In Conversation with Marcin Wasilewski

By Stuart Nicholson

Poland is a country where the past resonates powerfully in the present. To understand, you must immerse yourself in a culture of a state whose history spans over a millennium—a culture that’s been subjected to extremes of tyranny and freedom, persecution and tolerance, power and art, corruption and integrity and right and wrong to such a degree that they’ve helped shape the national psyche. While the Polish people are warm, generous and fun loving, they are also cautious with their emotions, bringing to mind Tennessee Williams’ line from Camino Real: “We have to distrust each other. It is our only defense against betrayal.”

            Marcin Wasilewski, by Jos L. Knaepen

Today, as Poland sheds the remnants of its communist past, jazz enjoys a special place in the nation’s affection, thanks in no small part to Willis Conover’s Music USA and Jazz Hour broadcasts on Voice of America—the short wave radio station heard by an estimated 100 million people behind the former Iron Curtain during the darkest days of the Cold War. As a result of Conover’s broadcasts, Poles will probably always associate jazz with freedom and an idealized vision of America as the “citadel on the hill” and the “last best hope for mankind.”

It was against this cultural background that pianist Marcin Wasilewski began his musical odyssey. Born in 1975, he began playing music at age seven. The product of a thorough classical training, he became interested in jazz at the age of thirteen. In 1990, he formed a band with his long-time friend and classmate at the Koszalin High School of Music, bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz. They called the group The Simple Acoustic Trio. Michal Miskiewicz replaced the ensemble’s original drummer in 1993. The three men have played together ever since, recording five albums since 1995 for such Polish labels as Gowi and Not Two.

In 1994, the trio began a lasting association with Polish jazz legend Tomasz Stanko. Stanko took the young group under his wing and moved them quickly along the learning curve—initially by playing smaller dates around Poland with them so that they might find their way into his music, gradually nurturing their talents to the point where he felt they were ready to step out onto the international circuit as his regular accompanists. In August 2001 they recorded Soul of Things for the ECM label.

Released in March 2002, the critical acclaim that greeted Soul of Things had an important impact on the careers of both Stanko and his young charges. The album brought the veteran trumpeter long overdue international recognition. It also alerted the jazz world to three new rising stars. Subsequently, the group toured widely, including several US tours (something of a rarity for European jazz musicians) between 2002 and 2008. Later albums, Suspended Night from 2003 and Lontano from 2005, reinforced the growing consensus that Stanko’s quartet was among the most important groups in contemporary jazz.

Stanko’s protégés so impressed ECM boss Manfred Eicher, that in August 2004 he recorded the trio—now called the Marcin Wasilewski Trio—by itself. Released in 2005, Trio won the Quarterly Prize of the German Record Critics. It also prompted their friend and mentor Stanko to note, “In the entire history of Polish jazz we’ve never had a band like this one. They just keep getting better and better,” a view echoed by many critics. Perhaps one of the striking things about Wasilewski’s playing is his originality. Because of the reverence many Polish jazz musicians feel for American jazz (for historical reasons), many are content to play in the styles of the great American masters. Certainly this was true of Wasilewski in his formative years. “In the beginning we were focused on America, American playing,” he told Downbeat magazine in October 2008.

Increasingly, he has followed Stanko’s independent path, however, and would later credit both the trumpeter and producer Eicher for helping him shape his musical aesthetic. “We want to connect the European and American ways of playing,” he said in the same Downbeat interview, explaining that the “European way” was “Rubato tempo playing, more influence from classical music. More influence from different folk music—Bulgarian, Romanian, French and Norwegian. Polish, too.” But he is also a young man, aware of popular culture, which has colored his musical outlook through artists such as Björk (he performs her composition “Hyperballad” on Trio), the Cinematic Orchestra, Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, and Prince.

The trio recorded its latest ECM album, January, in 2007 in New York City. Released in January 2008, it was supported by the trio’s first US tour in May 2008, which opened at NYC’s Birdland. A follow-up tour is scheduled for November. Included on the album are four Wasilewski originals, a song by Prince, a group improvisation, and—at the urging of producer Eicher—a composition each from Gary Peacock and Carla Bley. It is also worth noting, as Wasilewski reveals in the interview that follows, his passion for the cinema, which is represented by his original composition “The Young and the Cinema"—named named after a festival of new Polish films held in Koszalin—and Ennio Morricone’s title theme for Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1988 film, Cinema Paradiso, itself a celebration of film.

Can we begin by talking about January? To me, it sounded a little bit looser and easier than Trio, which seemed to me more intense.

It’s hard to describe my own music or what we play. For sure, [January] is different from the first one for ECM [Trio], and I think it’s very good we change our playing, our approach. The recording is only two days of working and recording music. You close some period of preparing this music and playing this music in concerts before, because our idea is to make it this way because we know exactly this material. But we don’t know everything, every detail of performance, because the most important part is how you perform it. You can play whatever you want, the better if you know this piece or that. But, like I say, performing it is the most important. Like we didn’t know we would record the first piece on January [“Trio Conversation (Introduction)”]. We just did it. ‘What else do you have?’ Manfred asks, and Michal our drummer says, ‘Marcin, do you remember this piece?’ ‘What piece?’ ‘This.’ ‘Ah, okay.’ Right, we play this and we didn’t know exactly what was going to happen. The theme—we didn’t know how many times we would repeat it so we did four, we ended this like this, so it is important this particular moment during the recording session you need to catch the best atmosphere in the studio. It takes time.

I’ve noticed when you play live you seem to be more dynamic and maybe even more dramatic, so I wonder what effect the recording studio has on your musical outlook.

It is natural when you go to the studio you play less. I don’t know, the atmosphere of the studio? It’s like this. We’ve tried many times to play ‘more’ music, and then we’re listening and okay, you can do one, two pieces with a faster tempo, it depends also the mood, how interesting is the composition. But it is natural that the studio gives you more space and at the same time you play less; you treat much more seriously the whole touch of your fingers on the instrument. It is a kind of natural atmosphere in the studio, and then afterwards when you listen—not less is more, I don’t mean this, but it is better to listen to music when it’s less notes than if it is too much notes. So everything has to have sense … a concert situation it is a kind of show, and there are people who come for the concert you feel them, many, many bodies, many souls. And like I said, it is a show and you need to give them more energy, so it is more natural that the music is energetic. Plus, every concert is a different: the room, different sounds. Studio is different for me than the concert, so maybe this is why you have noticed this difference.

Yes, there is certainly a difference ....

Yes, but for me it doesn’t mean better or worse. Like I said, after all, I prefer to listen to music when you play less in the studio than too much. It’s more pleasant to listen. Of course, it depends on the musicians. Each musician has a different approach.

Will you talk about when you first started playing? I heard you once backstage warming up when I was interviewing Tomasz Stanko in London, and it was a classical piece I didn’t recognize.

Musical education, yes? I started learning music, studying music when I was seven. It was ground music school, then after eight years it became music high school, so twelve years I was in the same class as Slawomir [Kurkiewicz] on bass. At first he was a violin player. And me, from the beginning I studied piano—classical. So we did all this material: Bach, of course; sonatas of Beethoven; many, many waltzes and nocturnes of Chopin, Brahms, Mozart. And in the end I played even Gershwin: ‘Rhapsody in Blue!’ Many, many pieces I played. I don’t remember them all over this twelve years. When you are playing piano, you must know all these composers

When I was thirteen, even earlier, my uncle—brother of my mother—he was studying drums in jazz university, the only one then. Later, I studied there, as well. [When] I was seven, eight years old I was listening to a lot of tapes on Walkman, and I was fighting with my cousin who wants to listen, as well. Like kids we were playing, fighting each other. They were Keith Jarrett recordings, Kenny Kirkland recordings, Jack DeJohnette recordings, Pat Metheny recordings—all this great music from America, on different labels. We were listening to all these recordings of jazz music.

When I was thirteen, I decided to go to this jazz festival—Jazz Jamboree—in 1989, together with Slawomir. Together for first time we were listening live to great stars from America like Shirley Horn, Marlborough Super Band with Gene Harris, like Michael Brecker Quartet with young Joey Calderazzo. We heard Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, a lot of European stars, a lot of Scandinavian stars. And so that’s how it started. Every year we went to this festival, Jazz Jamboree in Warsaw, one of the oldest festivals in Europe. The first was in 1956. Now, of course, its changed, but at that time it was very important and every jazz scene was concentrated on this festival, and all the great musicians came. In 1993, after four years [attending as fans] we were invited to play, because by that time we had started playing jazz. In 1993 the festival invited us to open the festival, so it was a really big thing for us … that was how it really started for us, our excitement about jazz.

And your involvement with Tomasz [Stanko] brought you to a wider audience.

Yes. And then one year later, in 1993-94 we started to cooperate with Michal [Miskiewicz, the drummer]. We played again on the festival as a trio, as Simple Acoustic Trio, and then Tomasz Stanko called Michal and asked him to play with him, and asked him if he knew some bass players. And they did gigs without me, with a Polish piano player, but he played more keyboard, and I said, “Michal, tell him I am available!” And the next gig we played as a quartet, it was March 8, 1994, so that was the first gig with Tomasz. He invited us, engaged us more and more—different projects, different recordings, for theatre music, for TV programme. Then we started [playing] some gigs outside the country … . We were recording our CDs here in Poland [as the Simple Acoustic Trio]; we won a contest in Spain in Getzo [Jazz Festival] in 1996, a European competition in Spain. We were warming up and playing more and more with Tomasz, and finally he decided to take us for his next ECM release. It was 2001, Soul of Things.

And that is how it started, our adventure with ECM and now it's 2008. I have now done for this label eight CDs, including [albums by] Tomasz, and Manu Katché, and my own. It was the best way to develop the music, to really be on top form, try to do your best and be open …. When you meet Manfred Eicher he’s really into the music, a very experienced guy. And we were like so excited to work with this professional and really great producer. It was a really big thing, and a lesson. After first recording with Tomasz, he figured out that we can do something ….

We co-operate well in the studio, because its like two or three days and you have to make a CD. Thirty years ago, you did forty-five minutes maximum. Now in this time you do seventy, eighty minutes, it’s almost double. So it’s not really easy. I was wondering: I like shorter CDs so that way you can make more CDs, because you need only forty-five minutes and you can change the music more often. Anyway, seventy minutes is pretty hard work to record improvising music and make it interesting at the same time. But it [turned] out the first session was quite good, and quite promising for the future.

I saw an interview in October 2008’s Downbeat, and you spoke there about the influence of pianist and composer Krzysztof Komeda, which is perhaps not so surprising, but what I didn’t realize was that you had made an album, Komeda.

Yes, we did. It was our first CD—our debut [as The Simple Acoustic Trio] in 1995, I think, when we found ourselves with Michal. I knew already Slawomir quite well, so we were members of a workshop in Poland. It was really great …. [There were] Polish teachers and even some from Berklee School of Music. Meeting there were many, many students—about 300, 400—for two weeks, and everybody crazy about jazz, and all playing in jam sessions. One older [Polish] saxophone player, Jan “Ptaszyn” Wroblewski [who played with Krzysztof Komeda] gave us music of Krzysztof Komeda. I was already listening to Komeda on tapes, and his music was very interesting, magic. I really liked his compositions, very beautiful and very interesting. [They had] formal structures, and yet at the same time he can compose beautiful ballads and … much more modern forms like “Astigmatic,” “Kattorna,” “Svantetic;” ballads like “Lullaby,” “Ballada”—many, many compositions …. I felt it’s the best idea to record Komeda with all these tunes Wroblewski gave us. We had material ready to record, and we did it.

And of course, Astigmatic is now recognized as one of the first recordings—it was recorded in December 1965—where a distinctly European sensibility, or voice, began to emerge in jazz.

Yes, Astigmatic is a classic now, a very, very recognizable and very important recording. These three pieces [on the album—“Astigmatic,” “Kattorna” and “Svantetic”] we did, as well, and added some ballads. It was just natural way we should do this album, it was maybe not predicted, but a natural way it happened.

You are now a very busy musician. Can you tell us what you have been involved in during this last year or so, whether you still tour with Tomasz, or are you concentrating on developing your separate identity.

You mean now? This year we tour with Manu Katché, me and Slawomir; we recorded with him two CDs [Neighbourhood in 2005 and Playground in 2007, both on the ECM label]. On [Playground] we recorded with Mathias Eick on saxophone and Trygve Seim on saxophone, and we did around seventy concerts. This year started with the release of January in January. We did a German tour, a Polish tour, a couple of gigs in the Netherlands, then in March and April with Manu [Katché], and in May we did first part of the American tour with the trio, and now the second half of the American tour. We still co-operate with Tomasz Stanko—not as often as we did one or two years ago, but of course we still we do gigs with him

Tomasz is as busy as ever, though.

