and make more records along the same model with little tweaks here and there.
The one thing that we discovered is that I think we need European retail distribution. Most of our sales through the Internet have been in the United States, because that’s the only way we released it. I think that model is good for the United States, but Europe has not caught onto it as much. People in Europe are still mostly buying their music in retail stores. That’s what I’ve seen in my own sales, and that’s the gist I get from talking to people in the industry.
Well, you’ve been living in Europe since the end of 2003—first Zurich and now with a tenured university position in Berlin. It’s a much different environment than the immersive musical culture of New York City, where you developed your sound and ideas over six years of weekly gigs at Smalls. What effect, if any, has life abroad had on your musical production? In what ways is it different? In what ways is there continuity?
One difference is no longer being a part of trying to “make it” in the music business in the States. When I was here, trying to get my career happening and get my thing together business-wise, booking agents would come down to the gigs at Smalls. One guy was a representative from a big West Coast booking agency, and he sent this email that said, “I absolutely loved Kurt’s music; I think he’s brilliant,” blah-blah-blah, “but I just can’t see how we can help him or work with him because I don’t know what category this music is.” He was like, “unfortunately, Kurt falls in between” these two categories that he mentioned, that existed for him, and therefore, I was useless to his business world. I felt this kind of attitude present itself in a lot of different ways when I was here. Getting away from that, and deciding that I’m not interested in being involved with it has been a relief. I can do what I want, and whatever happens, it’s okay. I don’t have to fit into any categories. If somebody can’t figure it out, whatever.
The continuity is the fact that I’m still a New York musician, that my musical life has everything to do with New York and what I got from my life there—how it made me as a musician. Some people ask, “So, now that you live in Berlin, do you have an all-Berlin band?” The idea that this would be the case strikes me as so funny and bizarre. I’m still a New York musician. For the most part, everybody I play with is from New York.
What does it mean now to be a New York musician, as opposed to perhaps ten years ago?
I don’t know in an objective sense. For me, I’m just tied musically to New York. To me it particularly means being exposed to the history of bebop, the hardcore existence of bebop and modern jazz that I’ve really only found in New York. I mean, there’s a huge range of creative music in New York, and that is part of it, too. But what I identify as most New York in myself comes from those years at Smalls, learning real hardcore, roots bebop. Being next to the piano late night and Smalls, and listening to Frank Hewitt play all these straight-ahead bop tunes, the freedom and craziness of the ideas, the range and amplitude of depth. The way particularly Frank Hewitt played astounded me, transported me.
How do those lessons translate into the sound of your band? The rhythms on this recording at the Vanguard aren’t the type of rhythms that Frank Hewitt was playing to, and the phrasing and attack is different.
One of the revelations I got from listening to Frank Hewitt is that at the core of bebop there’s an inventiveness that’s also reinventing the harmony as it’s happening; you can take many harmonic pathways through these songs, so the harmony itself is being improvised in a very changeable way. I learned from Frank Hewitt that, in addition to the context and structure, and everything else that already exists in the song, there’s a whole world of imagination and magic. The song is the nucleus, but there’s an entire atmosphere around the nucleus. It’s this atmosphere that is the most exciting and engaging and important thing in the music.
Even though you might compare a band that’s playing at Small’s—let’s say Ari Roland and Sacha Perry—with my band, and think that they have nothing to do with each other, the truth is that we have a lot in common. I think mostly it is this concept, this idea, this truth that the most important thing in music is the atmosphere around the literal nucleus of the actual nuts and bolts of the music. But also, there is a language commonality between my band and bebop. Definitely, if you’re going to play in my band, you need to have that foundation, because that language is part of where we’re coming from, even though the rhythms are different and the harmony is different.
As you mentioned, the rhythms are very different, and you work with a broad beat palette. What are you looking for from your drummers? Are you very proactive about the way a groove should go, or do you more or less trust the drummer to give it to you?
My songs definitely have a rhythmic motif or groove, and I will give the drummer that groove as a way of teaching them the song, to get that vibe or groove or feel as a starting a point. After that, whatever they do is them making the song their own. It’s like I try to give them a key, and then the key unlocks the door. The lock and key analogy happens with my compositions, too—a key has to be very specifically fitted to the lock, but once you use that specific key to open the door, you can be very free inside of that space.
Has living in Europe altered the process by which you compose?
It’s been much the same. Inspiration for songs comes from lots of places. Perhaps I’m in a certain mood, then I’m improvising, something comes out and I write a tune from that. Sometimes I can write at the guitar or the piano. Or I’ll be messing around with virtual instruments at the computer, put up a keyboard and improvise something, then put some drums and bass to that, then rework it, and use editing and cutting and pasting on the computer to follow my ear to make a composition. Sometimes I’ll think of some very basic theoretical thing, a certain chord sequence, perhaps a cycle of fifths, then have a little discovery session with it, and perhaps a song will come out of that. It’s pretty open.
Is there a feedback loop between you and the people you play with? You’ve been playing with Mark Turner for a long time, so obviously there’s a synergy.
Yes, definitely. I have an idea of the band that I’m writing for. I’ve been playing with Mark for so long, his sound is in my composition world. When I’m writing, I hear his music. We attended Berklee College of Music together, and knew each other, but didn’t play together then. But later on, in New York, Mark was living just down the street from the place I shared with Ben Street. We played a lot of trio there with Jeff Ballard, and we knew Mark was nearby, so we called him, he came over and played with us, and that was it. We played together at Smalls for many years. We were in each other’s bands when Mark was making records for Warner Brothers. We’ve all grown so much together in our important formative years that sometimes I don’t know what is my influence and what is Mark’s and Jeff’s and Ben’s. Often we would find ourselves playing more than 6 notes in a row in an improvised melody at the same time, night after night. It’s all been mixed up so nicely as we grew together.
What were some of the first principles, the ideas you started with that made you good mates at the beginning and gave you that foundation on which to grow?
First principles. Subtlety and attention to sound, I think, was probably the first earmark. Also, I guess maybe an adventurousness in our improvisations. Also a dedication to craft and to the lessons that one learns as a musician when you are deeply interested in the music that has come before, just because it’s great music and has such a high standard. We would play Duke Ellington tunes and really get inside of them, and play the arrangements and make them live. So we all shared that dedication to the craft aspect.
I know multifarious influences inform your sound—beyond the general notion of an aesthetic, stylistic details also build up and accumulate. Who were some of your major signposts?
Keith Jarrett’s American Quartet in the ‘70s was a big influence on my music.
We’re talking about Dewey Redman, Paul Motian and Charlie Haden.
Yes, that group. Also Duke Ellington, particularly the Far East Suite and His Mother Called Him Bill and Afro-Bossa—‘60s Ellington. Also, Ornette Coleman’s Live at Town Hall for me was a huge opening of awareness of what’s possible in sound and intention and just depth of soul. Also, Miles Davis’ Live at the Plugged Nickel was pretty big.
A big signpost for just about everyone under 45.
Sure. Also Elmo Hope’s record Homecoming, which is very beautiful. What was inspiring was Elmo Hope’s homegrown way of playing—discovering your own way through just doing it, as opposed to studying it and transcribing other people, just working through your own process and finding things through your own ear, and coming up with an approach that’s your own. I felt that a lot from Elmo Hope.
You’re originally from Philadelphia. Who were some of the guitar heroes?
Speaking of Philly, Kevin Eubanks was a big influence. Not in a technical way. Like, I wasn’t able to really GET anything from him on the guitar per se, because I never transcribed anything. But his compositions inspired me a lot, especially the record, Opening Night, which was one of the first jazz records I was turned onto when I was a teenager in Philly. It blew my mind, and it remains one of the best records in my record collection.
Pat Metheny Group records were a big influence—that expansive imagination and ambition for what’s possible for a jazz group, compositionally extended forms, that whole sound. His natural melodicism on the instrument is also very inspiring. I find a similar naturalism in Ornette’s playing. I know that Pat is directly influenced by Ornette, but there’s something more elemental in the similarities of how they approach melody. Pat’s a very careful craftsman when he is making a record, and his playing on his records now can seem a bit formulaic to me. But when I see him live, I get more of that feeling of melodic freedom. I think his record Rejoicing is one of the best guitar trio records ever. So that was a big signpost, as you say.