He told me that now he is doing “Many, many things,” and then he will look what is going to happen, so he is improvising with his projects!

What did you get from Tomasz, and what do you think me might have got from you?

Oh. This is not the first time I say this, but he is older than me, like thirty-three years, and he took us when we were really young. I was eighteen. I looked at him like he was the hero, he is my idol; I want to be the same when I get to his age. It was just exciting to play with him, to improvise, to talk through the music with him. We played many of his compositions. I love his style of composing, but many times after a theme there is nothing—not always, but usually there is nothing. There is a space to improvise, and at first I did not know what should I play, what to play. And he is really aggressive, really crazy, playing notes on his trumpet. He uses a lot of thought, but he is really crazy, the music he creates …. It was such a pleasure to talk with him through this music, and take from him this energy and power, and I tried to do my best and it was jazz. And he took from us, he was like a father, he drinks our blood and we drink his wine. He is older so it is like wine! And he is drinking our young blood.

You’re not getting younger! No longer the teenage jazz sensation, you’re now over thirty and must be an inspiration to younger Polish musicians as you’re getting a truly international reputation, so what of other pianists following in your footsteps …

Yeah, yeah,yeah! Thank you! You realize this, what you said, after thirty! When you are twenty, you can’t imagine you will be older and time is running. It’s the same for everybody, but when you are twenty you think different. You think you are the hero and you can’t be died! But I know some pianists really look at me, and they are trying to do … they’re not trying to do the same, but I am a person for whom they focus hard on their playing, and push hard, because I did the same when I was twenty. I still have to be focused on the future. Every time you go on stage you have to prove and play always the best you can. I like this opinion that you are as good a musician as your last sixteen bars. This is true. You have to always be warmed up.

There are other great young pianists. Leszek Mozdzer, who I know personally, is a very important pianist here in Poland ... I remember we started the same year—he played with Love, the band of a bass player from Gdansk. All the band were from Gdansk. I like his playing; [it’s] a little different. He is brilliant, I mean technically, but he is developing beautifully. I like the playing of my colleague Michal Tokag. He has a more straight focus on jazz, straight-ahead jazz, and there are some really fine younger musicians now coming through.

I know there is quite a depth of jazz talent in Poland.

Everything looks very, very good. There are more festivals, promoters doing concerts, very exciting young musicians coming through.

Finally, is music your one and only love? Are there any other loves in your life?

Oh! Of course, I have love for my mother, love for my sister, my sister’s kids. I love to watch movies. I participate in International Warsaw Film Festival; I saw about twenty movies from Sweden, from Finland, from Bulgaria, from Japan, from Mexico, from Germany—a beautiful mixture of different pictures; you can see different stories, and I was thrilled. I love to do this. Next year I will do the same, I will make time for this. I love books, I love women … many, many things I love, but music is my biggest love. A grand piano, I am just looking at a grand piano, and it is big and it is cold, so you have to warm-up your fingers so this instrument can respond well—the daily challenge.

Thank you for speaking to

Thank you.

November 29, 2008 · 1 comment


OctoJAZZarian Profile: Russell Garcia

For the first time in jazz’s brief century, many leading artists are staying active beyond their 8th decade. OctoJAZZarians is an on-going series celebrating these living legends, pioneers of the art from who were first hand participants in the evolution of America's greatest art form.

Our subject this month is arranger/composer Russell Garcia.

by arnold jay smith

                             Russell Garcia, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

“Is he still alive?” someone asked me after we'd just viewed the Anita O'Day bio pic, The Life of a Jazz Singer. The “he” in question is the arranger/composer Russell Garcia, one of the talking heads in the film, whose on-camera recollections about his experiences conducting and arranging for the oft-troubled Kenton and Krupa vocalist help make the lovingly produced film the masterpiece that it is.

Luckily, Russell (“Please call me Russ!”) Garcia is still very much with us. Garcia was born in 1916 in Oakland, CA (jeez, think WWI, for chrissake!). A busy Hollywood composer in his younger days, Garcia has written for so many films, I'll ask you to Google him rather than include a list here, lest I leave out something important. “I'll tell you this much,” he remarks half-jokingly, “There are about as many for which I didn't get credit.” That's because Garcia was also one of Hollywood's musical Mr. Fixits—a music doctor, called upon to clean up, smooth out, re-sequence, or do whatever it took to keep the screenplay and the soundtrack working together as they should. The Glenn Miller Story and The Benny Goodman Story are just two of the many famous films on which he worked without screen credit.

For our present purposes, however, we're interested in Garcia's jazz career…and what a career it's been. His résumé is studded with names like Stan Kenton, Buddy DeFranco, Roy Eldridge, Ray Brown, Maynard Ferguson and Frank Rosolino. He's worked with many of the greatest jazz instrumentalists and singers, thanks in part to his association with famed producer Norman Granz. Granz helped put Garcia on the jazz map when he hired him to arrange and conduct for the Ella Fitzgerald/Louis Armstrong Verve collaboration, Porgy and Bess, in 1957. Garcia also worked on other Granz-produced albums, among them records by O'Day and two delicious Oscar Peterson projects: one with strings, one without, each showing a different side of the masterful pianist.

Garcia and his wife, Gina—a former singer and now his lyricist—presently live in Kerikeri, on the North Island of New Zealand (they sailed there on a trimaran, but that's another story—one told by Gina in a book she wrote about the adventure). The couple visited the states recently for a concert of Garcia's original compositions, sung by vocalist Shaynee Rainbolt and arranged by Russ for a band that included four trombonists. The four-trombone sound is a Garcia trademark. One might refer to the music as “cabaret,” but I would instead call Garcia's tunes Salon songs delivered sans drama, as if they were done in a drawing room. Garcia's arrangements are fascinating, notably the rich harmonies and intersecting soli, executed by a stellar ‘bone team that featured John Allred and John Fedchock. Driving the band was drummer Ray Marchica, a regular with the Mike Longo State of the Art Jazz Orchestra. The tunes have been collected on a CD called Charmed Life: Shaynee Rainbolt Sings Russ Garcia.

Russ set aside some of his carefully rationed time to do this interview, first in a telephone conversation from the West Coast and later in Shaynee Rainbolt's Upper West Side apartment. Of course, the Porgy session with Satchmo and Ella was a topic. “After the first tune we did, Louis put his arm around me and said, ‘Russ, you are a genius, and if I ever get the money I'm putting you on staff.' He was already so rich, but he never gave a thought about money. His agent just gave him a few bucks whenever he needed. We'd record all day [in L.A.] and then he'd go down to Central Ave. and play all night. The next day he'd come in and there would be air coming out the sides of his lips. After some warm-ups he'd be ready to go. Quite a guy. I also conducted the Hollywood Bowl Symphony for him, and two other albums for Verve.”

According to Russ, the two stars couldn't have been more different. “Ah, Louis and Ella: sandpaper and whipped cream. Louis would walk into the studio accompanied by two or three guys carrying briefcases full of lip salve and such…and always Swiss Kriss, his world-famous laxative. I would joke and ask him if he checked the supply at Thrifty Drugs down the street.

“Ella, on the other hand, was so painfully shy that she'd panic prior to her takes. But once into it, she flowed. Ella was always arguing with someone—Ray Brown (her then-husband), or Norman. In Europe, she'd threaten to take the next plane home if she didn't get her way about something or other. Norman would slip the desk clerk $50 for her passport to keep her there. But they loved each other.”

Before the Armstrong/Fitzgerald Porgy, Garcia was the music director for another version of the Gershwin classic, on the Bethlehem label. That version featured “just about everyone on that label at the time,” Russ remembers. Contributing were such artists as Bob Dorough and the Australian Jazz Quintet (the latter included a bassoonist), vocalists Betty Roche, George Kirby, Johnny Hartman, and Joe Derise. Pat Moran and her Quartet joined in, and there was a suitably tongue-in-cheek narration by Al “Jazzbeaux” Collins. Mel Torme sang Porgy and Frances Faye sang Bess.

“We didn't skimp on backups, either,” Russ says. “There was a full string section [which included Felix and Eleanor Slatkin, the founders of the Hollywood String Quartet], horns, reeds [including Herbie Mann, Sam Most and Bill Holman], and percussion. Remember, this was Los Angeles. We had our pick of the best of the West.” The label director, Red Clyde, even included a version of “Summertime” which had been recorded by Duke Ellington some time prior. “We still cannot understand why [the husky-voiced] Frances played Bess and [the tenor-prone] Mel played Porgy instead of the other way ‘round,” Russ jokes.

Ira Gershwin was not always happy with jazz interpretations of his brother's music, particularly "Porgy." It may have had something to do with how the opera was initially received by the press; it was roundly panned. Sadly, George never lived to see its success. Ira "did not like the first [Bethlehem] version,” Russ says. “He also had misgivings about the way ‘Rhapsody In Blue’ was used in one of those Las Vegas nude-and-jewels revues. He threatened to sue if it wasn't removed. They called me in for a rewrite. I called it 'Rhapsody In Green.'” Russ was well paid for the effort.

The Garcia/Granz association developed over time. “I had established our relationship while doing recordings with Oscar Peterson and Buddy DeFranco,” Russ explains. “I had an idea for an album and went in to talk with him. After about two minutes he asked if I wanted a job [as an artists and repertoire man]. He already had his eyes on Switzerland [for his retirement, as well as] for tax purposes. ‘I feel I can trust you; you seem to have integrity,' he said to me. I told him that I was an arranger/composer and turned him down.” Granz persisted and “offered me so much money just to try it for a few months that I gave in.” Garcia had no office hours and “I could take as many outside jobs as I wanted.” The project proved successful. He remained with Verve for two years.

Granz's outspokenness and derring-do in support of the black musicians he employed is the stuff of legend. “One time Charlie Parker took a leak in public and was arrested,” remembers Russ. “Norman went down, paid everyone off, and Bird got off. Oscar Peterson told me about another time, when Ella was getting into a waiting cab. The doorman said he was holding it for someone [when he obviously wasn't]. Norman told her to get into the cab…the doorman put a gun into his stomach, saying ‘you're not getting into this cab.' At Norman's urging, Ella did anyhow.”

Over his long career, Russ played with some of jazz's leading lights, and has plenty of stories to tell. His admiration for Oscar Peterson is clear. “During one of Oscar's recording sessions at Capitol Records,” Russ relates, “Nat ‘King' Cole came over to him, and Oscar shook Cole's right hand while he continued to solo with his left hand. When the solo was over [and] the whole band applauded, Oscar had no idea why. He was every bit the improviser that Bach was. I took a phrase from one of his 'How High The Moon' solos and Bob Russell added lyrics. It's now the title tune from Charmed Life.“

As sometimes happens when working with great artists, things didn't always go as planned. “Then there were the trying times, when Anita or Stan Getz would come into the studio obviously under some influence or other,” Garcia says. “But they'd look great and play that way. I recorded Getz with a symphony orchestra. He'd never worked with so many strings before, and he panicked. But he was a great reader and had that innate sense of harmony. And perfect pitch, too.”

In addition to his work on motion picture scores and arrangements for artists both major and minor, Russ writes extended works in his spare time. “That began when I met Stan Kenton who asked me to write something,” Russ says. “'Stretch,' Stan said,” so that's what Russ did. The result was his “Variations for Flugelhorn, String Quartet, Bass and Drums.” “The audience went wild,” Russ remembers of the first performance, “except one woman sitting next to me, not knowing who I was, said, ‘they call this music?'“

As an arranger, Russ sometimes finds that less is more. “I was in the studio with Sarah Vaughan, who had perfect pitch,” he says. “I began the arrangement of “My Ship” with just her a cappella vocal. Then I added a bass line, then a celesta. Now, we had a full orchestra behind her. About that time, Billy May walked into the booth, looked around, listened, and said, 'Is this what they pay you $20 a page for?' The musicians seemed to be playing the rests.” Russ finds that each great vocalist approaches things differently. “Mel Torme would work out every detail before we recorded a note,” Russ remembers. “For Sammy Davis, Jr., on the other hand, we would just lay out the key and the tunes and he would say, ‘surprise me Russ.'“

Garcia was there at the dawn of the Swing Era, an era when jazz was actually the popular music in the U.S. “I was in Oakland with the Goodman band, and Bunny Berigan and I were talking,” Russ remembered. “He told me that the band was going to break up after our last date in L.A.” That last gig turned out to be Goodman's historic August 21, 1935 performance at the Palomar Ballroom, where the band played to a cheering throng of young bobby-soxers who knew the band from the Camel Caravan radio broadcasts. Legend has it that the Swing Era was born on the spot.