Allen Holdsworth was also a big influence, and continues to be. His music and language comes the closest for me on guitar of someone who’s really adapting and living in the world of John Coltrane, in terms of vocabulary, in the lines. For me, he’s one of the only guitar players who has even touched that world.
I love Tal Farlow and George Van Epps. I was also influenced early on by Bill Frisell and John Scofield, and rock guitarists, like Alex Lifeson from Rush, a brilliant guitarist. Incredible sound and imagination. Jimmy Page, too.
Guitar is iconically an instrument associated with rock-and-roll, with a certain stance and swagger. What was the appeal of jazz for you? There must have been a time when you said, “This is the stuff; this is what I’m going to do.”
What triggered that?
Since I was a young kid, I felt like I had an internal impulse to make music. I started writing songs when I was 9 years old. In high school I started to become exposed to jazz through WRTI, the radio station there. I started getting into more advanced forms and more mature and deeper musics. I developed a thirst for the more complicated music. I liked Rush. I went from listening to hard rock, to progressive rock, to electric jazz and fusion, and then into acoustic jazz. Luckily, I was in Philly at the time when I started getting into Jazz-jazz. I’d go to jam sessions with really old-school, hardcore jazz guys—Bootsie Barnes, Tony Williams, Eddie Green, Al Jackson, Mike Boone, Byron Landham—at a club called the Blue Note, this really big community club, packed with people—a good cross-section, but it was mostly a black neighborhood club.
I would learn a tune or two a week out of The Real Book, and my Mom would drive me there from Germantown. They’d welcome me up on the stage, and I’d call “Stella By Starlight” and they would launch into some intro that was all so new to me. I had no idea how they knew it. It wasn’t in The Real Book. It was a great education for me about what jazz really is. It’s not what you learn on the page; it’s this whole tradition. So I really got a good dose of that—the spirit, improvisation, connecting with people, lifting things off the ground. That’s how I fell in love with jazz.
Has your quintet been playing much over the last five months since the recording came out? Last spring, you did a two-week tour of the Northeast, including a CD-release week at the Vanguard.
We did that record release tour. After that, I’ve done a lot of different things. We skipped the summer, and in the fall I’ll actually be playing more trio.
Are you now in a period where you’re looking for other configurations to frame what you’re doing? Is that just circumstantial, a function of being in Europe and not having convenient access to the band?
My quintet is really where my heart is—musically, compositionally. It’s the most powerful context for me as an artist. I definitely want to keep it going, but frankly, the economics are quite challenging, so that starts to push me in different directions. Which is fine, because I don’t have to do the same thing all the time. Not that it’s the same thing, but the same context. I want to make a trio record, and I’ll play next year with Ben Street and Jeff Ballard. There’s a lot of music to mine there. I’ve started recording a new record at home in Berlin, in my studio, sort of a la Heartcore, but also different—songs that, for one reason or another, I don’t even know why, are somehow in the Brazilian vernacular. That’s what I’m really focused on now in terms of composition.
After moving from Zurich last year, it sounds as though your Berlin experience has been fruitful.
Berlin felt really good to move to, because it felt like taking a step closer to New York or the east coast of the United States. Berlin kind of feels like Queens when you’re walking around. It’s got the elevated subways and big avenues and kind of a funky vibe. Really good. It’s very cool, very dynamic. Tons of people are doing lots of different things. A lot of people living off the grid, which is more like New York was when I was here than almost New York is now. There’s a lot of open nooks and crannies in the city, where people are taking over little spaces, taking over art collectives and performance spaces—all kinds of stuff is going on.
It’s probably all part of the process of gentrifying the former East Berlin, but you have to take advantage of these openings while they last.
Talk about how you fit into that cultural milieu. You’re an American, an established jazz personality who is getting credit as an influence both guitaristically and for your compositions, Are the younger musicians there pretty aware of you?
Definitely the younger people know who I am. A lot of people kind of can’t believe that I’m there. They didn’t picture that all of a sudden I’d be in their school, teaching them. The school itself is really interesting, because it’s a combination of a former East school and a former West school having been mashed together by the larger university system. Really interesting processes are ongoing to unify those two sides. During the winter, I was part of these almost Constitutional Congresses that the school conducted amongst the professors to sort of reinvent itself from the ground up in terms of how it would function as a unified new school. It was like a democracy project, and it was cool to be part of it. It’s an example of one of the small ways in which the city is still trying to mend the wound between east and west.
Interview notes: Kurt Rosenwinkel was interviewed on WKCR by Ted Panken on August 15, 2008.
October 17, 2008 · 1 commentTags:
By Tomas Peña
"You blow in this end of the trombone and sound comes out the other end and disrupts the cosmos." Rosswell Rudd
At an age when most musicians are looking forward to retirement, Roswell Rudd still has that twinkle in his eye! Aside from his recent collaborations with cuatro player Yomo Toro (El Espiritu Jibaro) and guitarist, David Oquendo (Encounters), he heads up a quartet and an improvisational trombone band. And when things gets to be bit much he flees the city and retreats to his farm in Kerhonksen, New York, where he gigs with the universe. During his six decades in the music business Roswell has seen it all, yet he remains an optimist, a generous and warm individual.
Let’s go back to the moment when you first realized that you were destined to become a musician.
It had a lot to do with my family. My father was an amateur drummer who enjoyed having jam sessions at home. When he wasn’t playing along with his 78s, he was beating the drums, inviting people over and making noise. That was the atmosphere I grew up in, people collaborating, getting together and seeing what comes out. That’s where it all starts and what keeps everything going. So I always go back to that. I have had some schooling, I know some theory, I write, arrange and put things together, but everything goes back to the jam sessions.
What kind of music did your father play?
My father played Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and the Chicago guys … Eddie Condon, Bix Beiderbeke, you know, just a whole lot of good early jazz recordings.
I understand that your mother was a huge fan of Gilbert & Sullivan!
Yeah, she was into that.
Who showed up for the jam sessions?
Mostly friends, it was a party atmosphere, you know what I mean? (Laughs)
Getting back to the moment when you were inspired to become a musician. . .
When I first heard Louis Armstrong. I went to a private school in upstate New York where most of the kids were New Yorkers who were farmed out to private schools. They used to bring me down to these clubs and concerts (in New York. One day a school buddy took me to hear Louis Armstrong at a movie theater just off Times Square. At the time Louis performed between films, so I had to sit through the film, The Crimson Pirate three times to see him again! It was a commercial thing but Louis radiated so much warmth, creativity and inspiration that I just melted. I shook his hand and he said some beautiful things to encourage me. I believe it all started with him.
How old were you at the time?
I was probably fifteen. There was another time in 1948. The first live jazz band I ever heard was a pick up band from New York City; they were handsome, spectacular guys. There was James P. Johnson on the piano and a bass player named Pops Foster. These guys stomped! I think I was about 12 years old at the time, but it was Louis Armstrong that really compelled me. After I met him I thought to myself, “I want to do for someone what Louis did for me.”
You started playing the French horn at the age of eleven.
I was playing the French horn and the trombone. The first horn that I brought home from school was a mellophone, just like the one on top of the cupboard (points to his horn, which is sitting atop a kitchen cupboard). When the school realized that I loved to blow they put me in the high school orchestra, one of those big, symphonic regional high school bands of the time. They threw me in the French horn section and the conductor was very smart, he had a buddy system where he placed people who had little or no experience next to someone who knew how to read and follow the conductor. So he buddied me up with a guy name John Gilbert, who taught me how to finger and read the parts.
And you were also playing the trombone?
I accompanied my father at home. My first public performance was with the French horn. Then everything changed, my family moved to Connecticut and I started going to a private school and meeting these kids from New York. When I heard what was going on, my focus became to return to New York, which I did around 1959 or 1960.
Like many people of your generation, you grew up listening to the radio.
At the time jazz was a popular music. What was so amazing to me was the fact that that there was all of this improvisation going on in a popular music.
And it was danceable!