Russ was also involved in the career of a young pianist named Johnny Williams. “He was 16 when I first heard him and he was tearing up the piano both jazz and classical. I used him on the album Listen to the Music of Russell Garcia.“ Using his given name John, the youngster went on to have some success writing for motion pictures. And leave us not forget the Boston Pops.

During WWII Russ spent some time overseas, “winning the war single-handedly,” he kids. Meanwhile, key musical developments were happening back home. “I was on leave at a Red Cross center, having coffee and doughnuts, when I noticed some platters in the corner,” he says. “I put them on a phonograph, and it was some of the most astounding things I had ever heard.” It was one of the first Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker records. “I had missed all of that revolution, and it upset me.” At war's end, he was sent back to the U.S. and stationed at Fort Dix, N.J., not far from New York City. Despite being told not to leave the base, Russ and his buddies snuck under the fence as night fell, and hitchhiked into the city. “We landed on 52nd St. and stayed till closing, listening to Bird and Diz. Little did we know that Diz and I would become such good friends, strengthened by the fact that we are both Baha'i.” Russ tells a story that demonstrates Dizzy’s famous sense of humor. “Once, we were both backstage in Munich with George Shearing. Diz walks over to the [blind] pianist, puts his arm around his shoulders and says, ‘Probably nobody ever told you, but you're black.'“

As you might expect from an American who now lives on the other side of the globe, Russ Garcia is a citizen of the world. He's taught arranging at the Pori (Finland) Jazz Festival, and he's an honorary Professor of Modern Symphonic Techniques in Changchun, China. “The Chinese are so eager to learn that it's exciting to go there,” he says. “They are more capitalistic than we are. Some live in what we might consider hovels, but then you watch as in the morning the girls walk out of those places in heels, black business suits, immaculate hair and makeup on their way to some office.” Garcia's widely-used texts, the two-volume The Professional Arranger Composer, have been translated into six languages, including Finnish and Mandarin. His surname notwithstanding, Russell Garcia is not Latin, but mostly Irish. “So many bands have asked me to write Latin arrangements for them, that I finally gave up saying ‘no,' and I went down to some Latin Clubs on Sunset Boulevard and learned. As the Baha'i teach, there's only one race, the human race.”

Russ has always been in demand. “You can keep working if you can do anything in any style,” he says. “And that's what I do.” Russ is still around, all right. Of his longevity, he states—with tongue firmly planted in cheek—”Getting old is no big feat; it just takes time. “

CODA: A product of one of those only-in-America marriages, vocalist Shaynee Rainbolt calls herself “a Jewish Viking.” Together, she and Russ reworked music Garcia didn't even remember writing. “We did the tour to honor Russ. I love singing his music, his arrangements and Gina's lyrics. We're bringing his four trombones sound back, as well as the arrangements he did for Frances Fay and Anita O'Day, and the audiences appreciate that. On stage we tell stories as introductions. It all works.”

November 23, 2008 · 2 comments


In Conversation with Greg Osby

By Ted Panken

“When you look the music's lineage, the people that stand out have something that's their own, as unique as their vocal patterns,” Greg Osby told me a decade ago. “Hopefully I'll reach the point where people say, ‘I can recognize Greg Osby in two notes because nobody else approaches a song that way.’”

Now 48, Osby can reflect on an iconoclastic oeuvre, much of it documented on 13 recordings for Blue Note, with which he signed in 1991. It includes several pioneering attempts at mixing jazz and hip-hop aesthetics, a project framing his tart alto saxophone sound with strings, a two-sax pairing with tenor titan Joe Lovano, various acoustic quartet investigations of his structurally rigorous, off-kilter compositions, a burnout club performance, and several deconstructions of the jazz tradition.

                                     Greg Osby, by Jos L. Knaepen

He’s also brought his tonal personality to numerous encounters—duos with drum master Andrew Cyrille and impressionistic pianists Marc Copland and Masabumi “Poo” Kikuchi; ensembles with guitar harmony-master Jim Hall and rhythmically complex Turkish guitarist Timucin Sahin; jams with the Grateful Dead; and an Ali Jackson-led quintet with Wynton Marsalis. His bands have launched some of the next generation’s best and brightest, employing such present stars as Edward Simon, Jason Moran, Stefon Harris, Matt Brewer, Eric Harland, and Nasheet Waits early in their careers.

Now unattached to a mothership label, Osby, like many 21st century musician-entrepreneurs, has established his own imprint, Inner Circle, which he recently launched with 9 Levels, featuring a new sextet, and which he intends to sustain with releases that document younger talent, including several members from his group. In August, Osby debuted the sextet at the Village Vanguard. To publicize the occasion, he joined me at WKCR for a far-ranging conversation.

Let’s talk about your new group.

It’s yet another installment of young upstarts. I’m loath to use the term “up-and-coming,” because they’ve already arrived as far as I’m concerned. That’s actually what appealed to me, that they sounded so resolved in their musicality. They were the missing pieces to the puzzle. Interestingly, I don’t have to search for people any more. They find me. Every day, I’m getting solicitations from young players who either want me to evaluate what they do, or want to play with the group, or want some kind of commentary. Every day, so many great talents come across my desk. I wish I could employ them all, because the cup runneth over with talent out there. I do what I can.

You haven’t worked with a vocalist in about 20 years, since Cassandra Wilson sang on some of your records, then there’s piano and guitar, plus bass and drums. So it must be a nice prod to get into your mad scientist thing, working out tunes and sonic combinations for this ensemble.

It’s been a while since I heard a vocalist who had the dexterity, the attack, and just the complete musicianship of a Cassandra Wilson. Right now, we’re in an era where they’re embracing a lot of female vocalists. But it’s dangerously teetering on the precipice of the “chick singer,” the flame-siren-vixen sitting on the piano kind of thing, as opposed to women who really can sing instrumentally, like Sarah Vaughan or Carmen McRae or Betty Carter or Abbey Lincoln—singers that are instrumental as well as vocal. My current singer, Sara Serpa, is from Portugal—Lisbon. I met her on MySpace. We had mutual friends, then I saw her, then I clicked, I listened, and I was floored. I contacted her, and she responded immediately. She’s more or less the second horn. It’s not so much words and lyrics, but really she gets inside the music. She learns all of the intricate melodies. Harmonically, she can negotiate chord changes and progressions just like an instrumentalist.

You were using guitar in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s with Kevin Bruce Harris, but not so much in about a decade. Given your past proclivities, I imagine they’d negotiate different roles within the ensemble from piece to piece.

Well, a lot of guitarists don’t like to play with pianists, because they navigate the same territory, and there’s a lot of conflict in terms of chords and comping and role playing. Here I’ve assigned people to stay within certain ranges, and they have very specific material that they adhere to and certain particulars that they work within, so they won’t violate territory or turf, musically speaking.

Adam Birnbaum is a Boston native. He plays in and around New York. I think he has a regular daily hotel gig. He’s an amazing stylist. On guitar I have Nir Felder, who’s from upstate New York. He’s also a Berklee College of Music graduate, and he’s an amazing talent on guitar. I can’t even describe it, and I don’t want to use the same terminology that irks me, so I’ll just say he’s one for the years.

Our young drummer, Hamir Atwal, is a Bay Area native. He’s also a Berklee College of Music student that I heard last year when I was doing a residency there for one week, and I said, “I’m going to use him immediately.” The bassist, Joseph Lepore, is from Italy. He’s been living in New York over ten years, and has a big, rich, reverberant sound. I need that bottom to support the structures. I don’t need a notey bass player or someone who plays all the time and just bombards the music with those frequencies, but someone who’s as complementary as a front line musician.

What’s the median age of this group, the leader excluded?

I would say around 28.

It’s an ethnically and probably socially diverse group as well.

Oh, yeah. An Italian, a Portuguese, one of Israeli descent, another of American-Jewish descent, Hamir is half-Filipino and half-Indian. So yeah, we are the world. It’s like United Colors of Benetton!

In the Times review of your Tuesday performance, Nate Chinen used the word “postmodern” to describe the group. What I’d read into that is that these are players who are familiar with a very broad range of vocabulary, and can access any dialect in an almost modular way to suit the dictates of the moment. That’s been a component of your compositional and musical thinking since you emerged as a composer in the mid ‘80s with your recordings on JMT.

It’s a hybrid of sorts. The compositions comprise a host of particulars that I have embraced, and hopefully developed some of them through my travels and through my needs as a composer and a musician. I had to put myself in an environment that I think is provocative for me, that prods me, and also makes the musicians think. You have to analyze the music, make deductions, and figure out what you can do within a certain sonic set. That prevents people from playing the same thing twice, playing stock phrases, being too comfortable. I like that phrase Milt Jackson used when he said, “It’s like walking on an oil slick on a sheet of black ice on a bed of marbles.” With that kind of thinking, you stay on your toes. It works for me.

You said a lot of young musicians want to play with you. What qualities in your music appeal to them?

The first thing that appeals to them is that they know I’ll let them play. It’s not a one-man show. It’s not about me and they are the support system. It’s a group effort. It’s a collaborative. I allow their voices to be heard and allow them to develop, too. I don’t admonish people and browbeat them for making mistakes or doing the wrong things. They have to find their way, just as I found my way.

I would safely say that I cut my teeth in Jack DeJohnette’s band. He was the archetype leader in that he nurtured by staying out of your way. He was very hands-off, but he led and he conducted. There was no intervention in terms of, “well, do this and don’t do that” or “your gig is in jeopardy” and so on. They know that a lot of people have come through my band and are doing very well now, and they know that I’ll allow them to do things that may be unorthodox or outside of what’s common to these types of presentations. That if it works, we’ll incorporate it, and make it part of the repertoire and part of that expression. I’m not trying to approach this in an educational fashion, like, “Okay, this is the University of the Streets and we’re going to play. . ." I’m learning just as much as they are. I’m enjoying it, and I still have the enthusiasm. Some of these players have so much to offer. They’re so learned and so accomplished in what they say as musicians. I’m all ears as well. I’m soaking it in, too.

This new recording also signifies an economic transition for you. After 17 years as a Blue Note artist, that relationship is severed. A lot of the records are out of print. You’re starting a new label, bringing you into the ranks of musician entrepreneurs, an ever more common job description. How’s it working out?

These seeds have been sown for a while. It’s only recently that they’ve actually germinated and blossomed. But it’s something that I’ve always planned to do. It’s just the natural order of things, especially today. Blue Note—they gave me a clean slate to express myself, and I have nothing but good things to say about them. But at the end, record sales weren’t what they could or should have been, and I guess my commentary or suggestions weren’t heeded or recognized as valid, because I’m the artist. That’s when the end comes. The records aren’t moving and you’re dissatisfied. Then also, the tide is turning. The whole climate is. . . .

Internet, downloading, and you’ve been at the top of that curve. You’ve been offering downloads for the last several years.

Well, that, too. I mean, aesthetically, here I am at Blue Note Records, and it represents. . . the things that are being produced. . . It was just time.

So is there an overall aesthetic to your label?

Absolutely. It’s called Inner Circle Music, named after my favorite Blue Note recording, called Inner Circle. The Inner Circle was a band with Jason Moran and Tarus Mateen, and either Nasheet Watts or Eric Harland, and Stefon Harris. We were on the road constantly in all our various groups, and it was interchangeable. The only thing that would change would be whoever was leading the group. I decided to document it with a series of compositions that celebrated that union. So here I am now, with Inner Circle Music. All music in an era is dictated either by a sound or a variety of integers and compounds that give it a sound, that mark it or date it. Then some writer gives that sound a name, be it “swing,” “dixieland,” “post-bop,” “hard bop,” “avant-garde,” “M-Base”—or “postmodern” you said. . . .

Did a writer give “M-Base” the name?

No, no. We were in control of that.

Thank you. Don’t blame everything on us.

I wanted to have a record company that mirrored both the Strata-East umbrella structure as well as United Artists, where the artists were in control of their own destiny. Here the artists make contributions financially, business-wise, promotionally—they really get in the trenches. To keep the overhead low, everyone has to have roles and you have to delegate duties and responsibilities to everybody. That way you can keep things moving. It also gives them more incentive if they have a financial stake.

Have you toured with this group?