Yes, and I think that’s why it was so important to me, because there was, call it Free Jazz, or freedom being expressed in popular music. To a certain extent there still is but those guys were really improvising!
Vocalists were more prominent back then. Tell me about the impact of vocalists like Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Al Hibbler.
Al Hibbler was a blind singer with the Duke Ellington band in the mid 30s; he was the guy who did the original version of “Unchained Melody.” He also did “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and “Do Nothing ‘Till You Hear From Me” and at least a dozen other Ellington hits.
And then there was Ella!
Ella Fitzgerald phrased in such a way that the bands who backed her up would end up phrasing with her. She had a way of making her statement in such a way that the whole band would change up to accommodate her and she made it better. (Laughs)
As s student at Yale University you performed with a band called “Eli’s Chosen Six.”
Yes, I started at Yale in 1954. It was a college band and we performed at fraternity houses and other colleges along the Eastern seaboard.
One writer wrote, “All of Rudd’s future endeavors—including his landmark collaborations with Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, John Tchicai and Steve Lacy—grew out of the lessons learned while playing rags and stomps for drunken college kids in Connecticut.” True or false?
Again, there was a party atmosphere and the informality of the jam session.
Eli’s Chosen Six made two recordings, Eli’s Yale University Dixieland Band for Columbia records and another recording that is not listed in your discography.
The second recording was for a label in Long Island. I can’t remember the name of the company, but I recall that it was a slightly different band. There were two guys from New York who sat in and the feeling was a little different. The first recording was more the reality; the other recording was made a few years later.
In 1961 you recorded New York City R & B with Buell Neidlinger and Cecil Taylor.
That was the third time I recorded and the first time I recorded in New York. The band included Cecil Taylor, Billy Higgins on the drums, Buell on the bass and all of these great horn players: Clark Terry, Steve Lacy and Archie Shepp. That’s an interesting recording, I knew Buell from my college days. His idol was Jimmy Blanton, who was Duke Ellington’s bass player. Buell had me take these recordings, transcribe them and make sure that I had the bass stuff written out like classical music. That was his statement. So that was a new experience for me. I had been sort of jazz arranging, which was as far away from Yale University as Timbuktu. So that was my first project. It was very informative and it sent me down a path that I am still on today.
We are getting a little ahead of ourselves … let’s go back to the start of the bebop era. One writer wrote, “It has been said that bebop is the worst thing that ever happened to the trombone.” What do you make of that statement, true or false?
I don’t know if bebop was the worst thing that ever happened to the trombone. When Charlie Parker came along everybody wanted a piece of what he was doing. If you were a bass player, you would take what you could handle, the same thing for the trombone. For the more unwieldy instruments, I guess bebop was a big challenge. But, you know, there are people like Slide Hampton who played the trombone like a piano.
Here’s the important thing about bop for me When these high school guys started bringing me down here one of the things that was going on was Jazz at the Philharmonic and Bird (Charlie Parker) was there. . . I had no idea what he was playing. I only knew that it was fantastic. I kind of knew what Armstrong was doing. I would go to the trombone and play those riffs, but Parker was on another level. As far as I am concerned that’s the most sophisticated type of improvisation in the world.
Everybody should spend a part of their lives on that because it is a part of everything you do in music; I don’t care how free, how theoretical, how academic it is, bebop is in there. There is a European harmonic theoretical foundation and an African modal rhythmic foundation in bop. As far as improvisation goes, bebop is a music conservatory for the world. Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker took all of us to school!
That squashes the rumor that you skipped over the bebop era and went straight from Dixieland to free jazz.
I grew up in collective improvisation and that was what I heard with Archie Shepp and Ornette Coleman, so I was very much at home with that. There was probably a theoretical part that was very new to me, but as far as just being comfortable in an atmosphere of collective improvisation and making up a complimentary part to what was going around me, I had no problem. I was more comfortable with that than sitting in a big band reading complicated charts. So that was natural to me and when I heard those guys doing that I went right along with them.
You wrote your first composition to the words of the American poet e. e. cummings.
Yeah, e. e. cummings. I have never been able to find that poem. I put a melody to his words. That was during the late 50s.
In 1962 you recorded Into the Hot (Impulse) with Gil Evans and Cecil Taylor, followed by School Days (1963, Hat Hut) with Steve Lacy, Dennis Charles and Henry Grimes and Four For Trane (Impulse) which would be the first of many collaborations with your colleague and friend, Archie Shepp.
I immediately felt a rapport with Archie, musically and with the way we think. We managed to do quite a few things together but the thing we did most was rehearse. We rehearsed a lot!
You might be skipping over some time I spent with a great pianist named Herbie Nichols. We spent about two or three years together. He was teaching me and I came up with occasional gigs for us.
There seems to be a void with respect to information on the Free Jazz era. What do you remember most about that time?
As I mentioned, I grew up around collective improvisation. That’s what the new musicians were doing. With bebop it was one person improvising and a rhythm section supporting them. With Free jazz it didn’t matter how many people were playing. We were doing spontaneous call and response in the moment, and we realized that it was an infinitely rich musical resource.
What do you remember about the music scene, the venues, etc.?
I can remember performing in people’s living rooms, lofts, and cellars and basements that we fixed up ourselves, and there were a few clubs, like Slugs. The whole thing was very grass roots. Occasionally we would perform at the Five Spot. I don’t think we performed at the (Village) Vanguard until the 60s.
As time went by free jazz became more popular.
And we developed a following. So it was time for our generation to get into these other roads, other places and other spaces.
What’s the biggest misconception about the Free Jazz era?
People would come up to us and say, “You guys can’t play the changes, you don’t know your music, you’re just bullshitting, you are like children who are learning for the first time and taking it out to the public when you should be in school practicing, practicing, practicing.” I guess the music did have kind of a rough edge, and to some it sounded like we were fooling around as opposed to the guys who were really serious. I think the biggest criticism for me was somebody telling me, “You’re just playing shit.” To which I would reply, “I have been working on this shit for 30 years!”
Free Jazz tends to elicit strong emotions. Lest we forget, Ornette Coleman was punched in the face by a fellow musician during a performance.
I remember going to hear Cecil Taylor one night and people were shouting, “I am leaving!” Cecil was right in the middle of a number and he was really pushing the envelope and this guy got up, spun around and said “It's shit!” and ran out. The next night, and every night thereafter, he was back and he sat right next to Cecil. This is what we had to adjust to. For some people it was like a hallucination or possession or having to go through some kind of religious experience.
That brings us to 1966, 1967 and Live in San Francisco with Archie Shepp (Impulse), New York Eye and Ear Control with Don Cherry, Albert Ayler, John Tchicai and Gary Peacock (ESP), Until with Robin Kenyatta (Atlantic). Mama Too Tight with Archie Shepp (Impulse) and Live at Donaueschingen (SABA). Those were very productive years for you.
That was the famous year when Thelonious Monk took an orchestra to Europe. Much of the footage from the film Straight No Chaser was taken from that tour. So it was great sharing the stage with Monk and also with Miles. That was when he had the quintet with Tony Williams and Herbie Hancock.
Forgive the digression but I want to talk about the importance of Thelonious (Sphere) Monk. He’s one of those rare musicians who come along once in a lifetime. What did Monk mean to you?
Monk came to my home town in 1954. At the time I was just leaving high school and Monk’s 1947 and 1948 recordings (on the Blue Note label) had just started to come out. I already told you about Charlie Parker and the effect he had on me. Well, Monk hit me even harder because he was so clear with his statement. Monk’s logic was irrefutable and thanks to him I started to hear Parker and a lot of other music where velocity was so important better. Monk had these tempos and made statements that were anti-velocity, with plenty of space, except every so often he would purposely turn things upside down! But if you stuck with it you started to travel.
I came to New York in 1960 wanting to do more of that and Steve Lacy, who was crazy about Monk, and I got together and we followed him around. In time we got to know Monk’s songs and we came to realize that we could capture the sound with a soprano saxophone, trombone, drummer and bass player. I worked with Steve Lacy and Herbie Nichols for three years. I am happy to say that I am as immersed now as I was then.
In your view, what is Monk’s legacy?
The clarity of his statement, the intelligence, the emotion and his ability to develop logical improvisations out of these compositions, and by logic I mean logic in a wide sense. Not just 2 + 2 but maybe 3 – 4½. Like I said, Monk’s music was not predictable. It was a lot like life. Something falls off the wall and you just have to deal with it! I think the best illustration was a performance at the Five Spot where he disappeared while the rhythm section was playing and Charlie Rouse was taking a solo. They went on for awhile and then I noticed Monk coming from the bar area, and he timed it so that just as soon as Charlie Rouse was finishing his last chorus he dervishes, comes in on the piano at a funny angle and makes this cluster sound. So he worked with that accidental thing, unwound it and laid it out for everybody. In other words, he took what we thought was an accident and he dealt with it like a great composer. That’s where my foundation is.
When did you teach ethnomusicology at Bard State College?
That started in 1972. I had been working on and off for the musicologist, Alan Lomax. I was his Field Assistant.
Coincidentally, you and I have a mutual friend who is one of your former students. I am speaking about vibraphonist Steve Pouchie, who started out as a business major at Bard and ended up studying music, thanks to you! He remembers you as a “bohemian guy” who took his students on field trips in the woods and taught them the art of “cosmic mutual notation” or playing free. Years later, you composed, “Pouchie and the Bird,” which speaks to that experience. [The tune appears on the recording, El Espiritu Jibaro with Yomo Toro.]
Bard is an old private college. At the time the music department consisted of three people teaching classical music, but there were many students who wanted to write their own music, play jazz and study the history of jazz for college credit. My official title was Visiting Lecturer. The routine was, I would take the train up to Bard in the middle of the week, teach classes from the afternoon into the evening, then get up the next day, teach some more and take the train home. Basically, I helped the students do whatever they wanted to do with music and I also recommended them to other people who could help them. With respect to Steve and some of the other students, I was a conduit. I also offered a course in World Music and conducted an improvisation work shop and jam sessions.
In the process you changed a lot of lives.
Well, I have always felt that you are your own musical boundary. I helped the students explore themselves.
No doubt you gained a lot from the experience as well.
Well, that's what teaching is all about. Invariably, former students come up to me, no matter where I might be and thank me. Somehow the music took the students to a very deep place inside themselves and opened them up. Music touches you and frees you.
Where else did you teach?
I used to do after-school programs in Bed/Sty (Brooklyn) at Powell’s. I also did a Jazz Interaction work shop at a school in New York and I taught at the University of Maine.
What was the curriculum like at the University of Maine?
Well, that was a state college so I pretty much had to teach prescribed courses. Having said that, I did what I do under the heading of whatever the state called for. The important thing was that the students were learning and progressing.
What year was that?
Let’s see, I taught at Bard from 1972 to 1976 and at the University of Maine from 1976 to 1982.
During the 70s you recorded with the New York Art Quartet, Gato Barbieri, Mercelo Melis, Don Moye, Steve Lacy, Beaver Harris, Carla Bley, Enrico Rava, George Gaslini, Sangeeta Michael Berardi, Rashied Ali, Eddie Gomez, Don Cherry, Charlie Rouse, Barry Harris and Mal Waldron, among others.
Then we go into (what I call) the Soundscape era, which is the late 70s to the early 80s.
I performed at Soundscape on two separate occasions. The first time I performed with my wife, son, a drummer and a bass player. About one year later I performed with a student band and some musicians from New York. It was a wonderful experience.
What do you recall about Soundscape?
I really didn’t know much about it until Verna (Gillis) and I got together ten years ago. She keeps all of this stuff related to Soundscape at her home in upstate New York. At the time I was living and working in Augusta, Maine, so I was out of touch.
Between 1986 and 1992 you were absent from the New York music scene. One writer described that period in your life as a “rough patch.”
I lived in Woodstock and Accord, New York for a time. Actually, I was looking to get back to New York but I didn’t have the wherewithal, so I started living in that part of the world. I didn’t perform for about a year, but I practiced and composed a lot. Later, I worked at the Granit Hotel, backing up stand-up comedians, singers, dancers and fire eaters. I had never been involved in that particular niche before, but I learned a lot from the experience, and it put food on the table. It saw me through some hard times.
When did you connect, or rather reconnect with Verna Gillis?
Actually we reconnected in 1998. I would see her because she lived not far from where I lived. In fact, she refurbished the Accord train station (in upstate New York) and made it into a performance space and a community center.
Is it still there?
It’s still there but it is no longer a performance space. Also, in 1981 we collaborated on Interpretations of Monk with Barry Harris, Steve Lacy, Don Cherry, Charlie Rouse, Mal Waldron and Muhal Richard Abrams.
In hindsight, do you view that period in your life as a slump?
I would call it a change of direction. When I left New York in 1976 there was nothing happening. I couldn’t find work in New York for several years.
Why is that?
There just wasn’t enough happening. I had a few commissions to write stuff and perform, but there was a lot of space in between. At the time I was driving a cab and working as a part-time clerk for the city. That’s when I moved to Maine. I had a job; I was teaching and I developed a life there.
Getting back to the Granit Hotel. . . .
I was at the Granit Hotel from 1986 to 1992. While that was going on I was doing delivery work and odd jobs in Ulster County to fill in the rest of the time. Periodically, I was invited back to the Alan Lomax Project.
Did your work with Alan Lomax on Song Style (Cantometrics) and the Global Jukebox projects prepare you to go beyond the periphery of Western music?
It certainly helped. I started working for him in 1964. It was very intense, 9 to 5, five days per week, and it was difficult integrating that into the things I wanted to do in New York. Sometimes I would work for a year and sometimes I would have to lay off and do something else around New York City. On and off, I worked with Alan for about thirty years.
What exactly is Cantometrics?
Cantometrics is a way of listening to a recording or a performance and analyzing it by ear through the use of 37 parameters. When you code the relative presence or absence of ingredients you come out with a profile of a song style in a specific culture. So you do this all over the world, at the tribal level, urban level, high cultural level, and you get patterns for all of this stuff and you can kind of see how traditional music is laid out across the planet.
What about the Global Jukebox?
It was an extension of Cantometrics, for people in middle school or high school. It was computerized, so you could sit down at a computer screen and access a map of the planet, press a button and access a particular culture and its music. It was an educational component that Alan was trying to develop but it got stalled so it never made it into the public arena.
Part of the problem was that Alan micro-managed everything and there was a lack of communication between the workers. At the end of the day there were too many unfixed train wrecks, in the music data at least. After that, he had a stroke and was out of commission. Sadly he died about a dozen years ago. His daughter tried to resurrect the project a few times but she was unsuccessful. As far as I know, all of the materials are sitting in a room on 41st Street. It’s a great archive. I hope I am wrong.
Nevertheless your time with Alan Lomax served as a good training ground.
Look, when it comes right down to it when you perform and compose music you are dealing with sound. Also, there is something called ear training. I was so adamant about ear training with my students that they called it ear straining! (Laughs) When you play music with others a lot of what is achieved in the way of a good performance has do with how well you listen to the people you are playing with, not only how well but how deeply you respond as well as the adjustments you make intuitively in order to blend in. It makes all the difference between something that has the juice and something that doesn’t have the juice. So any kind of ear training, and especially the work I did with Alan Lomax was very helpful. It gave me more chops and more ears.
In 1994 the project came to a close. What happened after that?
I continued to work around Ulster County doing various odd jobs and began traveling to Europe again. The gig at the Granit was gone, but David Winograd was working with some local guys and I worked with them. I also started going back to New York to play isolated gigs. In other words, I started getting out again.
In 1994 you recorded Dark Was the Night with Allen Lowe.
Yes, Allen Lowe brought me out. Dark Was the Night was a combination studio session and a live recording from Providence, Rhode Island. Allen is a very interesting person, but that’s a story for another day.
In 1995 you recorded New World with Terry Adams and Wozzek’s Death with Allen Lowe.
Yeah, that was with Terry and his band, NRBQ. This group had achieved an organic sound after years of being together on the road. Factoring my self in with them was inspirational. Wozzek’s was an unusual approach to musicalized storytelling. Also on Allen’s Wozzek’s album are two tracks of my music, "Concentration Suite" and "Bonehead." At the time I was strongly focused on compositional process, so I recommend these pieces as resources dealing with that.