We haven’t toured. This week is our first hit as an ensemble since the recording. We’re on to Chicago after this, and some other things. But it’s deep, keeping the band together, keeping them working, keeping them occupied and stimulated. What did Dizzy say? The best way to keep a working band is to keep the band working. Or vice-versa. Kind of like keeping the landlady happy. They will bounce on you. They will go to other places. I have had other band members either stolen or just yanked out from underneath me. . . .

Evolved to the next phase might be a way of putting it.

                    Greg Osby, by Jos L. Knaepen

Yeah. Financial needs prevail, and people need to pay the bills. My band is considered an art band. You can work and you can express yourself, but you won’t make a windfall of money at the beginning. But as soon as the momentum starts to happen, people defect. It’s just the way it goes.

You were born in 1960. So you’re the same age as Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Donald Harrison, Wallace Roney, Jeff Watts, Marvin Smitty Smith, people who got tagged in the ‘80s as the “young lions,” that ill-fated term, and have gone on to do many different things and transcend those labels. When you yourself were in your twenties, you played with Jon Faddis and Jack DeJohnette and Andrew Hill, and gigged with Herbie Hancock and Muhal Richard Abrams, and were affiliating in collectives with Steve Coleman and Robin Eubanks and Geri Allen. How were people in your generation different in sensibility and attitude than musicians coming up now? Or were you? Can you pinpoint ways in which your ideas about music were shaped by the environment in which you came up? Some of those dynamics don’t exist for musicians today.

That’s exactly the point. The situation in New York was a lot more vibrant when we arrived in town. There were a number of jam sessions on any night. You could bounce around and hear the new cat off the bus, so to speak, to see if they would do the make it or break it thing. You’d hear about someone blowing everyone away at a previous night’s jam session, and you would go out to hear for yourself. Then after all the sets at the major clubs, people would either go to Bradley’s or to these various jam sessions. A lot of veteran players would come to these sessions unannounced, and you would sit and get an earful. Then also, during the day, it was very common to have jam sessions at our respective apartments. So there was always something happening in a progressive sense. Now the musicians are a little more desperate. They’re a lot more proficient, mind you, because there’s a lot more intellectual access, so they learn more rapidly. But they don’t have the vehicles and venues for expression. Now it’s a scramble: “What shall I do now? Now I have a degree. Now I have these professional particulars and variables, and I’m ready to do it, but where shall I do it? Where shall I find employment? How shall I get the break? How shall I get people to become interested in what I’m doing?” This is their dilemma.

What did you think New York would be like?

Of course, you have this ideal of the utopian metropolis—bustling with ideas and support and progressive minds and that type of thinking. You’re going to descend upon the scene with what you do, and take the whole thing by storm. This is what everybody thinks. It’s the big-fish-in-the-small-pond thing. You’re the best cat in whatever university or conservatory or hometown situation, then you come to New York and you find that whole dream immediately shattered. You find that there are a lot of people who not only are as good or better than you and have more experience, but also have better connections, for whatever reason, be it where they’re from, or who they know, or whatever. So now you have to start at the bottom, and you have to establish a reputation. You have to meet people and network and find some other like-minded folks who will help you to see your vision through.

Who was your first clique when you got here?

When I first got to town, I was playing with Jon Faddis at the Village Vanguard, and I guess someone had told Steve Coleman, there’s some guy who plays alto and he. . .

Had Faddis met you in college?

I was studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. I think he played up there, and then I sat in. That was a Friday. That Monday, his manager called and said, “We’re going on the road, let’s do it.” I didn’t need a second invitation. That’s how that happened. Immediately, the first week I came, and we were at the Village Vanguard, right out of school. This was a dream come true. Fortunately, I was ready. I was a good reader, played various saxophones, and knew the bebop repertoire. I think he wanted somebody who wasn’t really knee-deep in the scene, who was better known than he was, or would compete for attention.

Anyway, someone told Steve Coleman, “Yeah, there’s a cat who sounds like you.” So when you hear that, you think, “Let me go see for myself.” Both he and Cassandra Wilson came to the Vanguard, and we struck up an immediate friendship. We talked outside the club until sunup, and found out we had a lot of common ground. I went home and slept a couple of hours, and then he called, and we talked again for another five hours about, “What do you aspire to do? What is your vision? What are your long term goals?” Things like this. We mutually agreed that we needed to engage in some kind of musicians’ collective where people could freely talk about music, bring new compositions, talk about approaches to improvisation as well as composition, and also to school each other on business. We also agreed that business was the main reason why many of our predecessors had led lives as paupers, even though they were amazing contributors to the music. They always had to have a benefit to pay for hospital bills or whatever, they had no insurance, no holdings, no real estate, nothing. So we needed to school each other on that, as well as the particulars of music business law, negotiating, recording techniques—all the things that a musician should know. Unfortunately, many musicians stopped short. They say, “Okay, I can write, I can improvise,” but they don’t learn everybody else’s role. So therefore, they are led around and they just sign on the dotted line, they say yes to everything, without really knowing the fundamentals of survival and business.

So these were ideas you were thinking about as a student.

Absolutely. I was always like that.

Is that innate? Were there things happening in St. Louis, where you grew up, that influenced you that way? People you encountered in college?

Actually, fear of failure made me think about these things. I would look around the environment where I was from, and you saw so much depravity and so much blight. As a youth, I said, “I’m not going to be about this. I’m from here, and I can recognize it, but I have to step above it. Otherwise, I can’t help anyone else and I certainly can’t help myself.” I don’t understand why a lot of young people say, “Yeah, I’m from the streets. I’m the ‘hood.” That’s really nothing to be proud of. So fear of not being able to leave or do better for myself, made me go to the library on my own, without any prodding from anybody else. I have to learn about these things, and I have to learn about the world and learn how to relate to people. I talked about that way back.

It’s tempting to think of this loosely formed consortium of musicians that convened together under the name M-Base as a 1980s descendant of Chicago’s AACM and St. Louis’ Black Artists Group, but in reality, neither you nor Steve Coleman had that much contact with either the AACM, in his case, or with the Black Artists Group, in your case. Or am I wrong?

Not at that time. I mean, I certainly heard the Black Artists Group as a youth in St. Louis. But I didn’t know what was going on. I would climb this building and hang onto the bars of the window, and I would look in, and I saw Hamiet Bluiett and I saw Floyd LeFlore. . . . I saw those cats, wearing, like, big straw hats and dashikis and real tie-dye kind of stuff. It was loft scene stuff, the REAL stuff, in warehouses. I would ride my bike down there. So maybe that. . .

It rubbed off.

Yeah, maybe it did. Because now Bluiett is one of my best friends, and Murray, all those cats. So I guess it did plant some kind of seed back then. But we also fashioned that collective off George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic, the big umbrella structure where there would be one mass group and a lot of mini-groups that resided up under it. So you would have interchangeable personnel on each other’s projects that would give it a sound and be a glue that held everything together. So there were other models.

Mentioning George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic as a model segues to another question. When you think about the enduring legacy of M-Base in the ‘80s, on a superficial level the most obvious component would be the rhythmic innovations of that period, bringing hip-hop and funk rhythms into jazz flow, working kind of in parallel with musicians familiar with Afro-Caribbean rhythms doing the same thing. Then in the ‘90s, people started intermixing and intermingling all those rhythmic structures, Steve Coleman not least among them. Can you speak to the process by which you worked out and conceptualized those ideas within your own musical production?

It’s important for me that the musical environments I place myself in be inclusive and encompass the values that I consider essential for thinking and progress. I would never want to be involved in something so predictable and rote that people can anticipate what’s going to happen, anticipate the moves or decisions you’re going to make. So it’s important to set up a host of variables and parameters that disallow the same choices, with each cycle, with each generation. This strategy is very deliberate. Each composition has a point—either rhythmic, harmonic, or structural—that I’m trying to make. We deal with different structures that aren’t necessarily chords—voicings that are derived from purely rhythmic means, mathematical means; different weights and depths; different balances. But you’re always trying to mold these theorems into something that sounds musical, because otherwise it sounds solely technical, left brain, and analytical.

Well, that was a criticism at certain points.

Right. Well, that’s going to happen, and that’s inevitable when you’re experimenting. These sounds tend to be foreign, they’re not very familiar to people, and they are works in progress, so they may not be fully resolved. In the process, there will be hurdles, there will be mistakes, and there will be complete failures. But even those failures will eventually yield triumphs if you stick to it. Also, a lot of the things you work on, you realize you have to abandon, because nothing fruitful is going to come from it. You can’t put a square peg in a round hole.

But you can’t figure this out unless you take to its conclusion. There’s beta-testing to know you can’t use something.

Of course. The admonishment of the critics, and the thumbs-down, and the negative stars in the polls, and the dark reviews and all. . . Anybody who I champion, certainly, turned a dear ear to that.

You’ve been playing two nights with this band. Did the music change from Tuesday to Wednesday? Do you want your music to be mutable? Are you looking for that?

Most definitely. Each night it ascends to a higher rung on the ladder. It’s great to witness the growth and development of a new band, to see these young personalities blossom, as they climb the stairs towards realizing themselves and who they are as artists. Again, my personal frustration is that I don’t see it often enough. I wish the scene was as bountiful as it was when I got to town, so I could go out to see what the new arrivals have to say, then see some of them run home with their tail between their legs, and then emerge again and redevelop. Sometimes people need that kind of shaming to get the lesson. Or you need the scolding of a Betty Carter or an Art Blakey or an Elvin Jones or a Max Roach, as elders, to put you in your place and let you know that either you’re not ready, or you have things to work on.

Did anybody fill that role for you?

Not in New York. But before I got to New York, in St. Louis as a teen. The elders were very intolerant and unyielding in their position as caretakers of the scene, and they didn’t let things go by.

Who were some of those people?

Willie Akins. Freddie Washington. Both are tenor players. Other players. They said, “Look, man, you’ve got to get out of there.” I’ve had the band stopped on me. “Stop. Get outta here. You don’t know what you’re doing?” I’ve had bombs dropped on the drums, they hit the snare really hard or hit a cymbal really hard, or they’ll just like lay out, or start playing really soft, and then you’re just out there. You’re young, you’re arrogant, you don’t know what you’re doing. Then you don’t come back until you’ve learned THAT. Then there are other lessons to learn.

I actually sat in with Sonny Stitt when I was 17. I could play blues. He said, “Well, young man, what would you like to play?” I said, “I’d like to play a blues.” But I only knew blues in a couple of keys. So of course, Sonny Stitt being who he was, he played it in a very, very difficult and obscure key.

Then he probably transitioned to another one.

Man! So that let me know. You just can’t coast. You have to learn how to access everything on your instrument, and be able to adjust in a variety of contexts. It was tough love. We don’t have enough of that, because right now, younger players are being embraced right out of school, with no training, no apprenticeship, they don’t go on the road. They get record deals. . . .

Your generation was accused of those sins as well.

Yeah, but the thing was, we still had the benefit of being apprenticed. I started out with Faddis and Dizzy and all these people, and Steve Coleman at the time was playing with Abbey Lincoln and Thad Jones. Cassandra Wilson was playing with Henry Threadgill, and Geri Allen was playing with Oliver Lake as well as James Newton. So it still was happening. They still would allow us to sit in. George Coleman, Cedar Walton, Lou Donaldson, other people, would let you sit in until you were too disruptive or proved you weren’t ready. But fortunately, a lot of us were conservatory-trained. We had gone to Berklee or Oberlin or Manhattan School of Music or North Texas State or various places. A lot of people were prepared.

Which is a dynamic that may differentiate you from previous generations—that conservatory background.

Well, by the time I got in school, they did have jazz programs. Prior to that, you could get kicked out of school playing jazz—even a music school.

There were some in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, but the real burgeoning began with the class you entered school with.

Right. It was a great time to be in school, and everyone was New York-minded. This was the ultimate destination. So everyone played and carried on and had the profile of somebody who was en route to New York. We did our jam sessions on a very competitive and furious level. We practiced all day and all night, every moment. All the drummers would walk around playing air drums. All the trumpet players and trombone players would walk around buzzing on their mouthpieces. All the saxophone players always had a neckstrap on. All the piano players were stretching their arms and doing finger exercises and things. People knew there was a slim chance, but possibly a chance that you could land a gig with somebody and go on the road and see how it was done. By and by, that dried up, and Bradley’s closed, which was the end of everything, as far as I’m concerned. That was the end.

October 1996. That was the end.