1996 was a banner year for you in terms of recordings: Out and About with Steve Swell, Rumors of an Incident with Elton Dean, Bladik with Keith Tippett in 1996 et al and Terrible NRBQ with Terry Adams.
I like to think that Steve Swell was the person who officially brought me back out of retirement, although I wouldn’t exactly call it retirement. In 1997 I played and recorded with Elton’s band and recorded with NewSense.
You also recorded as a leader on The Unheard Herbie Nichols, Volumes 1 & 2.
After doing the thing with Steve Swell at Cadence, I got the idea to do something that I had wanted to do for a long time, music that I worked on with Herbie Nichols. This was not music that he had recorded before. It was important to me to see how I had grown in this music since 1963. I brought the idea to some friends in Buffalo, New York that I had been playing this music with on and off. We recorded the album in one weekend and we recorded fifteen songs. It was released as 2 (separate) CD’s.
That would be with Greg Millar and John Bacon Jr.
That’s right. The recordings received a mixed reception.
Why is that?
For some people, the combination of trombone, guitar and drums for an hour and ten minutes was a bit difficult, but I thought that what it revealed about Herbie and us was fantastic!
Next, you recorded Hallucinations with Glenn Hall. 1998 was an important year for a number of reasons. First, you recorded with the Ab Baars Trio on Four.
That’s a remarkable recording for the great Ab Baars Trio plus and for a track that I did, “The Year was 1503”, which was the first time I had done any stand-up on a recording. My experience’s at the Granit Hotel, and playing for comedians was the inspiration for the scenario. When you play for comedians you have to watch out, because they improvise a lot and off of everybody when it’s really happening. Anyway "1503” is like comedic theater with characters out of the band, people playing and all of that.
Also, in 1998 Verna Gillis’s husband, Brad Graves passed away and one month later your wife had a stroke and was admitted into a nursing home.
That’s where your bond with Verna took root.
I had some contact with Verna before that time. I played in her performance space in Accord and before that at Soundscape. When I heard about her husband passing I called and wished her well, gave her my condolences and told her to keep going. We eventually got together sometime after that.
As things progressed you came to the realization that your head was in a World Music mode. Perhaps not so coincidentally, Verna had done all of this work in the World Music scene.
She brought people like King Sunny Adé and Youssou N'Dour as well as a lot of South American musicians to the states for the first time in their lives.
Not to mention Cuban musicians who had come to New York via the Marielito Boatlift.
When they arrived Soundscape became their Tuesday night convergence for some years. Soundscape was a universe unto itself.
In 2001 you and Verna traveled to Mali (for the second time). In fact, your trip is well documented in the film, Bamako is a Miracle [see it on YouTube], a terrific and very telling documentary. I was absolutely mesmerized by the film.
During the first trip we performed with kora player, Toumani Diabate at the French Cultural Center. It went so well that we returned the following year and recorded Malicool.
There are a couple of defining moments in the film. The first is the scene where Toumani is wrestling with a Monk tune. In the midst of everyone’s frustration, Verna calmly asks you to lay out and let the musicians work things out amongst themselves. Aside from Verna’s brilliance, it demonstrates the fact that when you are out of your element you have to just roll with the punches. Like it or not, you were on African time!
That’s true, Verna had her finger on the pulse. We were able to get through that.
The other moment is when Toumani says to Verna, “I heard a lot of negative things about you before I met you, now I don’t believe it” and Verna and he give each other a victory hug. Malicool was nominated for a Grammy, correct?
You are right, the film is very telling and it goes into the nitty gritty of it. Suffice it to say Africa and New York exist in different worlds of time.
In 2002 you also recorded Roswell Rudd and Archie Schepp Live in New York and Seize the Time with the Nexus Orchestra. In 2003 there was Sex Mob with Dime Grind Palace, and in 2004 your wife passed away. You didn’t record again until 2005, with the Mongol Buryat Band. How you came into contact with Mongolian throat singers is quite a story. I read somewhere that they were performing in your neighborhood.
There were two guys, Odserun and Tuvsho. They were in the area, performing in the public schools and wherever they could to create some interest in the throat singing phenomenon. When we heard that they were in the area we put out a call and had them over the house and they started singing and I got out my trombone. I couldn’t believe what was happening. There is something about that kind of singing that just goes with the range and the sound of trombone.
The end result was Blue Mongol.
That took a couple of years. The original jam session was my self and two singers. The next time Tuvsho came with Badma Khanda, a great singer and three instrumentalists. I started writing some pieces for them, or I should say I was writing pieces for us, I was integrating myself into what they were doing. The year after that, about 2004 or 2005 was when we did the album. In 2006 we did a U.S. tour. We played on the East Coast, Chicago and the West Coast.
How was the music received?
People were amazed and transfixed, the same way that I was when I first heard Odserun and Tuvsho sing in my living room. It’s transfixing. I don’t know if the recording captures the music, because it’s such an acoustical thing, it’s all based on harmonics. It’s something that has to happen in a natural acoustic space, but it’s so strong that I think at least some of it translates to the recording.
From there you went on to collaborate with the great Puerto Rican cuatro (guitar) player, Yomo Toro.
The collaboration with Yomo goes way back to Verna’s earliest days of producing. I have traveled and performed in Europe, Canada and Africa and beyond but I have to say that the experience with Yomo Toro and (drummer) Bobby Sanabria was really hard for me in a good way.
Why is that?
I will say it one word, CLAVE!
Ah! The dreaded clave! Say no more, if you don’t come from clave it can be a very difficult concept to learn.
Well, if you are brought up in it, it’s one thing. If you have to learn it and reapply it to everything you have experienced in your life that’s another thing. I call it the science of clave. I had to work with it as a science before I could get it to an art. Anyway, what an experience, I really grew from this. Both of these guys are incredible teachers. Bobby does it one way … he breaks it all down and lays it all out theoretically as well as logically. With Yomo, it exudes from his character. He plays it for you, sings and makes the air move around you so that you pick it up by osmosis. That’s been the most challenging thing so far.
In 2007 you went back to your roots with the recording, Keep Your Heart Right.
There are some very early songs and more recent songs on that recording. It was the result of discovering a singer named Sunny Kim, who is South Korean. She was a student at the New England Conservatory when Steve Lacy and his wife were on the faculty. Sunny has tremendous vocal resources; there is just nothing that she won’t take on. Anyway, we did a memorial for Steve and it was a great thing. It was two hours of Steve Lacy sounds, his compositions and his songs. It was a tremendous experience for me. That’s where I met Sunny.
About a year before that I had started working with a great pianist named Lafayette Harris, so I pulled together rehearsals with Lafayette, Sonny and myself and we started to grow the material and develop a chemistry with one another. And last year we brought bassist, Brad Jones into it and we had ourselves a quartet. We traveled to Italy twice this past summer and we have two things coming up in New York in October. It’s a very enjoyable group. A lot of the material has never been performed and there are a lot of new things going on.
That’s just one of many projects that you are currently involved with.
This is one of the configurations that I hope will go on for a good long time, so that we can find out more and more and more about ourselves.
I know that your collaboration with guitarist/vocalist David Oquendo has been completed, however, it has yet to be released. What is the name of the recording?
In English it’s called Encounters.
That would be Encuentros in Spanish.
I have to talk about David Oquendo. He’s like Yomo Toro, Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington, people who come along occasionally, who are a school unto themselves. So for me it was another opportunity to learn and grow from the experience. This is a record of standards from his experience, my experience and our experience, because what happened in the 40s and 50s in our art was absorbed and assimilated in the Caribbean, Europe and all over the place. Even though we come from different backgrounds we were familiar with a lot of the same material.
One of the things that fascinated me about Oquendo was his scat; he does this mouth percussion thing that is just killing. He told me that there was a time when drums weren’t allowed on the street (in Cuba); you had to have permission to play the drums so the mouth and body percussion became something of a substitute for playing percussion on the street. He recounted that there were times when they would be standing around doing this on the street and it sounded so real that people would call the cops! I don’t think he does it publicly, I guess it’s kind of a private thing, but David is full of this kind of stuff. There is a lot of street in David.
When will Encounters, be released?
Soon, all the votes are in.
In an interview you said the following: “I consider myself very fortunate to have lived to see the fruition of so much labor. The frustration of not being able to quite get into the mainstream and whatever it takes to support yourself this way, I think McCoy Tyner called it a privilege and so I kind of think that is humbling to, to have gotten to this point to have the privilege of supporting myself this way.”
That’s right, over the last ten years I have gotten a lot more thanks to Verna and the collaborations that she has arranged for me and the things that I have been able to do for myself. The quartet with Sunny Kim is one such thing, and another is the trombone band. We will be coming out with that in November.
Tell me about the trombone band.
It’s brass music, trombone music—three trombones, a tuba, bass and drums. We just participated in the Lake George Jazz Weekend. There was a group there called Pucho and the Latin Soul Brothers, they came on after us and carried on the spirit of the music at the festival. T the music was fun, entertaining and accessible. The beauty of my band is that I can go just about anywhere with it. I can play dance music, folk music, some edgy stuff and pretty much do whatever I want to do. Judging from the response we have received thus far I think we are going to be fine.
In closing, you seem to have achieved the best of both worlds—an apartment in the city, a house in the country—you even get to jam with the cosmos now and then. Who could possibly ask for more?
You got it Tomas, you got it man!
It’s a great place to be and you deserve it. There are a lot of artists who deserve it and don’t live to see it. You are the exception to the rule, one of the lucky one’s!
There are no endings Tomas, only beginnings.
October 11, 2008 · 4 commentsTags:
by Jared Pauley
You were born in Miami, right?
What year were you born in?
Oh! That was 1979.
I was reading that your dad was a drummer.
Yeah, he was a drummer. A classical percussionist mostly and he played the trap set.
Wow, a classical percussionist. What kind of styles did he focus on that were non-classical?
He was doing all kinds of R&B and things like that. He was also a jazz drummer, a great jazz drummer. He had some chops too. There are very few jazz drummers that I hear these days doing a press roll that’s flawless. And he’s one of the few cats that could do that [laughs]!
Yeah, yeah. No doubt.
But, now he’s a lawyer. He got smart [laughs].
He’s a lawyer now. Now he’s making money, right?
Uh huh, exactly.
What kind of law does he practice?
He’s practicing criminal defense.
So you were around eleven or twelve when you started on the alto?
When did you decide to switch to tenor?
When I realized that all of my heroes played tenor. And I also started to realize that all of my favorite alto players approached the alto like a tenor
What kind of stuff were you into during your adolescence, teenage years? Who were you digging?
I started out with Charlie Parker, which was the first person I got enlightened to. . . . My dad was playing the music around the house. But it wasn’t until I picked up the instrument that I started…
Really digging in, finding the roots.
Were you learning solos and things like that with Bird?
Yeah, my band teacher. He noticed that my brother (E.J.) and I were extraordinarily interested in jazz because we had been exposed to the stuff from the womb. We didn’t even know what it was but our palette was much more open than the kids around us. They were kind of like, “I’m a rock head." "I’m a rap head.”
And growing up in Miami in the early ‘90s you were exposed to everything from 2 Live Crew to Cuban music to whatever.
With that place (Miami) being such a melting pot, were you taking in kinds of music other than jazz?
Oh yeah. It actually comes through my compositions. You know like, you’ll hear some Haitian rhythms, some Cuban rhythms, some 2 Live Crew up in there [laughs].
Both of us being hip-hop heads, I grew up listening to people like Herbie Hancock just as much as I did DJ Premier and Boot Camp Click. How do you feel about hip-hop making its way into jazz?
I think it’s cool and I think that people need to stop trying to police it because they’re going against the natural flow of things. Jazz is a . . . I’ve said this many times in interviews but jazz is a sponge. You know. It both absorbs and extracts.
I couldn’t agree more. Jazz has absorbed everything from Latin music to classical music.
Yeah, I don’t see any reason why we uh…there’s a lot of purists out there. You know. They’re like; “We’ve got to keep it pure.” The stuff never was pure [laughs].
The jazz police are alive and well. That’s the unfortunate part [laughs]. So, 2006 was a big year for you, right?
You were on Roy Haynes’ Fountain of Youth and it was nominated for a Grammy. How was that, learning from Roy?
It’s the best situation that any musician could be in no matter what age. It was a great experience and I absorbed every minute of it.
The first time you played with him what was going through your head?
You know, it was the same reaction when I first started playing with “Tain.”
With Jeff “Tain" Watts?
Yeah, a lot of those things that I heard on those records all those years. To hear them played back at me when I’m soloing, you know, I kind of pause and kind of like snicker because I heard that on Chick Corea’s record. What’s the name of that record?
Oh, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs [a Chick Corea album featuring drummer Roy Haynes].
Yeah, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs. Like I heard that on that record or I heard that on that Sarah Vaughn record [laughs].
You were voted Jazz Times Best New Artist in 2006, right?
Yeah, I was very surprised to get that because I’m not on any major label or anything.
You know, it seems like there’s a second group…I don’t want to call it another group of Young Lions. But in the early 1990s, you had people like Joshua Redman and Brad Mehldau doing their thing. Now you have people such as yourself, your brother E.J, and people like Stacey Dillard that are starting to do their own thing.
It’s a much different time then when they came up. When they came up people were getting signed left and right. The minute they got off of the plane they were getting signed to Columbia. It’s a different time and it’s kind of good in a way because it’s allowing us to formulate ourselves a little bit more before making it big and stuff like that.
Yeah, the idea of developing your sound and paying your dues. Maybe that was the problem with some of the Young Lions. And you don’t hear about them anymore.
I mean that was the last real height of commercial jazz. So with your new album Open Reel Deck, the live set, E.J. plays drums on that, right?
So playing with E.J., I’m sure people ask you this a lot but you guys have an interesting bond?
I’m not sure if it has to do with the fact that we’re twins but it’s probably has more to do with the fact that we started music at the same time. We listened to everything at the same time.
Regardless of your sibling relationship.
Yeah, if he was my cousin, or even my friend or my enemy [laughs], if we had done the same things we had done at the same time, I think we would have that same bond!
We talked earlier about hip-hop. Obviously like a lot of other cats, you’re experimenting with different kinds of music, the spoken word thing, you know?
It’s a really nice thing. I knew I was onto something when a certain festival calls me up and they’re like, “We’d love to hire you guys. The music’s great but could you lose the rapper.” I felt like trying to break it down like with the rappers, every single syllable is on the beat.
So your new album came out on your label Strick Muzik. Is this the first release for the label?
It’s actually the third release because the first release was a double CD Twi-Life.
I see, technically it’s the third release.
Yeah, it’s a great thing. I’m glad that I did it in the first place.
You have plans to venture out, when the money’s right, and seek out new talent?
Oh yeah definitely. If I can get to the point where I can pay for other artists, great. If I can get another artist that’s willing to pay for their own thing and put it out under my label, that would be great too. I can do all of the paper work and everything. It’s a great thing. My brother’s actually going to release an album on Strick Music. It’ll probably be by either late this year or early next year.
Cool, you’ve got some good things to look forward to this year. The money these days, being an artist on the indie scene, is the key. So you play with Charles Tolliver’s band some and you played with the Mingus band.
The Mingus band, how was that?
It’s a great band. It’s filled with all of these stellar musicians. Every time I go there there’s a different combination of guys on the stage and different interpretations of Mingus’ music. It keeps you on your toes.
Mingus is definitely alive in sprit.
I know Sue Mingus is involved with the band. How hands on is she?
She’s always the one who calls each band member and puts the band together for that week. She’s keeping it alive.
Oh man. I’m very excited. I just started up a new trio and we’ve been playing some gigs here and there around the city. What I want to do is play with these guys for a while before we record. It’s a different playing field. We don’t have a chordal instrument.
There’s no guitar or piano.
So who’s playing bass and who’s playing drums?
It’s Ben Williams on bass. He’s a young bassist out of D.C. He’s just phenomenal. He’s great. My brother’s on drums and when my brother can’t make it I use Justin Brown on drums.