That was the end. That was the all-night hangout spot where you could go hear amazing music being played, up-close and personal, and then you turn around and there’s George Benson sitting next to you, then Freddie Hubbard will come in, Horace Silver is over there. . . . It was amazing. I like to talk about the many nights that I saw the piano roundtable go down, where the John Hicks Trio might be playing, then Kenny Barron would come in, and he might play “Round Midnight”—he’d play a few choruses, then Roland Hanna may play a few choruses, then Cedar Walton may play a few choruses, then Mulgrew Miller and James Williams and Donald Brown. You might hear 5 or 6 pianists play the same song, and it might go on for like an hour or two. You’re sitting there with your mouth open. It’s like a university education in the night. You’ll sit there and talk to various people. Stanley Crouch is holding court. So you get an earful of stories and anecdotes.

Many levels of humanity in that place.

Absolutely. But it was great. That was jazz to me. That’s why I came to New York. “Mr. Coleman, can you tell me. . .”—and George Coleman would indulge you. You could sit and talk to anybody. Can you imagine? John Hicks. Just the stories. That was the end.

Then a lot of the jam sessions closed up, too. Unfortunately, musicians during Reaganomics, they weren’t making a lot of money, so a guy would buy a beer and be at the jam session for five or six hours, and he’d still have that same beer—it would be still two-thirds full. He couldn’t afford to buy anything else. Those places couldn’t afford to stay open, when people were holding up the wall, so to speak. I really miss it. I miss seeing people get embarrassed. I miss seeing people just get smoked on the bandstand. They need to know that they’re not ready, that they need to practice, that they don’t have the particulars to make it on the competitive New York stage. Without that, you have whole legions of people who aren’t ready but don’t know that they’re not ready. You’d go to the Jazz Cultural Theater, and Barry Harris would be there, or Jaki Byard. Anybody would walk in. Clifford Barbaro. Betty Carter would come and say, “Honey, you need to go back to Cleveland or Arkansas or wherever you’re from; you need to work.” You NEED this. We don’t have it. You don’t have Art Blakey playing two weeks in a row at Sweet Basil or Mikell’s or wherever. You can go every night, and he may let you sit in, and you get to hear some amazing jazz with people your age. Or you go to the Blue Note and play at Ted Curson’s jam session. This is before you had to sign your name and wait all night, and get to play one solo. Or you’d go to the Star Café on 23rd Street. Or you’d go to the 7th Avenue South, when the Brecker Brothers had that club, and you could hear that kind of jazz. David Sanborn might be there, Hiram Bullock, Steve Gadd, Steve Jordan, Michael and Randy or whatever. Or Grand Street. Greene Street. There were so many places.


Yeah, hangs. Not only there, but you would see so much great music on the street. Arthur Rhames. Vincent Herring was 17 years old, playing out in Times Square. George Braith, with his dual saxophones welded together, the Braithophone, would be in front of the public library on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. This was before policemen started confiscating musicians’ instruments. They would take cats’ stuff, then demand that they get a laminate and a peddler’s license, just like a hot-dog cart guy. You could hear music all the time everywhere.

I don’t want to reminisce like it was the glory days, and I think it can happen again. I just think younger players need to get back into the idea of having jam sessions at their houses, and really twisting each other’s arms, and getting out, and just being more enthusiastic about it, more creative, and take more chances, more risks, and stop playing it safe. Otherwise, we won’t get anywhere.

Interview notes: Greg Osby was interviewed on WKCR by Ted Panken on August 7, 2008.

November 16, 2008 · 2 comments


In Conversation with Joe Locke

by Eugene Marlow

It’s not easy squeezing dynamics out of a percussion instrument such as the vibraphone. But to watch Joe Locke play the instrument with his nuanced four-mallet technique is to realize it can be done.

When you’re good, you’re good. But when you’re Joe Locke your skill and musicianship are reflected in a prolific career. Locke has released more than 25 recordings as a band-leader. His most recent offering, Force of Four (Origin 2008) with Robert Rodriguez (piano), Johnathan Blake (drums), and Ricardo Rodriguez (bass) has been virtually universally praised. Locke has also appeared on almost 100 albums as a guest artist.

               Joe Locke (Photo by Alexandros Lambrovassilis)

As a jazz musician, Locke was precocious, having played with such luminaries as Dizzy Gillespie, Pepper Adams, and Mongo Santamaria very early in his career. Since moving to New York City in 1981, Joe has performed or recorded with Grover Washington Jr., Kenny Barron, Dianne Reeves, Eddie Daniels, Jerry Gonzalez's Fort Apache Band, Rod Stewart, The Beastie Boys, Eddie Henderson, Hiram Bullock, Bob Berg, Ron Carter, Jimmy Scott, Geoffrey Keezer, The Mingus Big Band, Randy Brecker, Russell Malone, the Moutin Brothers, and the Trio Da Paz, among many others.

He has also toured extensively. At the time of this interview, 49-year-old Locke had just returned from a concert trip to the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat, Israel.

It was an incredible trip. It was my first time to Israel and it was fantastic.

Why did you go there?

I went with Edmar Castaneda, the Colombian jazz harpist. I've been doing some touring with him. I've been doing some festivals and performances with the trio. We had a wonderful, wonderful time at the Red Sea Jazz Festival. It was fantastic.

What kind of audience did you have?

We had a big, enthusiastic audience for two concerts. Main stage performance. Really, really incredible enthusiasm, incredible energy. The audiences there are just wonderful and receptive.

You're a world traveler, you've been all over in your career. Do you find the international audiences are more sophisticated and more appreciative of the music than American audiences?

I think you have to look individually at each place you go. You can't just say audiences other than America are better than America. You have to look individually at specific places. I say that because I just came from Eilat, Israel. It's a time right now for jazz there in that country. There is some good energy happening around jazz there now. There was an amazing amount of young people there who were knowledgeable, excited, turned on, enthusiastic about jazz. And so the result of that was this incredible return of energy back to the stage. We give off a lot of energy when we play and to have that energy returned to you in kind from the audiences is really an amazing experience.

Why is that?

I would need to spend more time there to discover why. I really am not sure why. But there's energy around jazz. There's an amazing amount of talent coming out of Israel right now, amazing amount of talent. I spoke to a professor at the Berklee School of Music (Boston) who said maybe 50% of their students and scholarship students are coming from Israel. And if you look at the New York scene it helps me to understand why. There was just an article recently about the influx of Israeli jazz musicians who are making an impact on the New York scene. When you go there and see the amount of talent that's living there and the energy around the music, you understand why there's such an influx into New York of these Israeli talents. I don't know why it's happening, but it's definitely happening.

So, to answer your question about audiences elsewhere, the audiences in Israel were great. I also play in Italy a lot. And there are enthusiastic audiences in Italy. I just played in Paris, France with the Moutin Brothers on the 10th anniversary of the Moutin Reunion Quartet. And there was a wonderfully enthusiastic audience. But that really speaks not just to the popularity of the Moutin Brothers, François and Louis. They are one of my favorite bands currently playing in jazz right now. We did a 10th anniversary concert at the La Cigale in Paris.

I'm just wondering whether or not globally there's more of an interest in jazz than there is in the United States. As I'm sure you know, in the United States jazz is suffering, jazz radio is shrinking. There seems to be a shrinking audience for jazz in the United States. I'm wondering how you respond to that.

It's unfortunate. It's definitely true. I wonder why in Israel there is such an energy and positive life force around this music and in the U.S. it seems to be dwindling. You know it's really a shame. And it's at a time unfortunately when there are more great young players in America than there ever has been. The amount of talent and the bar musically is so high right now, higher than it's ever been. And the amount of creativity, and the amount of talent, and the amount of incredible players are more than ever. And there are less and less places to play.

I base this on conversations I've had with people like Terry Gibbs and Mongo Santamaria, and Dizzy Gillespie over the years just talking about what their schedules were touring. Terry Gibbs told me that he would start in New York and play for three weeks at Birdland and then go on to Chicago and do a six-week run there, and then go to Seattle and do four weeks there, and then go to the west coast and do three weeks at a club, four weeks at another club. By the time they got back to New York it was almost the beginning of the next year and time to start over again. The musicians would work maybe 40 of the 52 weeks. We're talking six days a week with two shows on Saturday or Sunday.

It's difficult to string together a series of one-nighters now. And yet it speaks to the power of the music. The music continues to grow in spite of the fact that there's just not much of an audience. So the music continues not only to endure, but to flourish and to grow and to evolve. I think that says a lot to the power of the music and the musicians playing it. By any means necessary the musicians are going to forge ahead. I’ve never put that sentiment into words before, but it says a lot about the power of the music at a time when the cultural bar is just dropping. I think people are affected by popular culture. Jazz should be part of the popular culture. Jazz is, has been, and should be part of the popular culture. It should be a music that reflects what is happening now.

I'd like to shift gears. I've seen you perform a couple of times and I've seen other vibists like Milt Jackson with the Modern Jazz Quartet, Gary Burton, Cal Tjader, and more recently Stefon Harris.

Oh, yeah, all the greats.

Not only do you play great notes and great lines, but there's a great deal of showmanship to your performance. It's not just you coming out with your mallets and you play, it's a show with a great deal of personality, not only in your playing, but also your body language and how you relate to the audience. Where does it come from?

The showmanship, quote, unquote, is not a pre-meditated intention that I have. The physicality of my playing is a result of trying to get the notes out. I'm playing a four-mallet grip. It takes a lot of strength, it's very physical. In order to play the lines I play with the energy in the moment that I need. It's very physical. And so if it comes across as showmanship, then so be it. But it's the physicality. I'm in the moment when I'm playing. So whatever physicality is happening there is a reflection of me playing the instrument and getting the notes out.

My personality is my personality. I'm a very social creature. I'm an outgoing person, although I have a dark side. So I need to be happy. I need to express joy because I spend a part of my waking hours in a dark place, to be perfectly honest. I have a dark side and I struggle with it. So when I'm playing music that's my time to be in a joyful space. And I need to be in that joyful space. So I'm expressing that when I'm playing and it is very important to me. It's not about showmanship. The term showmanship seems almost like it's, of course, you weren't saying it in that way, but it seems to me, it almost sounds like a pejorative to me. And for me it's my connecting to the music or to the audience and the musicians I'm playing with is something very, very important to me and something I need to be a happy human being.

I appreciate that response. When I heard you play in Rochester, New York, at the Radio Programmers Conference in June (2008), you made a very interesting remark, and I presume you were referring to your much younger years when you were practicing, when you were woodshedding. You said there was no guarantee that what you were practicing in your room was going to be heard anyplace else. I'm paraphrasing.

No, that's almost exactly right. That's exactly what I said, that there is no guarantee. The ability to play and to do this for a living is such a gift, it's almost immeasurable it's such a gift. Although I still have goals I haven't attained, if I look at things with clarity I feel like I've won the lottery at its highest, when the bank is at the fullest, I've won the lottery. This life in music I have is beyond the wildest dreams that I aspired to when I was a kid practicing in that bedroom. And there was no guarantee that any of that work was going to go past those four walls.

Where were you born?

I was born in Palo Alto, California, but I left when I was a year old and moved to Rochester, New York where I grew up.

So when you come to Rochester you come home. When did you first feel the musical impulses?

I was 7, 8, and I was tinkering at the piano. We had a piano in our house and I was fooling around with melodies. And then I wanted to play the drums. Then I took lessons with Sister Silvia at Blessed Sacrament School. She was about 88 years old and she taught all the musical instruments. I don't think she really played any of them. I think she'd study up the night before on whatever instrument she had to teach the next day and then she'd impart what she learned the night before to the student. I had a little red snare drum and I'd take my lesson with Sister Silvia. I got more into the drums and more into the piano, and the vibraphone was a perfect median between the two. I considered myself a percussionist and I was a drummer, but I was really into playing piano and into playing melodies.

Why did you gravitate towards jazz? You could have been a classical player?

I was into making things up, always. I started writing. I was writing my own songs early on and picking out things I heard on records and heard on the radio and picking out melodies. I gravitated to improvisation from almost the beginning.

Who were you listening to at that point?

When I was a kid I was listening to rock and roll. When I was 12 to 16 I was playing drums in a rock and roll band with older musicians and writing original rock music. Then, like most people my age, I got to jazz from listening to fusion music, from listening to Weather Report and Chick Corea and Return to Forever, Herbie Hancock, Headhunters, and going backwards and finding this saxophone player, Wayne Shorter, who’s in Weather Report, and found he played with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and had records of his own on Blue Note. And so I would go back, I would do the research and find out that there was this world of music of acoustic jazz that I came to through the door of fusion music, actually from rock and roll to fusion to acoustic jazz.