Well, Marcus thanks for your time. It’s been great interviewing you and we’ll be speaking soon.
October 08, 2008 · 0 commentsTags:
Charlie Haden is not just a jazz legend, he’s universally recognized as one of the music’s most lyrical bass players. A three time Grammy winner, Guggenheim Fellow, a recipient of four National Endowment for the Arts composition grants, a multiple winner of the prestigious Down Beat Critic’s Poll and most recently, a winner of the International Musician of the Year Award at the BBC Jazz Awards, Haden first burst on the scene in 1959 when, as a member of the Ornette Coleman Quartet, he helped change the course of jazz history during a four month stint at New York’s Five Spot jazz club. Since then, whether it’s been with his own Liberation Music Orchestra, originally formed in 1969 and still going strong, his 1970s associations with Keith Jarrett and Old and New Dreams or, since the 1980s, collaborations with Pat Metheny on award winning albums such as 80/81, or with his own award winning Quartet West, he has remained at the forefront of jazz for almost fifty years.
But on Rambling Boy, his latest album by Charlie Haden Family & Friends, the celebrated bassist returns to his roots and goes country. There are performances from his vocalist wife Ruth Cameron, who co-produces the album, his son, his triplet daughters and guest appearances from country luminaries such as Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Dan Tyminski and Roseanne Cash. Other star guests include singer Elvis Costello, guitarist Pat Metheny and actor/musician Jack Black. Haden himself also gets to sing on “Oh, Shenandoah” as well as contribute backing vocals on a couple of tracks.
Other than a feature in the March 9, 1967 edition of Down Beat magazine, “Charlie Haden – From Hillbilly to Avant-Garde,” Haden has not often spoken in detail about the formative years of his musical career. But his love of country, as he points out in this interview, has never been far from the surface. On his 1986 album Quartet West, for example, “Taney County” is a memorable solo medley of country ballads dedicated to his parents. So when the opportunity to record Rambling Boy came along, Haden said it was like a dream come true, adding, “It’s like my life’s work and it’s meant so much to me. It’s two American stories about someone who was born and raised here and brought up in country music, and then went on to jazz.”
Haden’s career in country began as a twenty-two month old child, singing on the family radio show, Uncle Carl and the Haden Family, with his parents, two brothers and two sisters. In fact, included on Rambling Boy is a rare Haden Family radio show performance dating from those early years. “It was a lot of work every day,” Haden recalls. “I was very happy to do that, because I loved singing and I loved harmony.”
As a young teenager he began to be drawn into jazz, and as he says in the interview, the rest was history. But he never forgot his roots. “Country music is very dear to my heart,” he affirms. “It’s beautiful music with beautiful harmonies and beautiful melodies and when I decided to go to Los Angeles and started playing with Art Pepper and Hampton Hawes and Dexter Gordon and different people, I met Ornette Coleman and we went to New York. I lived there almost twenty years and I played and recorded with just about everybody [in jazz], but never ever once did country music leave my soul, because it’s been there with me since I was twenty-two months old.”
Many people, familiar with your long and distinguished career in jazz, may be surprised by a Charlie Haden country album, so perhaps you could start from the very beginning to illustrate the part country music has played in your life.
In my memory, I recall my mother holding me up to the microphone so that I could sing on the radio, and this was in Shenandoah, Iowa on a radio station with the call letters KMA. We were on that radio station because my parents went from radio station to radio station auditioning. My Dad, Carl Haden, started out in radio work in 1932 on station KGBX in Springfield, Missouri, and he was a member of a musical team known and Carl and Ernest the Missouri Hillbillies. In 1933 they went to WFAA in Dallas, Texas, in 1934 KGKO in Wichita Falls, Texas, then WOAI in San Antonio, Texas, then to WREC in Memphis Tennessee, and then to WSM in Nashville, one of the most famous radio stations in the country—where the Grand Ole Oprey originated—then to WWVA in West Virginia. In 1935 at WLBF in Kansas City, Kansas, my mother joined him and they started their radio career together as Uncle Carl and Mary Jane, which turned into Uncle Carl Haden and the Haden Family. They went to WIBW in Topeka Kansas, and by then my other brother and sister was with them. On their way to a radio station in Des Moines, Iowa in 1937 there was a snowstorm and they had to stop at a hotel in Shenandoah, Iowa—it was like a blizzard. My Dad called the radio station the next day at KMA, and Mom and him went over and got the job. So they stayed in Shenandoah for four years, and that was where I was born.
I started singing when I was about two. My mother told me the story she was rocking me to sleep one day, I was twenty-two months old, and she was humming a folk song and I started humming the harmony with her. And she said: “When I heard you humming with me I knew you’d be ready to perform on our radio show.” So I was singing on KMA from twenty-two months . . . those are my early memories.
You were on the scene during some of the key years of country music’s growth. So you must have come into contact with some of the legendary names of the music.
Bluegrass is in my blood and in my ears. My Dad was friends with Hank Williams, the Carter Family, the Delmore Brothers, and all these early country people who were on the Grand Old Oprey in Nashville and on the radio stations. In Springfield, Missouri there was a big radio station called KWTO—Watching the Ozarks—and my father got a job on KWTO. There was a network barn dance show that started in Springfield that was similar to the Grand Old Oprey in Nashville, Tennessee, and it was called Korn’s-a-Crackin’—a network radio show heard all over the country. A lot of the country bands and singers from Nashville who were on the Grand Old Oprey would come to Springfield and guest star. That’s how I got to know the old country artists that my Dad knew before I was born—he knew Jimmie Rogers, and the Carter Family and everybody. And then when they started coming to Springfield, Mother Maybelle Carter used to come over and visit us at our house, and she would sing songs all day with her guitar . . . [My mother and her] were good friends and I knew all of her children. Helen was the oldest and she played the accordion, and June Carter was next and she sang and played the auto harp, and then Anita was the youngest. So all these people would come over and they were guests on this network radio show Korn’s-a-Crackin’.
It’s an amazing history. Has this been documented anywhere?
There’s a book called The Ozark’s Greatest Hits, and it’s by a guy named Wayne Glenn, and it’s a photo history of music in the Ozarks, a several hundred page book with pictures, and there’s photos of me everywhere, when I started playing jazz, and there’s photos of me and my Dad in Springfield.
Country music was very much a part of your life, until what age?
We [broadcast] every day of my life until I was sixteen years old on different radio stations. That was before television, everybody listened to the radio, so we had fans all over the country, these big radio stations were 50,000 watts a station, and they covered a lot of territory. Every day my family would choose the songs we’d sing for this radio show, they had files and files of songs and every day they would go through the files and decide what we would sing. I could sing every harmony part by ear. None of us were trained in music as far as reading music was concerned.
I listened to the radio all the time when I was little, classical music, all different kinds of music, the Hit Parade, Frank Sinatra, and I loved jazz. Whenever I heard jazz, I loved it. Later on my brother Jimmy played the bass when he went to high school, and that’s when I started listening to the bass. Every time he played the bass, it made everything sound better. I loved that instrument, and whenever he went out on a date, I’d pick up the bass and play. And he had some jazz records and I started playing the bass with them.
When I was fourteen in Omaha, I went to a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert and Charlie Parker was playing, and when I heard Charlie Parker play, that was it. I knew that’s what I wanted to do. Then I decided that as soon I got out of high school, I had to go to L.A. I had a full scholarship to Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, but I turned it down to go to this jazz school, which was before Berklee [College of Music in Boston], and it was called Westlake College of Modern Music in Los Angeles, I wanted to go there, and the other reason I wanted to go to LA was to listen to my favorite jazz pianist Hampton Hawes. I heard a lot of recordings by him, and I wanted to go to L.A. and see him.
It was there I met Ornette [Coleman] and the rest is history.
How difficult was it making the transition from country to jazz? Country music swings, and there was Western Swing, so you had a head start.