Did you study formally anyplace?

My story is kind of unusual. My father was a classics professor, that is, a professor of ancient Latin and Greek. They say in other articles on me that my father was a classical music teacher. He was a classics professor.

I'll try to get that right.

And he was teaching at the University of Rochester that the Eastman School of music is affiliated with. Because he was a professor at the school, I got a discount on lessons in what is called the preparatory department of the Eastman School of Music. So the whole time I was in junior high school and high school I studied privately at the Eastman School of Music. I got a real good education studying with the same professors, teachers that a lot of the college students would study with. I got to study with John Beck and some amazing people, and Bill Dobbins. But by the time I was a week out of high school I was already on a road with a band. So I didn't do a college degree. I became a professional directly out of high school.

Lots of folks didn't finish college degrees and have been very successful, Bill Gates of Microsoft among them.

I think you get to the music however you get to it. And now I'm on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music (New York City) and I just joined the faculty of the Royal Academy of Music in London. So I'm not feeling bad about my lack of a degree.

What's next for you? You talk about aspiring to certain goals. What are you aspiring to now?

I really find that more and more it's important that the best thing I can give as a musician is to give my self. It keeps becoming more and more imperative for me to play my own music and to lead my own ensembles. It's important for me in the near future to continue doing what I'm doing now, which is to be playing, either leading my own ensembles, playing my own music, or playing with artists from whom I am learning and growing. And that is my goal to continue doing that. I am being more selective about what I accept as a sideman, just because it's more important to me to play my music, because I'm the only person who can put my music out into the world. And there are great opportunities happening now. I can't speak about it too much, but what's in the works now is a live recording with a symphony orchestra that I'm very excited about, about playing more in that context and playing my own music with a symphony orchestra. And to continue writing. I'm writing for big bands, for large ensembles. I'm expanding a suite of music I wrote for Bob Berg, the great saxophonist who passed away a few years ago. I'm expanding a six-movement suite called “Four Walls of Freedom.” I'm expanding that suite for big band and I hope to be doing some performances and touring with a big band with that suite. And continuing to perform with “Force of Four” my new quartet. We just came from a month long tour in Europe and the west coast of the United States that was really successful and inspiring.

Is there something you would want to talk about that I haven't asked you about?

I don't take any of it for granted. It's all a gift.

You're the kind of performer who, to put it in another context, jumps off the page, you jump into the audiences' lap from the stage.

I am very turned on, whether it is at gigs, at concerts, or in a situation where I'm teaching as a visiting artist. There is something I love about sharing what I do with really inspired, switched on, young people. That's really inspiring to me. At the gig the other night with Trio Da Paz at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola (Jazz At Lincoln Center) this little girl came up after the set and we spent about 10 minutes at the vibraphone showing her how to hold the mallets and playing. I got an email from her parents a couple days later saying it was just a red letter day for her and she'll never forget it. And that's really nice, you know, for me, because I remember being that same little kid and seeing music for the first time. And to this day at 49, I'll never forget experiences I had at 8 and 9 and 10 of seeing music live. So to be able to give that back a little bit gives me a great feeling.

That will be a perfect place to end. Thank you Joe Locke.

November 13, 2008 · 2 comments


In Conversation With Gary Burton

By Patrick Spurling

Recorded live at a concert in Zurich, Switzerland, Gary Burton and Chick Corea's 1979 album Duet won a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance by a Group. Earlier this year the celebrated duo played Zurich once more, and contributor Patrick Spurling was there. The always frank and articulate Burton sat down with Patrick before the concert and spoke of his career, his mentoring of young musicians, the jazz/classical divide, and other music-related subjects.

                   Gary Burton, by Jos L. Knaepen

You once said, 'There have always been those artists who work borders.' How would you define the borders you're working?

Some jazz musicians by nature stay true to one identity. For example Wes Montgomery—he did one thing and did it well. Milt Jackson, one of my heroes, is another. But there is another type of jazz musician—an inveterate explorer who wanders into other musical landscapes. Chick Corea is definitely in that category, and so am I. The areas I’ve wandered into include tango music, and occasional projects with symphonies reinterpreting classical music [from a jazz perspective]. Also, interpreting different types of jazz from the 1930’s and 40’s.

Have you been attracted to recent trends in African American music?

I haven’t. I know a few jazz musicians who’ve been experimenting with hip-hop—Robert Glasper, for instance, who's really a dual personality. He plays in a jazz piano trio, and also works with some of the major hip-hop people. His latest record has a song by Radiohead and a song by Herbie Hancock merged into a kind of medley of two disparate genres.

You've said that you're always drawn to finding new talent, that there's something about younger players that inspires you. Do you see mentoring as a responsibility?

I picked up the mentoring gene from Stan Getz, who had a long history of finding young players and helping them get their careers started. He certainly did that for Chick and me. And it was a natural continuation once I started teaching [at the Berklee College of Music]. I’d see them first, and then offer them a job before someone else discovered them. It made me look like I had some insight into how to find those great players.

Is that how you discovered [pianist] Vadim Nevelovskyi and [guitarist] Julian Lage?

That was true with Vadim, who came to Berklee from the Ukraine. I immediately saw what a talent he was, and decided to put a group together built around him, another young talent, Julian Lage, and myself. I first saw Julian on a television show when he was twelve years old. I had an event coming up that happened to be in California near where he lived, so I called the TV people and got his name and phone number. He turned out to be even better than I thought. On the strength of that experience, I started coming up with times I could invite him to play—once or twice a year. He’s just now graduating form Berklee, at 20. He’s got a wonderful future ahead of him.

It's interesting how those first contacts are made. Pat Metheny is probably the best known of your 'discoveries.' How did that happen?

I was performing as a guest with a college big band at a jazz festival in Wichita, Kansas. Pat was 18 years old. He walked up to me and said he wanted to sit in. I told him I was sorry but he couldn’t, since it wasn’t my gig. But I promised to stay around and hear him play with his group. Of course, he played quite well. At the end, he asked my advice and I suggested going somewhere where there was an active jazz scene—to New York or Boston. Three months later he called me and said he'd decided to move to Boston because he didn’t know anyone in New York. He found an apartment about two blocks from my house, and I eventually added him to my band.

Boston seems to be a fertile ground for classical/jazz collaborations. Any thoughts about why that is?

It could be because the scene in Boston is very connected to the educational institutions there. The New England Conservatory is practically across the street from Symphony Hall. Berklee is two blocks away. The Boston Conservatory is next door to Berklee, and four of the five other schools in town have major music programs.

Players from the orchestras teach in the schools, as in New York with the Juilliard School and the Manhattan School of Music. But a key factor in Boston was—and is—Gunther Schuller, former president of the NEC. He had the drive to bring jazz into the classical world, and he set up a jazz department at the NEC. He did open things up in Boston, but it wasn’t that welcome initially.

Would you agree that Schuller’s concept of 'Third Stream' jazz/classical collaborations are now gaining acceptance, albeit in a somewhat different form than he had envisioned?

He would be the first to agree. I know Gunther pretty well, and I miss him being more active. I think his vision was that music was going to become a middle ground of classical and jazz. Instead, what has happened is that people go back and forth between the two. We have musicians like Chick, Makoto [Ozone], Keith Jarrett and others doing credible classical performances, and jazz players are welcome playing with symphony orchestras. There is interest in doing projects with us now, but that wasn’t the case when we proposed these things 20 or 30 years ago. The styles overlap but they seem to retain their boundaries.

In the 1960’s, Schuller was working toward an amalgam of styles?

One of his first projects in New York City was to combine his Orchestra USA with the Modern Jazz Quartet. I kept getting hired to play the vibe part with this chamber orchestra performing jazz/classical projects, primarily because Milt Jackson couldn’t read music. Composers would write concertos and suites for the MJQ combined with orchestra but they would often bail out after the first rehearsal. One of my joys was actually getting to be the vibist with the rest of the MJQ - John Lewis, Connie Kay and Percy Heath. I was probably the only vibe player ever to sub for Milt in the history of the quartet, but at age 19 I didn’t make the most of it. Often John wouldn’t be there and eventually even Percy would bow out. That was what Gunther was trying to do then, and it was fun.

As early as the '20s, many European composers were influenced by jazz—Stravinsky, Ibert, and Ravel among them—yet there was resistance among classical instrumentalists. Why was that, do you think?

In one way, composers were freer to explore than the instrumentalists—finding their inspiration in many places. Composers have often used folk music. Jazz was certainly a new folk music, and a popular music of the 1930’s and 40’s. Samuel Barber, for example, wrote pieces that he called his 'jazz' pieces but today we wouldn’t recognize the jazz elements. The classical players were the problem, having had a rigid kind of music education that made it difficult for them to change styles, and to learn how to swing or to phrase syncopated rhythms. It's much easier for modern jazz musicians to adapt to classical styles now, because we generally have some classical training.

Classical musician friends and some of the best classical players will say, 'I don’t know where to begin. I’d love to be able to do some improvising'. Unfortunately, I don’t know any classical player who has done it successfully.

Recently, when speaking of some recording he'd done with a group that consisted of Itzhak Perlman, Red Mitchell, André Previn, and Shelley Manne, Jim Hall said it was a lot of fun, but the music wasn't particularly good.

André Previn of course is an exception, because he didn’t start out as a classical player. His early career was spent writing charts for Woody Herman’s band and composing Hollywood scores. In the end he became one of the top ten conductors in the world. I was pleased to see recently that he just came out with a solo jazz piano recording. André and Itzhak are very close friends and do things together frequently. But trying to help Perlman fit into a jazz setting would be a challenge, even given his phenomenal talent as a player.

Why do some jazz players project coldness, instead of embracing the audience in the way Chick Corea does?

Miles was, of course, legendary for the persona he created: the 'dark prince of jazz,’ we used to call him. Jazz players had always been very polite to audiences until Miles discovered that you could be rude to them, and it would enhance your aura. That was something new—not speaking to audiences. And he built this charisma, this persona and this identity for himself that he used effectively. It made him a lot more money and gave him more clout in his business dealings.

Someone else who saw how this worked was Keith Jarrett. He's also well known for his difficult behavior to audiences and promoters. I knew Keith from the time we were both students, and it started with him after touring with Miles for a year or two. It connected with something in his personal nature and worked for him. We’re all passionate about the music, and the intensity is unmistakable when you listen to Keith or Miles. The way people conduct themselves on stage, however, runs a wide range of performance styles.

You've said that you expect sidemen to be comfortable with the personal dynamic of the group they’re joining. Were you comfortable when you first joined Astor Piazzola’s band? Was it difficult to prepare, and wasn't it something of stretch?

It was. It was a case of me being very naive and untrained in playing tango music. It wasn't an attempt to jazz up tango. An example of that is a recording by Paquito D’Rivera [Funk Tango], which is a mixture of jazz and tango. In the case of Piazzola’s project, he wanted authentic tango.

I met Piazzola originally when I was in my early 20’s, when I was touring with Stan Getz during a swing through Argentina. His band was the opening act for Stan, and we shared the stage a few nights. I was amazed at this fantastic music and became a big fan. I never imagined that I would end up playing it 20 years later. He walked up to me at a concert in Paris once, and asked if I would ever want to do something together. Two or three years later I was leaving the office at Berklee, and the phone operator in the lobby stopped me on the way out. There was a telephone call for me from Paris. It was Astor asking me if I still wanted to do something. He was heading home to Argentina for Christmas, and I happened to be touring Argentina [around that time], so we agreed to meet.

By the time I arrived, he'd already written the music, which scared me a bit. Composers sometimes write for vibraphone thinking it's like the piano. So I was a little nervous, but excited nonetheless, being such a fan. We met in New York City to rehearse. I was struggling…but Astor was very patient and very good at explaining. He had a way of showing you how to make the music more dramatic and how to make the melody leap out at you.

We met again in Italy, rehearsed for three days, and started touring. The fourth concert was the live recording and I didn’t think we would be ready. I told him that night before the concert that we would probably need to record again later in the tour or in the studio. Getting a good version of all the songs in one night was a long shot. But I listened to the tapes and they were terrific.

After the recording and the first tour in 1985, we planned another project, but a year later he had a stroke. Friends from Argentina later suggested that I reunite with the band, so we found two of the best bandoneon players and we made another album in 1997. So I’ve actually done three recordings of Piazzola’s music: the first with Piazzola, and two with his band. One more recording is planned for the end of this year. It will include a live DVD concert performance.

You’ve mentioned Stan Getz a couple of times. Jim Hall recently called him 'a great bunch of guys.'

Yeah, that was a familiar line about Stan. In fact, I think it was Zoot Sims who's credited with coming up with that line. Stan was a classic bipolar schizophrenic. He would swing back and forth from being the happiest, nicest guy, to going through a period a week later when he believed everybody was out to get him. You never knew which Stan he was going to be. And he would use the smallest pretext of some imagined slight to turn into the angry Stan.

Apparently Ted Gioia, editor of, worked alongside Getz during his teaching gig at Stanford University.

That was a nice thing for Stan. It came along at the perfect time. The last ten years of his life were much better than so many of his earlier years. He was a terrible drunk during the years Chick and I worked for him. He constantly fought his addictions.

Tell us a little bit about your radio show. And what's next for you and Chick?

Artist’s Choice, on SIRIUS Satellite Radio has been something I do for fun. I've been doing it for three years now. I do 24 announcement breaks that take a couple of hours to record, and I work with the station manager on which songs will be played each week. Two things musicians seem to fantasize about are having a recording studio in their house, and being on the other side of the microphone. I'm on every Sunday for six hours [10:00am-4:00pm, US eastern standard time].

As for the duo, Chick and I are listening to some of Miles’s and Gil’s [Evans] recordings to choose some new pieces to arrange for our duet.

Many thanks to Gary Burton for generously giving of his time just before a concert; to Roland Fischer of Universal Music Europe, and to Johannes Vogal of

November 07, 2008 · 0 comments


In Conversation with Paul Motian

By Ted Panken

“I think rehearsing takes away from the beauty of the music,” says Paul Motian. “I’ve been playing long enough to know what I’m doing at this point of my life! I’d rather depend on my skills and intuition to play well when the time comes.”

                                   Paul Motian, by Claire Stefani

At 77, Motian is an iconic figure, his laid-back, minimalist parsing of rhythm and timbre a fixture on the jazz landscape. “Just one strike of the cymbal, there’s something transcendent in his sound,” Brian Blade observed earlier this decade. “A lot of people miss how Motian moves the music and gets inside it. He possesses an amazing lyrical looseness, but at the same time keeps a swing and pulsation that injects the music with a good feeling.”

That feeling seduced a number of drummers who, like Joey Baron, came of age aesthetically in the early ‘70s, when Motian propelled Keith Jarrett’s influential trio and quartet, more than a decade after he attained international visibility playing drums for several editions of the Bill Evans Trio between 1956 to 1963. “At a certain point,” Baron once remarked, “I started hearing interplay that wasn’t necessarily about stating 4/4 all the time, but a floating kind of time, more like a circle than a straight up-and-down hard groove. It’s the way Paul Motian would really PLAY a ballad; he made it interesting rather than just a straight boom-chick, which a lot of drummers did.”

Motian’s contemporaries feel similar enthusiasm for Motian’s clear, pellucid beats and unremittingly in-the-moment focus. “Paul always played like someone who listens and interprets what he hears immediately,” noted Lee Konitz, who first shared a bandstand with Motian more than half a century ago. “He’s an idea man as opposed to a language man,” added pianist Paul Bley, who helped Motian transition into a speculative improviser during the early ‘60s. “I hear him play one idea on the drums, and there is a silence, and then there is another idea. It’s way beyond accompaniment per se. He’s playing as many ideas as the people he’s playing with, and sometimes more vividly because of the silences.”

That quality of musical conversation permeates all of the bands that Motian leads. There’s the increasingly dense and complex Electric Bebop Band, comprised of two saxophonists (they’ve included Joshua Redman, Chris Potter, Chris Cheek, and Pietro Tonolo), two guitarists (among them Kurt Rosenwinkel, Ben Monder, Steve Cardenas, and Brad Shepik), an electric bassist (often Steve Swallow, and also Anders Christensen). Initially the band served as a vehicle for off-kilter blowing on core bebop repertoire by Parker, Dameron, Powell, and Monk, but Motian now uses it to showcase increasingly involved arrangements of his original material.

There’s also Trio 2000, in which bassist Larry Grenadier triangulates Motian and Japanese pianist Masabumi Kikuchi, a master of rubato improvising at achingly slow tempos, in a dialogue with saxophonist Potter on the 1998 recording Trio 2000 + 1 or, as on the 2007 album Trio 2000 + 2: Live at the Village Vanguard, with Potter and alto saxophonist Greg Osby, both Winter & Winter releases.

No Motian project has more deeply impacted the sound of 21st century jazz than the Paul Motian Trio, a super-group with guitarist Bill Frisell and tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, who were just beginning to make their mark when they released It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago (ECM), the PM3 debut, in 1984. Motian no longer travels, and for the last five years or so, the trio has convened only for an annual fortnight run around Labor Day at New York’s Village Vanguard. Without sound check, completely in tune from the first note of this year’s run, they spun out collective improvisations of the highest order.

“Every time Paul hits the drums, he has this way of surprising even himself—and of course, it surprises everyone else,” Frisell said. “We’ve been playing 25 years, and I still don’t know what’s going to happen.” Nor does Motian. “Red Garland once told me that if you have an idea in your head, somehow it will come out on your instrument,” he told me in 2001. “That’s what I do. My eyes are closed, I play what I’m hearing, I play musical ideas, and when they come out, I find myself doing technical things on the drumset that I’ve never done before in my life. Sometimes it might be awkward; maybe if I studied what I was thinking about, I would figure out technically the best and easiest way to do it, and do it differently.”

On night three of the Trio’s Vanguard engagement, Motian joined me at New York’s WKCR to speak about its history, its two most recent recordings (I Have The Room Above Her and Time and Time Again), and many other things.

We did the new trio recording, plus our trio recording about two years before that, in one afternoon, five or six hours. I go in with new music, and Joe and Bill are great—they can read the stuff right away, and we make little changes now and then.

Your custom over the last decade or so, since everyone’s schedule got even busier, is to get together after a long hiatus, and just hit, even with the barest soundcheck.

We’ve been playing together for such a long time. Now we do two weeks every year at the Vanguard, around this time in September. I don’t think we do anything in between. We don’t rehearse. I came in with a new tune last night, “Olivia’s Dream,” that Joe had never seen before. I put up the music and he played great.

How did you assemble the group?

I had a gig in Boston, and Pat Metheny was playing with me. I said, “I’m putting together a group; can you recommend some guitarists?” He told me about Bill—he mentioned another guitar player (I can’t remember his name now), but he said he thought I would like Bill. Bill came over to my apartment, and we played, and we got along great. That was in 1980, I guess. So I started with Bill, and then I think Marty Ehrlich came in, and we rehearsed as a trio for a while. Then Marc Johnson, the bass player, came by, and we rehearsed with him for a while, and then Marc recommended Joe—or maybe it was Ed Schuller. Then Joe recommended Billy Drewes. Anyway, that quintet came together in ‘81 or so, and the trio thing happened three years later.

Was it a matter of strategy or circumstance?

It just happened. We were playing a gig with the quintet, and at one point during one of the songs, the bass laid out, and it was just Joe and Bill and I playing, and right then, that’s what I heard. I said, “Gee, I could get away with this, guys.” Economically it made sense, plus the music was really happening. So I stayed with that.

You’ve worked with many powerful bass players. The Bill Evans Trio with Scott LaFaro, Gary Peacock and Chuck Israels. David Izenson in your own trio. Charlie Haden in the Keith Jarrett Trio and Quartet. In Oscar Pettiford’s bands in the late ‘50s. More recently in Bill Frisell’s trio with Ron Carter. Can you speak about the dynamics of playing with a bass player vis-a-vis playing without one?

That was going through my head last night as I was playing. Without the bass, I can do whatever I want. I can change the tempo. I can play free, without a tempo. I can play free for a while, and then play in tempo for a while, and not play, and lay out. I’m totally free, and it’s totally open for me to do whatever I want. Now, it’s got to make sense to me, and it’s got to be musical. With the bass, sometimes I can almost do the same thing, but of course, the bass makes a big difference.

The Paul Motian Trio with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano toured extensively in the ‘80s and into the mid ‘90s.

I got burned out. That’s why I don’t tour any more. It just got ridiculous.

Not just with them, though. You developed a number of groups by the end of the ‘90s.

Yeah, plus I was playing with other bands, other people. People would call me from Europe, and I’d go to Europe or Japan, and play with people there. It’s ridiculous. Now it’s worse than ever, I understand, from when I talk to people now.

It’s been said that you don’t like to leave the environs of New York City, and would probably prefer not to leave Manhattan Island, if possible. . .

Well, no. . .

Not entirely true.

I mean, sometimes I’ll see a film of maybe a small town in Paris that looks really great, and I remember having a good time there, and I miss that. I played all over Italy, and I miss friends and people, and great food sometimes. Not all the time! Sometimes. But I love New York. I’ve been here forever.

But you haven’t been wanting to travel so much for the last couple of years.

No. It’s a hardship, man. Plus, I don’t take my drums, so I’m playing a different drumset every night, playing in a different hall every night. You don’t know what you’re going to come up with. Plus, they gave me a hard time on the airlines. When I was playing with Keith Jarrett and we toured, I would take my own drums. When I started with my own trio, with David Izenson and Charles Brackeen, I would take my drums. But after a while, it got harder and harder, and they charged more and more money. People used to take basses on the plane for free! Put it on a seat and strap it in. Free, man. Now you can’t even take a bass on a plane. Then I would just take my cymbals. Then they started giving me a hard time with my cymbal. “What’s that, mister? You can’t take that on the plane.” Blah-blah-blah. So I said goodbye.

Is it important for you to play with your own drums?

Sure. Yeah.

Did you ever feel happy with how you played not on your own drums?

Very seldom. Occasionally, I would come across a good drumset.

Would the difference in quality not be discernible to anyone but you and other drummers?

I feel that it would be. People have told me that I still sound like me, and I’m able to play like me and sound like me no matter what the drums are. But I don’t agree!

What do you use?

It’s a Gretsch drumset that I bought in a drum shop here in New York about 30 years ago. I love the sound of those drums and I love to play those. I’ve been playing the cymbals that I use for quite a few years now. They’re a mish-mash of different companies. I gave my old drumset to Joe Lovano.

Tell me about playing with Thelonious Monk.

I played with him a couple of times—a week in Boston, and earlier at the Open Door at Lafayette and Third Street. Lou Donaldson came to the Vanguard the other day, and we were talking about that, because Lou was in Monk’s band—with Donald Byrd and I don’t remember the bass player—the first time I played with Monk. I knew Monk was playing at the Open Door with his band, and I went to hear the music. The promoter, Bob Reisner, knew I played drums—he had seen me around town. When I arrived, he said, “Paul, Arthur Taylor hasn’t showed up; if you go home and get your drums, you can play with Monk.” Man, I ran home, got my drums, and came back. Monk paid me ten dollars at the end of the night. When I told Lou Donaldson that story, he said, “Oh, yeah, that’s all he paid anybody.” Donald Byrd once told me he’s got a picture of me playing with Monk on that date. I’d love to see it. That had to be 1955 or 1956. Then in 1960 I played for a week with Monk in Boston with Scott LaFaro and Charlie Rouse.

Monk said that he liked one take, and Charlie Rouse also talked about it. If there was anything more than, say, a take-two, they would just move on, go on to the next thing. Once you’re into the second take, it’s like a copy somehow. It doesn’t sound real enough. You’re trying to correct something, man. I remember doing record dates, not my own, like just somebody called me to do a recording, and talking about take 15 and 16. That’s ridiculous.

On one of the Bill Evans Trio dates, Portrait In Jazz maybe, from 1959, you’d done a month at a club called the Showplace, finished the run on a Sunday, then went in the studio to do the session.

That was a club on Third Street. That’s the first record we did with Scott LaFaro.

But fifty years ago, long runs were more commonplace.

Oh, yeah. There was a club on 52nd Street called the Hickory House. I played in there for three months with Bill Evans, and for three months again with Joe Castro, a piano player. I remember playing 10 weeks with Lennie Tristano at the Half Note. Nine weeks at the Vanguard with Bill Evans and Gary Peacock. One or two weeks or more at the original Birdland. That’s the way it was, then. It slowed up for jazz around the mid ‘60s. I don’t think I played with Bill Evans after 1964 or so, then I started with Keith Jarrett around 1968. Those couple of years in there, I was doing commercial gigs. I played at a nightclub on 72nd Street with acts coming from Israel. I played with a Hungarian violinist and a Romanian piano player. Great shows!