All the country musicians were jazz fans. Right before I went to Los Angeles, when I had just graduated from high school in Springfield, I did a network TV show called The Ozark Jubilee to save money to go to LA, and this network TV show was hosted by a guy called Red Foley and another guy named Eddie Arnold. They were both Grand Ole Opry stars, and the guitarist with Eddie Arnold was Hank Garland, and Hank was a great jazz guitarist. And the guitarist with Red Foley’s guitarist was Grady Martin, who also played jazz. . . All these guys were jazz fans. We were doing a TV show Ozark Jubilee [and] we would take breaks from filming, and Hank Garland and I would play jazz. And he was always telling me, “Charlie, you gotta get out of Springfield and go to New York and play jazz.”
With such a strong background in country, performing professionally from an early age, it would be strange if this influence did not surface in your jazz playing. Can you remember any instances when this happened?
Well, in some of my early bass solos with Ornette, on a tune called “Ramblin’,” one of Ornette’s songs, on my bass solo I play an early folk song. We recorded two records before we went to New York, one of them was called The Shape of Jazz to Come, the other one was called The Change of the Century, and on one of my bass solos I played a series of folk songs that I learned with my family. One of them was “Old Joe Clark” and “Fort Worth Jail House” and “John Henry,” a lot of different songs. These experiences are internalized and not thought about when soloing, but things come out, you’re communicating what’s inside you as you express yourself. Obviously I can’t remember every instance when I used folk songs in my solos, but a couple of examples I recall are “Lonely Woman” on an album I did with Old and New Dreams, or “Lonely Woman” with a trio we had with Gerri Allen and Paul Motian. It’s the music I’m hearing inside me.
There’s a nice story when Ian Drury of the Blockheads heard my bass solo on Ornette’s record using “Old Joe Clark” and he wrote a song called “Sex, Drugs and Rock n’Roll” from my bass solo! I didn’t get any royalties from that, but when he played it with the Blockheads he always announced my name—"Charlie Haden! That’s 'Sex, Drugs and Rock n’Roll,'” and as a matter of fact that’s one of the songs we do on the record.
Your involvement in country music as a professional performer during this early period of your life represented a significant investment in time, both rehearsing and performing in what were the most formative years of your life, so have you maintained an interest in country since then?
Of course, the two indigenous musics that have come from the United States are Country Music and Jazz. And included in the evolution of jazz was spirituals and the blues that came from the Underground Railroad and the struggle for freedom of the African-American. And then the Hillbilly folk music came over from England and Scotland and Ireland, into the Appalachian Mountains and the Ozark Mountains where I was raised. So I had a love for both musics, actually.
How did the idea of returning to your roots and doing a country album come about?
Well this record [Rambling Boy], it’s a life dream come true. My wife Ruth Cameron is also a great singer, my second wife, she’s not the mother to my kids, but she’s very close to my kids, Josh, and Rachel and Petra and Tanya—who are triplets—they’re all very close and she wanted to go and visit my mother in Missouri for her 90th birthday, which would have been in 1988. And all of us went to Springfield and visited, and it was like a family reunion. Ruth asked us all to sing including Josh and Rachel and Petra and Tanya, and they all sang with my brothers and sisters. And Ruth said, “As soon I heard that, I knew you had to do a country record.” And then when I did this duet record with Pat Metheny called Beyond the Missouri Sky—Pat is also from Missouri and knew about my background—we did this song called “Precious Jewel,” which is an old country song recorded by the Delmore Brothers, and we recorded “He’s Gone Away,” which my mother used to sing that on the radio. Afterward Pat and I started talking, and he said, “You gotta do a country record, man.”
You get to sing on the album, going full circle to where you began your career all those years ago as a child barely two years of age.
I stopped singing when I was fifteen, this was when the polio epidemic was happening in the United States, very bad. This was before the vaccine was discovered, and I developed polio that paralyzed partly my vocal chords and I couldn’t sing. It took away my range and the doctor said even though I had polio, I was very lucky it didn’t hit the nerves to my legs and my lungs, because that’s where it usually hits, and it hit the left side of my face and my throat. And I eventually got over it, but I never sang again until an album called The Art of the Song  with Quartet West with strings arranged by Alan Broadbent, and Shirley Horn sings on it and Bill Henderson sings on the record. The end track is called “Wayfaring Stranger,” which my mother used to sing on the radio, and I sing that song. And there is a story behind that. I was being interviewed by Terry Gross [on NPR’s Fresh Air program] about a recording I had done with Quartet West called Now is the Hour that’s also done with strings, and during the interview she said, “Why did you want to record this song ‘Now is the Hour,’ that’s a Word War II song?” And I said I used to listen to the radio a lot when I was a kid and I heard Frank Sinatra with the big bands sing this song. I just loved it. And she said, “Sing it to me.” And I said, “Are you crazy? On the radio, on the air?” And she said, “Please sing it.” So I sang it. After the radio show, she called me back. . . . She said, “Charlie, you gotta sing on one of your albums, you’re good!” And I said, "Yes, yes. Tell me something else." And that was the first time I tried to sing, when I did “Wayfaring Stranger.”
We are all the sum of our life’s experiences, so what did it mean to you to realize this project?
Well, it’s kind of like my life’s work and it meant so much to me. It’s two American stories, American musical stories about someone who was born and raised here and brought up in country music, and then went on to jazz and different other kinds of music . . . You have to think about that journey.
Pat Metheny, he’s one of my closest friends in life, and if anybody knows American music then he does. When we did Beyond the Missouri Sky everybody called it true Americana music. It’s not just jazz, it’s beyond category, and he’s been talking about this [project] for a long time. He said whenever you do a country album I want to be a part of it.
So I started communicating with him, but he’s always out on tour, and I’m out on tour a lot myself, and when he was in New York I would play songs for him over the phone and then his trio played here in LA at Disney Hall and he came over to our house, and I played him some of the country music and he just loved it. And so he was a big part of [Rambling Boy], a real inspiration, and you can tell by listening to [it] there’s a lot of love, there’s a lot of love from all the musicians, and especially Pat. There’s this song “Is This America?” a very beautiful ballad, and he wrote the arrangement on “The Fields of Athenry,” and he wrote the arrangement on “He’s Gone Away,” and he wrote the arrangement on “Down by the Salley Gardens,” and then on “Oh, Shenandoah,” the song I sing, and you listen to that and you see where it comes from, it’s where I was born.
So, it’s something I always wanted to do, and now that I’ve done it I can’t believe I did it. It makes me feel so honored that all these great singers—Dan Tyminski who I heard sing “Man of Constant Sorrow” in this movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? George Clooney plays the main part in the film. He’s the hillbilly singer, and his [singing] voice on there is Dan Tyminski. He’s in a band called Union Station with Allison Kraus—he’s on my record. . . . Ricky Skaggs, one of the great, great bluegrass singers, you’ve got Vince Gill, he came in, a very busy guy. He was in Nashville for about a minute and just came over to the studio and recorded “Rambling Boy.” He was so nice. And Bruce Hornsby called me about this song “20/20 Vision,” and he recorded it, and he wanted me to put my bass introduction on it, like I play with Ornette, like the drone bass thing I did on “Ramblin’” with Ornette [Coleman].
Then I met Roseanne Cash and Elvis Costello, they sent an e-mail to Ruth [my wife] and I, and they wanted me to do this TV series named Spectacle.. I went there to do this show and Pat Metheny and I played on this TV show, and while we were rehearsing, soundchecks and everything, Elvis started singing, and I played some of the country records for him and he loved it and he started singing this Hank Williams song called “You Win Again” and Ruth said you gotta do that on the record. And he said I’d really be happy too. So he went down to a studio down by where he lived in New York, and recorded “You Win Again” with a guitarist called John Leventhall, who is married to Roseanne Cash. And I asked John if I could meet Roseanne and asked her if she would sing “Wildwood Flower,” so that’s how I met Elvis Costello and Roseanne Cash.
Mark Stein was also a big part of it, he’s the bass player on a lot of country records, so he helped me a great deal. My wife Ruth was an invaluable part of this, she kept everything together, she was the producer and singer—without her it couldn’t happen. I can’t believe how great the album is. It’s so good, and everybody that is on this record, you can tell they are doing it for love for my music, all the studio musicians and all the featured singers. They all love it and they’re doing it for their love for me, and it really shows and you can hear it.