Was that a valuable time for you? Did it affect the way you heard music?

It paid my rent. That was it.

But between ‘63 and ‘68, your personal aesthetic seems to have changed in certain ways. You played with much more radical players.

True. There was a wonderful piano player in Boston named Lowell Davidson, who isn’t around any more. He was very original, and played great. I used to go up to Boston just to play with this guy. There were different bass players. We did a concert of his music at a church I think in 1976, and the bass player was a guy named Jon Voigt, who was the librarian at Berklee School of Music. Lowell Davidson recorded it, and I had a ¼” reel-to-reel tape in my closet for about 20 years. Finally, I told Manfred Eicher at ECM about it, and he said, “Well, give me the tape, and maybe we can do something with it.” I was ecstatic that maybe this could finally be a record, because the music was incredible. I loved that stuff. But now Manfred tells me now that they don’t know where the tape is! But anyway, I did things with Lowell, and played with Paul Bley and Gary Peacock at a club in the Village with Albert Ayler and John Gilmore. That was a helluva gig!

So in 1963, you’re playing with Bill Evans, and in 1964 you’re playing with Paul Bley, Albert Ayler and Gary Peacock. Opposite ends of the spectrum. Why did this happen?

I don’t think of it as being that far apart. They were gigs, and it was music. Just playing music, man. Continuing, going forward.

But if my recollection is correct, you weren’t too happy with the way things were going with Bill Evans. Didn’t you leave mid-gig?

I left Bill Evans. We were playing at Shelley Manne’s club in California, and it seemed like I was playing softer and softer until I finally felt like I wasn’t there at all. So I said, “Bill, I’m leaving.” He begged me not to quit, but I did. I paid my own way back home. He got Larry Bunker to play drums. They went up to San Francisco, and then they went to Europe for the first time. So I wasn’t happy with the music. I just felt I wasn’t playing.

Was that because of his own direction, what he was asking you to do, or did it just seem that this was where the music was taking you?

I had started playing with different people in New York, and the music for me was going in a different direction—the Jazz Composers Orchestra and with Paul Bley. I wanted to be part of that. I felt like this was the way to go, and with Bill I felt I was standing still.

In the late ‘50s you were one of the busiest drummers on the scene. I’ve seen your gig book. You were working 330-340 days a year, sometimes twice in a day.

Yeah, I was. I missed that photo shoot of Great Day In Harlem. I had three gigs that day, man. I was told about the photo shoot, that I should go, but I couldn’t make it. I think I played a wedding, a parade, and a gig. One time I was at the Musicians Union, and I was going up the stairs and somebody was coming down. He said, “Hey, Paul! You’re the house drummer at Birdland.” I wasn’t, man, but he just had seen me there a lot.

A lot of the gigs you were doing demanded you swing and keep really good time, but not a whole lot else.

Sometimes. I did a rehearsal with Edgar Varese that was recorded. That had to be 1955-56. There was a tape, and Teo Macero told me that he had it. I don’t know what happened to it. I had a drumstick in one hand and an iron pipe in the other, and I had music in front of me. There were staffs, but not notes. There were open-ended triangles placed in different parts of the staff, and you were supposed to play according to what you. . . Art Farmer was on it, Hal McKusick, Billy Butterfield, the tuba player—an 8- or 9-piece band. I don’t know how come I got the call to do that, but I did.

Well, you got a lot of calls.

Yeah. Somehow. I don’t get it.

When did you hit the New York scene?

I was in the Navy during the Korean War, and for a year I was stationed at Brooklyn Receiving Station, across the street from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I had an apartment in Brooklyn. It was like going to a day job. In the morning, I’d go in to a band rehearsal, and if there was no function or no dignitary to play for or anything, I’d go home, then get my drums and find someplace to play. Go play somewhere. Every day, if I could. I got out in September 1954.

It was such an active time. For one thing, with the G.I. Bill, a lot of musicians were studying.

Well, I went to Manhattan School of Music on the G.I. Bill for a semester. Then in the middle of the second semester, I got a gig with George Wallington and Teddy Kotick at a club called the Composer Room on 58th Street off of Sixth Avenue—sort of a trio room. Teddy got me the gig; I’d met Teddy through Bill Evans, who I met pretty early on. I started falling behind in my studies, so I quit the school then.

Was your experience there valuable for you?

Sure. I was studying tympany and xylophone and piano and all of that.

So you learned something about theory and orchestral percussion, and it refined your skills, I guess.

Oh, yeah. I’d go in for a tympani lesson, and the first thing the tympani teacher would say was, “Sing A.” I never got it right!

No perfect pitch.

No, not me.

Do you hear the drums as a melodic instrument?

Yeah, definitely. It can be an orchestra, if you want to. You’ve got cymbals, you’ve got different tuned drums, you could have a string section, or whatever. But you’ve got to put that in your head. If you put it in your head, it can become real.

What drummers were your modeling yourself after?

Kenny Clarke, number one. I used to go the Bohemia, which opened in 1955. Charlie Parker was the first player they booked to play there, they had his name out front, but then he died. Before that, I went to the Bohemia to play jam sessions. No money. There was no band there. You’d just find some people to play with, then go to the club and say, “Is it okay if we play?” “Yeah, sure, go ahead.” Then people started to hear about it, and it became a club. Anyway, I heard Kenny Clarke playing there with Oscar Pettiford, George Wallington and different people. I was there every night.

I loved Kenny Clarke. His time, his feel. Did you ever hear the movie Miles Davis did the music for, Elevator to the Gallows? Boy, there’s some great stuff on there. Kenny Clarke’s playing brushes on snare drum, really fast tempo. Just the snare drum and brushes, man. It’s great. It’s swinging like a. . . I don’t want to say it, but you know what I mean?

We did a Down Beat Blindfold Test on which you also expressed your admiration for Shadow Wilson.

Sure, Shadow Wilson, but also Philly Joe Jones. I was at the Bohemia nightly to hear Miles Davis with Coltrane and Philly Joe. I’d also go to Birdland to see Art Blakey with his bands. Art Blakey, Philly Joe, Kenny Clarke—those were the people I was listening to, who were playing a lot. Roy Haynes wasn’t on the scene that much then. He was with Sarah Vaughan, so I didn’t get to hear him that much.

Lately, I’ve been listening to drummers from the ‘20s and ‘30s. I mean, Jimmy Crawford with the Jimmie Lunceford band . . . They used to call him Craw. Great. Manzie Campbell with Fletcher Henderson. There are drummers from that period who nobody talks about or knows about any more, but they were great drummers. I have a recording of Papa Jo Jones playing a duo with Willie the Lion Smith, and a trio with Teddy Wilson and Milt Hinton. Incredible. Simple, but just incredible music.

Were you listening to those older musicians at the time?

No. It’s only been lately I’ve been listening to all that.

How did you become interested in the drums in the first place?

There was a drummer in the neighborhood.

The neighborhood was in Providence, Rhode Island.

Right. I was friendly with his younger brother, who was sort of my age, and this drummer was maybe 16 or 17. He used to play in his house, and a lot of kids used to sit out front, listening to him. One day I went with my buddy to hear him play, and I fell in love with it, and asked if he would give me lessons. I guess I was around 11. That’s how it started. He wasn’t really a teacher, though. He gave me some drumsticks and pulled out a practice pad, and he played me Gene Krupa doing “Sing, Sing, Sing” with Benny Goodman, then he gave me some sticks and told me how to play a roll or something like that. After that I found a teacher, and went on from there.

Did you start playing in bands soon after?

Right after I got out of high school, I went on the road with a big band around New England, like one of those territory bands, playing Glenn Miller stuff. Perry Bourelly and his Orchestra. Also I used to play with other musicians in the neighborhood. I remember going to someone’s house and playing with an accordion player and a guitar player, playing popular songs from the ‘40s and so on.

Were you listening to records also, checking out drummers?

I’d hear records on the radio, and send away for them. I sent away for Count Basie records and things with Max Roach, who I also heard on broadcasts from Birdland.

You were coming of age right when when bebop was getting a lot of media attention.

Yes. When I was in high school, someone took me to a record store and played me a Charlie Parker record. It freaked me out. I didn’t know what was going on.

According to your gig book, you first worked the Vanguard maybe at the end of ‘56?

‘57. With Lee Konitz. That was the first time I played there. In those days, they’d have two bands. The Bill Evans Trio opposite the Miles Davis band. We played opposite Mingus. They’d have comedians—I played there with Bill Evans opposite Lenny Bruce. The place was never that full! One night with Bill and Scott LaFaro, there were only three people in the club. Now it’s packed. It’s unbelievable. It’s quiet, and they clap when you walk on stage. That never happened in those days!

Over the last few years, I’d speculate that your different bands occupy 6-7 weeks a year on the Vanguard schedule.

I think it turns out to be two months total. I’m going to go in there with Bill McHenry’s band at the end of this month, going into October. I think Ben Street is the bass player, Duane Eubanks on trumpet, and Andrew D’Angelo on alto saxophone. Then I’m with Trio 2000 + 2 at the Vanguard the last week of November. I’m in the Vanguard in February with the trio of Jason Moran and Chris Potter, which we did last year. Jason Moran was saying that should be recorded live, so maybe I can talk to ECM about it and see. Also, in January I’m doing a week at the Blue Note with Bill Frisell and Ron Carter in January.

Are you under contract. . .


Each record is a one-off situation?


So ECM and Winter & Winter split your time more or less evenly?

Pretty much. I do whatever comes up.

Your history with ECM begins with Tribute in 1972, doesn’t it? I guess your interest in bandleading began while you were with the Keith Jarrett Quartet.

I was playing with Keith, maybe in Boston, in 1976, and I told Keith’s booker that I was thinking about putting together something of my own, and asked if he’d get me a gig if I put a group together. That’s when that company got me a gig in Minneapolis with Charles Brackeen and David Izenson, opposite Earl Klugh. I wanted to do my own music, and I started taking piano lessons and composition lessons. That got me started.

I started playing with Keith around ‘68, coming out of that period with Paul Bley and Lowell Davidson—one thing grew into something else. We rehearsed a little bit, I remember, but not all that much. He didn’t dictate to do this or do that, or play this way or that way. It was open for everybody to play how they played, and everything fit. I left Keith when I started the trio with Charles and David. Actually, Bill Evans called me then and said, “Philly Joe Jones just quit on me; would you play with me again?” I said, “Well, I would love to, but I just started my own trio, and we’re about to do a European tour.” So that didn’t happen.

Did you get to play with him any more before his death?

No. After I left him in ‘64, the only time was at the Vanguard, when he was playing maybe with Eddie Gomez, and I sat in and played a couple of tunes. I felt very uncomfortable. It seemed like the music was on the edge of a mountain and we were about to fall off. It almost felt like it was speeding up or something. But it wasn’t. We ended up at the same tempo we started with. Miles Davis was in the club that night, and he drove me home, and he asked me how I felt about it. I said, ‘Man, it was okay, but the music just felt like it was speeding up.” He said, “Well, man, it’s only a trio; you got to push with a trio.”

In the ‘90s, you started developing a number of bands, the Trio+2 being one of them, and also the Paul Motian Electric Bebop Band. The Bebop Band evolved from a unit with odd instrumentation that played standards into a forum for expansive arrangements of your compositions.

Boy, that thing keeps growing and growing. The last time I played with it at the Vanguard, a few months ago, it was like an octet plus a piano player—nine people. I guess I felt like just playing with the trio with Bill and Joe wasn’t enough somehow. Also Bill and Joe started doing a lot of their own stuff, and I felt I wasn’t busy enough. Pretty soon, I started throwing in my music. Now it’s mostly my music; it’s hardly any bebop at all. I feel like you have to keep going on, keep doing stuff, try to do better and better, and try to grow. I’m still trying to grow. I’m still learning.

You employ a lot of young musicians, people under 40, even under 30.

It’s usually by recommendation. Somebody plays with me, they recommend somebody, and somebody will recommend someone else. I’m not thinking about age or whether they go to school or how they learned to play. Then, when they play with me, if I hear something I’d like to play with, I give them the gig. What’s interesting is that the young players who play with me go on to become bandleaders themselves. Chris Potter started playing with me right after he left Red Rodney. I think he was 23 years old. Kurt Rosenwinkel wasn’t much more than 20 when he came to my house the first time. Now these guys have their own bands.

We’ve talked about a lot of things.

I’ve been around a long time, man. There’s a lot to talk about.

Interview notes: Paul Motian was interviewed on WKCR by Ted Panken on September 4, 2008.

November 01, 2008 · 2 comments